Jawaharlal Nehru believed that there were no orphans in India because Mother India, Bharat Mata, was mother to them all. If so, she must be a heartless parent with so many innocent little children dying one after another in a Uttar Pradesh hospital while our ostentatious patriots are trying to thrust Vande Mataram down people’s throats. The title of the stirring song from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel, Ananda Math, meaning “I bow down to thee, Mother” makes the coincidence seem even more cruel this Independence Day.
This won’t trouble Raj Purohit, the Maharashtra BJP legislator who set the ball rolling, since he admits he doesn’t know the words or tune. In fact, one wonders how many of the men and women who stood up with the Rajya Sabha’s new Chairman, Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu, flanked by a couple of turbaned chaprassis left over from the British Raj, while Vande Mataram was played knew that Ananda Math is significant for its historical context. Only prisoners of the past still fighting the East India Company can invest it with contemporary relevance. Our national anthem which is resonating today throughout the land is Jana Gana Mana. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge should have to explain himself. But the Rajya Sabha singsong mischievously projected an inaccurate picture of national priorities.
Despite boastful official statistics, this is a largely illiterate country. The multitude doesn’t read party manifestoes; it votes for the Lotus, the Hand or the Hammer and Sickle which it identifies with particular leaders. According primacy and publicity to Bankim’s song could incite the gangs that lynch men on the merest suspicion of eating beef or killing cows to barge into schools and check whether the directives of the Madras high court or the Maharashtra government are being obeyed. Woe betide anyone who doesn’t at once jump to attention and belt out “Vande Mataram!” We have seen variants of such mobocracy in the vandalism over Valentine’s Day and attacks on bars and discos. Patriotic parliamentary demonstrations might also further encourage ultra-nationalist TV anchors who peremptorily order any Indian who is reluctant to indulge in flamboyant gestures to be banished to Pakistan.
What all this means for Indian Muslims I don’t know. Reading that droves of them voted for the BJP in UP, I was reminded of Lal Krishna Advani telling me years ago that his sources had told him Muslims knew where they were with the BJP and therefore felt more comfortable with the saffron party than with Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. I tried to test this when lunching once with Atal Behari Vajpayee and the late Sikander Bakht in Singapore by asking the latter why he had joined the BJP. Bakht began to explain that the BJP was the only party he could join when Vajpayee cut him short with “Why bother explaining? He knows it all but only writes against us!” So I shall never know. But I do know that while songs and symbols are not important enough to risk a breach with India’s second biggest religious community, the resultant controversy distracts attention from the task of reconstruction that a government so committed to blowing its own trumpet neglects.
Seeing the Muslim question as really a Hindu question, Nehru feared what he called the minority complex of the majority. At a more mundane level the Muslim question is the question of underdevelopment that Rajinder Sachar’s 403-page report succinctly summed up in 2006. Not only do Muslims lag behind Hindus in every social welfare index but, ironically, they are most backward in secular West Bengal where for 34 years the ruling Left Front depended as heavily as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress does today on the votes of the 27 per cent Muslim minority. Justice Sachar highlighted that while Muslims constitute 14 per cent of India’s population, they only comprise 2.5 per cent of the bureaucracy. His report concluded that the socio-economic condition of Indian Muslims is below that of even the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
There is no denying that this is at least partly because Muslims won’t take advantage of the opportunities on offer, usually under the guidance of religious leaders who attach more importance to ritual than to welfare. That only adds to the government’s responsibility to explain, persuade and ensure that 175 million Indians don’t lag behind the rest when it comes to education, employment, health and housing. The fact that East Bengal Muslims were in every respect worse off than Hindus may have had some bearing on their opting for Pakistan in 1947. Revealingly, East Pakistan abolished zamindari long before West Bengal did. History’s economic motivation should never be underestimated.
Returning to songs and slogans, it is worth recalling that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who celebrated the first Independence Day in what was then Calcutta, was mortified to learn that European residents of the city were being forced to chant the blessings of swaraj. He ended his short prayer talk on August 15, 1947 by asking the local people to “treat Europeans who stayed in India with the same regard as they would expect for themselves.” That applies even more to Muslims who preferred the promise of a secular democratic India to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s theocracy. Their plight demands a fresh commitment this Independence Day to the controversial word “azadi” and its reinterpretation to include Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — of Speech and Worship and from Want and Fear.
The shameful deaths of children in the UP chief minister’s own constituency cannot be reconciled with the bonding of love and reverence that the Vande Mataram slogan implies. Children are a nation’s future. If their lives can’t be safeguarded the independence we are supposed to be celebrating today is of little account....