Sunday, September 03, 2006

Which Tune Shall We Sing?

The Vande Mataram controversy is nothing new. Ever since the song was first penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1876 and it later appeared in his novel, Anand Math, the song has found itself mired in unnecessary controversy. And now the UPA government has given this controversy a fresh lease of life, only to be lapped up eagerly by the BJP and the so-called Hindu Nationalists (read fundamentalists) to give it a twist that suits their communal agenda.

The genesis of resistance always lies in force. If you force someone to do something, resistance is the natural outcome. That's what's happening now. One section wants to make singing of the song compulsory, another opposes it as being anti-Islamic. While the saffron-hued fundamentalists are quick to label those who don't want to sing the song as traitors, the green wing calls it against their religion not only because the song supports idolatry but also because the novel it appears in talks about Hindus using the song as a sort of war-cry against oppressive Muslims. Both these opposing views are completely misplaced.

Let's look at the saffron version first. How justified is it for them to call those who don't want to sing Vande Mataram as traitors? Is patriotism all about singing a song? Does patriotism mean imposing one's views on others? Remember, Vande Mataram is the national song of India but nowhere does the Constitution make its singing compulsory for all Indians. How many Indians know the meaning of the song anyway? Ours is a secular country; and in a secular country if a people of one religion think - rightly or wrongly - that something is against their religion, you need to understand their apprehensions and address them instead of questioning their patriotism. If you really read the entire song, it resonates with Hindu symbolism and you can't expect a practicing Muslim to subscribe to that. That's the reason why only the first two stanzas were chosen as the national song. Even in these stanzas, the word 'Vande' is open to interpretation. It can mean 'worship', which is un-Islamic. Sri Aurobindo's English translation, which is the most widely popular translation of the song, further complicates the matter as it translates it as 'bowing' or 'sajda', which again is anti-Islam. However, 'vande' can also translate as 'salute' or 'salaam' (as in A R Rahman's Maa Tujhe Salaam) or 'tasleem' (as translated in Urdu by Arif Mohammed Khan). In that case there is nothing that goes against the basic tenets of Islam. So if we want the Muslims of this country to accept Vande Mataram, we need to help them interpret the words appropriately, rather than getting into unnecessary offensive against them. Again, the basic question remains - why can't singing this song remain a matter of personal choice?

On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalists and religious leaders also need to look at this issue with an open mind. Only the first two stanzas of the song are classified as the national song. These lines don't promote idolatry (as the subsequent stanzas do), and, if interpreted appropriately, they also don't talk about 'worship' and 'sajda' which Muslims find offensive. As for the other objection about Anand Math being anti-Muslim, it's akin to viewing the context of the song in an extremely narrow and partisan fashion. True that the novel has strong Hindu under-currents, but in the end it is about opposing repression. Now what's un-Islamic about that? Also, the novel was written much after the first few lines were composed by Bankim Chandra. To equate it to the seemingly anti-Muslim stance of the novel is grossly incorrect.

This brings me to a larger issue of the perils of stubbornly attaching something to a particular context. The right-wing people have been fuelling this Jana-Gana-Mana vs. Vande Mataram controversy for a long time now. As you would have seen in the spam that was doing the round a few years back, they think that Jana-Gana-Mana is not the right choice for our National Anthem because it was written by Rabindra Nath Tagore as a welcome song in "praise of George V', and hence amounts to subjugation to foreign rule. How real is this view? The fact that Tagore was commissioned to write a song for George V is true, but it is also true that Tagore balked at this idea and wrote a song that was cleverly ambiguous and hence open to interpretation. In his mind, he addressed it to 'God', while others construed it as a hymn in praise of the King. If the right-wingers feel that they're justified in their stance about Jana-Gana-Mana, then how are the Muslims wrong in saying that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic, with its Hindu symbolism and a place in a book that talks about Hindus fighting the Muslims? Interestingly, Anandamath ends with a character actually welcoming the arrival of the British as saviours to oppressed Hindus. That's not very nationalistic, is it? The key here is to look at these two poems out of their original context and go strictly by what the words mean. While one is an invocation to God, the other is to the Motherland. Going strictly by that interpretation, I would personally like to believe that Vande Mataram is more suited to be the National Anthem. But Jana-Gana-Mana has been chosen as our National Anthem and there's no point in creating a big issue out of it. Those who do it, do it for the wrong reason, mostly with a sole purpose of giving it a communal twist and propagate their brand of medieval Hindu Nationalism.

If we're so fascinated by controversy and want to indulge in inconsequential and irrelevant debate about changing our National Anthem, I would like to start a new one. I would say that Sir Allama Mohammad Iqbal's Tarana-e-Hind aka Sare Jahan Se Achchha is more suited to be our National Anthem, because it is written in an easy to understand language. More people would know the meaning of this song as compared to Jana-Gana-Mana or Vande Mataram . So what if it's written in Urdu by a Muslim who was among the earliest proponents of an independent Muslim State, and has been granted the status of the National Poet of Pakistan?