Does a Pluralistic Nation Like India Really Need 'Vande Mataram'?

The controversy around Vande Mataram is an opportunity to reflect on the literary aspects of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 'Anandamath' as well as his idea of nationalism.

The idea that Vande Mataram ought to be sung by every citizen because it is the national song would have few takers among those with discriminating minds. In any free country, surely citizens are well within their rights to not comply with such demands.

There was a time when after every film show the image of the tricolour would flash on the cinema screen and the national anthem would echo in the theatre. Now, Jana gana mana does not have any religious references, so there was no question of a Hindu-Muslim flare-up over it. Even so, many viewers would get up to leave knowing well that the gates would not open until the seventh and last time the invocation Jaya hey had been uttered.

Eventually, the practice was stopped in the cinemas, among the most effective sites of mass communication. (Courtesy of a Supreme Court order, though somewhat revised, the national anthem has been brought back to cinemas and imposed on viewers all over again.)

Despite being aware of the double ignominy that the tricolour and national anthem were subjected to, if the current dispensation is trying its best to impose the national song on the populace, the reason is quite clear. Parts of the national song are replete with Hindu symbolism that can be used to provoke Muslims and gratify Hindus, albeit not the communities in their entirety.

The Hindu vote bank lures the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which has its base among the majority – and the Congress equally; both parties are locked in a life and death struggle over it. The intellectual community, which understands the motive behind the attempt to make an issue of the national song, has critiqued it extensively, especially on the lines that  singing or not singing the national song cannot be a yardstick of patriotism.

But is ‘Vande Mataram’ actually a ‘bad’ song? What kind of a novel is Anandamath? Further, is ultra nationalism the same as nationalism? Sometimes the heat generated by the flare-up of a controversy stretches into a broader and constructive debate. It would have been useful if scholars had taken this opportunity to reflect on the literary aspects of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s work as well as his idea of nationalism.

Also read: Is It Still Possible To Strive For Yet Another India?

I am not a litterateur, nor have I studied political science. But what strikes one sharply about the entire debate is that you have either die hard supporters of Chattopadhyay or die hard detractors who vilify him to the extent of tearing his character to shreds. Literature never features in these debates.

Those who oppose the imposition of the national song start finding faults with the song itself, forgetting that it is a poem first and national song later. It is as if the poem has been sacrificed at the altar of nationalism.

Those who have lauded ‘Vande Mataram’ as well as those who have lambasted it seem to be motivated by social or political factors. In the aftermath of such a debate, one wonders if future generations will ever be able to read it as a poem.

As a composition, I find ‘Vande Mataram’ to be a beautiful poem and Anandamath a light-weight novel; the reader may assume that this opinion is not borne out of intellectual, social or political fervour. Literature is an art and is above worldly affairs.  The ways of approaching literature also originate from within it.

Step beyond the barrier that is the religious symbolism of ‘Vande Mataram’ and you will experience its words unfold a gentle and pleasing world of metre, hues and fragrance. Malayajashitalam is not just a cool breeze coming from Malaygiri (Malay mountain), laden with the aroma of sandalwood, nor is shubhra jyotsna pulkit yaminim merely a description of the romance of a moonlit night.

Every simile in the song has an extraordinary capacity to transport one to a world beyond the lyrics and their meaning, provided we express a willingness to undertake that journey.

Here I am reminded of a private conversation with professor Ramchandra Gandhi many years ago. Ramu Gandhi, who was popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, was a consummate art lover and aesthete. He was of the view that the beauty of the rest of the poem aside, the first two words, namely Vande Mataram, are a complete poem in themselves, just like Satyameva Jayate. He was alluding to rhythmic import, which is the soul of poetry. I could appreciate his view.

The simultaneous use of Bangla and Sanskrit in the poem is an accomplishment in itself – something that scholars of Indian languages would be able to grasp and appreciate. The English translation, even as brilliant as the one by Sri Aurobindo, fails to recreate the timbre of the original. The poem is marked by a rare musicality which readily lends itself to widely varying compositions, as exemplified by Rabindranath Tagore and A. R. Rahman.

Tagore composed only the first stanza of the poem, in raag des. It is from this point that the poem began to be sung. Chattopadhyay included the musical score as an appendix in the third edition of Anandamath, choosing it over an earlier composition by one of his friends, in raag malhaar.

