Is it compulsory for every citizen of India to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”? Obviously it is not. As Asaduddin Owaisi, the ebullient and often provocative leader of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), says, this is not a condition called for in the Constitution. In that narrow, technical sense he is right. Yet, it is not the language and precise wording of that sentiment that is the only issue of relevance here. The Constitution obligates every citizen (“We, the People of India…”) to a certain commitment to India — the nation, the country, the collective, the Republic, the civilisation, call it what you will, of which that Constitution is an embodiment. Some choose to express that commitment by using “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, a simple yet evocative phrase that has resonance for many thousands and millions of Indians and goes back to the freedom movement and the larger enterprise of nation-building under the Mahatma.
Others may prefer “Vande Mataram” or use the Urdu “Madre Vatan” instead. Still others may offer their “Salaam” to “Sar Zameen-e-Hindustan”, or use the pithy coinage of Subhas Chandra Bose: “Jai Hind”. A younger generation may get goose pimples listening to A.R. Rahman’s electrifying Maa tujhe salaam… — composed and sung for the 50th anniversary of Independence in 1997. There could be those who may not use any of these terms at all but still show their commitment to India and the Constitution by simply and silently doing what they do best — working hard, paying taxes and living honest lives. Each one is free to choose.
Having said that, while that commitment to India and its Constitution may not expressly demand that one stand up each morning and chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” — or any of the other phrases mentioned above — does it give anyone the right to deliberately mock those for whom such an expression is dear, revered and deeply felt? That is the key question, the answer to which must put Mr Owaisi in the dock. He has been egregiously offensive and has manufactured and instigated a controversy where none existed, as well as sought to design a denominational quarrel on an issue that doesn’t bother most ordinary Muslims at all. His unstated implication, that to have citizens who may be Muslim say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is an insidious attempt to force idol worship on them, is so ridiculous that even many of his co-religionists have been left exasperated.
Just what is a “Muslim issue” — that is, a concern that genuinely affects religious sensibilities of Muslims and interrupts the manner in which they practice their faith? Let us go back 25 years, to the spring and early summer of 1991. India was preparing for a mid-term election, in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission announcement, the rath yatra and the Congress’ decision to withdraw support to Chandra Shekhar’s short-lived government. It was a pulsating political season that saw a genuine ideological contest between very different concepts of India and of nationhood.
In the midst of all this, a Janata Dal politician — among the Asaduddin Owaisis of his age, if you get my drift — began a campaign to have the film Hum banned. A film that in effect began the second phase of Amitabh Bachchan’s career — putting him in senior roles, rather than as the proverbial “Angry Young Man” — Hum had just been released and featured a popular and catchy song Jumma chumma de de… The song sequence had the hero serenading the woman he was wooing — she was called Jumma — and asking her for a kiss, as she had apparently promised, on Jumma (Friday).
Jumma or Friday is sacred in Islam and is the day of congregational prayer. According to that Janata Dal politician of 1991, the song was deeply offensive to Muslims and had caused outrage and anger in the community. As such it needed to be banned or acted upon in some manner by the government. His claim was absolute nonsense. This writer lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the time, in a neighbourhood that had a substantial Muslim population. There were Muslims from a variety of social strata, ranging from the local paanwallah to a distinguished professor of history at the University of Calcutta. The song was frequently heard in the neighbourhood (as were other popular songs of the period) and there was so sense of “anger” or “outrage”. There is little reason to believe it was different in other mohallas elsewhere in the country. As can be expected, the silly controversy lasted only a few days. It gave the politician in question his 15 minutes of fame and then had him quietly moving on.
A film song and a slogan offering salutations to and expressing empathy with India are very different. It is not the intention to either compare these or place them on the same pedestal, not at all. However, the point remains that Muslim leaders like Mr Owaisi do the Indian Muslim enormous injustice by resorting to such gimmicks. In that he has been as dishonest as his Janata Dal predecessor of 1991. Mr Owaisi is an articulate man and a frequent face on news television. Frankly, though, the national media tends to treat him with kid gloves. The inability to interrogate him or ask him harder questions has been disappointing. This may be due to absence of desire, or perhaps to an individual mediaperson’s inadequate engagement with history outside of a quick Google search.
Consider the contradiction. Mr Owaisi attacks the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Right, accusing it of “forcing its ideology” on others. His intellectual auxiliaries make references to 70 or 80-year-old quotes of RSS personalities, which may appear angular and unacceptable in a contemporary context, and ask whether the current leadership of the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party believes in them. Fair enough.
Has anyone cared to ask Mr Owaisi whether he subscribes to the letter and text of Qasim Razvi, the founder of the MIM and commander of the Razakar militia, who can only politely be described as a bigot and a religious fanatic? Could Mr Owaisi tell us if he is willing to repudiate Qasim Razvi? The response would be revealing.
The author is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com