There are many controversies that have a habit of periodically resurfacing. One of the more interminable disputes from history that acquire contemporary political connotations is the one centred on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s iconic song, “Vande Mataram”. From the time of the movement against the Partition of Bengal in 1905, the cry of ‘Vande Mataram’ has epitomized nationalist and patriotic impulses in India. Nor did the resonance of Vande Mataram fizzle out with Independence in 1947. Even to this day, both the chant and the song distinguish different political traditions in India.
Once the exclusive monopoly of the Congress and its numerous offshoots — such as the All India Trinamul Congress in West Bengal — Vande Mataram has increasingly come to be associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its larger ideological family. Although the Congress and the AITC in West Bengal still chant Vande Mataram in their street rallies, the former has seriously limited its use in the rest of the country, a reason why the old nationalist chant — along with ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ — has come to be identified with the saffron parivar all over India. The truncated version of the song, acknowledged by the Constituent Assembly as the national song following a ruling by its chairman, Rajendra Prasad, on the final day of its deliberations, is still sung at the conclusion of each parliamentary session. However, the full version — including the contentious verses that were objected to by the pre-Independence Muslim League — still finds a place in important meetings of the BJP.
The history of Vande Mataram indicates that the political symbolism associated with it has undergone a big shift over the decades. At the time of the Swadeshi movement and the subsequent emergence of militant revolutionary nationalism in the early 20th century, Vande Mataram became the acknowledged shorthand for the demand for freedom from British rule. It epitomized both defiance of authority and the clamour for self-rule. Although initially popularized by Aurobindo Ghose and the so-called ‘extremists’ in the Congress, Vande Mataram became the bridge that linked the different strands of Indian nationalism, including the one led by Mahatma Gandhi. Vande Mataram also became an expression of insolence directed at British officials and those who were perceived as loyalists of the raj. On January 18, 1906, to cite a stray but revealing example, the Inspector of Schools in the Dacca Division instructed the Headmaster of Kishoreganj High School to order pupils in the junior classes to write “It is foolish and rude to waste time in shouting Vande Mataram” 500 times as punishment. Presumably, they had welcomed the official with this subversive chant. As for the revolutionaries convicted of carrying out violent acts of resistance, many went to the gallows defiantly chanting Vande Mataram.
It was the vocal opposition to Vande Mataram, particularly by the Muslim League from the late 1930s, that gave the chant another dimension. In spite of the attempts by a section of the Congress and the nationalist leadership to accommodate Muslim objections to its alleged idolatrous imagery, Vande Mataram retained its grass-roots appeal and, after 1940, also became synonymous with the opposition to the separatist politics of the proponents of Pakistan. This may explain why after Independence — and the Partition of India — there was a sustained effort by those who wanted to let bygones be bygones to ease Vande Mataram out of the contemporary nationalist imagination. Equally, it may also explain why the adherents of cultural nationalism with their belief in Hindutva as a binding force of Indian nationhood felt it necessary to insist on the continued relevance of Vande Mataram and the worship of Bharat Mata.
The shifting political connotation of Vande Mataram is of great contemporary relevance. It suggests that the meanings of symbols are rarely static; they are constantly moulded and re-moulded to correspond to present day imperatives.
This is also the story of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, a chant that is at the centre of a furious battle involving the supporters of the BJP and the AITC, particularly in the context of the forthcoming assembly election in West Bengal. There have been persistent suggestions by many Bengali intellectuals and the opponents of the BJP that Jai Shri Ram is alien to Bengali culture, that it is communally menacing and that it injects Hindu faith into the political arena. The West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, in a well-publicized outburst during the 2019 general election campaign that — unfortunately for her — was recorded on video, described a chant of Jai Shri Ram as a verbal abuse. She again expressed her deep irritation at the chant when a section of the crowd greeted her with Jai Shri Ram as she rose to speak at an event commemorating the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in Calcutta on January 23 this year. This, in turn, has triggered a fresh bout of controversy over Jai Shri Ram.
At one level, Jai Shri Ram has its origins in a traditional ‘Siya Ram’ greeting widely prevalent in North India. However, the Jai Shri Ram chant heard today was a key feature of the Ayodhya movement that catapulted the BJP to the centre-stage of politics after 1988-89. Apart from the many kar seva programmes — including the one on December 6, 1992 that led to the demolition of the disputed 16th-century shrine in Ayodhya — Jai Shri Ram was a defining part of the BJP campaigns in 1991 and 1996. It was not so much in evidence in the 2014 general election that saw the BJP win a majority on its own, but it resurfaced in West Bengal — a state where the BJP was a relatively fringe player — in the 2019 general election. Since then, Jai Shri Ram has acquired a spectacular grass-roots popularity, much to the surprise of even the BJP leadership. Today, the BJP campaign for the state assembly election is defined by lusty chanting of Jai Shri Ram by its supporters.
The AITC has responded with the argument that Jai Shri Ram is alien to Bengal’s traditions, a claim that bolsters its insistence that the BJP is a party of outsiders. That Jai Shri Ram was rarely heard in the political arena of West Bengal before 2019 is undeniable. It is also true that in an earlier phase the chant was associated with the Ayodhya movement. However, in the context of West Bengal, Jai Shri Ram has acquired a meaning of its own.
In the political landscape of Bengal, Jai Shri Ram has become a symbol of both insolence and protest. The first stems from the profound irritation felt by Banerjee at the chant. With her every expression of displeasure, it has become a means to needle her and, at the same time, articulate political opposition to her. More important, it has become a convenient shorthand to express opposition to different facets of the AITC’s 10-year record in government — from corruption and political violence to the appeasement of minorities. In Bengal, Jai Shri Ram as an expression of protest has subsumed its other and earlier expression as a symbol of Hindu resurgence.
It is always difficult to rationally explain why a song or even a chant captures the popular imagination. Why did Vande Mataram and a simple invocation to the motherland or even Bharat Mata inspire Indian nationalism and invoke fear in the British raj? Why did it acquire a different political meaning after Independence and yet persist in its popularity? We don’t know, but it did. This is also the tale of Jai Shri Ram that, in Bengal, has acquired a meaning quite detached from the yearning for the grand temple under construction in Ayodhya.