The Perils of Saffron Nationalism

To the eternal credit of our founding matas and pitas in the constituent assembly, they refused to replace India with Bharat despite pleas by some members. The BJP’s call today to make the chanting of 'Bharat Mata ki jai' the test of patriotism is not a way of upholding the constitution but of undoing it.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party's national executive meeting in Delhi in March. Credit: PTI

Worship your mummy or else. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party’s national executive meeting in Delhi in March. Credit: PTI

As India turns 69 this year, the political resolution which the BJP’s National Executive adopted on March 20, 2016 declared that

“Nationalism, national unity and integrity are an article of faith with the BJP. Refusal to hail Bharat – say Bharat Mata ki jai – in the name of freedom is unacceptable. Our constitution describes India as Bharat also: refusal to chant victory to Bharat tanatamounts to (sic) disrespect to the constitution itself…. Bharat Mata ki jai is not merely a slogan…. It is the heartbeat of a billion people today. It is the reiteration of our constitutional obligation as citizens to uphold its primacy. The BJP wishes to make it clear that it will firmly oppose any attempt to disrespect Bharat and weaken its unity and integrity.”

Even for a party intoxicated by the taste of nationalism on its tongue, this is an astonishing series of non sequiturs.

Firstly, refusing to say Bharat Mata is not a “refusal to hail Bharat”. Since the constitution nowhere describes India as Bharat Mata, or requires her to be celebrated, neither does it follow that not saying Bharat Mata ki jai is to show “disrespect to the constitution”. Our “constitutional obligation as citizens” has been spelt out in the eleven fundamental duties of Article 51A, none of which asks Indians to either chant a slogan or “uphold its primacy”. The final illogical absurdity is the claim that not to mouth the slogan will “disrespect Bharat”, and that this imagined slight will “weaken its unity and integrity”. Surely even the BJP can’t think the nation is so fragile. If this was not the rambling of what, in more ways than one, might be called a Congress-induced haze, it will be our constitutional obligation as citizens to believe that the BJP can’t think.

The BJP’s call is not to uphold the constitution but to undo it.

Since the BJP has tried to make the constitution a handmaiden of Hindutva, it is worth remembering that the attempt was first made in the constituent assembly by some Congressmen, and failed. “India, that is Bharat”, says Article 1. Initially it was just India, but these members of the assembly argued that India, a foreign name, should be replaced by Bharat, which they claimed was how this stretch of land was known in their scriptures. The same set of politicians led the campaign to have the constitution ban cow slaughter, but camouflaged a sectarian demand as economic prudence (a subterfuge cruelly exposed by Frank Antony). On Bharat, where they had no fig-leaf, the two principal proponents, Kamalapati Tripathi and Hargovind Pant, left nothing to the imagination.

Speaking in the constituent assembly on September 18, 1949, Kamalapati Tripathi said of Bharat:

When we pronounce this word, we are reminded of the Mantras of the Rig Veda uttered by our Maharishis…. of those brave words of the Upanishads which urged humanity to awake… of Lord Krishna through which he taught a practical philosophy to the people of this country…

And with a brief aside to the Buddha, went on:

When we pronounce this word, we are reminded of Shankaracharya, who gave a new vision to the world…. of the mighty arms of Bhagwan Rama which by twanging the chord of the bow sent echoes through the Himalayas, the seas around this land and the heavens….. of the wheel of Lord Krishna …..

At which point an irritated B.R. Ambedkar asked the president if all this was really necessary. But Hargovind Pant was even more explicit:

‘The word “Bharat” or “Bharat Varsha” is used by us in our daily religious duties while reciting the Sankalpa. Even at the time of taking our bath we say in Sanskrit: Jamboo Dwipay, Bharata Varshe, Bharat Khande, Aryavartay, etc.” I represent the people of the Northern part of India where sacred places like Shri Badrinath, Shri Kedarnath, Shri Bageshwar and Manasarovar are situated. I am placing before you the wishes of the people of this part…. that the name of our country should be ‘Bharat Varsha’ and nothing else.”

