Politics and the appropriation of history

Print edition : September 14, 2018

September 18, 1947: Mohammad Ali Jinnah during an interview in Karachi. Photo: BERT BRANDT/AFP

Bankim Chandra Chatterji. The 27 lines of “Vande Mataram” were originally two separate poems written around 1872 and 1881.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore in deep conversation on November 4, 1936, at the poet’s retreat at Bolpur. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Vande Mataram” was the subject of controversy even in the 1930s, but contrary to the claims of communal ideologues and politicians, there is no historical evidence to suggest that the Congress leadership “truncated” the poem to appease Muslim sentiments.

The appropriation of iconic figures from national history is a common form of ideological aggrandisement. Perhaps it happens more often in Bengal because there is now a tendency to dwell on the glories of the past. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is the latest victim, for he is easy game for communalist ideologues and politicians. They focus upon parts of his novel Anandamath and some of his historical novels situated in the Mughal period. Some literary critics of his times pointed to his habit of heroising Hindu characters and denigrating Muslims. Above all, politician critics believed that the song, “Vande Mataram”, which he put at the ideational core of Anandamath, iconising the country as a mother figure, alienated Muslim sentiments. From the 1930s it became a political issue in controversies involving Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and indeed the entire All India Congress Committee (AICC).

The fact that the song and Bankim’s works continue to be referred to till date—and controverted and defended—shows that his impact on our historical imagination was great. The latest instance of that is a ‘new interpretation’ of the significance and historical role of the “Vande Mataram” song.

The “new interpretation” comprises two propositions. First, it is said that the original song was “truncated” and recommended by the Congress to the Constituent Assembly as a national song. Emphasis is put on the fact that “Vande Mataram” as we know it today consists of five stanzas or 27 lines, but only the first six lines in the first two stanzas were selected by the Indian National Congress (INC) as worthy of elevation to the status of national song.

Secondly, the “new interpretation” suggests that the plot to truncate the song was driven by a political motive—the motivation of the Congress to appease Muslim sentiments. Hence, the Congress’ decision to discard the last four stanzas of the original poem containing references to Hindu images and deities. An extension of the above argument leads to the conclusion that the Partition of India was the ultimate outcome—those who divided the song eventually divided the country. This “new interpretation” made frontpage headlines in The Hindu, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Economic Times, etc., on January 28.

Let us examine these propositions. First, how far is it correct to assume that there was a truncation of the original text of the poem? Contemporary documents suggest that the original version, written probably around 1872, contained six lines in two stanzas. Later, the poem was expanded to 27 lines in six stanzas by Bankim to place the poem in the context of the novel at the time of its publication in 1881. Thus, there were two separate poems.

Another major problem with the “new interpretation” is that the scenario one would expect if indeed the Congress, in pursuit of appeasement of the Muslim leadership, had conceded on Vande Mataram; if indeed that is how we must understand the attitude of the Congress, then the action and behaviour of the two parties in contestation would have been different from what they actually were.

I looked around searching in the contemporary documents and what did I find? There is no evidence that the resolution of the INC in 1937 with respect to accepting “Vande Mataram” as a national song was in exchange of, or in the expectation of, a quid pro quo from Jinnah and other Muslim leaders. In fact, there is no evidence that the Muslim League was pleased with the decision. On the contrary, Jinnah wrote to Nehru a few months after the Congress resolution drawing attention to the fact that “Muslims all over have refused to accept the Vande Mataram or any expurgated edition of the anti-Muslim song as a binding national anthem” (Paradoxes of Partition: Documents, ed. S.A.I. Tirmizi, Delhi, 1998, hereafter cited as Documents, page 361). Needless to say, Jinnah’s term “expurgated” serves as the equivalent of the term ‘truncated’, currently in circulation in the “new interpretation”.

In April 1938, Jinnah, in his presidential speech at the Muslim League Conference in Calcutta, reiterated his opposition to “the Congress endeavour to impose the Vande Mataram song” (Documents, page 387). On October 8 that year, while speaking at the Sind Provincial Muslim League Conference, he launched another tirade against the Congress saying it had aggressively imposed on the provincial legislatures a song that was “idolatrous” in its origin and in substance “a hymn to hatred for the Musalmans” (Documents, page 482).

