Sunday, July 17, 2022

Vande Mataram: The Nationalist Song

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote the nationalist song Vande Mataram (“Hail to Bharat Mata or the Motherland”) in 1875. He included this song in his 1881 novel Anandamath, which is the story of a group of sannyasis who start a militaristic society to expel foreign invaders from their country. These sannyasis sing Vande Mataram before going into battle against the invaders. 

In the 1890s, the Vande Mataram song became the war cry of the Indian nationalists who wanted to make India an independent country. At the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress, Vande Mataram was set to music and sung by Rabindranath Tagore. Popularized by nationalists like Sri Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal, and others, Vande Mataram became India’s nationalist song. Sri Aurobindo hailed Bankim Chandra as the “rishi” of nationalism. 

In the 1930s, some Islamic groups started criticizing Vande Mataram on the ground that it was idolatrous. They asserted that since the song was full of Hindu symbolism, it was anti-Muslim. In his book, Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya notes that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the supreme leader of the Muslim League, said that Vande Mataram “is not only idolatrous but in its origin and substance a hymn to spread hatred for the Musalmans.” Jinnah declared that Vande Mataram was unacceptable to the Muslims. 

Mahatma Gandhi was pained by the controversy over Vande Mataram. He had first heard this song in 1915, at a political gathering in Madras. He was enthralled by the song. In his speech at the Madras gathering, he said: “You have sung this beautiful national song, on hearing which all of us sprang to our feet.” (Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Chapter 1, “Communal War Cry”). But in the 1930s, he was powerless to defend Vande Mataram against the attacks of Jinnah and the Muslim League. 

In his article, published in the 1 July 1939 issue of Harijan magazine, Gandhiji lamented: “It never occurred to me that it [Vande Mataram] was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately now we have fallen on evil days. All that was pure gold has become base metal today…”

There were long consultations in the Congress Party to find some way of appeasing Jinnah without having to reject Vande Mataram which was very popular with the masses. In 1937, a committee headed by Jawaharlal Nehru came up with a compromise formula—they decided to expunge the idolatrous passages from Vande Mataram, and adopt a part of its text as the national song. This decision failed to satisfy Jinnah. He continued to demand a separate homeland for the Muslims and, in 1947, he got his Pakistan.

The controversy over Vande Mataram that Jinnah had created in the 1930s continued to weigh heavily on the political thinking in newly independent India. Some political groups in India saw this song as the legitimate symbol of India’s historical and cultural aspirations, while some others (the leftist and Islamic groups) saw it as a communal war cry. Eventually, the government led by Nehru decided against adopting Vande Mataram as the country’s national anthem.

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