What we need is a full national symbol – a slant-eyed, black Bharat Mata, crippled by hunger and deprivation, pain and disease, dressed in rags and chains, howling in rage while being eaten by a lion and getting ready to be reborn unchained.In the passionate speech that landed him in trouble with the government, JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar said he does not see his mother in Bharat Mata. He was right of course. None of the many and varied images of Bharat Mata that we have collected over the years signify, reflect or document Kumar’s mother. Neither do they resemble the mother of Rohith Vemula, Umar Khalid, Soni Sori, Manorama, Ishrat Jahan, Irom Sharmila, Bilkis Bano or the Christians of Kandhamal.
So then who is this Bharat Mata and what purpose does she serve?
Bharat Mata or Mother India is a gendered image that emblematises and literalises the idea of a nation called India. In this specific instance, the contours of both the nation and the maternal body coincide, and Bharat Mata is frequently depicted with her saree pallao billowing over the North and the North-Eastern parts of the country.
But Bharat Mata is also a paradox. She is imagined as literally birthing the nation’s multitudes, while remaining herself – the form of the nation – still engorged with the multitudes who populate her. Despite both bodying forth the nation and embodying it she rarely resembles her multitudinous offspring. It is in this remarkable separation between Bharat Mata and her children that a resonant paradox is born: Bharat Mata continually births herself who is rarely identical with her selves. What does this say about her?
The ‘Aryanised’ Bharat Mata
In the popular Durgaesque RSS version of her, Bharat Mata is fair-skinned, resplendent with finery, prestige, confidence and power. She leans gently but assuredly on a magnificent lion while bestowing a benediction on the viewer-devotee. Although this version is far more ferocious than Abanindranath Tagore’s 1905 early inspiration for Bharat Mata – the benign, ethereal, austere but bountiful Banga Mata – the two are almost identical in their significations of power and prestige. In fact, the numerous versions of Bharat Mata, including those by P S Ramachandran Rao, Ravi Varma and the RSS versions, all retain the crucial signifiers of upper-caste, Vedic Hindu divinity, Aryan ancestry and marks of bourgeois respectability. In short, in Bharat Mata we have a Vedic, Aryanised, possibly North Indian, upper-caste, wealthy even regal, Hindu figure.
This figure then is not a ‘national’ one at all; it is rather elitist and highly exclusive. It is also an orthodoxically gendered one. It is an auspiciously clothed, unquestionably fecund one whose affinity with the Mother Goddess has been so drastically minimised that she appears heteronormative and domesticated. The orthodox socio and sexual politics of this figure are familiar and provocative to those who exist on the flipside of its field of significations, i.e. the dark-skinned, non-‘Aryan’, low or outcaste, non-Hindu, tribal, poor, queer or gender-sexual marginals. These get signified only as othered absence. Interestingly, these absent(ed) constituencies actually constitute the majority in a country that is being beset by a majoritarian politics in which the understanding of majoritarianism is elitist and feku. The ruling upper caste Hindu, who claims to be the voice of the majority is a small 13% minority.
Representing what should be
What then is the national use of this figure? Like all icons, it seeks to stabilise, visibilise and reiterate an idea; in this case, the difficult and highly contested idea of India. Bharat Mata is an idea of what should be but is not. It is a hegemonic misrepresentation of India. It constitutes a deliberate and systematic exclusion. And through that, it becomes the assertion of privilege, a taunt that advertises the power of those who are legitimised by the system, and their control over resources, discourse and representation.
What makes matters worse is the fact that the influential social hierarchies that the Bharat Mata icon asserts semiotically are enforced and reinforced as normative and desirable in daily life and in dominant discourses of nation. The many outcaste, denied step children of the Mother Nation and the Father State are expected to aspire and hope that one day they too will display the markers of lineage, and finally become pedigreed and blessed sons and daughters of Mother-Nation and Father-State.The infuriated nation-state
And what is possible with the blessings of the nation-state? Ask the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis, the Mittals and the Ruias. Ask Amit Shah, G D Vanzara, Ankit Garg, B S Bassi. Ask Smriti Irani, P Chidambaram, Sushil Kumar Shinde. Ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
Now, look at Sori’s burnt face, Sharmila’s desiccated body, Jahan’s tragic corpse, the flaming mouths of Muslim infants, Vemula’s body and his mother’s anguish. Think of Batla House, Best Bakery, Bastar, Khandamal, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Think of the custody of Kumar, Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, the sword over Reyaz, Ashutosh Kumar, Rama Naga, Anant Prakash, Aishwarya Adhikari and Shweta Raj among others. Look at our own precarious, nervous and beholden middle class existences. Now you will see the unfriendly, withholding nation-state.
It is this infuriated nation-state – the Durgaesque flag-bearing Bharat Mata with the leonine state at her side – that Irani invoked verbally and non-verbally in her recent melodramatic speech on Mahishasura in parliament. The ironies of the stressed ‘my’ in her theatrical, “And may my God forgive me for reading this [JNU pamphlet],” were of course lost on her. Like the privileged everywhere, Irani too remains blind to the hegemonies that she thrives on and perpetuates. Her God IS GOD.
Black Bharat Mata – a full national symbol
And Mahishasura? Well, he’s the devil itself or some version of it that has to be destroyed by the incited and enraged Bharat Mata. So also the students of Hyderabad Central University, JNU or indeed the tribal, the Dalit, the peasant, the factory worker and the minorities who stand ranged against the corporate-state nexus. They are simply some Mahishasuraic abomination, the forgotten and condemned children of a monstrous Union who the progeny of the Vedic Gods seek to trump by hook or by crook, sooner than later.
After all these Mahishasuraic abominations are in fact the ones who will change the face of this nation, who address and redress the taunt that the resplendent Bharat Mata is. And they are terrifying to the old order.
Yes, the Bharat Mata of yore is a fantastic face that has been pasted over the stark reality that is Bharat. She is the fantasy of a morbidly self-pleasuring outmoded and predatory set of men and women who have no memory of innocence and no appetite for truth. Bloated with blood and banditry and yet obscenely hungry, they circle as beggarly and unwelcome hawkers at every known country and doorstep. They are the repeat offenders that continue to drain the very blood out of the nation that they arrest and detain in their treacherous march to dismantle her sovereignty, to pimp her out to the highest bidder, to squander the bounty that belongs to generations not yet born. And they have the gall to speak of nationalism and arrest for sedition those who are angry about this and speak of the rot in the state of India!
Bharat Mata is an idea and an emblem. What we need as a full national symbol today, is a slant-eyed, black Bharat Mata, crippled by hunger and deprivation, pain and disease, dressed in rags and chains, howling in rage while being eaten by a lion and getting ready to be reborn unchained.
Karen Gabriel is an Associate Professor at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University and P K Vijayan is an Assistant Professor at the Hindu College, Delhi University.