In the Qaid-i-Azam Papers, his private papers, there are notes which he jotted down as important points for negotiating with Nehru: the Vande Mataram issue is among the first two points for discussion towards elimination, the other point being the Muslim Mass Contact Programme of the Congress (Documents, page 326; Qaid-i-Azam Papers, F. 40/1-12). In December 1938, at the Muslim League Conference in Patna, Jinnah once again emphasised the League’s opposition to “Vande Mataram” (Jinnah’s speech, December 26, 1938, Documents, page 541). Thus, there is plenty of evidence of Jinnah’s continued opposition to the Congress agenda with respect to “Vande Mataram”.

What was “truncated”?

Next, let us look at the so-called act of “truncation”. There is undoubtedly something one cannot easily accept in the idea of cutting up a poem in the manner suggested in the “new interpretation”. However, proponents of this interpretation may consider the fact that what happened actually is a little different from what the unqualified term “truncation” suggests. It is true that in October 1937 the poem was divided into two parts (the first part, comprising six lines in two stanzas, being accepted as a national song), but the crucially important fact is that the piece of writing thus divided was actually a composite piece, the result of merging a poem written by Bankim Chandra around 1872 and another poem written by him in 1881. Thus, there were two poems to begin with, and the “truncation” or division made in 1937 separated two originally separate pieces.

What is the evidence that the poem divided in 1937 originated in the merger of two different poems written at different times? Our evidence comes from the memoirs of Bankim’s younger brother, Purna Chandra Chatterjee. He recalls that when Bankim was the editor and Purna Chandra the manager of the literary journal, Bangadarshan, one of the assistants in their office picked up the manuscript of “Vande Mataram” from Bankim’s desk and said: “This is not too bad and it will do quite well as a filler to fill up an empty page we have in the galley proofs we have for the next number.”

Bankim was not pleased with the proposal to publish “Vande Mataram” in that manner. He locked up that page in his drawer and said: “You cannot guess now if this is good or bad. Time will tell—I shall be dead by then, it is possible that you may see that day” (Purna Chandra’s memoirs in this regard are reproduced in the latest biography of Bankim Chandra, Bankim Chandra Jeebani by Amitra Sudan Bhattacharya, Calcutta, 1991, pages 331-332). There the matter ended and the poem remained in Bankim’s possession, unpublished, until Bankim returned to the theme of Vande Mataram while writing Anandamath in 1881.

We must add that the exact date of the composition of the original poem is not known. But biographies of Bankim surmise that it was certainly written around 1872, when the first census of Bengal Presidency revealed that in 1872 the population was 70 million, the number the poem mentions as “saptakoti”.

The poem was reincarnated in Anandamath and Bankim added several more stanzas. The original poem written years ago was a lyric in the tradition of “vandanas” in Sanskrit and there is a sharp stylistic contrast between that part and the addition made in 1881. Unlike the original poem, in the addition that came later there are words and verses in Bengali. Moreover, the original poem was a lyric in praise of the beauty and bounties of the motherland; the later addition was militant in spirit, which was consonant with the context of the novel in which it was now placed. Aurobindo Ghose’s translation conveys to some extent the difference between these parts of the poem. Here is his translation, published first in the journal Karma Yogin on November 20, 1909; the sequences of lines below do not exactly tally with the lines in the original Sanskrit version.

“I bow 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!”

In contrast, in the second part not included in the national song approved by the Congress in 1937 there is militant imagery and religious symbolism.

This is clear from invocations to “the Mother who has at her command seventy million people’s swords”, the mother “who drives from her the armies of her foemen”, Kamala (or the deity of wealth Lakshmi), “Durga holding her ten weapons of war”, etc., which were added in 1881 to the original lyric; Anandamath required a song with a militant spirit.

The formation of elected provincial governments under the Government of India Act, 1935, brought to the surface communal resentments hidden until then.

Circumstances in 1937

After the general elections of 1937, the Congress’ choice of Vande Mataram to be sung at all ceremonial occasions came under attack from Muslim members of provincial legislatures. This was the background to the Congress’ decision on “Vande Mataram” in October 1937 that is now being interpreted as submission to Muslim demands and “truncation” of the poem.

