The irony is inescapable. Last Tuesday, the country mourned the death of the nonagenarian shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan in Varanasi. The obituaries gushed over his enlightenment and his ability to combine his devotion to the goddess, Saraswati, with the faith he was born into. They recalled his performances at the Kashi Vishwanath temple and other Hindu temples and called him a personification of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzibi — a euphemism for syncretism. The Ustad, it was agreed, epitomized the civilizational values of India.
Yet, even as the tributes to this great musician were pouring in, some of the most vocal representatives of the Muslim community were raking up a hoary controversy over the singing of Vande Mataram, the mantra of the struggle for independence.
The furore was over an innocuous government circular to all educational institutions to observe September 7 — the day in 1905 the Congress session in Varanasi declared Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s patriotic hymn the national song — by singing Vande Mataram at 11 am. A section of the Muslim clergy took umbrage at the suggestion. The voluble Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid pronounced Vande Mataram to be against “Islamic beliefs”. Echoing his opposition, S.Q.R. Ilyas, the spokesman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — a body that has positioned itself as the arbiter of Muslim interests in India — ruled that “Muslims can’t sing the song”. His reason: “we love the country but don’t worship [it]. The song talks about worshipping, as in idol worship, which is against the fundamental ethos of Islam. It is a very sensitive issue for Muslims, so they can’t be asked to do this even for a single day.”
The contrast with the life and beliefs of Bismillah Khan couldn’t have been more telling or better expressed. Where the Ustad felt he could sing to Allah in raag Bhairav, the dogmatists asserted that the country could not be worshipped as the mother.
The AIMPLB spokesman and the Shahi Imam were, of course, not being strikingly original. The invocation of Vande Mataram has drawn flak from a body of Muslim opinion, right from the time it became the signature tune of Indian nationalism in 1905. As Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s monograph, Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, has documented, the Muslim objection to the “idolatrous” song became pronounced in the mid-Twenties and reached a pitch after the Congress-led provincial governments assumed office in 1937. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s handwritten agenda for his discussions with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1938 listed three points: “(1) the Muslim Mass Contact: must cease; (2) Bande Mataram: must go…(3) National flag: must go.”
Leaving aside the first demand which targeted any potential opposition to his insistence on being the sole spokesman for all Muslims in India, Jinnah was clear in his mind that the contours of independent India would be shaped by the Muslim League’s veto. By shunning both Vande Mataram and the tricolour, both very dear to the national movement, he underlined the incompatibility of his nationhood with the dominant idea of Indian nationhood. The conflict over Vande Mataram, in other words, was symptomatic of a much larger schism which finally contributed to the Partition of 1947.
Jawaharlal Nehru, always uneasy with Vande Mataram because it “contain[ed] too many difficult words”, tried to meet Muslim separatism half-way. At his behest the Congress Working Committee in October 1937 “recognise[d] the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song” and truncated its public presentation to the first two stanzas. This failed to placate the Muslim League. Consequently, following discussions in the CWC in 1939 and Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to “not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a mixed gathering”, the Congress took the position that singing the national song would be non-obligatory. Predictably, the Congress’s accommodating gesture yielded no political dividends.
The Vande Mataram controversy was finally resolved on the final day of the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950, when Rajendra Prasad, the president of the assembly, ruled from the chair that whereas Jana-gana-mana would be the national anthem, Vande Mataram “shall be honoured equally” and “shall have equal status” with the national anthem.
It is significant that there was neither a discussion nor a vote on the subject. This lends credence to the suggestion that a free vote would probably have led to the founding fathers enshrining Vande Mataram as the national anthem. The West Bengal assembly, for example, had passed a resolution demanding that Vande Mataram be given pre-eminent status. Some Bengali nationalists even went to the extent of bolstering Vande Mataram’s credentials by setting it to martial music.
In 1950, the political climate of India was intensely hostile to any expression of Muslim separatism. In such an environment, as Muslim voters migrated en masse from the Muslim League to the Congress, the pre-1947 separatist agenda was swept under the carpet. A stray cleric may have repeated the earlier denunciations of the “idolatrous” national song but no representative Muslim body included it as part of its agenda for 59 years. This week’s AIMPLB announcement marked the resurrection of an issue that was deemed to have been settled in 1950.
What is equally significant is that the government of India has responded with the same degree of pusillanimity as did the Congress between 1937 and 1939. In suggesting that the singing of Vande Mataram is optional, the human resource development minister, Arjun Singh, was not dispelling imaginary fears of every student in India being recorded for decibel levels. He was conferring the element of choice on respecting a national symbol that has been enshrined in the Constitution. Since the national flag, national anthem and national song are on a par, the formal proclamation of boycott by the AIMPLB —a body that has been conferred de-facto status as guardians of the Islamic faith in India — is tantamount to flag burning. What is particularly ominous is that disavowing Vande Mataram has been elevated to the level of a religious obligation. In other words, the most vibrant symbol of the freedom struggle — the central pillar of contemporary nationhood — has been deemed incompatible with a religion.
The grave implications of the Vande Mataram boycott should send alarm bells ringing. Unfortunately, it has been viewed as yet another routine secularist-versus-saffron spat and a replay of the Saraswati vandana controversy under the National Democratic Alliance government. Such a wilfully complacent view ignores the political context of this act of emotional secession: the dramatic radicalization of Islam since 9/11 and the war on terror, and the disproportionate dependence of the Congress, its regional allies and the left parties on Muslim votes.
The Vande Mataram controversy is an exercise in testing the political waters. A small but determined group of theologians and separatists have taken advantage of the passivity of ordinary citizens, the unstated fear of global jihad entering India and the weakness of the Centre to literally shift the goalposts of public discourse.
In a remarkably prescient note penned in 1939, C. Rajagopalachari warned the Congress leadership that “these concessions [over Vande Mataram] will not save the situation. We may act up to this formula ourselves, but if we set them forth as concessions they will only become points for further agitation…” Today, the government has meekly acquiesced in a sectarian boycott of Vande Mataram and tomorrow religion-based quotas will make their re-entry. As for the day-after, the Student’s Islamic Movement of India has cockily informed the special tribunal adjudicating the ban on it, that it is under no obligation to participate in the singing of the national anthem.