It is a fact that the words dashpraharanharini (Durga), kamala kamaladal viharini (Lakshmi) and vani vidyadayini (Saraswati) figure in one stanza of ‘Vande Mataram’However, religious symbolism in itself isn’t always communal.

Although I am non-religious, I still enjoy listening to Surdas and Meera bhajans or sufi qawwalis in praise of Allah or Prophet Muhammad. I listen to them as music. Moreover, I firmly believe that if one journeys to the farthest horizons of music, it becomes an act of devotion in itself. Therefore, as I see it, religious symbols in art always take a secondary place.

Also read: Interview | ‘Radicalism Is Spurred by Nationalism More Than Religion’: Fatima Bhutto

In such instances, if one’s focus happens to drift from the composition to its religious symbology, then the fault lies not with the work but with one’s perspective.  There is a world of difference between Gandhi’s Ram and that of L.K. Advani’s, but in literature, music and art, this difference recedes to a rarefied realm.

Not so long ago some English dailies came up with a story that Chattopadhyay wrote ‘Vande Mataram’ as a space-filler in Bangadarshan, the literary magazine he founded. One has no way of knowing whether it was so or not, but while reading Anandamath one certainly gets the feeling that ‘Vande Mataram’ may have been just that, namely a space-filler.

The poem reflects a Chattopadhyay who is balanced and rhythmic throughout. In Anandamath both his sense of discrimination and flow of prose come unstuck. By thrusting ‘Vande Mataram’ into the novel, he has roughened the smooth texture of the poem; in fact he is guilty of having reduced the song to a mere slogan.

Because the vision that emerges from his novel comes across as extremely narrow, it has brought ‘Vande Mataram’ and Chattopadhyay himself under a cloud. While the song, when seen in itself, may be cleared of all such charges, Chattopadhyay lovers would find it extremely difficult to rescue Anandamath from the circle of suspicion.

The novel outrightly celebrates Hindu religion, mocks Muslims and glorifies the British. Jai Jagdish Hare and Hare Murare Madhukaitbhare are repeatedly invoked as slogans throughout the novel; ‘Vande Mataram’ is like a prop.

Some writers claim that the slogans were raised by armed Hindu sannyasis (ascetics) against tyrannical rulers, who coincidentally happened to be Muslims. This is a false claim. In the novel the sannyasis who call themselves the santaan sena (children of Mother India) fight the Muslim and the British. In the end they side with the latter.

Some refer to Anandamath as a historical novel because it is set against the backdrop of the rule of Bengal’s first nawab, Mir Jafar. The movie Anandamath, which was based on Chattopadhyay novel and directed by Hemant Gupta in 1952, portrays the rebellion as India’s first battle of independence, fought long before 1857. However, historian Jadunath Sarkar, armed with facts, has refuted these claims about Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani.

Chattopadhyay himself never described Anandamath as a historical novel. At the same time he was drawn to the idea of historicity. In his preface to the novel’s third edition he informed the reader: “This time the true history of the sannyasi rebellion has been given in extracts from English works in the appendix”.

Further, he clarified that: “the battles described in the novel had not taken place in Birbhum but in north Bengal. And, in the novel, the name of Major Wood has been used in place of Captain Edwards. This difference I do not consider serious because [a] novel is a novel, not history.” However, in later editions he corrected some “differences” as they were “unnecessary to retain”.

It is possible that Chattopadhyay may have initially wanted to write against the British; after all the basis of his novel was the sannyasi rebellion that took place during the time of Warren Hastings’ governor-generalship, in the 18th Century. Being a government servant he was, perhaps, caught in a dilemma, wavering between making the santaan sena fight the British and Muslims, unequivocally going over to the British side towards the novel’s conclusion. By doing so, he linked the inevitability of British rule to the conception of a Hindu-rashtra in the future.

Those who have lauded ‘Vande Mataram’ as well as those who have lambasted it seem to be motivated by social or political factors. In the aftermath of such a debate, one wonders if future generations will ever be able to read it as a poem.

In his preface to the first edition (1882) of the novel, Bankim wrote: “Most of the time a revolution in society is an exercise solely in inflicting pain on oneself. Rebels are suicidal. The English have saved Bengal from anarchy. All these facts have been explained in this work.”  Not only this, the preface ends with the statement that the very objective of the santaan rebellion was to establish British rule.