Those who subscribe to that view might pay attention to the Congress leaders’ justification of their position at that juncture. Former President Rajendra Prasad, an ardent admirer of the poem, wrote to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel of the objection of “some Musalmans on the ground that it is an invocation to Hindu Goddess” (Prasad to Patel, September 28, 1937, V. Chaudhury’s collection of Rajendra Prasad’s correspondence, Vol. I, page 100).

Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru exchanged letters on this issue. Nehru anticipated the charge of pandering to communalists in his private correspondence with Bose: the “present outcry against Vande Mataram”, Nehru thought, was “to a large extent a manufactured one by the communalists. At the same time there does seem some substance in it and people who were communalistically inclined have been affected by it. Whatever we do cannot be to pander to communalist feeling but to meet real grievances where they exist” (Nehru to Subhas Bose, October 20, 1937, Documents, page 264).

In this dilemma, Nehru decided to appeal to Rabindranath Tagore to give his judgement on Vande Mataram. The proponents of the ‘new interpretation’ tend to ignore Tagore’s part in this episode, but his opinion was decisive at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee in October 1937. He gave his opinion in writing and in great detail. He made basically three points:

First, he recalled the historical associations of “Vande Mataram” with phases of the national movement since 1905 and also recalled how he was “the first person to sing it” at a Congress meeting in 1896. Secondly, he thought that the context of Anandamath did influence the reception of the poem in the Muslim mind, that the poem “was liable to be interpreted in ways that might wound Muslim susceptibilities”. Thirdly, the first two stanzas of the poem were entirely unobjectionable, but he personally could not sympathise with the sentiments in the stanzas that followed.

“To me the spirit of tenderness and devotion expressed in its first portion, the emphasis it gave to beautiful and beneficent aspects of our motherland made a special appeal, so much so that I found no difficulty in dissociating it from the rest of the poem and from those portions of the book of which it is a part, with all the sentiments of which, brought up as I was in the monotheistic ideals of my father, I could have no sympathy” (Rabindranath Tagore, Letter to J.L. Nehru, President of Indian National Congress, October 26, 1937).

Tagore concluded: As far as the first two stanzas were concerned, that portion of the poem “acquired a separate individuality and an inspiring significance of its own in which I see nothing to offend any sect or community” (Tagore to Nehru, October 26, 1937, in Prabhat K. Mukhopadhyay, Rabindra Jeebanee, Vol. IV, 1994, page 110).

The Final outcome

If one accepts the “new interpretation” of the Congress position from 1937 as “appeasement” by Congress, what was the difference between that position and the opinion of Tagore? The operative part of the Congress Working Committee resolution was as follows: “The Committee recognise the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song. While the Committee have taken note of such objection insofar as it has intrinsic value, the Committee wish to point out that the modern evolution of the use of the song as part of national life is of infinitely greater importance than its setting in a historical novel before the national movement had taken shape.

“Taking all things into consideration therefore the Committee recommended that wherever the Bande Mataram is sung at national gatherings only the first two stanzas should be sung, with perfect freedom to the organisers to sing any other song of an unobjectionable character, in addition to, or in the place of, the Bande Mataram song” (”Bande Mataram song”, undated, AICC Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, file nos. 31-34 of 1937).

In the AICC Papers, preserved in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, Nehru’s handwriting can be seen in the drafts of this resolution. In the beginning of the controversy he had dithered—for instance, he wrote to the eminent Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri that on the one hand the song had become “a symbol of nationalism” but on the other hand, “the ideas it contains are out of keeping with modern notions of nationalism and progress” (Nehru to Jafri, September 1, 1937, AICC Papers, Nehru Library, file no l. 65 kw-2/1937). But there can be no doubt that the Working Committee’s decision followed Nehru’s line of thinking some weeks later, guided by Tagore’s advice.

We know that far from being satisfied with the “expurgated” or truncated song, even after the Congress resolution of October 1937, Jinnah resumed his pressure on the Congress to drop the song altogether. Thus, unseemly conflicts, demonstrations, walkouts, etc., marked meetings of legislatures, municipal bodies and others at every ceremonial recital of the song. It was an insult to the song.

