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Vande Mataram – the history of Muslim opposition and support

India’s national song Vande Mataram has been mired in debate once again. Following the Madras High Court’s order to make Vande Mataram compulsory in schools and government and private offices, a loathsome politics has been triggered over the national song in Maharashtra.

Citing the Madras High Court Order, BJP MLA Raj Purohit said that the singing of the national song should be made mandatory in schools and colleges across Maharashtra. This proposal, however, was strongly objected by MLAs from AIMIM and Samajwadi Party who called the song “anti-Islam”. MIM MLA Waris Pathan said he won’t sing Vande Mataram even if “someone puts a revolver to his head”. SP MLA and party’s Maharashtra unit president Abu Asim Azmi said he won’t sing the national song even if he is “thrown out of the country”.

Months ago a similar politics was witnessed over the national song when Municipal Corporations of Meerut, Moradabad, Varanasi and Gorakhpur had made the singing of Vande Mataram mandatory at the civic meetings. Muslim members belonging to Congress, SP and BSP had registered their protests.

Ahead of the centenary celebration of the national song in 2006, Islamic seminary Darul Uloom had issued a fatwa describing Vande Mataram as “anti-Islamic”. In 2009, Jamiat had issued another  fatwa against the national song.

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In 2013, the then BSP MP Shafiqur Rahman had walked out of the Lok Sabha when Vande Mataram was being sung.

These are some recent incidents, but the opposition to Vande Mataram dates back to the pre-independence era.

When Muslim League opposed Vande Mataram

The separatist agenda of Muslim League had opposed Vande Mataram. The year was 1909. Speaking at the second national session of Muslim League in Amritsar, the then party president Syed Ali Imam had termed Vande Mataram a “sectarian cry” while decrying the festival of Raksha Bandhan as “sectarian” in the same breath.

Three decades later, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who partitioned the country on religion lines, echoed similar views in an article dated 1 March, 1938, published in The New Times of Lahore:

“Muslims all over India have refused to accept Vande Mataram or any expurgated edition of the anti-Muslim song as a binding national anthem.”

What is the controversy about?

Vande Mataram, which means “I praise thee Mother” or “I bow to thee Mother”, is an ode to Mother India. The song envisions all citizens as its children. Because the song is an ode to Mother India, some Muslim politicians and maulvis – who claim to represent the Muslim voice – argue that singing of Vande Mataram is against the “tenets of Islam” and a “sacrilege against Allah” because a Muslim can bow to only Allah and no one else.

This opposition is more about political muscle flexing — unfortunately supported by so-called secular politicians — than religious beliefs, because many Muslim politicians and scholars have supported the song.

Muslims support Vande Mataram?

Well known Muslim scholar and noted freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad saw a “fusion of endogenic creativity”, Islamic doctrines of “Wahdat-e-Deen” (Unity of religion) and “Sulah-e-Kul” (Universal peace) in Vande Mataram. Pertinent to mention that when Azad was the Congress president, Vande Mataram was sung in each and every session of the party.

Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, a prominent Muslim leader who worked as the Minister for Communications in Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet, had also strongly defended Vande Mataram.

Author and activist Arif Mohammed Khan, who was also a long-time Member of the Parliament, had translated Vande Mataram in Urdu. In a 2006 article in Outlook, Khan wrote:

“The opposition to Vande Mataram came from the Muslim League, which under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah had developed a different attitude from those of nationalists on the question of India’s freedom from foreign rule. 

I have no doubt that opposition to Vande Mataram is not rooted in religion but in divisive politics that led to Partition. 

Those who persist in their opposition are actually negating a constitutional ideal. After all, the Constitution is not merely an exercise in semantics but expression of the people’s national faith.”

 Tearing into the blabber that “Vande Mataram is anti-Islamic”, Khan said:

“From the Islamic viewpoint, the basic yardstick of an action is Innamal Aamalu Binnyat (action depends on intention). Hailing or saluting Motherland or singing its beauty and beneficence is not sajda.”

Noted educationist Firoz Bakht Ahmed wrote in a 2006 article in The Pioneer:

“The melody, the thought content and the ambience of patriotism of Vande Mataram is unmatchable. It is high time that the so-called Muslim leaders stopped politicising the issue of Vande Mataram to promote their mucky politics.

 As a Muslim, I would like to convey a message to all my countrymen and especially my own community that some politically motivated people are trying to make an emotive issue out of Vande Mataram, a gem of a song and perhaps the song that in my view should have been the national anthem in place of Jana gana mana…”

And of course, music maestro AR Rahman, through his music album Ma Tujhe Salam, gave Vande Mataram a new dimension.

Vande Mataram – A brief history

It is important to revisit the history of Vande Mataram and understand its relevance in order to get the right perspective. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee penned the evocative song in 1870s, which he later included in his novel Anandmath published in 1882.

Sri Aurobindo called Vande Mataram as the mantra of the “new religion of patriotism”. Soon the song emerged as a hymn for Indian Independence Movement. From Mahatma Gandhi to Shubhash Chandra Bose, Vande Mataram was a mantra in the struggle for India’s independence.

Mahatma Gandhi associated the song with the “purest national spirit”. In an article dated 1 July, 1939, published in Harijan journal, Gandhi wrote:

“It was an anti-imperialist cry. As a lad, when I knew nothing of Anandamath or even Bankim, its immortal author, Vande Mataram had gripped me, and when I first heard it sung it had enthralled me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus… It stirs to its depth the patriotism of millions. Its chosen stanzas are Bengal’s gift among many others to the whole nation.”

Pre-independence Indian society left no stones unturned in its endeavours to make Vande Mataram into a national slogan, reaching as far as England.

In the book Glorious thoughts of Tagore, a chapter called ‘Sandip’s Story’ has a very beautiful connotation on Vande Mataram. Referring to the protagonist of the story, Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“Vande Mataram! These are the magic words which will open the door of his iron safe, break through the walls of his strong room, and confound the hearts of those who are disloyal to its call to say Vande Mataram.”

It was Congress which adopted Vande Mataram as the national song at its Varanasi Session on 7 September, 1905. On the first such political occasion, it was Rabindranath Tagore who sang Vande Mataram at 1896 Congress Session in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Five years later, Dakhina Charan Sen sang it in another session of Congress at Kolkata.

Lala Lajpat Rai started an Urdu weekly in the name of Vande Mataram from Lahore. Bipin Chandra Pal had founded a newspaper called Bande Mataram in 1905, which was later edited by Sri Aurobindo. An editorial in the newspaper exhorted:

“In every village, every town Anandamath must be established. Then the Mother’s name will be uttered by crores of throats and every side will resound Vande Mataram.”

In 1907, Bhikaiji Cama unfurled the first version of India’s national flag at Stuttgart, Germany with Vande Mataram written on its middle band. Matangini Hazra’s last words, as she was shot to death by the British Police, were Vande Mataram.

In Independent India, the first two stanzas of the song was declared as the national song by the Constituent Assembly on 24 January, 1950. While presiding over the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad – the first President of India – had said:

“…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.”

While making a statement to the Legislative Committee of the Constituent Assembly on August 25, 1948, first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru had said:

“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.”

Postscript

The history of Vande Mataram clearly shows that it is actually the opposition to the song that is sectarian and not the song itself. Those who espoused opposition to the song finally ended up demanding a separate nation for Muslims in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the same demand today passes off as “secularism”.

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Saswat Panigrahi
Political writer, policy observer.

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