As borne out in the excerpts below, from the fifth edition of Ananadamath’s translation by Nares Chandra Sen-Gupta (The Abbey of Bliss, 1906), anyone reading the novel will be quick to notice the feeling of hatred towards Muslims and praise for the British.

“…but our Mussalman King – how does he protect us? Our religion is gone; so is our caste; our honour and the sacredness of our family even! Our lives even are now to be sacrificed. Unless we drive these tipsy long-beards away, a Hindu can no longer hope to save his religion.”

“Quite so, we do not want sovereignty; we only want to kill these Mussalmans, root and branch, because they have become the enemies of God.”

“Then they began to send emissaries to the villages. These went to the villages and wherever they found 20 or 25 Hindus, fell on Mussalman villages and set fire to their houses. While the Mussalmans busied themselves in saving their lives, the Children [the santaan sena] plundered their possessions and distributed them among their followers. When the rustics were gratified with a share of the booty, they were taken to the temple of Vishnu and initiated there as Children with the touch of the idol’s feet. People felt that the Children’s mission was a lucrative business….and where they found a Mussalman habitation they burnt it down to ashes.”

“Someone cried out, ‘Kill, kill, the shaven knolls! … Another would say, ‘Brother, would the day come when we shall we able to break the mosque to raise the temple of Radha-Madhava in its place?’”

“Some ran to the villages and others to the towns and then caught hold of passersby or householders and said, ‘Say Hail Mother [Vande Mataram] or you die’…. Everybody said, ‘The Moslems have been defeated and the country has come back to the Hindus; cry Hari, Hari’. The villagers would chase any Mussalman that they would meet – some would combine and go to the Mussalman quarters to set fire to their houses and pillage them. Many Moslems shaved off their beards, smeared their bodies with earth and sung Harinam. When challenged they would say in their own patois that they were Hindus.”

Obviously, there is more to the novel than a struggle between a tyrannical ruler and persecuted subjects. There is concern for the Hindu religion, disdain for Muslims and a surfeit of exaltation of the British. When a British officer is captured in battle, Bhavanand tells him:

“Captain Saheb! We shall not kill you; the English are not our enemies. But why did you come in as friends of the Mussalmans? Come, I shall save your life, and for the present you are our prisoner. We wish all joy to Englishmen [‘May the Englishmen be victorious’ would be closer to the text of the original], we are your friends.”

At the end of the novel, overcome with anguish that a Hindu reign could not be established in spite of the destruction of Muslim power, the leader of the rebel sannyasis, Satyanand, poses a question to the chikitsak (who appears as Satyanand’s mentor). “Sire,” he said,

“who is then to become the sovereign if it is not the Hindus. Is it the Mussalman that will return to power?”

The mahapurush replies:

“There is no hope of a revival of the True Faith if the English be not our rulers….The English are great in objective sciences and they are apt teachers. Therefore, the English shall be made our sovereign. Imbued with a knowledge of objective sciences by English education our people will be able to comprehend subjective truths….The rebellion was raised only that the English might be initiated into sovereignty.”

It is true that the hues specific to a language are often lost in translation. Except, with regard to Anandamath, there is an element of dissonance in the original novel itself.  While the language is smooth, the narrative progresses in a monotonous and discordant fashion. The situations are not fleshed out well, nor is the ambience of battle built up satisfactorily. What emerges clearly is more the author’s intention to pour the narrative into the gaps between the incessant dialogues of weakly sketched characters, and slogans.

Also read: Narcissism, Victimhood and Revenge – the Three Sounds of Neo-Nationalism

Novels that are serialised in magazines often suffer this fate; otherwise works based on an insular perspective can be excellent too. Such examples abound in literature. For instance, Ezra Pound, an avowed supporter of fascism, is considered a great poet. About Nietzsche, Vijaydevnarayan Sahi once wrote, “From the point of view of social reality Thus Spake Zarathustra ought to be burnt, but from the literary point of view, it is among the great works.”

As with ‘Vande Mataram’, I read Anandamath with an open mind, but it came across as an unimpressive work not only from an ideological viewpoint but also as a work of art. True, the novel as a form was not well developed in our parts at the time the work was written, but signs of greatness manifest themselves one way or another. Unfortunately, these signs are not to be found in the most famous of Chattopadhyay’s works.

The same cannot be said about ‘Vande Mataram’ which was written separately and should be read as such. There is no sense in imposing it as the national song either. If intoned in accordance with regulation or as a prescribed primer, a poem loses its essence and is reduced to a mere slogan.

