Vande Mataram: In rewind mode

Print edition : December 04, 2009

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. The first two stanzas of Vande Mataram and the later stanzas belong to two different strata of his literary life.-

THE present controversy over the song Vande Mataram may be seen as a re-enactment of what happened decades earlier. At the same time, it may be worthwhile to ponder whether there is a new meaning in the battle of words that has been started against the compulsion to sing the song. It is a rerun of fragments of the political discourse of the 1930s, which has played over and again many times since then. But whether that carries a new message, in that it speaks of a fragility of confidence in the integrity of a historically evolved community identity, is an issue that should be a common concern.

To set the record straight, the issue of compulsion was settled about 70 years ago, during 1937-39. Mohammed Ali Jinnah purportedly gave vent to the anxiety of the Muslim community, that its members would be compelled to sing Vande Mataram. At a time when the nationalist leadership or the Indian National Congress did not have much power to compel, how genuine this anxiety was is a matter of debate. However, Jinnah put this point at the top of his agenda in his talks with Jawaharlal Nehru; among the Quaid-e-Azam papers, now in Pakistan, his discussion notes of February 1, 1938, bear this out: Vande Mataram must go.

On March 1, 1938, in an article in The New Times of Lahore, Jinnah stated: Muslims all over [India] have refused to accept Vande Mataram or any expurgated edition of the anti-Muslim song as a binding national anthem. On April 16, 1938, in his presidential address at the special session of the All India Muslim League in Calcutta, he focussed attention on the charge that the Indian National Congress endeavoured to impose the Vande Mataram song in the legislatures. In his presidential address at the Sind Provincial Muslim League Conference, Jinnah reiterated the charge as indeed he did on many other occasions.

While one must acknowledge the build-up of considerable opposition to a song thus targeted by Jinnah, one must not forget the other side of the story. Although Vande Mataram, as a song and as a slogan, had been a part of the freedom struggle since the Swadeshi movement of 1905, there were doubts in Congress circles about its acceptability as a whole. The expurgated edition of the song, which Jinnah refers to in his article, was the outcome of these doubts.

A part of the song was indeed dropped by the Congress from the officially accepted version, by a resolution of the Congress Working Committee in October 1937.

This was the part against which Muslim sentiment was strong. Further, the Congress addressed the issue of compulsion with a series of steps leading to the resolution drafted by Mahatma Gandhi himself in January 1939. The resolution was of vital importance in guiding the party as well as, in the long run, the Constituent Assembly in its decision to designate Vande Mataram as the national song, while Jana-gana-mana was given the status of the national anthem. It is evident from the draft resolution that Gandhi wrote with great caution and circumspection, and he wrote on top: Strictly Confidential: Not for Publication.

The resolution said: 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 objection could be taken on religious and other grounds. But except at purely Congress gatherings it should be left open to individuals whether they will stand up when the stanzas are sung. In the present state of things, in Local Board and Assembly meetings, which their members are obliged to attend, the singing of Vande Mataram should be discontinued.

There were some dissenting voices in the Congress. C. Rajagopalachari thought that such a concession will not save the situation (Rajagopalachari to Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, January 7, 1939), and even G.B. Pant was quite lukewarm about the idea (Pant to Nehru, January 8, 1939). Nevertheless, Gandhi and, by and large, the top leadership of the Congress regarded the measure as essential. The main idea was to decisively remove any apprehension of compulsion. It was nevertheless a decision that went against the grain of Gandhis cast of mind, and he wrote a sort of apologia in Harijan (July 1, 1939): now we have fallen on evil days. I will not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a mixed gathering. It will never suffer from disuse. It is enthroned in the hearts of millions.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (sixth from left) with Muslim leaders at a conference in Bombay. On April 16, 1938, Jinnah, while addressing a special session of the All India Muslim League in Calcutta, focussed attention on the charge that the Indian National Congress endeavoured to impose the Vande Mataram song in the legislatures.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Of these two policy decisions, that of October 1937 on expurgating the song and that of January 1939 recognising freedom from any compulsory participation in events where the song was sung, the first one caused agonising moments to the national leaders for it was the first time that they faced the task of reappraisal of a song sanctified by its historical associations. Thereby hangs a tale, which has as its protagonists not only Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Subhas Chandra Bose and others in political decision-making but also Rabindranath Tagore.

Nehru was one of those Congress members who were not familiar with the song in fact as late as October 20, 1937, he wrote, I do not understand it without the help of a dictionary, but he had managed to get an English translation. He read for the first time Bankim Chandra Chatterjees novel in which the song features only six days before the Working Committee meeting to decide the fate of the song. There were others among his peers who had a strong attachment to it. Congress members noted that Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad concluded their address as Congress presidents, in 1931 and 1934, with the Vande Mataram slogan; Nehru did not in 1929 and 1936. Thus, there was a difference in attitude within the leadership.

