A controversial song

Print edition : January 02, 1999

The controversy surrounding the Vande Mataram issue began in the pre-Independence period. The Congress Working Committee, which met in Calcutta on October 26, 1937, under the presidentship of Jawaharlal Nehru, adopted a statement on the subject. The following is the text of the statement:

A CONTROVERSY having recently arisen about the Bande Mataram song, the Working Committee desire to explain the significance of this song. This song appears in Bankim Chandra Chatterji's novel Anandamatha but it has been pointed out in his biography, that the song was written independently of, and long before, the novel, and was subsequently incorporated in it. The song should thus be considered apart from the book. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896. The song and the words "Bande Mataram" were considered seditious by the British Government and were sought to be suppressed by violence and intimidation. At a famous session of the Bengal Provincial Conference held in Barisal in April 1906, under the presidentship of Shri A. Rasul, a brutal lathi charge was made by the police on the delegates and volunteers and the "Bande Mataram" badges worn by them were violently torn off. Some delegates were beaten so severely as they cried "Bande Mataram" that they fell down senseless. Since then, during the past thirty years, innumerable instances of sacrifice and suffering all over the country have been associated with "Bande Mataram" and men and women have not hesitated to face death even with that cry on their lips. The song and the words thus became symbols of national resistance to British Imperialism in Bengal especially, and generally in other parts of India. The words "Bande Mataram" became a slogan of power which inspired our people, and a greeting which ever reminds us of our struggle for national freedom.

Gradually the use of the first two stanzas of the song spread to other provinces and a certain national significance began to attach to them. The rest of the song was very seldom used and is even now known by few persons. These two stanzas described in tender language the beauty of motherland and the abundance of her gifts. There was absolutely nothing in them to which objection could be from the religious or any other point of view. The song was never sung as challenge to any group or community in India and was never considered as such or as offending the sentiments of any community. Indeed the reference in it to thirty crores of Indians makes it clear that it was meant to apply to all the people of India. At no time, however, was this song, or any other song formally adopted by the Congress as the National Anthem of India. But popular usage gave it a special and national importance.

The Working Committee feel that past associations, with their long record of suffering for the cause, as well as popular usage, have made the first two stanzas of this song a living and inseparable part of our national movement and as such they must command our affection and respect. There is nothing in the stanzas to which anyone can take exception. The other stanzas of the song are little known and hardly ever sung. They contain certain allusions and a religious ideology which may not be in keeping with the ideology of other religious groups in India.

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 recommend 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.

But while there can be no question about the place that Bande Mataram has come to occupy in the national life, the same cannot be said as to the other songs. People have adopted songs of their choice, irrespective of merit. An authentic collection has long been felt as a desideratum. The Committee therefore appoint a sub-committee consisting of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, Shri Subhas Chandra Bose and Shri Narendra Dev, to examine all the current national songs that may be sent to it and those who are so inclined are invited to send their compositions to this sub-committee. The Committee will, out of the songs so received, submit to the Working Committee the collection that it may choose to recognise as being worthy of finding a place in a collection of national songs. Only such songs as are composed in simple Hindustani or can be adapted to it, and have a rousing and inspiring tune will be accepted by the sub-committee for examination. The sub-committee shall consult and take the advice of Poet Rabindra Nath Tagore.

The Working Committee recommend to P.C.Cs. to take steps in regard to songs in the provincial languages.

Note: In the above statement attention is drawn to the reference in the Bande Mataram song to thirty crores of Indians. It should be remembered that this figure crept in at a later stage when the song came to have a national significance. As Bankim Chandra Chatterji wrote it, the figure was seven crores. This applies to the then province of Bengal which included Behar. Even then it referred to the entire population of the province without any religious distinction.

Source: Indian Annual Register, Volume II, 1937.

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