Thursday, May 23, 2013

Vande Mataram controversy reveals mental chasm

Prior to the 175th birth anniversary of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894), his song Vande Mataram is back in news for wrong reasons. On May 8, BSP’s Shaifqur Rehman Burq nonchalantly walked out of the Lok Sabha while Vande Mataram was being played. The only comparable incident in the annals of the apex legislative body had taken place on the historic midnight on August 14-15, 1947. As the Assumption of Power ceremony commenced in the Constitution Hall (now Central Hall of Parliament) with Vande Mataram, some members did not arrive. But as soon as the song concluded, they were seen trickling inside. HV Kamath, member from erstwhile Central Province & Berar, found their entry too simultaneous to be natural. They had apparently wanted to skip the Vande Mataram by design. Kamath referred to this incident in the Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1947 when it was his turn to speak. However, neither the identity of members nor their motives are known to us.

But Burq, MP from Sambhal, and Convenor of Babri Masjid Action Committee clearly acknowledges religious reasons. He admits that tenets of Islam prevent him from bowing down his head to (an idolised form of) the motherland. “I can give my life to the motherland and I have been taught heaven lies beneath the feet of mother. But I cannot bow my head to her, which is reserved only for Allah.”

Criticism directed against Burq is purely legalistic. It hinges on the point that Burq has insulted the national song, co-equal of national anthem Jana Gana Mana. His critics trace it to a statement by President Rajendra Prasad in the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950. “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… I hope this will satisfy all members.” It was not a ruling from the chair but a statement made only to ‘satisfy’ the members. It was like an apology or resignation tendered merely to ‘satisfy’ ruffled public sentiment.

Had Dr Rajendra Prasad or Nehru been sincere about the co-equal status, they would have got it entered into the Constitution adopted on November 26, 1949. Several Constituent Assembly members had favoured recognising Vande Mataram as the national anthem. But why did Dr Rajendra Prasad make a reference on January 26, 1950 — merely two days before the Constitution was about to be enforced? The song actually fell between two stools. Vande Mataram is not protected even Article 51 A of the Constitution — Fundamental Duties or the Prevention of Insults to National Honours Act, 1971.

But what the legalistic interpreters overlook is the psychic chasm between the communities. Vande Mataram merely occasions its exposure. I doubt if Burq’s conduct would have surprised Bankim. Burq’s iconoclastic faith prevents him from bowing down to motherland personified. Bankim had no love lost for Burq’s Arabic imperial faith either. In Anandamath (1882), where the song Vande Mataram appears, he hails the disestablishment of Muslim rule in Bengal. He was convinced that a century of British rule was necessary to reinvigorate the Hindus.

Bankim was not merely the first novelist of India. He is hailed a seer who gave us the mantra of ‘Vande Mataram’. Its Hindu inspiration is obvious. The song was composed on November 7, 1875 on the day of Jagaddharti Puja in Bengal. But that is not the only reason why Muslims were irked by it. Vande Mataram was song common to different branches of freedom movement. From revolutionaries of Bengal and Maharashtra to the moderate Congressmen and Gandhiji– Vande Mataram was hailed by all. But the bulk of Muslim society, under the influence of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, stayed away from freedom movement. The freedom movement of India was thus a Hindu enterprise. Only the Hindus melted their bones in the dungeon of cellular Jail in Andaman, and went to gallows smilingly for the sake of motherland.

Vande Mataram, like the less poetical Bharat Mata Ki Jai, is a Hindu expression of patriotism. It is the Hindu who idealises India as divine mother. Its roots perhaps lie in the hoary antiquity of Atharva Veda where the Prithvi Sukta says, “Earth is my mother, I am her son”. He sees Mother India as part of Mother Earth. India is the land of sacred geography — but to Hindus alone. To the Central Asian invaders, India has been a real estate. The Muslims have possessed India, the Hindus have belonged to it. Thus Vande Mataram or Bharat Mata Ki Jai come naturally to any Hindu of whatever persuasion. Had Burq’s forefathers not accepted the religion brought over by Turk horsemen, he would not have any hesitation in singing Vande Mataram.