Also read: ‘We Live in Times When National Integration Has Been Replaced By Ugly Nationalism’

The controversy centred on the national song affords a pretext for a discussion on nationalism. For instance, how does one approach the emphatic view in certain quarters that declaring ‘Vande Mataram’ the national song, was not proper. I would say, the song with all its religious symbolism was not communal at its inception but became so six years later when Chatopadhyay decided to insert it into the controversial novel which was communal in tone.

It is a fact that in the course of the freedom movement, revolutionaries drew inspiration from the song. But later, during communal riots, this very song was also used as a war cry against the Muslims. It was not the Muslim League alone that protested against it; even Gandhi was apprehensive that the song would be used to humiliate Muslims. Eventually, owing to the controversy surrounding ‘Vande Mataram’, it was not declared the national anthem.

As a consequence of the same debate, however, a truncated version of the poem, sans the controversial part, was declared the national song – is there any poet alive who would endorse this move – following which there is a constant attempt to place it even above the national anthem in the name of  patriotism.

Making a show of patriotism is a consequence of the idea of nationalism which did not exist in our country earlier. The nationalism with which we have draped ourselves is a concept borrowed from the West, or Europe, where it was born during the 19th Century.

It is a well-known fact that nationalism was what destroyed Europe, pushing it into two World Wars. It was a similar idea of nationalism that led to the formation of Pakistan. However, Europe managed to steady itself and now the 28 countries (Britain included) that are part of the European Union boast one currency and travel on the strength of one passport sans visa requirements. These nations are ethnically diverse yet there is no attempt to homogenise the different cultures, languages and arts. Rather, the focus is on preserving each of them.

Also read: Asserting Your Nationalism Day In, Day Out Is Unnecessary: Hamid Ansari

In our country, however, the ritualistic aspects of nationalism are increasingly being seen as synonymous with nationalism. There is a huge difference between the two. Certainly, a citizen must have faith in his or her nation, but faith cannot be measured only in terms of national symbols.

We tend to forget that at one point ultra-nationalism takes the shape of fascism. It is not without reason that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has the same faith in this ideology as Hitler or Mussolini did. It is in the context of this ideology that the debate around singing or not singing ‘Vande Mataram’ keeps surfacing time and again.

‘Vande Mataram’ is not the only issue; there are many others which can lend themselves to similar controversies. The question is – does a pluralistic nation like India really need such symbols? No symbol of a nation can ever be more important than its people. It is the people themselves who create those symbols in the first place. So how can there be just one religious, or even non-religious, symbol for a country as pluralistic as India?

On this issue, a study of the ideas of Tagore, our national poet, and master novelist Premchand can provide extremely useful pointers. Tagore held the ideal of humanity to be much above those of patriotism; Premchand likened nationalism to a disease (leprosy).

Normally it would make little sense for a country to have a national anthem as well as a national song. This situation is peculiar to our country. Thankfully, the list of nationalistic symbols has not extended to other art forms. The mind boggles to think of a scenario in which a process of having a national story, play, painting, film, dance form and sport were to be initiated.

In fact, the flag should suffice as the symbol of a nation. The sooner there is an end to the practice of the Central and state governments creating more and more official symbols, the better it would be for India and Indians. We can do without the empty ritualism.

Like the contentious debate around ‘Vande Mataram’, the issue of Hindi as the national language is raked up every now and then in the context of the ideology of ultra-nationalism. As Hindi Diwas (September 14) approaches, one can expect the usual slogans accompanied by the usual debate on the national language. But there will be no talk about the many languages and dialects that we are knowingly or unknowingly losing by the day.

Hindi is a gentle language pleasing to the ears. Being the most widely spoken, it can easily become a contact language. The irony is that although Hindi has been given the status of an official language, it has not even succeeded in becoming the language of governance.  An administration’s efforts can neither supplant nor constrict the popular mind-set.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from the ‘Vande Mataram’ controversy is that in a free country such matters should be left open, not corralled. It will help safeguard not only our unity but many other aspects of our life which happen to be genuine markers of our national identity. The sooner the ultra-nationalistic prodigals return from their Western perch to the East, the better.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman and Chitra Padmanabhan. Read the original here.

Om Thanvi is a senior journalist who retired as editor in chief of Jansatta in 2016.