Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Vande Mataram: Nationalism and its Precursors

September 13, 2006

Well into the recent political rumpus over Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram, it was established that the whole controversy had been ignited by a serious misreading. September 7 as a date has no historic significance in the life of Bankim’s best-known poem. Though there is little dispute over the fact that Vande Mataram as a political slogan, acquired a certain resonance in the years 1905 and 1906, the effort to commemorate the poem in isolation from the wider events that it was part of, would seem a rather questionable decision. A centenary observance of the Swadeshi movement may well have been an occasion for looking back on some of the more significant episodes in India’s long march to freedom. But India’s political establishment remains, at best, ambivalent about these commemorations, as its indifference to the upcoming 150-year anniversary of the 1857 uprising clearly suggests.

Vande Mataram was, as authoritative commentaries have shown, authored between 1870 and 1875. It was subsequently enlarged and expanded, with explicit religious imagery entering what could, till then, have been construed as worshipful obeisance towards a nurturing motherland. It remained confined within select audiences in Calcutta for years together and became in its entirety, the motif and inspirational theme of Bankim’s novel Anandamath, whose serialisation began in a Calcutta journal in 1882. It was set to music in the mid-1880s by Rabindranath Tagore and the musical score was included in the third edition of Anandamath published in 1886, evidently as an indication of Bankim’s approval. As the eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya puts it, all this suggests that the song had by the late 19th century, begun receiving a fair degree of “appreciation in a limited circle of connoisseurs and enthusiasts”. But its career as an anthem of rebellion and an articulation of nationalist aspirations begins with the Swadeshi movement of 1905 (Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Vande Mataram, The Biography of a Song, Penguin Books, Delhi, 2003).

Bande Mataram, the English language newspaper that represented the most radical trend within the Swadeshi movement, began publishing in August 1906, edited first by Bepin Chandra Pal and later by Aurobindo Ghosh. And the Bande Mataram Samproday, set up with the principal aim of raising funds through public renditions of Bankim’s poem, dates from April 1906 (Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903-08, Peoples Publishing House, Delhi, 1973).

In 1937, Rabindranath Tagore claimed in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, that “the privilege of originally setting (Vande Mataram’s) first stanza to the tune was mine when the author was still alive and I was the first person to sing it before a gathering of the Calcutta Congress” (Bhattacharya, page 21). Bankim died in 1894 and the Calcutta Congress session of 1896 where Tagore gave his rendition of the song was held, as was customary, in December.

However it is examined, there is no historic significance for September 7 in the life of Vande Mataram. That indeed has now been conceded in a spirit of contrition, by the Congress party itself. First the Congress disclaimed all responsibility for the Government announcement that September 7 would be a day of commemoration in schools across the country. Shortly afterwards, the Union Minister for Human Resources Development, Arjun Singh, himself conceded the point. The entire controversy in short, which revisited well-trodden ground and offered little by way of fresh insights, had been an unnecessary diversion from other more pressing tasks.

Vande Mataram was by a decision of the Constituent Assembly, given the status of a “national song” equal in status to the national anthem. This is a curiosity of Indian history since the rendition of the national anthem – like the salutation of the national flag – is an act of allegiance that every nation has a right to demand of its citizens. There cannot by definition, be another song or flag that has the same status. The decision to put Vande Mataram on par with the national anthem, in fact, reflected an uneasy compromise. There were several who insisted that the special status of Vande Mataram as a hymn to the motherland that inspired the Indian freedom movement, entitled it to be declared the national anthem. Equally, there were others within the nationalist leadership, who were uneasily aware that several of the nation’s citizens would find the many cultural and historical associations of the song, deeply discordant with their own beliefs.

The constitutional position in India as laid down by the Supreme Court in the famous case of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1986, is that no citizen can be compelled to sing even the national anthem, should he or she consider it contrary to deeply held personal belief. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a sect within Christianity that forbids the worshipping of any being other than the one they deem to be the creator. The three children who were expelled from a school in Kerala for refusing to join the daily rendition of the national anthem, were reinstated by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that their rights to freedom of expression and belief, had been seriously violated by the expulsion. The Court found that though they refused to partake of the rendition, the children showed no disrespect to the national anthem. They stood up for their beliefs without in any way offending another’s.

If this is the situation with regard to the national anthem, then Vande Mataram, as a “national song” reflecting an uneasy political compromise, can enjoy only a secondary claim to the loyalties of the Indian citizen. And since a citizen of this country can decline to partake of a rendition of the nation anthem, it is the settled position in the law of the land, that he or she can exercise his freedom of choice in relation to any lesser song. But while declining to partake in any public rendition or homage, he or she is obliged not to insult or dishonour another’s beliefs.

