You may have come across an advertisement that has in recent days been blaring powerfully from the television screen that recounts in song the many real or alleged achievements of the government, concluding in a high-pitched ‘Vande Mataram’ invocation.
This rather overbearing call to a codified nationalism brings to my mind an instructive interaction that has remained etched in my memory.
Returning from a seminar at a university in an Uttar Pradesh city a decade or more ago, I got talking with the driver of the vehicle that was kindly organised to bring me back home.
The driver’s name was Abdul Rashid, a venerable old man, who, I was to discover, to be an astonishingly learned man. I distinctly recall that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the self-taught Abraham Lincoln.
Unsurprisingly, our conversation came round to the subject of ‘Vande Mataram’, after, that is, a painful dip into the partition of India for which he told me he never forgave Jinnah, even as he held other parties guilty as well.
From a routine conditioning, I suppose, I asked him why Muslims felt so strongly about this address to the motherland (matrubhoomi).
Abdul Rashid’s response at first was equally conditioned and predictable: “Dr Sahib,” he said, “our faith forbids us from bowing to anything and anyone other than the one god, Allah.”
This was as much as I already knew.
Sensing that I was a liberal sort of Hindu, his articulation warmed to some elaborations on the theme that have left me thinking hard.
“Dr Sahib, do you ever think about the reality that when you die, your ashes will be immersed in the Ganges, or some other water-body, and, in course of time, the waters will carry them beyond the territories of India into the sea; but when I die, my remains will be buried in our own mother earth and be mingled with it for eternity? So, I ask you, which of us has a better claim to the matrubhoomi? Is it not the case, then, that were we to say ‘Vande Mataram’, we would be committing the ultimate blasphemy of bowing to ourselves—a thought not to be entertained in the Islamic faith?”
I had never ever in my long life confronted this perception. The stark irony embedded in it suddenly made me feel an outsider to my own land—something of a tenant than an owner. It was as though I had been dispossessed of a claim trumpeted over millennia of a self-evident assertion and unquestionable truth.
The recognition that my matrubhoomi was in fact eternally intimate with non-Hindu Indians, inextricably making up the soil in whose name we Hindus have so berated our Semitic fellow-Indians, was nothing less than a telling realisation, and I asked myself how so obvious a reality could remain so obfuscated from the popular Hindu mind for many centuries of conjoint living.
I was hit by the thought that where my flesh and bone would not fertilise my matrubhoomi, Abdul Rashid’s would.
What metaphysical rejoinders I could think up seemed puerile next to the earthy home truth Abdul Rashid had placed before me.
A litany of Muslim Indian writers sprang to my mind who have in their work celebrated their love of the matrubhoomi, and, how tragic I thought that such an abiding fact should amount to so little in the minds of those who blare their proprietorship of India as a civilisation just because Muslims will not bow to the matrubhoomi.
Bahadur Shah Zafar’s hauntingly poignant lament from the then Rangoon that he was not destined to two yards of earth in his motherland for burial put for me a wholly new gloss on what Abdul Rashid had taught me of loyalty to and love of matrubhoomi among Indian Muslims.
I have since that day wondered how my ashes, far away from Indian shores, may look back to blare their claim to any exclusive ownership of India, that is Bharat. And why those whose meat and bone become one with the soil should be considered alien to the matrubhoomi.
I thought of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth as a celebratory trope so healthfully alternate to a political call of allegiance to the land—one which teaches us to salute the earth for the bounties she gives us without discrimination as we labour lovingly with it. And it struck me how little the matrubhoomi cares as to whose hands work those bounties.
Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.