Vande Mataram: Text in Context

Vande Mataram has now emerged as the battle cry of militant Hindutva as the Sangh Parivar discards all veneer of a pluralistic ethos in the nation’s cultural life.

Published : Aug 29, 2018 12:30 IST

Amit Shah delivering his lecture on Bankimchandra in Kolkata in June. Blaming the Congress for Partition, he said that the decision to truncate the song Vande Mataram led to the division of the country in 1947.

Amit Shah delivering his lecture on Bankimchandra in Kolkata in June. Blaming the Congress for Partition, he said that the decision to truncate the song Vande Mataram led to the division of the country in 1947.

Vande M ataram began as the song of Hindu revivalists in the 19th century, went through a phase of its acceptance as a slogan by Maulanas Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali during Gandhi’s opportunistic alliance with them in the destructive Khilafat movement, and has now emerged, shorn of all gloss, as the battle cry of Hindutva.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) boss Mohan Bhagwat’s reply to a question soliciting his view on the issue reveals its true significance: “What is the Sangh’s view? A (Thumps the table) Vande Mataram Kehna hoga (Everyone in India will have to say Vande Mataram)”)(India Today; 4 November 2009). The river of madness was in full flood. Sample this from the same interview: “Pakistan and Afghanistan are a part of us and will return one day”; and this: “India’s unity and integrity is [ sic. ] non-negotiable. So is the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and a Uniform Civil Code.” The Supreme Court is toiling in vain. The Sangh Parivar confidently banks on a favourable judgment before the 2019 election. It will never submit to an unfavourable judgment, having declared umpteen times, consistently in the last 30 years, that it is not a matter for the courts to decide.

When told that Muslims consider Vande Mataram to be “against their religion”, he arrogantly replied: “I don’t think any religion is against desh bhakti [patriotism]. To say Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram is not like a religious puja or idol worship.” In truth, it is both. Bhagwat is either ignorant or intentionally false.

Bankimchandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) was highly influential. His poem “Bande Mataram” was composed as a song in 1875 and inserted in his novel Anandamath , which was first published in 1882, on its completion. It begins in Sanskrit, turns into Bengali and returns to Sanskrit. The “Motherland” was identified with Hindu religious deities, first, with Durga, the demon-slaying goddess, only to be transformed into the image of Kali, an angry and destructive force.

Who is this Mother whom the country was fighting for? The song, read in context, in the novel, provides the answer. It reads thus:


MOTHER, I bow to thee!

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

Bright with thy orchard gleams,

Cool with the 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.

Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands,

When the swords flash out in seventy million hands,

And seventy million voices roar

Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?

With many strengths who art mighty and strong.

To thee I call, Mother and Lord!

(Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Anandmath . An English translation by Aurobindo Ghose).

Thou who saves, arise and save!

To her I cry who ever her foemen drave

Back from plain and sea

And shook herself free.

Thou art wisdom, thou art law,

Thou art heart, our soul, our breath,

Thou the love divine, the awe

In our hearts that conquers death.

Thine the strength that nerves the arm,

Thine the beauty, thine the charm,

Every image divine,

In our temples is but shine.

Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,

With her hands that strike and her swords of sheen.

Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned

And the Muse, a hundred-toned.

Pure and perfect without peer

Mother, lend thine ear.

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

Bright with thy orchard gleams,

Dark of hue, O candid fair,

In thy soul, with jewelled hair

And thy glorious smile divine,

Loveliest of all Earthly lands,

Showering wealth from well-stored hands

Mother, Mother mine!

Mother sweet, I bow to thee

Mother great and free!

( Anandmath , Part IV, chapter 8. An English translation by T.W. Clark).

The context of this extract is that Satyananda, the leader of a band of sanyasis, had just won a victory over Muslim forces and their British officers . To him came a figure who spoke with the voice of God, instructing him to cease fighting.

“Satyananda . Come; I’m ready. But, my lord, clear up this doubt in my mind. Why at the very moment in which i have removed all barriers from before our eternal Faith, do you order me to cease?

He . Your task is accomplished. The Muslim power is destroyed. There is nothing else for you to do. No good can come of needless slaughter .

S . The Muslim power has, indeed, been destroyed, but the dominion of the Hindus has not yet been established. The British still hold Calcutta.

He . Hindu dominion will not be established now. If you remain at your work, men will be killed to no purpose. Therefore come.

S . (greatly pained). My Lord, if Hindu dominion is not going to be established, who will rule? Will the Muslim kings return?

