Friday, May 16, 2014

Ready for a change in the national anthem?

Narendra Modi concluded his victory speech in Vadodara by singing the national song of India. Is this a sign of the future? Perhaps with its large majority the BJP will want to force a vote on the national song/anthem? This will be a sure-fire way to permanently solidify the Hindu-Hindutva vote that has given Modi 71 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh (holy smoke, really)!!!!

The national anthem was composed by a Bengali super-caste. There have always been unkind rumors that "Jana Gana Mana" was actually composed in honor of the British Emperor (poor Rabindranath Thakur sahib was forced to issue an angry denial but no matter).

The national song was also composed by a Bengali super-caste. "Vande Mataram" is set in a (past) scenario where the muslim invaders are devastating Bengal and the sanyasis (fakirs) rise in rebellion. In reality this was a rebellion against the British as much as the Nawab, which was brutally put down, but in those days Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay did not have the freedom to criticize the British (he was a magistrate no less).

What is undeniable is that thousands (and we mean that literally) died in the freedom movement singing Vande Mataram. And muslims have been steadfastly opposed to singing a song that salutes Motherland (as opposed to Allah) and the historical context is also cited in support of this reluctance.

When there was time to choose the national anthem, Nehru, who despised the concept of a Hindu-Hindutva India, naturally favored the "secular" Jana Gana Mana (because it had a better tune!!!). What he did not foresee was that Jana Gana Mana is also in its own way is a prayer to almighty. And predictably enough there are religious groups who refuse to sing it. So what was the controversy all about?

Prof Amardeep Singh (of the late lamented Sepia Mutiny fame) had this to say about the controversy back in 2004. On one point he is not quite accurate, the edited Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana are officially Hindi songs and even word content wise they are 100% and 99% Sanskrit respectively, so the Bengali origin is truly masked. Amardeep prefers Sare Jahan se Achha as the national anthem, which was composed by the man who was the soul force behind creation of Pakistan- Iqbal. Now THAT would be a truly interesting debate to have.

The counter argument is presented by Vivek Gumaste who comments unfavorably on the action of BSP MP Shafiqur Rahman Burq walking out of the Lok Sabha while Vande Mataram was being played because “Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god." 

The Hindu right has been casting aspersions on it recently (Datta cites Sadhvi Rithambara's "hate cassette" as well as websites like The reason: it was composed by Tagore on the occasion of King George V's visit to the Indian National Congress in 1911. Tagore was famously ambivalent about the commission, and wrote the song as he did as an act -- he thought -- of subversion. But I suppose it's also possible to say that the song, written to celebrate the visit of the English king, loses some autonomy through that history.
Whatever the case, eventually the song would become strongly identified with the nationalist movement. It was even eventually adapted by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. You can't get more nationalist than that.

The critics of "Jana Gana Mana" would prefer to see it replaced by "Bande Mataram," also sometimes spelled "Vande Mataram") composed by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, also sometimes spelled as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. "Bande Mataram" (see the song here, with translation by the poet Sri Aurobindo) treats India as a Goddess to be worshipped. It was demoted from official anthem status, Datta says, because orthodox Indian Muslims (probably also Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians) would have had a hard time worshipping a "Goddess" of any form, even if, in the song, the "Mataram" isn't named as specifically Hindu.

[And if that's sexism, well, it probably is. But keep in mind that woman-as-Goddess isn't always a pro-feminist image -- it depends what kind of Goddess. But I digress.]

Finally, Datta makes a great point about the differences in the image of India in the two anthems:

But there is also an underlying reason that is really responsible for the controversy popping up at regular intervals. The words of Bande Mataram feature India as a homogeneous Hindu nation. Jana Gana Mana evokes the country as composed of a multiplicity of regions and communities united in a prayer to a universal lord. After all, Bande Mataram was composed by a colonial administrator who could only visualize the nation in Hindu terms: religious identity was the only available idiom for conceptualizing the nation then. In contrast, Tagore had seen the riots that broke up the Swadeshi movement and had divined the obvious: religious nationalism easily divided anti-colonial struggles. Jana Gana Mana can be seen as one of the fruits of Tagore's search to find an alternate inclusivist definition for the nation. Incidentally, it was one of the harbingers of a decade that was to see Hindu and Muslim politicians draw together. In short, the two songs embody different ideas, histories and aspirations of the country.
Personally, I prefer Mohammed Iqbal's "Sare Jaha se Achcha." I find it easiest to understand (after all, the other two are Bengali songs originally), and easier to sing than either of the others.

