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Vande Mataram: Whose Legacy?

Whose Legacy? The circular from the human resources ministry to various state governments to ensure that school children sing


Whose Legacy?

he circular from the human resources ministry to various state governments to ensure that school children sing ‘Vande Mataram’ on September 7, 2006 – some sort of centenary occasion for the song – set off a debate and controversy in which the issues were all too familiar. While a section of the Islamic clergy reacted on expected lines by ordering the members of the community not to sing the song since doing so, it was claimed, would amount to committing an “un-Islamic” act, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the other Sangh parivar outfits have found this to be yet another opportunity to peddle their idea of cultural nationalism. The new controversy around Vande Mataram has turned out to be an occasion as well to discuss its history and evolution into becoming the “national song”. The song’s history has been a long one. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote the first two stanzas (between 1872 and 1875), and then added a few more when he included it in the novel Anandamath (1881). It was sung at the Indian National Congress (INC) session at Calcutta in 1896, but after a debate within the INC, party leaders settled on the first couple of stanzas (as rendered by Bankim initially) before it was adopted as the national song by the constituent assembly, on January 24, 1950. The controversy has also helped us recall that Vande Mataram was a war cry for a generation of fighters for the nation’s freedom. Historians have also brought out evidence of the song being heard when Hindu mobs attacked Muslims in the events leading to Partition.

While these facts have helped place the debate in perspective, they are however all only of tangential relevance. It is important that the issue is debated in the context of the political reality as it exists. It will then be apparent that there are problems with both sides of the controversy. The reaction from the Islamic clergy to the song, for instance, is on the ground that it goes against the grain of the tenets of the religion to worship anyone other than Allah the Almighty. This is certainly against the liberal-democratic nation-building project in which there is no place whatsoever in the public sphere for religious and personal beliefs. This is not to argue that the Muslims would do themselves a lot of good by agreeing to sing the song and stop objecting to any moves to make it compulsory in schools. For, the fact is that the RSS and its arms hold the song as sacrosanct only so as to subordinate the Muslims – in other words, to establish a nation on the lines prescribed by M S Golwalkar. It is relevant over here to recall, in brief, the context in which Vande Mataram was adopted as the national song by the constituent assembly. It was done without even a semblance of a debate with Babu Rajendra Prasad declaring that it would be the national song. That Prasad was a prominent representative of the section within the INC that was committed to the “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani” notion of nationalism is well known. It is also a fact that there is a lot in common between this notion of nationalism and the idea of cultural nationalism to which the RSS is committed. For this very reason, it is imperative that any attempt to impose the song be seen as inimical to a nationbuilding project in the democratic and modernist sense of the term. At the same time, the Congress Party’s current attempt to reinvent the song is meaningless because it is just another instance of reducing patriotism to a synthetic notion.

This is not to say that the legacy of Vande Mataram should be given up. Instead, it is possible and even necessary to reinvent its relevance as a war cry. Vande Mataram, after all, is remembered most as the war cry that inspired a generation of freedom fighters rather than in the manner in which it was presented by Bankim in Anandamath. Hence, it makes very little sense to recall and restate the meaning of the song in the Anandamath context. Vande Mataram is associated more with Khudiram Bose and the others like him who used it to challenge the colonial rulers. The legatees of that war cry today are the people in the Narmada valley, the landless agricultural workers across the country, the industrial working class and the various political outfits that are engaged in the fight for justice and for freedom. The BJP and other arms of the RSS had nothing to do with the struggle for freedom and hence have no moral right over Vande Mataram and its legacy. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

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