Following the initial gaffe in calling for nationwide celebrations on September 7, the Ministry for Human Resource Development did nothing more or less than affirm this well-established point of law. Those who shared in the reverence for the song could sing it at the appointed time and day. Those who had reason to believe it antithetical to their faith, could refrain from joining the rendition, though not disrupt or dishonour the proceedings.

In kicking up a furore over a fairly simple point, the BJP and its affiliates have yet again shown their eagerness to coercively apply their articles of faith on those of other persuasions. Their noisy declamations indeed, have done little honour to the traditions of the freedom movement and only highlighted how certain aspects of what have been considered the seamless web of Indian nationalism, need reconsideration today. Vande Mataram has been a sentimental favourite for the most ardent of Indian nationalists. But clearly, the recent fracas, itself inseparable from the long and contentious history of the song, shows that it needs to be treated not as an anthem of the nation, but of the nation seeking to come into being. It bears in short, the unmistakable scars of its birth in historical circumstances when the “nation” was an alien concept for all of India.

In the novel Anandamath, Vande Mataram serves as the invocation of a group of ascetics who call themselves the Santans, or the “children” of the Mother. Early in the development of the novel, a leader of the band, Satyananda, is captured by the rulers’ troops. One of his followers, Jnanananda, then vows to have him released from the rulers’ fort. He exhorts a group of Santans for the task in the following manner: “We have long contemplated breaking this nest of pernicious birds, totally destroying this Mussalman city and throwing it into the river… Come, let us go and reduce to dust that city of the Mussalmans. Let us purify with fire that den of swine and cast it into the river”. After the assault is successfully concluded and Satyananda is set free, the Santans set off on a rampage. And “wherever they found the home of a Mussalman, they burnt it”.

This is merely one among several recurrent passages through Anandamath, where the theme of violence against “Mussalmans” is explicitly foregrounded. The historian Sumit Sarkar, in his authoritative account of the Swadeshi movement, argued that this may have been because Bankim, as an official of the British raj, was anxious to avoid punitive action and needed to use the “Mussalmans” as a surrogate for the British. But in a piece written in the context of the recent controversy, he clearly seemed to reconsider this position: “Not perhaps an entirely convincing plea, for censorship, except on the public stage, was not really very stringent before the Swadeshi days. In any case, one needs to separate the possible intentions of the author, from the likely responses of readers. Is it really irrational for Muslims – and by no means Muslims alone – to object to the compulsory imposition of a song that collapses the country into a specific Hindu deity, and forms part of a novel full of apparently communal passages?”

No consideration of this question would quite be complete without looking at the purposes that Vande Mataram, as a political slogan, have served. It was in reaction to the political abuse of the slogan that Mahatma Gandhi remarked in 1947, that it should never become a “chant to insult or offend the Muslims”. What had once been in his perception a “beautiful national song” had been transformed in time, into a “purely political cry” with a clearly sectarian appeal. From the invocation of a motherland suffused with divine grace, Vande Mataram had become the slogan of rioters and arsonists.

This was a reality that Tagore portrayed with an abundance of creative passion and acuity in his novel Ghare Baire. Among those shown resisting the Swadeshi movement’s insistence on boycotting foreign-made goods, is a small trader who obviously is a person from outside the caste hierarchy. He meets the demand of his aristocratic zamindar, that he destroy his bales of cotton cloth to prove his fealty to the spirit of Swadeshi, with outright refusal. Under pressure, he sets down the condition that the zamindar should compensate him for the financial investment he had made in the cotton bales. But this is read as unforgivable effrontery, most unbecoming of a lower-caste person. His cotton bales are destroyed by the zamindar’s agents, who in his account of the event, were numerous and “kept shouting Bande Mataram”.

Clearly, just as long as it has been a call to battle in the cause of the nation, Vande Mataram has also been a slogan of provocation and coercion. It was this dual character of Bankim’s legacy that Nehru and Tagore had occasion to reflect upon in 1937, when Congress governments were in place in several provinces of British India and communal tensions were rapidly rising. The compromise solution, to raise the first two stanzas of the song to an exalted status and effectively banish the rest into oblivion, was hammered out in part through their intervention. Both Nehru and Tagore were aware of the provocative use of the slogan by certain kinds of political forces, but helpless in restraining it. Beyond the terrain of principled liberalism where they conducted their debate, the Hindutva parties and their affiliates were pursuing the issue in the street. Authenticity in history and aesthetics has been trampled upon in this brand of politics. Inevitably, Vande Mataram has also become a living testament to India’s failure to overcome the sectarianism of “cultural nationalism” and evolve a brand of civic nationalism that all citizens can identify with.