In Anand Math, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s classic novel, we learn of the Order of the Children formed to fight the British in Bengal. Its leader, Mahatma Satya, is the one who initiates freedom fighters into the Order. Hundreds get initiated. At one stage, prior to initiate two young men, one a Kshatriya and another a Brahmin, into the Order, he says: “Do you both renounce your castes? Yes? Splended! For all Children belong to the same caste. In our work we do not differentiate between Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh, Parsee or pariah…all children of the same Mother India…Now sing Vande Mataram!” And the two young men sing it in unison with a passion symbolic of the times.
Anand Math was based on the sanyasi rebellion in Bengal in the late 18th century. The sanyasis fought the British against all odds. The British were regarded as arch enemies of the country responsible for the terrible famine of 1772. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who has the reputation of being the first graduate from Calcutta University would have been shocked if told that his patriotic song would offend Muslims. It was written because the then British rulers had declared that singing to the British National Anthem God Save the Queen would be mandatory. Bankim’s Vande Mataram was the answer. The song was written in 1876; Anand Matha, which incorporated it was published in 1882, just a quarter century after the British put down the First War of Independence or the Sepoy Mutiny, as they named it.
The response to Vande Mataram was terrific. The Bengalis took it as their mantra for independence. Its singing reverberated in the streets and halls of Calcutta. Bengalis would work themselves up into patriotic fervour while shouting the slogan at every conceivable public meeting. Several got arrested but that did not deter anyone from singing the song. Rabindranath Tagore sang it in 1896 at the Calcutta session of the All India National Congress. Dakhina Charan Sen sang it five years later in 1901 at another Congress session in Calcutta. Poet Sarala Devi Chaudhurani sang it in 1905 at the Congress session in Banaras. Lala Lajpat Rai started a journal called Vande Mataram from Lahore. Congress volunteers, beaten to death while picketing shops selling Lancashire textiles would die with Vande Mataram on their lips. Such was the enchantment of the song. In all those years hardly a minuscule section of Muslims fought for independence-a fact of life that, sad though it seems, needs to be recollected. Other religious bodies like Sikhs and Parsis never objected to its singing.
Indeed, when Bhikaji Cama (1861-1936) created the first version of India’s national flag in Germany in 1907, it had Vande Mataram etched on it in the middle band. The song was never meant to offend Muslims. It arose deep from patriotic Indian hearts. The word ‘Vande’ has been the most misunderstood word in the Sanskrit language. It means ‘salutation’, ‘respect’, ‘thankfulness’ but in no manner of means signify ‘worship’. One suspects that that meaning was deliberated conjured up to make it abhorrent to Muslims. After a great deal of discussion at a Congress session in 1937-some of it heated-it was decided that singing some of the later stanzas (especially stanza five calling for Durga dasha praharana dharini ) might alienate Muslim sentiment and are best left out. So they were. At all gathering only the first two stanzas-beautiful beyond words-are sung. That is both gracious and wise of Hindus.
Furthermore, it must be remembered that it is not India’s national anthem. The anthem is Jana Gana Mana which was deliberately chosen in order to appease Muslims sentiment. Vande Mataram was accorded the status of a national song because of the ‘historic part’ (in the words of Dr Rajendra Prasad who was presiding over the Constituent Assembly of January 24, 1950) it played in the struggle for national freedom, along with Sare jehan se achcha. For sheer emotive value there is no song to match Vande Matram.
In 2003 BBC World Service conducted an international poll to choose ten most famous songs of all time. Around 7,000 songs were apparently selected from all over the world. According to BBC, people from 155 countries/islands voted. Vande Mataram was ranked second in the top ten songs. All this may convey nothing to orthodox mullahs. The resolution passed on November 3, at a session of the Jamiat-Ulama-e-Hind (JUH) said categorically that “patriotism does not require singing of the Vande Mataram’. “It said: “We love our country and have proved it several times, but Vande Mataram violates our faith in monotheism that is the foundation of Islam. We love and respect the mother, but do not worship her”. Fair enough. According to the JUH the resolution was necessitated by the fact that “the song was being introduced in several schools in BJP-ruled states”.
Actually it was the UPA government which, according to reports, had directed all schools to sing to first two stanzas of Vande Mataram to commemorate the adoption of Vande Mataram as the national song a hundred years ago (1907) by the Indian National Congress. The trouble seems to be that while the song deeply moves Hindu sentiments-and they are in a majority-it is abhorred by Muslim religious leaders. Apparently not all Muslim leaders feel that way. A recent report (November 10) noted that in a town in Madhya Pradesh, a group of Muslims led by a clergyman-Imam Hafiz Abdulla Razique-joined people from other communities in singing Vande Mataram in front of a mosque of Betual Bazar. It was the Imam himself who suggested that the song be sung as he did not consider it against Islam.
The trouble lies in misinterpreting the meaning of the word ‘Vande’. And let it also be remembered: when the Constituent Assembly which framed India’s Constitution decided to treat Vande Mataram as national song with the same status as the national anthem, the vote was unanimous. The Assembly then had twenty eight members of the Muslim League as members and they did not protest. Indeed when Dr Rajendra Prasad made the statement he was loudly applauded by all. It is that decision by our Founding Fathers that has now been sadly-and needlessly-defiled.
No one questions the patriotism of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind. In the past it has strongly condemned terrorism as anti-Islamic. It refuses to treat Hindus as kafirs or India as Darul Harb – a land against which jehad can be justified. Its stand against Vande Mataram, in the circumstances, is intriguing. Surely there can be a way out for the JUH to reconsider its fatwa without having to compromise on its principles? Giving a friend ‘vandana’ merly means complimenting him, congratulating him. It is a totally innocent word whose meaning has been twisted needlessly. It is not religion to describe India as sujalam, suphalam, sasya shaymalam, sushmitam, dharahim bharanim! Think again dear JUH.