Vande Mataram: Freedom Song

All Indians are free to not sing the national song, but is it fair to extrapolate that as a community’s position?

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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The composition consisting of words and music known as Jana Gana Mana is the National Anthem of India, subject to such alterations as the Government may authorise as occasion arises, and the song Vande Mataram, which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honoured equally with Jana Gana Mana and shall have equal status with it.


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–       (Constituent Assembly of India, Vol. XII, 24-1-1950) – Rajendra Prasad

I looked at the list of the Constituent Assembly members. While presuming their religions through their names can be misleading, my rough estimate was that at least 30 of them could have been Muslims. And all of them applauded when the President of the Constituent Assembly, Dr.Rajendra Prasad made this announcement.

One of the prominent Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly was Syed Bashir Hasan Zaidi. A staunch nationalist and an ardent freedom fighter, he was especially close to the great Asaf Ali and played a stellar role in the Nawab of Rampur’s decision to accede to India; the Nawab had wanted to go with Pakistan but had to bow to Chief Minister Zaidi’s assertion.

Immediately after the debate, Zaidi had declared that he was personally wounded that Vande Mataram could not be adopted as the National Anthem as he had always felt closer to the song than he had to the Tagore composition. His words were – “By objecting to a song which was part of our nationalist psyche, we are rejecting a part of ourselves. To me, Vande Mataram would always be identified with the nationalist struggle. We had adopted this when the foreign powers were trying to impose their anthem on us. The objections by a certain section are in my view invalid as to me the term Vande suggests an expression of gratitude and Mataram is an allegory for the ultimate unselfish provider – and I see nothing in Islam which goes against it.”

Zaidi went on to become the Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University and I recall how he always used to invoke Vande Mataram in nearly all his addresses.

Despite the acceptance of this precept, the controversy surrounding Vande Mataram always raises its ugly head at sporadic intervals. The latest was the episode when Member of Parliament from Sambhal, Shafiqur Rahman Barq walked out of the Parliament when the national song was being sung. He reasoned – “Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god.”

Understandably, there has been a reaction and reportedly the Speaker of the Lok Sabha has taken strong exception to this conduct. Interestingly, the party that he belongs to – Bahujan Samaj Party, which never fails to invoke the Constituent Assembly proceedings – has in this instance not taken any position.

I would stand corrected but during primetime, only one English channel CNN-IBN bothered to bring up this issue for debate. It was moderated by Rajdeep Sardesai, and the participants were Kamal Farooqi of the Samajwadi party, Shaina NC of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Professor Pushpesh Pant from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The spat between Farooqi and Shaina was on predictable lines. Farooqi attempted to invoke his Constitutional rights as a Muslim to refuse to subscribe to what he believed was an anti-Islamic tenet, while Shaina tried hard to dismiss this as a form of pernicious votebank politics. It was left to Pushpesh Pant, a regular on Lok Sabha TV to bring some sanity to the debate. He pointed out that as a citizen our commitment to the Constitution had to override all other commitments we have – including to a particular religion. He went on to point out that subscribing to a particular religion in private space had no constitutional restrictions but when it came to the public space, we were duty-bound to observe the norms of the society we lived in and if the MP did feel that strongly, there was nothing to prevent him from leaving before the song was sung rather than resort to an egregiously insulting gesture. Farooqi, whose politics seems to revolve entirely around his religion, was distinctly uncomfortable with this position and made a pathetic spectacle.

What bothered me, though, was why was this issue wasn’t picked up energetically by other channels who are only too ready to emphasise on certain innocuous cartoons. Given the longevity of this problem, would it not be better to have it discussed fully for a lasting solution.

Before I dwell on the issue, I think it would be fair to make my position known on certain variables which may have a bearing here. First, I do not believe in the primacy of a religious identity. For decades, I have not attended any religious ceremony nor have I entered a temple or a mosque. Second, I am a firm believer in the principle of freedom of speech and expression. Earlier in Newslaundry, I have commented on the landmark Texas vs Johnson judgment in the US in which the US Supreme Court while expressing utter distaste for the principle of flag-burning ruled that it was a legitimate freedom of expression however distasteful. Justice Anthony Kennedy in this judgment went on to state, “it is important that the symbol accord protection to the person who holds it in contempt”.

For those reasons alone I would be averse to criminal prosecution of the MP despite finding his conduct completely lacking in grace and decorum. The only crime he can be legitimately charged with is contempt of the Parliament as I agree with Pushpesh Pant that there was nothing holding him back from abstaining himself from the proceedings. While the Speaker is reportedly upset, I sincerely doubt whether she would take any such step – the Congress (I) is being supported by the BSP.

To the question whether the song is actually offensive to Muslim sensitivities, as far as I am concerned, that question still remains an open one. While certain ulema have pronounced against it, others have not been able to detect any major problems especially with the first two stanzas which constitute the national song. Ashfaq Kakori was as Muslim as anyone. He was sent to the gallows at a very young age and reportedly invoked Vande Mataram a day before he died.

It is true that when one looks at the entire song and its provenance, the image of Goddess Durga automatically conjures up. But the first two stanzas were translated by Sri Aurobindo in 1909 as:

I show gratitude to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss.

Sri Aurobindo made a distinction between “vandana” and “aradhana”. To him, “vandana” was an expression of gratitude while “aradhana” is an expression of obeisance. And when one looks at the term Mother in a metaphorical sense as the ultimate provider rather than in the literal sense, there is hardly any issue worth objecting to.

I might add that apart from this prose translation, Sri Aurobindo attempted a verse translation which reads:

Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
bright with orchard gleams,
Cool with thy winds of delight,
Dark fields waving Mother of might,
Mother free.

Glory of moonlight dreams,
Over thy branches and lordly streams,
Clad in thy blossoming trees,
Mother, giver of ease
Laughing low and sweet!
Mother I kiss thy feet,
Speaker sweet and low!
Mother, to thee I bow.

Even this, to my reckoning, is innocent of any attempt to demean any particular community. In essence, I am stating that while individuals have every right to object to the national song and abstain from singing it, to extrapolate that as the community’s position would be extremely presumptuous – at least at this stage.

Ironically, if the objection is to “bowing” before everyone, I note that the offending MP is from the BSP. And I believe I am not the only one who is sceptical accepting that any member of that party can get anything done without bowing before the Supremo. In all fairness, that also applies to Samajawadi Party to which Farooqi belongs – and to the Congress (I).

Summing up I am inclined to quote what Javed Akhtar had to say when this controversy had arisen a few years ago:

“Vande Mataram of course is part of our national psyche and to me is above any religious identification. I would happily sing the entire song anywhere. But I object to being forced to sing or say anything forcibly in order to establish my credentials as a patriot to some people. If they try to force me, I would not utter a word.”

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