It was very nice that Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his tenure by terming the Indian Parliament as a temple of democracy even though the temple analogy could have been avoided. Everything pristine needn’t be compared to a place of religious worship. Parliament can also be depicted as the finest debating society or a spectacular social and legislative laboratory. In almost two years that he has been in office, Mr Modi has rarely broken his silence on occasions when he most needed to. One such rare intervention was in Lok Sabha in November 2015, during the course of the special two-day long debate to commemorate Constitution Day and the 125th birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He said “India first” is the only religion and Constitution the only “Holy Book” for his government. History is laced with conflicts between different groups, each following their own Holy Book. Coming from Mr Modi, his adherence to a secular text was a welcome development.
India is currently weathering a tempest over the demand that citizens must shout “Bharat Mata ki Jai” whenever asked because this is among their constitutional duties. Till the time such statements were made by a few on the extreme fringe in the ruling party, it was fine and justifiable. But this has become state policy now. It is official because of the political resolution passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party at its national executive meet. The resolution, not even craftily worded because the message has to be clearly conveyed, crassly affirms: “...refusal to hail Bharat — say Bharat Mata ki Jai — in the name of freedom is also unacceptable. Our Constitution describes India as Bharat also; refusal to chant victory to Bharat tantamounts to disrespect to our Constitution itself.”
This resolution was explicated by finance minister Arun Jaitley who declared that there could be no debate on this issue. “Freedom of expression and nationalism do necessarily co-exist,” he added.
However, Mr Jaitley overlooked the fact that freedom of expression also allows opportunity for dissent but this government is not comfortable with the idea of protests. Moreover, if you allow freedom of speech, you cannot dictate which version of nationalism should be acceptable to all. Indeed, there can be no officially framed criteria to judge the patriotism of citizens. What the Bharatiya Janata Party suggests is similar to Stalinist nations of the past or North Korea where state-approved haircuts are mandatory to display loyalty to the nation and the leader.
The BJP has undermined the “Holy Book”. Mr Jaitley has got it completely wrong. “India, that is Bharat…” is the way the Constitution defined the nation. His sentiment is patriotic when he says that no one should declare that s(he) would not chant for the victory of India or Bharat, and he is entitled to it. But nowhere in the Constitution is it mentioned that Bharat and Bharat Mata are synonyms or identical concepts. One is a cultural idea or belief and the other is a constitutional entity. We are duty bound to respect India as this entity and not as goddess.
The BJP has been on an ultra-nationalistic overdrive since the incident in Jawaharlal Nehru University provided the party with a chance to convert a setback in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide into an advantage. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, introduced the idea that new generations should be taught to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” in the ultra-nationalistic discourse that the Sangh Parivar churned out. Many things are now considered anti-national — asking whether Afzal Guru was provided fair trial or not, pointing out that Indian security forces do not have a clean human rights record in Kashmir, Manipur and other north eastern states and questioning brutal repression of members of civil society in Chhattisgarh. Why even raising tough environmental matters is enough to be branded anti-development and therefore a traitor. While it had already become tough to prove one’s loyalty to the nation if one was a critic of the present regime, it has now become an even tougher task after Mr Bhagwat’s call for universalising the chanting of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
Peculiarly, so preoccupied were non-BJP parties with reaping benefits from the twin issues in the two campuses, that Mr Bhagwat’s blatantly sectarian call was ignored till his counterpart in the other community, Asaduddin Owaisi, grabbed headlines with his provocative rejection of Mr Bhagwat’s call. The so-called secular parties — and most significantly the Congress Party — kowtowed to pressure from the Sangh Parivar and when the matter surfaced in an ugly manner in the Maharashtra Assembly, these parties cast their lot with the dominant view to suspend the legislator who insisted that no one could force him to shout a slogan not mandated in the Constitution.
The nation as goddess is a 20th century interpolation in the political discourse. Originating in Bengal, the image as visualised now was first imagined by Abanindranath Tagore in his painting of a four-handed Hindu goddess. This idea travelled to other parts of the country and became the core philosophy of Hindu sectarian forces when V.D. Savarkar wrote his treatise in Andaman jail. “A Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsh from the Indus to the Seas as his Pitribhoomi or Matriboomi as well as his Holy Land that is the cradle of his religion”, he wrote. Fatherland or motherland were interchangeable concepts for Savarkar. After establishing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, K.B. Hedgewar gave it the organisation’s signature codes like uniform, weapons and prayer. The daily hymn which kickstart shakhas and every function even today — “Namaste Sada Vatsale Matrubhume”... — posits Bharat is a goddess, referred as motherland and ends with “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
The demand that everyone must chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not aimed at reiterating loyalty to the nation but is a political ploy. Just as no non-BJP party or leader should demand a ban on the chant, insisting that this should become the official salutation to the nation also reeks of sectarianism. In his recent address at the World Sufi Forum, Mr Modi said India was home to even non-believers and agnostics. A similar reading of his “Holy Book” when it comes to how the nation is to be addressed — as goddess or otherwise — would also be in order.