(Published in the Business Standard, May 14, 2013)
If it were not for the refusal of Shafique-ur-Rehman Barq, BSP member of Parliament, to join in with the singing of Vande Mataram, I might never have gone back to Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math and rediscovered its many charms.
Ananda Math starts with a lyrical description of a vast forest, trees entwined so closely that no human hand (or foot) could tread on these hallowed grounds. Having made this amply clear, Bankimchandra, in the finest traditions of writers breaking with petty convention, introduces a human voice, cutting through the silence of the forest to ask: “Shall I ever have my heart’s desire?”
Two humans toss the question back and forth: what will you sacrifice, asks the second. My life! answers the first. Life, says the second voice, is an insignificant sacrifice. Anyone can offer this up. “What else can I offer?” says the first voice. “Devotion! My friend, devotion!” declares the second voice.
As the first chapters of Ananda Math were serialised in Bangadarshan, it is hard to convey the impact that the novel had in Bengal. The foreword to the OUP edition quotes Rabindranath Tagore: “As soon as Bangadarsan arrived the afternoon siesta would be out of the question for everyone in the neighbourhood.” Any novel that could persuade Bengalis to give up their cherished post-lunch naps had to be a best-seller.
Ananda Math starts with melodrama and takes it up several notches, in the best tradition of jatra theatre, where realism and restraint are considered the least of the literary virtues. The novel, with its evocation of an uprising of Hindu sanyasis—the “Children” of the Mother named in Vande Mataram—against the British soldiers in the employ of a Muslim ruler, rejoiced in the dramatic.
Within a few short pages, Bankimchandra had introduced the miseries of the Bengal famine, a group of cannibalistic dacoits who plan to eat the tender flesh of a mother and her child, saintly Mahatmas, dastardly British sepoys, the possibility of poison and cross-dressing sanyasis—and the song of songs, Vande Mataram.
It is sung first by the Children of Mother India, then by the dying Kalyani. She has swallowed poison, her voice becomes fainter and fainter, and yet, she sings. (As a child, I found this passage profoundly moving, until a cynical friend ruined it for me forever by commenting that it was a good thing Bankim had written such a long song, allowing Kalyani to expire from verse to verse, so to speak.)
Vande Mataram echoes through the book; it is sung in prison, among the Children, and then again as they face the guns of the British and are cut down despite their patriotism. It would be sung in prison, often, by nationalists; and by Bhagat Singh and his friends as they went to the scaffold.
There are two major objections to the national song. The first, which is Mr Barq’s chief complaint, is that by asking singers to bow down to the Mother—Mother India, incarnated—the song in effect promotes idol-worship, which is against the tenets of Islam. In 2009, though, when the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind passed a resolution describing Vande Mataram as un-Islamic, Syed Hamidul Hasan was among the clerics who objected to the resolution. He suggested that Muslims treat the song with respect, but also stated that they should feel free to make up their own minds.
According to Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, in a confidential 1939 resolution, Gandhi wrote: “… the Congress, anticipating objections, has retained [Vande Mataram] as national song only those stanzas to which no objection could be taken on religious and other grounds. But except at purely Congress gatherings it should be left open to individuals whether they will stand up when the stanzas are sung.” The question of whether Vande Mataram should be the national song at all was widely debated, by Gandhi, Nehru, Bose and Tagore, and the decision they arrived at was by no means unanimous. And it is clear, from this resolution and other statements made in those early decades, that our national leaders felt that the choice of whether or not to join in with the singing of Vande Mataram should be left to the individual.
That freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution—while no one may desecrate the flag or the national symbols, respect cannot be demanded and should not be forced. Barq is free not to join in with the singing of Vande Mataram. It may be argued that it was unmannerly of him to walk out, but if members of Parliament were to be judged by their manners, few would be allowed in (or out) of the two Sabhas.
The more general objection to Vande Mataram comes from the context of Anandamath. The novel puts forward Bankimchandra’s vision of a chiefly Hindu nationalism: the Children are Hindu sanyasis, and the war is explicitly against the British soldiers hired by a Muslim ruler. The argument made at that time was that the song—moving in its emotional appeal—should be separated from the text, with all its complexities.
Bankimchandra pulls no punches. In Ekti Git, from Kamalakantar Daptar, he writes: “And my Bengal! Why can’t I wear you around my neck like a necklace? If I could wear you around my neck the Mussalmans would not have kicked at my heart and the dust of their feet would not have touched you.”
These lines, coming from a writer whose intellect I had admired in other ways, made me flinch when I read them. But they were part of Bankimchandra’s ethos, his belief system. He was free to air them and to weave these prejudices, however appalling they might seem to me and other readers, into his writing, just as Mr Barq should be free to decide whether he wishes to listen to Vande Mataram or not.
As for Mr Barq’s critics, they might want to read Anandamath and Bankimchandra. If nothing else, for the melodrama, which Bankimbabu pulled off with a flair that neither Parliament nor TV can match.