The contrast is quite revealing as Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are adjourned sine die each session. The Chairman of Rajya Sabha, Vice President Hamid Ansari says, ‘now national song’. But Speaker, Lok Sabha, Meira Kumar says ‘Please stand up for Vande Mataram’. Hindus would love Vande Mataram, as they have loved it for a century, regardless of its Constitutional status. It is the love of patriotic Hindus, not the statement of the Chairman, Constituent Assembly that has made Vande Mataram a national song.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bengal’s Communal Card

M J Akbar 

Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most self-destructive politician, was confident that he would never lose power until Birnam wood began to move.

Since it seemed highly unlikely that a whole forest would trot across towards his fortress, he lived in the complacent world of invincibility. 

Every government in Bengal is equally certain of survival till the Muslim vote begins to move against its citadel. The largest Muslim concentration in India is in Bengal; they constitute 28 per cent of the population, or twice the national average. The effective percentage is higher. Muslims, conscious of the strategic value of their vote, poll in higher numbers. Second, geography is on their side. They are concentrated in an eastern arc that rises from South 24 Parganas and develops demographic momentum in districts like Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. They make the difference in at least half of Bengal’s seats, if not more.

Quiz question: what is the Muslim vote in President Pranab Mukherjee’s former constituency? Above 65 per cent. Rub your eyes again at the next fact. Barring one instance in the 1950s, neither the Congress nor the Marxists have put up a Muslim candidate from this constituency, until the Left did so in last year’s by-election. 

Being a forest, this vote moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, but when it shifts the impact is decisive in Bengal. Till 1967, it supported the Congress. When the mood changed, United Front governments came to power. In 1971, it went back to Congress because of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but from 1977 it veered towards the Left and kept Marxists in power for over three decades. It now forms the vanguard of the Mamata Banerjee insurrection.

The decline in Mamata Banerjee’s urban popularity is evident to anyone who lives in or visits Calcutta. Calcutta has not returned to red yet, but the mood is belligerent. There is incipient nostalgia among the genteel bhadralok in particular for the last Marxist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who had the kind of soft public style that is considered good manners.

Mamata Banerjee is too interventionist, a one-woman occupation force rather than a government. She has not understood the art of surrendering space to colleagues, if for no other reason but to share the blame when things go wrong, as they always will. If you hog the spotlight, warts from elsewhere will drift onto your face. Her nature is confrontational. This wins applause when she dares a Goliath called Delhi. It seems shabby when her ire descends upon little men from Lilliput who crowd the media.

But slip outside the metropolis and you can smell and see the change in mood along with the environment. Rural Bengal, on either bank of the Hooghly river, is as serene as urban Bengal is squalid. As we drive up towards Shantiniketan, where Bengal pays homage to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore, there are only a few patches of the potholed past. On one short stretch, a 20th century road was still being laid over a 19th century surface through 18th century methods. But these villages and small towns that echo through the early phase of East India Company history, remain Mamata territory. The devastation of famine, which came with the British, may have become a nightmare of the past but poverty remains pervasive, visible in the low wages and darned lungis of labour.

It is this constituency of the poor that gives Mamata her political strength. But her true opportunity lies in an area of decision-making which is rarely discussed. Both Congress and Communists never lose a chance to claim secularism as their bread-and-butter creed, but neither has ever empowered Muslims when in government. In any other state a community with a minimum 30 per cent vote would have claimed the chief ministership. Forget that thought in Bengal. Neither Congress nor Communists have even given a Muslim an economic portfolio like finance. As a senior Marxist once told me, Bengali Muslims are considered good enough for only livestock.

So far Mamata Banerjee has remained within the conventional pattern. She has raised the political profile of some Muslim colleagues but that is not going to be enough for a community that is beginning to understand its power. If it continues to be taken for granted, fed with occasional tokenism, the forest will move much faster than before. Mamata Banerjee still has time. And time shall tell if she also has the will to be different.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

When Germany is Christian, is India Hindu?

(Denying One’s Own Roots)

By Maria Wirth

Though I live in India since long, there are still some points that I find hard to understand - for example why many educated Indians become agitated when India is considered as a Hindu country. The majority of Indians are Hindus. India is special because of its ancient Hindu tradition. Westerners are drawn to India because of it. Why then is there this resistance by many Indians to acknowledge the Hindu roots of their country?

