Debating India


How secular is Vande Mataram?


Friday 15 January 1999, by NOORANI*A.G.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 16, n?01, Jan. 02 - 15, 1999.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to make ’Vande Mataram’, originally a song expressing Hindu nationalism, into an obligatory national song is unconstitutional.

UTTAR PRADESH Minister for Basic Education Ravindra Shukla declared on November 17 that "the order to make the singing of ’Vande Mataram’ compulsory stands, and will be enforced". That the "order" would not cover schools run by the minority communities does not detract from its unconstitutional nature. It clearly violates Article 28 (1) and (3) of the Constitution. "(1) No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds" and "(3) No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto." (emphasis added throughout). The language could not have been broader. It hits at the actual practice, regardless of a formal order and at attendance even if there is no participation in the worship.

What applies to Vande Mataram applies also to Saraswati Vandana, a hymn to the Goddess Saraswati. The Supreme Court’s ruling that the singing of the National Anthem cannot be made obligatory applies both to Vande Mataram and Saraswati Vandana with yet greater force.

The U.P. Minister, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, revealed on November 17 that "the order" did exist and "will be enforced". But a few days later, on November 21, Union Home Minister L.K.Advani said that the "factual position" needed to be ascertained though he was against the singing of that song being made "mandatory". (Shukla has since been dropped from the Ministry.) More royalist than the BJP king, the Samata Party said on November 23: "Vande Mataram has no religious connotation". This is utterly false.

Else, in 1937 the Congress Working Committee would not have said: "The Committee recognise the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song." It declared that "only the first two stanzas should be sung". A poem which needs surgical operation cannot command universal acceptance.

The song ’Vande Mataram’ occurs in Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s novel Anand Math published in 1882.

In his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri has aptly described the atmosphere of the times in which the song was written.1 "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 historian, has written an objective account of it.2 "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 central plot moves round a band of sanyasis, called santanas 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;... 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). As Majumdar pithily puts it, "Bankimchandra converted patriotism into religion and religion into patriotism."

The novel was not anti-British, either. In the last chapter, we find a supernatural figure persuading the leader of the sanyasis, Satyananda, to stop fighting. The dialogue that follows is interesting:3

"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 Hindu 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."

Satyananda protests, but is persuaded to lay down the sword.

"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. (emphasis added).

"S: If that is so, I will kill myself before the image of my Mother.

"He: In ignorance? Come and know. There is a temple of the Mother in the Himalayas. I will show you her image there.

"So saying, He took Satyananda by the hand."

Anti-Muslim references are spread all over the work. 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 this pig-sty to ashes and make Mother earth free from evil again. Friends, that day has come."

The use of the song ’Vande Mataram’ in the novel is not adventitious, and it is not only communal-minded Muslims who resent it because of its context and content. M.R.A. Baig’s analysis of the novel and the song deserve attention. "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 people shouted ’kill, kill the Nereys’. Others shouted ’Bande Mataram’ ’Will the day come when we shall break mosques and build temples on their sites? 4

The song has five stanzas. Of these only the first two are the "approved ones". Jawaharlal Nehru was ’opposed to the last two stanzas’. The approved stanzas read:

"I bow to thee, Mother, richly watered, richly fruited,

cool with the winds of the south,

dark with the crops of the harvests,

the Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of

the moonlight, her hands clothed

beautifully with her trees in flowering

bloom, sweet of laughter, sweet of

speech, the Mother, giver of boons

giver of bliss!

The third stanza refers to ’Thy dreadful name’, evidently, a reference to the Goddess Kali. The fourth is in the same vein. ’Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen, with her hands that strike and her swords of sheen’.

It is essentially a religious homage to the country conceived as a deity, ’a form of worship’ as Majumdar aptly called it. The motherland is "conceived as the Goddess Kali, the source of all power and glory."

This, in the song itself. The context 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".5 How secular is such a song? The objection was not confined to mere bowing and it was voiced early in the day.

In his presidential address at the Second Session of the All-India Muslim League held in Amritsar on December 30, 1908, Syed Ali Imam 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 Rakhibandhan 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 is 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 need and aspirations of all sects...

"Regard for the feelings and sentiments, needs and requirements 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."

The Congress Working Committee, which met in Calcutta on October 26, 1937, under the presidentship of Nehru, adopted a long statement on the subject.6 It asked that the song should "be considered apart from the book." Recalling its use in the preceding 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 remind 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 (the) 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 ever 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."

’National’ songs do not need political surgery; the songs which do, do not win national acceptance. Against this was the fact of history that, however ill-advised, the song had come to be associated with the struggle for freedom. Gandhi advised Muslims to appreciate its historic association but counselled against any imposition. "No doubt, every act... must be purely voluntary on the part of either partner," he said at Alipore on August 23, 1947.

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, 1948:7 Nehru said:

"The question of having a national anthem tune, to be played by orchestras and bands became an urgent one for us immediately after 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... 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 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 tune 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 that will satisfy the Members."8

Mutual understanding will lead to the Gandhian formula - respect for the song but no imposition. But even more than that, if the problem were understood in depth, what would emerge is a far better appreciation of the reasons why the Muslims and the Congress drifted away from each other. Those reasons have many a lesson for us today as we build a secular India. Attempts at imposition reflect a conscious decision to break with the national secular ideal.



1. Jaico; page 235.

2. British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Part II: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1965; page 478.

3. Sources of Indian Tradition compiled by William Theodore de Bary and others; Columbia University Press; 1958; page 715.

4. Vide his essay "The Partition of Bengal and its Aftermath; The Indian Journal of Political Science; Volume XXX, April-June 1969, Number 2, pages 120-122.

5. D.F.Smith: India as a Secular State; Princeton University Press; 1963; page 90

6. Indian Annual Register, 1937, Volume II, p. 327.

7. Official Report on "Constituent Assembly Debates"; Third session, Part I, Volume VI, August 9-31, 1948.

8. Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume XII; January 24, 1950.

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