The suspension of Waris Pathan – an MLA in Maharashtra – by a unanimous vote of BJP, Congress, Shiv Sena and NCP legislators for declaring he would not chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is the latest level of absurdity to which the debate on nationalism in the country has descended.
“I love my country. I was born here and I will die here. I can never dream of insulting my country. Don’t judge anyone’s love for the country by just one slogan. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, Jai Maharashtra,” Pathan later told the media.
Though he said the equivalent of ‘Long Live India’ twice in his statement, it was his refusal to use a phrase that hails India as a goddess that the BJP – and ultimately all parties in the legislature – curiously objected to.
In the constitution of India, the word “Bharat” occurs once in Article 1 (1). “India, that is Bharat” it declares, “shall be a union of states.” The word mata, or mother, never appears at all. There is no gender attached to the nation here, leave alone divinity. The constitution itself leads off in the preamble declaring “WE THE PEOPLE OF INDIA…”
Pathan followed his party leader Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen, who, too, had declared that he would not chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai,” as suggested by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat earlier this month. Taking aim at the so-called anti-national forces, Bhagwat wants Indians to adopt the slogan as a means of inculcating patriotism in the younger generation.
Far from suspending Pathan for refusing to chant a slogan that has no legal or constitutional basis, it is Bhagwat and his followers who should be taken to task for raising the controversy.
Bharat Mata arose from the iconography of the freedom movement of the late 19th century, in response to the need to develop an emotional connect to unite people across the land at the time. This is a country where divinity can be created at will; witness the temples to Modi and, reportedly, cricket captain M S Dhoni. Of course, the leaders of the Indian national movement used the phrase in the broadest possible sense, such as Nehru:
‘Sometimes as I reached a gathering, a great roar of welcome would greet me Bharat Mata ki Jai [sic]—Victory to Mother India! I would ask them unexpectedly what they meant by that cry, who was this Bharat Mata, Mother India, whose victory they wanted? […] And so question and answer went on, till they would ask me impatiently to tell them about it. I would endeavour to do so and explain that India was all this that they had thought, but it was much more. The mountains and the rivers of India, and the forest and the broad fields, which gave us food, were all dear to us, but what counted ultimately were the people of India, people like them and me, who were spread out all over this vast land. Bharat Mata, Mother India, was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people. You are parts of Bharat Mata, I told them, you are in a manner yourself Bharat Mata, and as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery’ .
In the hands of others, however, Bharat Mata is inextricably linked to divinity and Hindu iconography, with a saffron flag – rather than the national tricolour – held aloft:
Essentially because of the religious imagery with which it is associated, many Indians of faiths other than Hinduism have a problem in representing the nation as a manifestation of divinity. This is the reason the concept of Bharat Mata never found place in the constitution or other official practices of the Indian state after 1947.
The fact that the RSS has been a champion of this iconography reflects the organisation’s desire to link itself to the independence movement in which it played a very minor role. That is also the reason why its affiliates are desperately trying to appropriate the icons of the struggle like Sardar Patel and B.R. Ambedkar, and indeed the idea of nationalism itself. But it’s aggressiveness on the issue of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is clearly part of its attempts to project secular India as Hindu India.
Not mata but humans
Constructing India the way it is today was not an act of goddesses or god, but the work of human beings – the thousands of Indians who lost their lives in the freedom movement, and, in the final and most crucial stages of the struggle, principally Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.
Gandhi’s role was to mastermind the movement that saw the British realise the futility of holding on to India. His was the stroke of genius that launched the Quit India movement of 1942. The Congress had no great plan to force the British out of India. But Gandhi was prescient enough to realise that after the war, the British would not be able to hold on to the country and so his goal was to capture the emotional high ground, which he spectacularly did. Others were not so clever. The Communist Party of India opposed the movement (because it saw the Nazis as the bigger danger), the RSS simply stayed aloof, much to the relief of the British.
Next comes the role of Nehru, especially at two key moments. On April 18, 1947, speaking at the All India State’s People’s Conference, Nehru made it clear that any princely state that stayed out of the constituent assembly would be treated as “hostile” and would have to bear the consequences. By the end of the month, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Rewa joined Baroda, Bikaner, Cochin and Patiala were in the assembly. The importance of this can only be understood in comparison to the position of Jinnah and his lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan, who emphasised that the princely states could negotiate with India or Pakistan, “or choose to assume complete and separate sovereign status for themselves.”
The second, and absolutely key moment, came when Lord Mountbatten obtained approval for a plan which would offer all the Indian provinces – Madras, Bombay, UP, Bihar, Central Provinces, Orissa, Delhi, Ajmer- Merwara and Coorg, partitioned Bengal and Punjab – an option for independence. The 560-odd princely states could join any of these units which could subsequently, if they wanted, decide whether they wanted to reunite. So, where the national movement wanted a single India, the British were offering a formula which could have seen the emergence of several Indias.
In one of those twists of fate on which history rests, Nehru was Mountbatten’s house guest in Simla when the British Viceroy received approval of the plan from London. On May 10, he revealed the proposal to Nehru and said that he would convene a meeting a week later with Jinnah, Liaquat, Baldev Singh and the Congress leaders to make the formal announcement. Nehru was stunned and stayed up the night drafting a note that he sent to Mountbatten the next morning, vehemently rejecting the plan which could encourage units to break loose, and create several Indias instead of one. Mountbatten changed track and dusted off the older plan to simply partition British India into two dominions and allow the various princely states to choose whom they wanted to accede to.
Patel’s role came in at this stage when he, along with V.P. Menon, outfoxed the British and ensured that some 560 princely states, barring Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir and Junagadh, all acceded to the Indian Union by August 15, 1947. This was an astounding performance since the Independence of India Act of 1947 had no provision for the princely states, most of which were in what would become “India”, and whose rulers had been merely “advised” to join one or the other dominion. Menon has written about just how narrowly Jodhpur escaped being part of Pakistan.
By a mixture of guile, firmness and some luck, we got the India we have today. It has been nearly 70 years since, and India has withstood multiple challenges to its nationhood – defeat in war, famine, terrorist onslaughts – and yet emerged stronger. For Bhagwat to now tell us that we are not good nationalists would ordinarily be laughable. However, the fact that he is the leader of a movement that rules India today makes it difficult to break into a smile.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.