Eventually, the issue needed Mahatma Gandhi’s intervention. In January 1939, Gandhi himself drafted a resolution: “As to the singing of the long-established national song, Vande Mataram, the Congress, anticipating objections, has retained as national song only those stanzas to which no possible objection could be taken on religious and other grounds. But except at purely Congress gatherings it should be left to individuals whether they will stand up when the stanzas are sung” (Documents, page 581).

It is possible that an observer may interpret this decision as appeasement to please Muslim politicians, and another observer may interpret it as Gandhi’s unwillingness to allow the song to be a pawn in politics.

The latter was the interpretation offered by Gandhi a few weeks later in an essay about that song in his journal, Harijan (July 1, 1939): “We have fallen on evil days. All that was pure gold has become base metal today. In such times it is wisdom not to market pure gold as base metal. I would not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a [politically] mixed gathering. It will never suffer from disuse. It is enthroned in the hearts of millions.”

We may also note that the new interpretation oversimplifies the situation in respect of the Congress party’s ideological orientation and the changes it underwent. The Congress in those days was not a monolith that delivered decisions as desired by leaders at the top. Not all the leaders were in complete agreement with Nehru on the issue of “Vande Mataram”.

A major dissident was C. Rajagopalachari, who wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel on January 7, 1939: “These concessions will not save the situation. We may act up to the formula ourselves, but if we set them forth as concessions they will only become points for further agitation and will make no gain for peace. On the other hand, the concessions may give rise to a weakening of Hindu psychology and produce depression all around” (C. Rajagopalachari to Vallabhbhai Patel, January 7, 1939, Documents, op.cit., page 591).

However, he eventually accepted the majority judgement. Nehru wrote by way of concluding the debate in the working committee: “The Working Committee was of opinion that we should avoid making this [Vande Mataram] a matter of controversy as far as possible” (Nehru to Gobinda Ballav Pant, January 16, 1939, Documents, page 607). This suggests that the matter was on the brink of causing a controversy in the party. There continued to prevail old loyalties and style of thinking and expression which party resolutions in 1937 could not alter. Congress members, therefore, attached significance to the fact that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1931 and Rajendra Prasad in 1934 concluded their presidential speeches with the cry “Vande Mataram”, while Jawaharlal Nehru did not in his presidential speeches in 1929 and 1936. It seems likely that this divided loyalty within the Congress party persisted until Independence and that is why, on January 24, 1950, the last day of the last session of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, in order to avoid a debate, gave a presidential decision to the Assembly that while “Jana gana mana” would be the national anthem, “Vande Mataram” “shall have equal status with it” (Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. XII, January 24, 1950, page 7).

We started with some questions about the “new interpretation” of the choice made by the Congress with respect to “Vande Mataram”: the Congress elevated to the status of “national song” only the first six lines in the first two stanzas. The fact that the rest of the poem was not so chosen is now being interpreted as part of the policy of appeasement vis-a-vis Muslim politicians.

We have argued that the proponents of this “new interpretation” should reconsider their position if they want to be faithful to history. We have looked around for evidence in contemporary news reports, private papers of leaders, and proceedings of political party meetings, in particular the AICC.

I have also drawn upon a book I wrote in 2003, called Vande Mataram: the Biography of a Song, Penguin, Primus.

We find that the attitude and behaviour of Muslim leaders, who were the supposed beneficiaries of the appeasement policy, remained unaffected by “concessions” that the Congress allegedly made. This fact casts doubt on the validity of the “new interpretation”. Nor is there any evidence in the correspondence of the Congress leaders that an effort was made to reach an understanding with the opposite side in pursuit of appeasement.

Moreover, the proponents of the “new interpretation” have ignored what the Congress leaders had to say about the reasons why they did not include all 27 lines of “Vande Mataram” (1881) in the national song. Finally, we have also provided evidence that the 27 lines were originally two separate poems written around 1872 and 1881; this fact substantially qualifies the charge of “truncation” levelled against the Congress’ decision of 1937.

Their ignorance of this fact as well as a lack of awareness of the fact that even Rabindranath Tagore’s judgement was against the acceptance of all 27 lines of the poem, and other gaps in their knowledge, account for the acceptance of the “new interpretation”. Our search for answers to the questions we began with involved recounting minute historical details. Unfortunately, the news media rarely allow such scrutiny of the evidence in detail. But the devil is in the details.