The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The history of a sectarian war cry

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s first publication in 1856, when he was barely eighteen, was a slim volume consisting of both prose and poetry. Twenty years later, he published a volume exclusively of verse. He gradually moved away and concentrated on works of fiction. That marked the beginning, really and truly, of modern Bengali literature.

The urge for poetry in him however refused to die down altogether. In some of his novels, he inserted songs of his own composition — a few in Sanskrit, others in Vrajabuli or Bengali — for either creating a mood or emphasizing a theme. The number of such songs hardly exceed a dozen. It was one such song, Vandemataram, occurring in the novel, Anandamath, published in 1882, which has been the cause of emotional frenzy across the nation in the course of the next century and a quarter. A remarkable thing about the song is the hybrid nature of its composition. Of the 26 lines in it, 20 are in elegant, grammatically taut Sanskrit; the other six though are in Bengali.

This linguistic juxtaposition is unique not only in Bankim’s works, but also in the entire corpus of Bengali literature. Rabindranath Tagore composed close to 3,000 songs, and poems at least ten times that number. Notwithstanding the heavy weightage given to tatsama words — pure derivatives from Sanskrit — in most of his compositions, they remain quintessentially Bengali in both form and flavour. Bhanusimher Padavali is an exception, but, again, it is in pure Vrajabuli, not characterized by the linguistic heterogeneity of Bankim’s Vandemataram. The mixture of languages does not detract as such from the grandeur of Vandemataram. It is, nonetheless, somewhat strange that there is no reference to this aspect of the composition in the thousands of discussion that have taken place on or about it.

What is of much greater significance, the mother hailed with such fervour in Vandemataram is, without a shred of doubt, not Mother India, but Mother Bengal. Consider, for instance, the 8th, 9th and 10th lines in the song: “saptakotikantha-kala-kala-ninadakarale,/ dvisaptakotibhujairdhritakhrakalabale/ abala kano ma at bale”. A rough translation would be: “seven crore voices roar their oath to you, seven crore pairs of arms with raised swords keep vigil for you, why should then one dare to call you powerless'” The population of Bharat, that is India, was surely a goodly number more than seven crore circa the 1880s, despite heinous oppression by foreign rulers, including denial of food to their subjects.

According to the census, organized in 1881, it was actually the number of Bengali-speaking people in the then Bengal Presidency (consisting of Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa) which was in the neighbourhood of seven crore. Bankim’s concept of ‘nation’ and ‘nationhood’ was a wee bit wobbly. Scan his works; he uses the expression ‘nation’ in a loose-limbed manner: Indians constitute a nation, the Muslims are a nation, the Bengalis too make up a nation, so too the Mundas, the Kols or the Arakanese. The reference to seven crore voices and twice that number of hands with swords thrust in the air clinches the issue as far as the intent of Vandemataram is concerned. The mother being hailed is Mother Bengal; the song reflects Bengali nationalism in full flow. The babble of seven crore Bengali voices praising the motherland is altogether believable; the far-fetchedness of the other proposition — seven crore Bengalis all jumping about with naked swords in their hands to defend the mother — is again a prize example of Bengali hyperbole.

The early nationalists who latched on to the song and wanted to project it as India’s national anthem were not unaware of the restricted horizon Bankim had in mind. An embarrassment was involved in the assumption that the song as originally written was not a hosanna to Mother India. In the first decade of the 20th century, leaders of the Indian National Congress were advised by some zealots to do a smart piece of editing: just cross out the reference to “seven crore” and substitute it with “thirty crore” (trimsa koti) and, similarly, replace “twice seven crore of arms” by “twice thirty crore” (dwitrimsa koti).

The debate will persist on whether such substitution was a proper thing to do and an impurity was not involved in choosing a song to bring the nation together, a composition that was not written for that purpose and had relevance for only one segment of the nation. In contrast, the song finally chosen in post-independent India as the national anthem, Tagore’s Janaganamana adhinayaka, has no ambiguity about it, it invokes the glory of India, the India consisting as much of Punjab, Sindhu, Gujarat and Maratha, as of Dravida, Utkal, Banga, as much of Ganga-Yamuna as of Vindhya-Himachal.

That apart, is there much point in retreading the ground gone over already as early as in 1937' Jawaharlal Nehru, as president of the Indian National Congress, had then sought the view of Tagore on the advisability of adopting Vande- mataram as the national song in the context of objections raised by leaders of the Muslim community. While responding to Nehru’s query, Tagore sympathized, unequivocally, with the reservations expressed by the Muslim leadership; as a non- believer in idol worship, he said, he always felt some discomfort with the lines 18 to 21 in the text of Vandemataram: “tomari pratima gadi mandire mandire./ twam hi durga dashapraharanadharini/ kamala kamala-dalabiharini/ vani vidyadayini namami twam” (“We build your image in temple after temple; you are Durga holding a weapon in each of your ten hands, you are Goddess Lakshmi floating in the lotus lake, you are Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, we bow to you”).

Seven decades have elapsed since this correspondence between Nehru and Tagore; the relevant facts, however, remain unaltered. Those who do not believe in the worship of idols have every right to record their conscientious objection if asked to sing the song.

Nor is it possible to sidestep the other crucial issue: Vandemataram cannot be detached from Anandamath. The song is integrally linked to the novel; it cannot be considered without taking into account the central message the novel conveys. Bankim was one of the greatest writers this country has produced. His Bengali prose has an incomparable majesty. He deserves all the homage the nation is capable of offering to a writer of his stature. Even so, how does one tear oneself away from the horridness of the last chapter of Anandamath, where the messiah-like character commands the crusading sannyasi, Satyananda Thakur, along the following lines: “Do lay down you arms. Your deed is done, the musalman rule has been crushed. There is no particular hurry to establish a Hindu raj immediately; that task could wait. It is a good thing the British have taken over; the Enlightenment their rule would bring is bound to transcend us to a state of beatitude which in turn would assist us usher in the sanatan Hindu dharma”'

Indians will have to make up their mind. A song associated with a novel whose central message is so frighteningly obscurantist is ill suited to unite a nation that professes to take pride in its diversity. It was, therefore, plain silly on the part of the ministry of human resource development to issue the kind of circular it did, which has been responsible for exhuming a long-buried controversy.

This is not to dispute the fact that Vandemataram as an invocatory slogan did lift hundreds of thousands of our countrymen to the zenith of patriotic ardour during the freedom movement: it had a tremendous relevance in that phase. Unfortunately, sections of the Hindu community debased its sanctity by using Vandemataram as a sectarian war cry from the late Twenties onwards to counter the Muslim orison of Allah-ho-Akbar during the communal riots in different parts of the country. What was once deployed to divide the nation cannot possibly unify it.

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