He . No. The English will rule ....

He . Your vow is fulfilled. You have brought fortune to your mother. You have set up a British government . Give up your fighting. Let the people take to their ploughs. Let the earth be rich with harvest and the people rich with wealth.

S . (weeping hot tears). I will make my mother rich with harvest in the blood of her foes.

He . Who is the foe? There are no foes now. The English are friends as well as rulers . And no one can defeat them in battle.” (C.H. Philips with the cooperation of H.L. Singh and B.N. Pandey; The Evolution of India and Pakistan , 1858 to 1947: Select Documents; Oxford University Press; 1962; pages 117-120). The novel was not anti-British. It was anti-Muslim. So, was the song Vande Mataram .

In an erudite essay entitled “Imagining Hindu Rashtra: The Hindu and the Muslim in Bankim Chandra’s Writings”, Tanika Sarkar concluded: “Bankim bequeathed a set of historical judgments on the nature and consequences of Muslim rule in Bengal: ‘How does our Muslim ruler protect us? We have lost our religion, our caste, our honour and family name, and now we are about to lose our very lives. ... How can Hinduism survive unless we drive out these dissolute swine?’ ( Anandamath , Bankim 1:727).

These ideological moves do not need proper historical authentication since they are posed in a fictional space; the pseudo-historical comments, however, carry an immense weight of conviction, nonetheless, particularly since Bankim was known for a highly historicist thrust in his discursive prose. They are, therefore, insidiously authenticated, and then they justify political rallying cries of extreme virulence: ‘Kill the low Muslims’ (Bankim 1:784) is the refrain that is repetitively raised inAnandamath . Even though Bankim never made use of the recent theories of the colonial drain of wealth, he used the same motif to describe the flight of money from Bengal to Delhi in the form of a heavy revenue burden in Mughal times (“Bangalar itihass,” Vividha Prabandha, Bankim 2:332).

“Perhaps the most significant way in which Bankim served as a bridge between nineteenth century Hindu revivalism and the later, anti- Muslim, violent politics was by providing an immensely powerful visual image of communal violence and by giving it the status of an apocalyptic holy war. He stamped the image indelibly on the imagination of communal politics by fusing the impulse of community violence and revenge with the spectacle of a famine body.

“In his last novel, Sitaram, Gangaram , the brother of the heroine, Shree, is unjustly charged and sentenced to execution by a tyrannical Muslim faqir (holy man) and a qazi (judge). Unable to stop this mockery of justice, Shree goes to the place of execution, where a big crowd, including many Hindus, has gathered to watch the event. In despair, Shree tries to rally them to save a fellow Hindu, to instil a sense of brotherhood and mutual responsibility by evoking the fact that a man of their community is being killed by another community. Shree does not invoke the theme of justice, nor does she try to rally subjects against tyranny and misrule. Quite spontaneously the words that rise to her mouth are words of community solidarity and violence.

“Then Gangaram saw a goddess like figure among the green leaves of the huge tree. Her feet resting on two branches, the right hand clutching a tender branch, the left hand swirling her sari, she was calling out: “Kill, kill. ...” Her long, unbound tresses were dancing in the wind; her proud feet were swinging the branches up and down, up and down, as if Durga herself was dancing on the lion on the battlefield. Shree had no more shame left, no consciousness, no fear, no rest. She kept calling out – ‘Kill, kill the enemy ... The enemy of the country, the enemy of Hindus, my enemy ... kill, kill the enemy.’ ( Sitaram , Bankim 1:881).” (David Ludden edited, Making India Hindu , Oxford University Press; 1996; page180).

In Autobiography of an Unknown Indian , Nirad C. Chaudhuri has aptly described the atmosphere of the times in which the song was written. “The historical romances of Bankim Chatterjee and Ramesh Chandra Dutt glorified Hindu rebellion against Muslim rule and showed the Muslims in a correspondingly poor light. Chatterjee was positively and fiercely anti-Muslim. We were eager readers of these romances and we readily absorbed their spirit.”