Dropping any part of the song was not an easy task. (The same difference probably persisted until the Constituent Assembly passed its resolution making Jana-gana-mana, not Vande Mataram, the national anthem. Since it was moved from the Chair by Rajendra Prasad, it was neither discussed nor put to vote and that conveniently put a stop to the controversy on the songs status.)

The problem due to differences within Congress was exacerbated by two factors. The Hindu Mahasabha organised a Vanda Mataram day in Pune and Bombay in October 1937, and elsewhere on other occasions, the party spokesmen began to urge the adoption of that song as the national anthem. Subhas Chandra Bose, in the meanwhile, was up in arms in favour of Vande Mataram. Nehrus response to him was that considering that there was an outcry against the song and people who have been communistically inclined were watching the Congress actions in this regard, the Congress must meet real grievances where they exist, without pandering to communalism (Nehru to Bose, October 20, 1937).

Nehru sought a way out of the situation by appealing to Tagore, who delivered a judgment that ultimately decided the issue for the Congress. Tagores reply was complex since he squarely faced the dilemma of reconciling loyalty to literary sensibility with political expediency.

The basic advice he offered was as follows: The first two stanzas of the song were unexceptionable. As regards the rest of the song, there could be objections from those with monotheistic ideals, and these stanzas could be dissociated from the first two. His advice was that while the song taken as a whole might wound Muslim susceptibilities, delinked from the rest of the lyric the first two stanzas might be accepted since they appeal to everyone on account of the spirit of tenderness and devotion expressed.

In his letter to Nehru (October 26, 1937), Tagore also mentioned that he was the first person to sing it at a session of the Indian National Congress, presumably the session in 1896 in Calcutta.

Recent research has established that Vande Mataram was indeed written in two distinctly different parts, and at different times. When Bankim Chandra wrote the first two stanzas sometime around 1872, it was just a beautiful hymn, the classical vandana in Sanskrit, to the motherland, richly watered, richly fruited, dark with the crops of the harvest, sweet of laughter, sweet of speech, the giver of bliss.

For several years, these first two stanzas remained unpublished. In 1881, this poem was included by Bankim Chandra in the novel Anandamath, and then it was expanded to endow the motherland with militant religious symbolism as the context of the narrative demanded. There now emerged a new icon of the motherland, terrible with the clamour of seventy million throats, likened to Durga holding ten weapons of war. The first two stanzas and the later stanzas belong to two different strata of Bankim Chandras literary life. Thus, the two parts of the song can be justifiably separated. However, when the decision was made to drop the latter part of the song, these facts were not known to the decision-makers.

Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at a reception given by Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan. Tagore, at Jawaharlal Nehru`s behest, delivered a judgment on the Vande Mataram situation that ultimately decided the issue for the Congress.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

On the lines of Tagores advice, the Congress Working Committee passed the resolution mentioned earlier. The committee recognises the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song. The committee accepted only the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram and not the other stanzas.

Most important was the degree of freedom conceded in the resolution: The committee recommends that wherever Vande 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 Vande Mataram song.

The attempts to eliminate the element of compulsion are beyond question, but that did not satisfy the songs opponents. Jinnah continued with his tirades. The political appropriation or conspicuous rejection of cultural symbols and artefacts was part of the identity assertion that a political agenda demanded. There were a number of Muslim intellectuals and public spokespersons who accepted the song, specially the amended version that the Congress adopted. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, for instance, considered the attitude of Jinnah as only a subterfuge. He pointed out that for years the song was sung at the beginning of Congress sessions and no objections were raised by Muslim members including Jinnah (Kidwais press statement, The Pioneer, October 19, 1937).

Likewise, Dr Syed Mahmood of the Bihar Legislative Assembly or Professor Reza-ul Karim in Bengal were not persuaded by Jinnahs arguments about the song. At the same time, there was undoubtedly a widely shared discomfort with the song in Muslim political circles in these provinces as well as Sind, Madras and Bombay. Jinnah gave voice to it stridently, but it was not entirely his creation.

Today, when there are reassertions of old charges and re-enactments of old battles, it is encouraging to see how many Muslim intellectuals and public persons have reacted. Of the many enlightened reactions, perhaps, the most delightful for its directness is that of the poet Javed Akhtar. He reportedly said: What is this new resistance? The objection is redundant. You dont want to sing Vande Mataram, dont. Who is forcing you? I sing it. I dont see it as objectionable. If you do, dont sing it.

However, perhaps there is an inadequacy and a probably widespread intellectual tendency to say that at the root of it there is ignorance about the battles that are over. It is not enough to say that. What makes uninformed conceptions acceptable to a number of people? It is not enough to say that the misconception originated among a section of clerics; some of them may be plebeians among the intellectuals, but there are also intellectuals among the plebeians. They exercise great influence and merit attention.

And finally, if there is a generalised perception of a threat to cultural identity, even if it is based on wrong premises, it needs to be studied and addressed. In these few pages an attempt has been made to put the record straight in terms of history, but one has to think of tasks beyond that.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, formerly Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, is Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research. The views expressed in this essay are entirely personal.

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