This attitude is strange for two reasons. First, those educated Indians seem to have a problem only with ‘Hindu’ India, but not with ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ countries. In Germany for example, only 59 percent of the population are registered with the two big Christian Churches (Protestant and Catholic), however, the country is bracketed under ‘Christian countries’. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, stressed recently the Christian roots of Germany and urged the population ‘to go back to Christian values’. In 2012, she postponed her trip to the G-8 summit for a day to address the German Catholic Day. Two major political parties carry ‘Christian’ in their name, including Angela Merkel’s ruling party.

Germans are not agitated that Germany is called a Christian country, though I actually would understand if they were. After all, the history of the Church is appalling. The so called success story of Christianity depended greatly on tyranny.  “Convert or die”, were the options given not only to the indigenous population in America some five hundred years ago. In Germany, too, 1200 years ago, the emperor Karl the Great ordered the death sentence for refusal of baptism in his newly conquered realms. It provoked his advisor Alkuin to comment: ‘One can force them to baptism, but how to force them to believe?’

Those times, when one’s life was in danger if one dissented with the dogmas of the Church, are thankfully over. And nowadays many in the west do dissent and leave the Church in a steady stream - partly because they are disgusted with the less than holy behavior of Church officials and partly because they can’t believe in the dogmas, for example that ‘Jesus is the only way’ and that God sends all those who don’t accept this to hell.

And here comes the second reason why the resistance to associate India with Hinduism by Indians is difficult to understand. Hinduism is in a different category from the Abrahamic religions. Its history, compared to Christianity and Islam was undoubtedly the least violent as it spread in ancient times by convincing arguments and not by force. It is not a belief system that demands blind belief in dogmas and the suspension of one’s intelligence. On the contrary, Hinduism encourages using one’s intelligence to the hilt. It is an enquiry into truth, based on a refined (methods are given) character and intellect. It comprises a huge body of ancient literature, not only regarding Dharma and philosophy, but also regarding music, architecture, dance, science, astronomy, economics, politics, etc.

If Germany or any other western country had this kind of literary treasure, it would be so proud and highlight its greatness on every occasion. When I discovered for example the Upanishads, I was stunned. Here was expressed in clear terms what I intuitively had felt to be true, but could not have expressed clearly. Brahman is not partial; it is the invisible, indivisible essence in everything. Everyone gets again and again a chance to discover the ultimate truth and is free to choose his way back to it. Helpful hints are given but not imposed.

 In my early days in India, I thought that every Indian knew and valued his tradition. Slowly I realized that I was wrong. The British colonial masters had been successful in not only weaning away many of the elite from their ancient tradition but even making them despise it. It helped that the ‘educated’ class could no longer read the original Sanskrit texts and believed what the British told them. This lack of knowledge and the brainwashing by the British education may be the reason why many ‘modern’ Indians are against anything ‘Hindu’. They don’t realize the difference between western religions that have to be believed (or at least professed) blindly, and which discourage if not forbid their adherents to think on their own and the multi-layered Hindu Dharma which gives freedom and encourages using one’s intelligence.

Many of the educated class do not realize that on one hand, westerners, especially those who dream to impose their own religion on this vast country, will applaud them for denigrating Hindu Dharma, because this helps western universalism to spread in India. On the other hand, many westerners, including Church people, very well know the value and surreptitiously appropriate insights from the vast Indian knowledge system, drop the original source and present it either as their own or make it look as if these insights had been known in the west.

Rajiv Malhotra of Infinity Foundation has done painstaking research in this field and has documented many cases of “digestion” of Dharma civilization into western universalism. He chose the term digestion, as it implies that that which is being digested (a deer for example) is in the end no longer there, whereas the ‘digester’ (a tiger) becomes stronger. Similarly, Hindu civilization is gradually being depleted of its valuable, exclusive assets and what is left is called inferior.

If only missionaries denigrated Hindu Dharma, it would not be so bad, as they clearly have an agenda which discerning Indians would detect. But sadly, Indians with Hindu names assist them because they wrongly believe that Hinduism is inferior to western religions. They belittle everything Hindu instead of getting thorough knowledge. As a rule, they know little about their tradition except what the British told them, i.e. that the major features are caste system and idol worship. They don’t realize that India would gain, not lose, if it solidly backed its profound and all inclusive Hindu tradition. The Dalai Lama said some time ago that already as a youth in Lhasa, he had been deeply impressed by the richness of Indian thought. “India has great potential to help the world,” he added. When will the westernized Indian elite realize it?