R.C. Majumdar, the veteran historian, recorded: “During the long and arduous struggle for freedom from 1905 to 1947 ‘Bande Mataram’ was the rallying cry of the patriotic sons of India, and thousands of them succumbed to the lathi blow of the British police or mounted the scaffold with ‘Bande Mataram’ on their lips. The main theme of the novel inspired the Bengali youths to supreme self-sacrifice during the hectic days of the Swadeshi movement. The central plot moves round a band of sanyasis, called santana s or children, who left their hearth and home and dedicated their lives to the cause of their motherland. They worshipped their motherland as the Goddess Kali ; they knew no other deity save the land of their birth, and no other religion except the service of their motherland. That is why they called themselves santana s or children (of the mother). In their temple they placed three images of the Goddess Kali representing the motherland – Mother that was, great and glorious in her majestic grandeur; mother that is, wretched and grovelling in the dust; and Mother that will be, in her pristine glory.

“No other Bengali book – or, for the matter of that, no book written in any language – so profoundly moved the Bengali youths save perhaps Saratchandra’s Pather Dabi , written half a century later. The later novel was an emotional protest against the British rule, as the earlier one was, at least ostensibly, against the Muslim rule . This aspect of the ‘Ananda Math’ and the imagery of Goddess Kali leave no doubt that Bankimchandra’s nationalism was Hindu rather than Indian . This is made crystal clear from his other writings which contain passionate outbursts against the subjugation of India by the Muslims. From that day set the sun of our glory – that is the refrain of his essays and novels which not unoften contain adverse, and sometimes even irreverent, remarks against the Muslims” (emphasis added). Majumdar pithily put it, “Bankimchandra converted patriotism into religion and religion into patriotism.”

Anti-Muslim references are spread all over the work since the central theme was anti-Muslim. References of a most intemperate and, indeed, vituperative character abound. Jivananda, with sword in hand, at the gate of the temple, exhorts the children of Kali: ‘We have often thought to break up this bird’s nest of Muslim rule, to pull down the city of the renegades and throw it into the river – to turn earth free from evil again. Friends, that day has come.’

“Written as a story set in the period of the dissolution of the Moghul Empire, the hero of the novel, Bhavananda, is planning an armed rising against the Muslims of Bengal. While busy recruiting, he meets Mahendra and sings the song ‘Bande Mataram’ or ‘Hail Mother’. The latter asks him the meaning of the words and Bhavananda, making a spirited answer, concludes with: ‘our religion is gone, our caste is gone, our honour is gone. Can the Hindus preserve their Hinduism unless these drunken Nereys (a term of contempt for Muslims) are driven away?’ ... Mahendra, however, not convinced, expresses reluctance to join the rebellion. He is, therefore, taken to the temple of Ananda Math and shown a huge image of four-armed Vishnu, with two decapitated and bloody heads in front. ‘Do you know who she is?’ asks the priest in charge, pointing to an image on the lap of Vishnu, ‘She is the Mother. We are her children, Say ‘Bande Mataram’. He is taken to the image of Kali and then to that of Durga. On each occasion he is asked to recite ‘Bande Mataram’. In another scene in the novel some shouted ‘kill, kill the Nereys’. Others shouted ‘Bande Mataram’, ‘will the day come when we shall break mosques and build temples on their sites?’”

Muslims’ objection

The context only makes it worse. “The land of Bengal, and by extension all of India, became identified with the female aspect of Hindu deity, and the result was a concept of divine Motherland.” How secular is such a song? It is not the mere gesture of bowing but the bowing to this form of divinity which Muslims have found objectionable. Protest was voiced fairly early in the day and on the unexceptionable ground that it was sectarian and not national.

The protest was expressed with such cogency and restraint that it bears recalling in extenso . In his presidential address to the second Session of the All-India Muslim League held at Amritsar on December 30, 1908, Syed Ali Imam, a great judge, said: “I cannot say what you think, but when I find the most advanced province of India put forward the sectarian cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ as the national cry, and the sectarian Rakhi-bandhan as a national observance, my heart is filled with despair and disappointment; and the suspicion that, under the cloak of nationalism, Hindu nationalism is preached in India becomes a conviction . Has the experiment tried by Akbar and Aurangzeb failed again? Has 50 years of the peaceful spread of English education given the country only a revival of denominationalism?

“Gentlemen, do not misunderstand me. I believe that the establishment of conferences, associations and corporate bodies in different communities on denominational lines are necessary to give expression to denominational views, so that the builders of a truly national life in the country may have before them the crystallised needs and aspirations of all sects. In this connection, every lover of India will welcome such institutions as Kayastha Conference, Mohammedan anjumans and conferences, the association of the domiciled community, and all such denominational institutions. Such activities help to bring into focus the thoughts of all sections of the population of India. Regard for the feelings and sentiments, needs and requirement of all is the key-note to true Indian nationalism. It is more imperative where the susceptibilities of the two great communities, Hindus and Musalmans, are involved.

