First things first: the name of the national song of the Indian Union is ‘Vande Mataram’ with a V. However, the name of the part-Sanskrit-part-Bangla song that Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote in the 1860s and included in his famous Bangla novel Anandamath was ‘Bande Mataram’ – with a B. It was pronounced as such for about 50 years before this song got popular in the Hindi belt. And just like all things “Indian” after 1947, it is the Hindi-belt mispronunciation that became the official format – and that partly became the national song of the Union. Of late, one can witness the tragicomic spectacle where some Bengalis who pick this song up from TV and not from their social milieu actually pronounce the name of the song with a V. Perhaps it is only good this way. In Bangla, the letter for the “Bh” in Bharat is the nearest we have to the V sound. For example, if you wrote ‘Love’ in Bangla, the ‘v’ would become the Bangla “Bh”. Bengal or Bangla starts with a B. Since this is the national song of Bharat Sangh or the Indian Union now, V rules. As it turns out, Bankim Chandra did not have India, Bharat or their imaginary maternal forms in mind when he wrote that particular song.
This song, a particular source of communal disharmony between upper caste Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan, Bengal and Punjab during the pre-Partition period, is up there with similar classic divisive issues that animated that period. Other such issues include music near mosques especially during idol immersions, cow slaughter for qurbani and such. These are still issues with explosive potential, which can be triggered. And they are indeed triggered by whosoever who wants a bit of Hindu-Muslim tension and rioting, for whatever ends. Not to be outdone by cows and music, ‘Vande Mataram’ has a needling value and not so much of a riotous value. This needling game was played once again earlier this year, on the 30th of March 2017 at the session of the Meerut Municipal Corporation. 7 Muslim councilors walked out when the session started with “Vande Mataram” singing. When they returned a bit later, they were not allowed back. Mayor Harikant Ahluwalia defended that decision saying, “It was the decision of everyone in the session that those who boycott the national song should be boycotted. I just agreed with (the demand of) my people.” A motion to terminate the membership of these 7 councilors was passed. Thus, this was a proposal to expel people’s representatives from an assembly of representatives, based on their refusal to sing along and their preference for walking out on it. The Municipal Commissioner disallowed the passed proposal since such a proposal was illegal. The Supreme Court has declared that singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ is not mandatory. Enthusiastic ‘Vande Mataram’-singing Hindu councilors apparently sloganeered, “Hindustan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hai [If you want to live in India, you have to say VandeMataram].”
This old, tired point of divide is as follows. Muslims contend that the song is basically the worship of an entity ‘other than the one true God’ and in Islam, the worship of anything else is prohibited. The Hindi side contends that the song is a stand-in for Indian nationalism and any refusal or disrespect to it is a sign of disloyalty to Indian nationalism, and hence treasonous – the implication being that the creed of Muslims is inherently treasonous vis-à-vis Indian nationalism due to their prioritisation of Islam when asked to choose between creed and ‘Vande Mataram’. The song is particularly useful to Hindu nationalists to buttress the age-old charge that Muslims are not loyal to the nation. The centrality of such wedge issues in what was the assembly of a municipal body entrusted with matters of urban governance and services shows the extent of communal toxin that now flows in the politics of Meerut. It is not accidental that Meerut is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which along with its earlier bigger British manufactured avatar called the United Provinces, has been the stage for the maximum number of Hindu-Muslim riots throughout history. Hindi-Hindu and Urdu-Muslim nationalisms were both born here. Ever since Partition in 1947, they dominate the two biggest chunks of the erstwhile British-conquered territories of South Asia.
Since this ‘Vande Mataram’ issue has cropped up every now and then, the former Prime Minister of the Indian Union Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said in 2006 during an earlier ‘controversy’, “We do not aim at idol worship [through rendition of Vande Mataram]. Those who do not believe in idol worship are free to pray in their own way. But when it comes to worshipping India, our motherland, there should be no controversy.” Vajpayee gets one crucial thing wrong. The song is not about worshipping India. It is indeed about worshipping motherland, but that motherland is not Vajpayee’s motherland but the song’s author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s motherland. That motherland is Bengal.
Not to be outdone by cows and music, ‘Vande Mataram’ has a needling value and not so much of a riotous value
To understand that this song has nothing to do with India but has everything to do with Bengal, one needs to move beyond the stanzas that are designated as the “national song” and go on to the following stanzas. This is how it goes as per legendary anti-colonial revolutionary-terrorist-turned-mystic Aurobindo Ghose’s translation, that has been officially adopted by the Government of India’s national portal:
“Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands
When the swords flash out in seventy million hands
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and stored,
To thee I call Mother and Lord!
Thou who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foeman drove
Back from plain and Sea
And shook herself free.”
Who are these seventy million people? Well, the populace of then undivided Bengal, Hindus and Muslims. According to the 1871 census, the population of Bengal (including British-administered areas and feudatory states) was 62.6 million. And so, 70 million or 7 crore (‘Saptakoti’ as Bankim Chandra wrote) was a common parlance then to refer to the population of what was then Bengal. The population of the Empire of India according to the same 1871 census was 238.8 million or 23 crores or ‘TroyoBingshokoti’ as Bankim Chandra could have written. But he didn’t. Because he was not writing about India. He was writing about Bengal. That was common knowledge.
In time, Bande Mataram became the war cry of Bengali revolutionary terrorists (Aurobindo being a key early figure in that movement) starting in the early 1900s and their heroic deeds made their slogan ripe for adoption by the Bengal Congress and soon by the All India Congress. The Bande Mataram slogan gained in geographical reach and in that process, became ‘Vande Mataram’.
This co-option of something particularly Bengali in the convenient service of Bharat is not a unique phenomenon. Another contemporary divisive concept, again involving invocations to a mother, has similar roots. The pictorial idea of Mother India or Bharat Mata is attributed first to the Bengali painter and polymath Abanindranath Tagore, a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. His 1905 painting of a female monk-like figure with four hands has been co-opted as Bharat Mata. No other image of Bharat Mata exists before that. But this, at least for the painter Abanindranath himself, was Banga Mata or Mother Bengal – for that’s what he had named his painting.
This co-option of something particularly Bengali in the convenient service of Bharat is not a unique phenomenon
That Bankim Chandra was writing about Bengal and Abanindranath was painting Mother Bengal will not seem odd at all if we remember what Aurobindo Ghose had to say about his own translation of Bande Mataram, “It is difficult to translate the National Anthem of Bengal into verse in another language owing to its unique union of sweetness, simple directness and high poetic force.” People like CR Das (Aurobindo’s lawyer in the famous Alipore bomb case) and Subhas Chandra Bose repeatedly refer to the “Bengali nation” in their writings and speeches. That Bengal might have had a national anthem and a nationhood separate from that of India might be treasonous today, but that was the idea of Bengal in the minds of people who came to be hailed as greatest Indian revolutionaries. Clearly, in their conception, Bengal was clearly a nation unto itself. Their theory of India was not a one-nation or two-nation theory but a multi-nation theory.
Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com