Why do some Muslims find Vande Mataram objectionable? The answer lies in its supposed anti-Muslim fervour. Certain clarifications, however, are in order before one confers validity to this conclusion. The song itself does not contain a single syllable that is derogatory to Muslims or Islam. 

To be precise, the words Islam and Muslim do not figure in the text at all.

Vande Mataram’s culpability stems not from its intrinsic demerits but is a notoriety extrapolated by its inclusion (the first two verses were penned years earlier) in Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s revolutionary novel Anandamath.  

Even this charge of guilt by association is a nebulous one as a careful reading of the novel indicates. Set in famine ravaged Bengal of 1770’s, the novel outlines the horrific atrocities perpetrated by the Muslim Nawab and the peasant rebellion that it sparks. The anti-Muslim sentiment voiced in the narration is an artistic depiction of robust native resistance to cruel alien subjugation and cannot be interpreted in literal terms as a Muslim-specific castigation. Firming this belief is the subsequent avatar of Vande Mataram as a rousing popular battle cry of the Indian freedom movement against British oppression.

Maulana Azad, the noted freedom fighter and Muslim scholar found nothing repulsive in singing the Vande Mataram. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who can hardly be accused of nurturing Muslim phobia were perplexed by this illogical opposition to the Vande Mataram, which was without a doubt India’s first choice for the national anthem.

In an article in Harijan dated July 1, 1939, Gandhi wrote: “…No matter what its source was and how and when it was composed, it had become a most powerful battle cry among Hindus and Musalmans of Bengal during the partition days. It was an anti-imperialist cry. As a lad, when I knew nothing of Anandamath or even Bankim, its immortal author, Vande Mataram had gripped me, and when I first heard it sung it had enthralled me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus… It stirs to its depth the patriotism of millions in and outside Bengal. Its chosen stanzas are Bengal’s gift among many others to the whole nation.”

Nehru dittoed Gandhi’s feelings with this statement made to the legislative committee of the Constituent Assembly on August 25, 1948: ''It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen as between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana. Vande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India, with a great historical tradition, and intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the position and poignancy of that struggle, but perhaps not so much the culmination of it. In regard to the national anthem tune, it was felt that the tune was more important than the words... It seemed therefore that while Vande Mataram should continue to be the national song par excellence in India, the national anthem tune should be that of Jana Gana Mana, the wording of Jana Gana Mana to be suitably altered to fit in with the existing circumstances.”

This recantation of history also serves to emphasise the accommodative approach of the Indian government. Despite finding no merit in the Muslim objection, and in an action that overruled majority opinion, the government thought it appropriate to reject Vande Mataram’s rightful claim to being the national anthem. Vande Mataram was accorded secondary status as a national song, that too in an edited form to accommodate Muslim sentiments.

Current protests not only ignore this magnanimity but also suffer from a gross factual deficiency.
With regard to paying obeisance to the motherland, Shafiqur Rahman Burq notes: “Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god." 

But again this is a subjective interpretation that not all Muslims agree upon. In November 2009 when Muslim clerics from Deoband issued a fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram, Gujarat’s first Muslim Director General of Police, S S Khandwawala  countered their stance with this riposte (Indian Express, November 15, 2009):

“I give a salaam to my mother every day before I leave home and also to my motherland...When we offer namaaz, we bow down and kiss the ground, which itself is a salute to the motherland. Religion never prevents a man from respecting his motherland….If Hindus consider land as mata (mother), then giving respect to the land is the duty of a true Muslims… not hurting the sentiments of others and respecting all religions equally is also a Muslim’s duty…”
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