“Unreconciled, one will be as great a drag on the wheel of national progress as the other. I ask the architects of Indian nationalism, both in Calcutta and Poona, do they expect the Musalmans of India to accept ‘Bande Mataram’ and the Sivaji Celebration? The Mohammedans may be weak in anything you please, but they are not weak in cherishing their traditions of their glorious past. I pray the Congress leaders to put before the country such a programme of political advancement as does not demand the sacrifice of the feelings of the Hindu or the Mohammedan, the Parsee or the Christian.”

In 1937, when Congress Ministries came into being in many provinces, and “Bande Mataram” began to be sung in the legislatures, the Muslim League strongly objected to it. A resolution adopted by the 25th Session of the League at Lucknow, in October 1937, dubbed it as “not merely positively anti-Islamic and idolatrous in its inspiration and ideas, but definitely subversive of the growth of genuine nationalism in India ”. The League still believed in Indian nationalism. Before long it was to discard belief in Indian nationalism.

Congress’ statements

The Congress took note of the League’s objection and tried to meet it halfway. The Congress Working Committee, which met in Calcutta on October 26, 1937, under the presidentship of Nehru, adopted a long statement on the subject. It asked that the song should “be considered apart from the book”. Recalling its use in the past 30 years, the resolution said: “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 other stanzas of the song are little known and hardly every 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 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.” A song which requires surgery cannot become a national anthem.

The Government of India acquired this emotion-charged legacy. Its stand was defined in a statement by Prime Minister Nehru to the Constituent Assembly (Legislative) on August 25, 1948: “The question of having a national anthem tune to be played by orchestras and bands became an urgent one for us immediately after the 15th August 1947. It was as important as that of having a national flag. The ‘Jana Gana Mana’ tune, slightly varied, had been adopted as a national anthem by the Indian National Army in South-East Asia, and had subsequently attained a degree of popularity in India also. ... The matter came to a head on the occasion of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1947 in New York. Our delegation was asked for our national anthem for the orchestra to play on a particular occasion. The delegation possessed a record of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and they gave this to the orchestra who practised it. When they played it before a large gathering it was very greatly appreciated, and representatives of many nations asked for a musical score of this new tune which struck them as distinctive and dignified. The orchestral rendering of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was recorded and sent to India....

“Apart from the general appreciation with which this tune was received, there was at the time not much choice for us, as there was no proper musical rendering available to us of any other national song which we could send abroad. At that stage, I wrote to all the provincial Governors and asked their views about our adopting ‘Jana Gana Mana’, or any other song as the national anthem. I asked them to consult their premiers before replying. ... Every one of these Governors, except one, (the Governor of the Central Provinces), signified their approval of ‘Jana Gana Mana’. Thereupon the Cabinet considered the matter and came to the decision that provisionally ‘Jana Gana Mana’ should be used as the tune for the national anthem, till such time as the Constituent Assembly came to a final decision. Instructions were issued accordingly to the provincial governments. It was very clear that the wording of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was not wholly appropriate and some change would be necessary. What was important was the tune to be played by bands and orchestras, and not wording. Subsequently, the new Premier of West Bengal informed us that he and his government preferred ‘Vande Mataram’.

“That is the position at present. 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 time 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.

“The question has to be considered by the Constituent Assembly, and it is open to that Assembly to decide as it chooses. It may decide on a completely new song or tune, if such is available.”

A more definitive statement was made by the President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, on January 24, 1950. He said: “There is one matter which has been pending for discussion, namely, the question of the national anthem. At one time it was thought that the matter might be brought up before the House and a decision taken by the House by way of a resolution. But it has been felt that, instead of taking a formal decision by means of a resolution, it is better if I make a statement with regard to the national anthem. Accordingly, I make this statement. ... The composition consisting of the words and music known as ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is the national anthem of India, subject to such alterations in the words 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. (Applause.) I hope this will satisfy the Members.”

In the 80 years since the Congress’ surgery and 70 years since the Constituent Assembly’s decision, the Sangh Parivar has discarded any veneer of secular nationalism, fraudulent as it was. We are now left with three stark realities. 1. Anandmath and “Vande Matram” were deeply religious. 2. Both were viciously, explicitly anti-Muslim. 3. The Muslims of India cannot accept “Vande Mataram” without losing all self-respect.

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