So I get an email which asks me my opinion on the “Vande Mataram” controversy.
Simple. Making it mandatory to sing “Vande Mataram” is a gross infringement on individual freedom. No government has the authority to force a word out of my larynx. Or block me from reading a blog. Or prevent me from reading a book (like say for instance “Satanic Verses”) . End of story.
Of course, the futility of this whole “Vande Mataram” debate overwhelms me. At a time when there is no shortage of issues and challenges facing us, we stop, turn our asses to all our problems and start obsessing about the lyrics of a song written more than a hundred years ago— why we are all obliged to sing it, why a few of us should not sing it, whether the author was communal, whether singing the first two paragraphs of a five paragraph song is a good compromise and whether patriotism is defined by the songs on our playlist.
And the debate saddens me too. Because for the generation that won us our independence ‘Vande Mataram’ was not just a song. It was emotion set to tune. They walked to the gallows with “Vande Mataram” on their lips. Strangers in chains, both Hindus and Muslims, bound only by a shared dream of a Shashyashyamalang future, joined voices in singing “Vande Mataram’, keeping their sanity through the dark nights of torture and isolation.
To them, ‘Vande Mataram’ was a symbol— a vision of an independent, prosperous motherland. And it was this symbolism that elevated the song above all kinds of literal analysis.
Even in those days, people were well aware about the controversial origins of the song, the context in which it is sung in Anandamath and the dedication to Goddess Durga which comes after the second paragraph. As Rabindranath Tagore said in 1937
The core of ‘Vande Mataram’ is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankim does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from ‘Vanda Mataram’ – proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song can not be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.
And yet , it made no difference for the freedom-fighters on the streets and in the jails. Irrespective of their religion—-‘Vande Mataram’ was their anthem, their very own.
Much has changed since then. That very symbol of patriotic pride has been misappropriated for sectarian gains. For the BJP/Hindu revivalists, “Vande Mataram”‘s Durga-imagery is a vindication of its identification of nationalism with “Hindutva”. For the proponents of a pan-Islamic identity (like the Imam Bukhari) who are dead set on showing to the world that Islam is under attack in India (despite the fact that Muslims enjoy rights and privileges in India they would struggle to have in other non-Muslim countries—paradoxically rights which Muslim countries deny to their own minorities), “Vande Mataram”‘s allusion to a non-Allah superior being is proof positive of a sinister Hindu conspiracy to humiliate and oppress their community.
Thus with the help of politically expedient literalism, both of these extreme influences have helped each other in transforming an unifying concept into a divisive one, a protest against authority into an instrument of it , a cry of the soul into a mere concatenation of words.
Herein lies the cruel twist of irony.