This was an unabashed Hindu demand, to make it clear that their nation was not Hindustan in name but in essence. To the eternal credit of the constituent assembly, it refused to replace India with Bharat. Bharat’s champions then asked that the formulation be “Bharat, or, in the English language, India”, giving, as the BJP demands, primacy to Bharat. This was defeated by a vote of 51 to 38, with Ambedkar’s compromise then accepted in the form we now have in the constitution. India comes first, Bharat is an exegetic alternative.

Given that history, the BJP will espouse Bharat, but it is foolish if it thinks citizens do not know, have forgotten or will ignore that history, and give to the constitution and the nation a colour the constituent assembly rejected. The BJP’s call is not to uphold the constitution but to undo it.

But what is the Bharat the BJP wants us to worship? In his poem “Bharat Tirtha” – A Pilgrimage to Bharat – (implicitly making it a holy land) Rabindranath Tagore invoked it as a place that welcomed the Aryan, the non-Aryan, Hindu-Mussalman, the Englishman, the Christian, a land where the Aryan and the non-Aryan, the Dravidian and the Chinese, the Sakas and the Huns, the Pathans and the Mughals, had merged into one body.

Tagore’s nation shapes the men and women who live in it, but they, all of them together, make the nation. That is the polar opposite of the Hindutva concept of a Bharat Mata, as a goddess who must be worshipped, with her followers presumably finding salvation only in her service. That is a demand even worse than those of fascism and Nazism, which also placed the nation above the individual, because worshipping the nation is now made a religious duty. That is a totalitarian demand, which has no place in a democracy. And it by definition excludes the 200 million of India’s 1.2 billion citizens who, according to the last census, are not Hindu. It is telling that the BJP’s political resolution claimed that Bharat Mata ki jai was “the heartbeat of a billion people today”. A billion, not 1.2.

Will we now see its storm-troopers administer the catechism on the streets, with those who will not say it forced to wear placards that say “I am an anti-national”? Or stars on their clothes?

This is not just about Muslims or others who cannot, for reasons of personal belief, worship a goddess. As Kanhaiya Kumar reminded us, there is a received iconography of Bharat Mata, as a pale woman in an ornate sari, with which he could not identify. That must hold for millions of dalits and adivasis, whom Hindutva claims but will not touch. If it is not really worship but simply the incantation of words that had a certain resonance during the freedom struggle, why make an issue of it now, when that struggle is long won, but the larger and daily struggle continues for the citizens who won it? It must be to hark back to the past in the hope that citizens will forget the present. If so, that mocks Bharat Mata’s children. They are not so gullible.

And no, Indians who refuse to say “Bharat Mata ki jai” after all this are not anti-national. As a former colleague who is a Muslim said, he had no problem in saying it, it was being forced to say it that he objected to, and the utterly false claim that this was a test of patriotism. All of us who watch the World T20 matches have seen the Bangladesh team singing their national anthem, and though most will not understand the words, they will have heard the recurring refrain of “Ma”. Bangladeshi Muslims sing in invocation of the nation as mother, but what Sonar Bangla celebrates is the physical beauty of the land, and the emotion it repeatedly expresses is love, not worship.

So what does the BJP mean when it says that a refusal to say “Bharat Mata ki jai” is “unacceptable”? It is the ruling party. Its writ runs through government. Will we now see its storm-troopers administer the catechism on the streets, with those who will not say it forced to wear placards that say “I am an anti-national”? Or stars on their clothes? It sounds melodramatic, but it was an aggressive and warped nationalism that spawned bestialities no one thought would be possible in a modern society. While president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau, who carried the burden of that awful legacy, once reminded his nation that “Patriotism can flourish only where racism and nationalism are given no quarter. We should never mistake patriotism for nationalism.” Those are words we should mull over and take to heart.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission