Bharat Mata - A Raging Controversy

There is a famous Hindi saying – Badnaam honge to naam na hoga! (Infamy too brings fame). Ironically, some politicians and celebrities in this country appear to religiously believe in this saying and periodically, and perhaps deliberately, indulge in controversial statements or sloganeering that will keep them topical and in the lime light. Besides, in a population of over 1250 million people, there is always enough scope for people to find following due to common personal, often petty, interests.

The recent remark of the All India Majlise-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi is no exception when he said that he won’t raise the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, even if someone puts a knife to his throat. The statement became the raging controversy of the week in the Indian mainstream political and social circles with media adding fuel to the fire. The controversy climaxed when a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) in Maharashtra belonging to Owasi’s party was suspended from the State Assembly for the rest of the session for refusing to join chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. The decision was taken by the assembly speaker when an overwhelming majority comprising of all major parties i.e. Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), Shiv Sena, Indian National Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) joined hands to vote against the member.

Subsequently, Mr Owasi, while condemning BJP and Congress over joining hands in suspending his MLA, went a bit defensive over his statement that
kicked up a political storm nationwide. “My statement was about the RSS chief, why he is forcing everyone to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. I am talking within the Constitution. Ours is a republic, the Constitution says ‘we the people…’, there is no talk of any gender or ‘mata’ there”, he said.

Ever since the controversy erupted, Owasi has been under criticism from the major parties including BJP and Congress alike, accusing him of polarising communities on religious lines. In the same context, the famous lyricist and parliamentarian Javed Akhtar earned laurels nationwide for lashing out at Owasi in his farewell speech in Rajya Sabha. A column in The Economic Times traced Owasi’s reluctance to accept this slogan to his party’s historical origin which carries a bloody legacy of being part of anti-India Razakars who fought to retain the feudal Nizam rule in the erstwhile Hyderabad killing several nationalists seeking to join the mainstream of Indian Union post-independence.

Sequence of Events

In the beginning of March, 2016, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made a statement that the new generation of Indians should be told to chant 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai.' “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (hail mother India). It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth,” he said. Though he didn’t specifically cited this but this was most likely in the context of the recent Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) controversy (where anti-India slogans were raised by students) when he referred to “some forces” telling the youth not to say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

Almost ten days later, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi while addressing a gathering made the controversial remarks referred to in the second paragraphs. “I don’t chant that slogan. What are you going to do, (Mohan) Bhagwat sahab,” the Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad said, adding “I won’t utter that (slogan) even if you put a knife to my throat”. This was followed by the suspension of a MLA of his party in the Maharashtra Assembly for the session when he refused to chant the slogan which he maintained was a matter of choice and not binding.

This was followed by a widespread criticism and many people would agree with what Javed Akhtar, the well-known lyricist and Rajya Sabha MP, said while speaking in the House. “He (Owasi) said he will not say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ as the Constitution does not require him to say so. The Constitution even does not ask him to wear sherwani (dress) and topi (cap)... I don’t care to know whether saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is my duty or not, it is my right,” he spoke emotionally charged.

Anupam Kher, a veteran Bollywood actor, went one step ahead when the following day he tweeted that chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” should be the only definition of nationalism for those living in India, all other are escape routes. He reiterated his stand following his visit to JNU campus when he said slogans of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Vande Matram purified JNU of slogans chanted earlier on 9th Feb (an obvious reference to anti-India slogans raised by a group of students).

All Muslims are not against Slogan

The on-going controversy reminds the events of August 2011 when Anna Hazare was leading the campaign of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. He was on fast-unto-death at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, hoping to mount pressure on the Congress led UPA government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill with a view to constitute an independent body to investigate cases of graft. The atmosphere in the Maidan was emotionally charged with tempers running high among the cries of Vande Matram and Inquilab Zindabad. Along with the chant of Vande Matram, organizers were time and again announcing over the loudspeaker – Anna ke char sipahi - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai (Anna has four soldiers - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian). Among the zealot speakers, a young Muslim woman activist was also noticed delivering a fiery speech with high pitch sloganeering of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Inquilab Zindabad. Her mentor in the crowd on specific query reportedly clarified that slogans coined in another era (pre-independence) have lost their earlier meanings. He opined it was absurd to claim that the mere sloganeering of Bharat Mata Ki Jai could make a Muslim guilty of idol worship.

The dominant faction of the IAC was later rechristened as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal. He is one popular leader who has been rather frequently using the slogan of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ in his campaigns including those of 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In Varanasi, Kanpur and other places in Uttar Pradesh, Muslims in the crowds with substantial presence used to eagerly participate in his chant to Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Interestingly, they were largely stereotypical orthodox Muslims – bearded, often in conventional kurta-pajama dress and topi (cap) and mostly Urdu-speaking.

Clearly, the common Muslim folk are easily swayed by the politicians and clerics but all of them are not against the chant of Bharat Mata. If some of them oppose this, perhaps it is the context in which the issue is thrown upon them. They will chant the same slogan with Arvind Kejriwal but perhaps not with the BJP whom they link with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is true that the majority Muslims still look at the BJP with suspicion, hence any attempt from them is likely to generate a negative response. Then there are always self-styled politicians and community leaders with vested interests who are always out to exploit popular sentiments of the community to their advantage.

Origin of Bharat Mata

In its original sense, Bharat Mata is the personification of India as the mother goddess. The inspiration behind this conception was the famous Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894)’s novel, Anandamath, with a plot revolving around the well-known Sanyasi rebellion of the later part of the 19th century which became synonymous with the struggle of independence from the British empire.

It is in Anandamath that the land of birth has been personified as mother and we have the song, "Bande Matram" glorifying Bharat Mata to Goddess Durga. The Muslims, therefore, believe that to sing the song would tantamount to worshipping the deity Bharat Mata, in whose honour a temple was reportedly built in Varanasi in early 20th century and then, decades later, in Haridwar too. As Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion which prohibits idol worship, many Muslims feel that any demand on them to sing Bande Matram is akin to asking them to infringe upon the fundamental tenets of their religion. Their reservations follow basically from the fifth stanza of Vande Matram song (original in Sanskrit) which symbolizes Bharat Mata to Godess Durga -

“...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 gleems, Dark of hue O candid-fairIn thy soul, with jewelled hair And thy glorious smile divine..."
                                                     (Fifth stanza as translated by Sri Aurobindo)

Later, Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), famous artist, writer and exponent of Swadeshi movement portrayed Bharat Mata as a four-armed Hindu goddess wearing saffron-colored robes, holding the manuscripts, sheaves of rice, a mala, and a white cloth. This iconic work was created by him apparently with an intention to create nationalist feeling among Indians during the freedom struggle.

During the freedom struggle, some of our nationalist leaders, intentionally or unintentionally, resorted to using religious symbols to connect to people in augmenting mass support for uprisings against the colonial rule. For instance, Bal Gangadhar Tilak is known to moot the idea of celebrating Shivaji’s birth anniversary and Ganesh Chaturthi as carnival. While personifying Bharat Mata in Anandmath, perhaps Bankim Chandra had similar motive. Regardless of the good intent and purity of motive, this obviously even during that period caused apprehension and fear among the minds of Muslims that an independent Bharat was likely to be a predominantly Hindu Rashtra.

Muslims are Sceptic about BJP and RSS

It is true that the majority Muslims look at the BJP and RSS with suspicion. The reasons are many and obvious too. Firstly, BJP are categoric in not pursuing appeasement policy unlike Congress and some regional parties. Some of their firebrand leaders openly doubt the loyalty of Muslims to the nation, occasionally even call them Hindu Muslim asking to return to the fold of Hinduism from which many of them converted centuries ago. Then BJP’s stand on Article 370 in the context of Jammu & Kashmir, their accusation of love-jihad, vehement opposition of beef consumption, talks of withdrawing the minority status to Aligarh Muslim University etc from time to time add fuel to the fire.

Though the nation has a history of communal clashes since independence, some of the past incidents like the demolition of the erstwhile structure of the Babri Masjid and the communal violence of Gujarat in 2002 post Godhara are still alive in the psyche of the Muslim community thanks to the vested interests of certain political parties and media. Ironically, the very fact that hundreds of small and big temples of Hindus too were destroyed in a backlash of Babri incident in India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh, and the Gujarat riots would not have occurred in the first place had there not been the Godhara incident wherein two bogies of Sabarmati Express were set on fire by the miscreants causing death of 59 and numerous injured mostly pilgrims including women and children, are conveniently forgotten or ignored by the politicians, clerics and self-styled secularists while fanning sentiments of minorities at opportune times.

Rightly or wrongly, the majority Muslims believe that if they were to accept Bharat Mata Ki Jai as a mandatory requirement to prove nationalism, perhaps far more outrageous expectations would be thrust upon them to make subservient, the very idea generating a feeling of insecurity and inferiority. So many of them chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai with the AAP convenor Kejriwal but have objections if similar expectation is raised from the BJP or RSS. In their perspective, Vande Matram is identified as the anthem of Hindu majority and Bharat Mata Ki Jai as its emblematic slogan while the RSS perhaps considers the chant of the slogan as a test of loyalty to the nation.

Nationalism as a Concept

In the modern times, the jargon is believed to have originated in the Western Europe during the nineteenth century and gradually became a widespread and powerful phenomenon as a drive for national unification and/or independence.

By definition, the Nationalism comes from the belief that own country is superior, without question or doubt. In some cases, nationalism can inspire people to break free of a foreign oppressor, as in case of countries under the colonial rule, but nationalism also signifies a distinct identity of a country from the rest of the world. In a way the nationalism can be defined as a shared group feeling in the context of a geographical and sometimes demographic region seeking independence for its culture and/or ethnicity that holds that group together. This can be expressed as a belief or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with or becoming attached to one's nation.

On the political and sociological considerations, nationalism is believed to have two perspectives. One is the primordialist perspective which describes nationalism as a reflection of the ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans to organize into distinct groupings based on an affinity of birth such as family, tribe, group etc. The other is the modernist perspective which considers the nationalism as a recent phenomenon that nurtures on the structural conditions of modern society. National flag, national anthem, national emblem and other symbols of national identity are commonly considered highly valuable and significant symbols of the national identity and nationalist sentiments.

An important related jargon is patriotism which is loosely used in place of nationalism by the majority but actually it represents more of the social conditioning and personal behaviours of individuals that support a state's decisions and actions. In a way, the patriotism is an emotional attachment based on love and pride to the country which an individual recognizes as his homeland.

This attachment is also akin to the national feeling or national pride with a significant bearing of ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects. If a person is able to make this fine distinction between the nationalism and patriotism, he will have no doubt or issues about the attachment and love (patriotism) of the common Muslims towards the country but the problem arises when we loosely interpret nationalism and patriotism to be one and the same.

Islamic scholars, clerics and theologians have made their own interpretation of the nationalism from time to time and common Muslims tend to go by these interpretations. The present article is not intended to analyse these issues in depth but in a nutshell it can be surmised that there would always be sufficient ground and reasons for divergent views and beliefs on nationalism causing disputes and heartache to many in a country like India with so much of diversity on account of religious, political and socio-economic as also geographic and demographic considerations.

Nationalism versus Patriotism

As evident from the foregoing analysis, patriotism comes in force to join people together due to the mutual love and pride for the country. It’s more pronounced form can be seen or perceived particularly in the times of crisis when the country is under external threat e.g. military conflicts with enemy nations or even terror incidents in the recent times. In such times, people of different origin, belief and background tend to sink their differences to stick together and show unity in support of the government in the latter’s endeavour to tackle the aggression.

The inherent feature of patriotism is that it is always there but its impact in uniting people is visible only when there is an external threat in the form of enemy aggression or attack. Hence it can be surmised that ordinarily the patriotism is a passive phenomenon which remains in dormant phase in pcyche of people during the peacetime, hence it cannot be an effective means of a permanent unity at all times. The concept of patriotism is, however, often confused with the nationalism and this confusion becomes the cause of conflict too.

Although the nationalism signifies a distinct identity of a country from the rest of the world but its evolutionary process and bonding is largely dictated by the family, clan or tribal ties. The very basis of nationalism among the people is largely dictated by the predominant will of achieving domination. It starts right within the family, where one member asserts authority to achieve leadership in the affair of the family. In turn, the families try to achieve leadership in the community they reside in. The next stage is that of groups or tribes competing with each other, each trying to dominate others in order to enjoy the privileges and pride that is attached with this authority. This inherent competition breeds arrogance and extreme pride giving a cause to conflicts.

Thus role of the nationalism in uniting people is always doubtful and debatable because it is based on the quest for leadership and authority. This quest for leadership give rise to the power struggle between the people and this leads to conflicts among various strata of society. Hence within a nation too it will be difficult to have convergence of opinion on nationalism. In the global context, it is often accused of encouraging racism. For instance, some whites may see themselves as superior to blacks leading to conflict, polarisation and a divided society. During the current JNU controversy too, it was the nationalism which was under fog while the violators vouched for their patriotism.

The above narration draws a fine line between patriotism and nationalism while also suggesting that by nature the patriotism is passive and the nationalism could be a bit aggressive. For a better understanding of this distinction between the nationalism and patriotism, the famous quotation by George Orwell ‘nationalism is the worst enemy of peace’ may be relevant. According to him, nationalism is a feeling that one’s country is superior to another, while patriotism is merely a feeling of admiration for a way of life. Even Shri Rajneesh aka “Osho” went to an extreme during discourse in defining nationalism as ‘a sin’ that is the cause of all problems in the world. “I am not a nationalist. I want to break all boundaries. Whoever on this earth has received a small glimpse of the truth has no boundaries. They do not belong to any country, any class, any sect, any caste. They belong to all, and all belong to them”, he once said.

Does Islam Prohibits Nationalism?

As per certain scholarly views, the nationalism is a concept alien to Islam because the former calls for unity based on family and tribalistic ties, whereas the latter binds people together on the Aqeedah and Emaan i.e. the belief in Allah and His Messenger. Many scholars consider Islam more as a Deen than a religion. The term Deen comprehensively covers the meaning of "A complete way of life". Consequently, the Islamic Law essentially addresses all aspects of their subjects in seven basic areas including worship (al-Ibadah), family matters (al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiyya), interpersonal relations (al-Mu’amalat), duties and responsibilities of the governors and governed (al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya), criminal justice and maintaining public order (al-Hudad), international relations (al-Siyar) and character reformation and good manners (al-Akhhlaq w’al-Adab). In essence, all aspects of the life of Muslims are believed to be covered under the above areas.

While scholars, clerics and theologians world over are allowed debate and criticism of the leading religions as also to put forth their interpretations and rulings from time to time, such debate or criticism is strictly prohibited so far as Islam is concerned. As the nationalism is a modern phenomenon, it has not been explicitly dealt with in any of the seven areas referred to in the foregoing paragraph. For decades, the Arab world too has experienced a sharp divide and even bloody conflicts among Islamists and Arab Nationalists with the former receiving an overwhelming support of orthodox Islamic scholars and clerics. Islamists often argue that nationalism is not acceptable to Islam because nationalism calls for unity based on family and tribalistic tiers whereas Islam binds people together on the Aqeedah, that is belief in Allah and His Messenger only.

Perhaps this is the reason why typical orthodox Muslims like Owasi, while vouching for patriotism, refuse to say Vande Matram or Bharat Mata Ki Jai which an average Indian thinks is a symbol of nationalism, while liberal Muslims like Javed Akhtar feel pride chanting these slogans as a mark of their nationalist sentiments. Even during the current controversy, some clerics and madrassas have issued fatwa(s) prohibiting Muslims to chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Among them prominent being one by Hyderabad based Islamic seminary that reads as under -

“For a Muslim chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is not permissible as the land of Hind (India) is not a goddess. Every Muslim loves the country and is willing to sacrifice his or her life for it, but prostrates only before Allah. For Muslims, only Allah must be worshipped.”

So basically it is a question of faith, acceptance and showing some maturity of thoughts. God is an ultimate symbol of faith and whatever name we give to Him, there can't be a separate God for different religions and sects because in nature such distinction or discrimination does not exist. Since ancient times, Bharat (India) is a land which attached high premium to the quest of knowledge and wisdom, and consequently freely allowed and assimilated dissents and debates on varying concepts and ideologies on the whole range of subjects including religion. There is a Deen or Religion which, as opined by some scholars and clerics, is not inclined to allow flexibility of faith and humility to its subjects to bow before any entity other than the God and there is also this venerated land (whom a large section prefer to call Bharat Mata out of sheer love and respect), where Kabir, a noted faqir and poet equally acceptable to Hindus and Muslims, once said -

                            "Guru Gobind dou kharhe, kake laagun paon
                              Balihari Guru aapne, Govind diyo batay"

{Both God and Guru (my teacher) are in front of me and I am in dilemma whom to render salutation first! I am greatful and shall bow to my Guru who has shown me way to God...}

Way Forward

We are indeed facing critical times and real threat to democracy due to radical elements of society in either community. If the likes of Owasi and their vehement opposition to a slogan represent one extreme, the tweet of the Anupam Kher, however well-intentioned, setting new definition of nationalism for Indians represents another extreme. Such a moral policing would perhaps neither be of any help in generating patriotic or nationalist sentiments in this land of diversities nor in any way it will strengthen our democracy.

Rationalists and liberals would agree that there is no need of going in semantics of the slogans ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, ‘Vande Matram’ or ‘Jai Hind’ in the modern times, which like ‘Long Live India’ essentially convey the same abstract meaning i.e. our love, respect and allegiance to the land of our birth. Semantics are not so important because it is our love and sentiments for the nation that really matters. Liberals like Javed Akhtar understand this but those who do not realize should also not be forced to do it.

Since ancient ages Bharat aka India has imbibed and spread the spirit of tolerance and a culture of open debate and dissent. Much before the liberal ideas and openness started gaining ground in the West or Far East, atheism and pantheistic idol worship co-existed in India with enough space and accommodation to materialism as well as ascetic traditions. It is a land where even sexual freedom was allowed and the Kamasutra discussed when the rest of the world was reeling under extreme orthodox ways. In the modern India, the Constitution of India only further strengthened this spirit in embracing freedom of speech and expression, right to worship and equality, and so on so forth.

There is no doubt that people like Owasi need to have serious introspection to realize that they are doing disservice to their country for petty political gains when they raise such unwarranted controversies often with communal overtones. At the same time, other people should also not try to force words to mouth of adversaries that smack of extreme vigilantism. Politicians, clerics, celebrities and media need to play more responsibly because common folk look at them for guidance and following. Extreme and odd views and utterances are best ignored and downplayed rather than given undue attention through name-calling, legal action or violent means.

Traditionally, Indian civilisation and culture has enough maturity and strength to mock rather than hound odd-ball dissidents. Jingoism may be one extreme shade of the patriotism, but it has many other shades in the land of diversity like ours. Needless to emphasize that the well written Constitution in India exists as the guiding force, with an independent and capable judiciary for supervision and interpretation, when unreasonable and unruly try to fiddle with or supress voices of reason.


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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