Brinda Karat

Judging by the constitutionally questionable and wholly misplaced decision of the Maharashtra assembly to suspend Waris Pathan because he refused to say the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai, it would seem that the RSS has succeeded in reducing and trivialising the concept of nationalism to the acceptance of slogans that can be manipulated to promote a particular brand of Hindutva cultural nationalism.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said earlier this month that “Now the time has come when we have to tell the new generation to chant ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. It should be real, spontaneous and part of all-round development of the youth,” he said. He also accused “Some forces of telling the youth not to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.” As if on cue, Owaisi, the MP from Hyderabad and leader of the MIM, obliged by saying “You can hold a knife to my throat but I will not say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’…it is not written in the constitution.”

Thus the debate was framed and the country expected to take sides as to who is “right” and who “wrong.” And some did. AAP spokesman Ashutosh wrote of how Owaisi was way out of line and that “Anyone born and brought up in India should not object to saying ‘Bharat Mata i Jai’.” Javed Akhtar, writer, lyricist and a nominated Member of Parliament, in his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha, challenged Owaisi by saying the constitution did not ask Owaisi to wear a sherwani – yet he does. Akhtar chanted “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” several times in his speech and said “it is my right to do so.” Did anyone say it wasn’t? But he did not say whether it should be mandatory or not.

The Shiv Sena did. An editorial in mouthpiece Saamna asserted it is not a right but a duty which must be made mandatory; further, all those who do not say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”should be deprived of their citizenship, and so on and so forth.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a three-time parliamentarian from Hyderabad, has controversially declared that he will not chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai “even if you put a knife to my throat.”

How do you look at it? Do you wonder why the “Jai Hind” slogan made popular by the INA led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose should be considered any less “patriotic” than “Bharat Mata ki Jai” or for that matter “Bharat Ki Jai”? Suppose, for example, those who praise the killers of Gandhi say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” in the same breath – would that make them “nationalists”? Or if I choose instead, as I do, to say “Inquilab Zindabad” after a speech I make, or none of the above, does that make me anti-national?

The truth is that choosing between what Bhagwat says and what Owaisi answers is not the only choice that we have. We have to call out the hypocrisy intrinsic to the framing of the debate itself, because it is framed to suit the communal agenda of both the RSS and the MIM who feed into and on each other’s communal renderings of events at each and every opportunity.

The slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” resonates through the history of our freedom struggle, and is not and cannot be the property of the Sangh Parivar, not least because the Sangh Parivar was not in the least involved in India’s freedom struggle. While India’s freedom fighters were incarcerated in British jails, the votaries of Hindutva were busy inciting Indian against Indian, playing the British game of divide and rule.

But, why did Bhagwat choose to promote this specific slogan rather than any of the others given during the freedom struggle? The slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” was linked by the turn of the twentieth century with the depiction of an image of the nation in the form of a mother Goddess. Abanindranath Tagore’s pictorial presentation of Bharat Mata, the first such, was drawn largely from the image of Durga, the goddess worshipped across Bengal. The origins of the slogan itself have also been traced by many to Bengal to a play written by Kiran Chandra Bannerjee, staged in 1873, and then taken up by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his highly influential Anand Math, which also contained the verses of Vande Mataram. In both, the nation is linked to the mother, the Goddess to be worshipped.

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had said that the young people of India had to be taught to chant slogans in support of the country.

In 1905, the momentous struggle against the partition of Bengal, joined by Bengalis of all persuasions, had as their most powerful symbol that of India and Bengal as the mother Goddess who was being attacked by evil forces, and who had to be saved. This image and symbolism was used later and developed further by those outside Bengal in the national movement who believed that an appeal to religious revivalism was a crucial lever to rouse nationalist opinion against the British. Fortunately for India, this stream of religious revivalism in the national freedom struggle weakened, ironically in proportion to the mobilisation of the vast masses into struggles that brought the concerns of Indian workers, peasants, the toiling people into the cause of freedom, uniting multitudes with myriad slogans.

Whereas the origin of the slogan itself has a context and intention, it was and is sought to be linked with a specific agenda. The RSS and its cohorts found the conflation of the image of a mother –  and then to that of a Hindu Goddess – with the nation, and the parallel slogan of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” an easy short cut to promote its slogan of Hindu rashtra. That is why for Bhagwat, this slogan gets privileged above the rest.

The idea of India means many things to different people. Nationalism cannot be reduced to a slogan or to a binary; there are many more fundamental issues involved.

Can there be a nationalism divorced from social justice, from democratic and secular values, the core of our constitution? Can there be a nationalism divorced from the concept of national sovereignty that is every day under assault by those who owe allegiance to international treaties that weaken the very foundations of a strong, self-reliant nation? Do not the obscene social inequalities that are increasing in India reflect policies that deeply divide and weaken the nation, and could thus be considered anti- national?

But today under the BJP-RSS, the power of the State and its institutions are being used to promote narrow, sectarian and wholly partisan interpretations of what constitutes nationalism. Right-wing driven nationalism is based on unquestioning allegiance and obedience in the name of the nation, much like the so-called loyalty expected by monarchs. Questions of what a country does forms no part if this debate. They see the nation in the prism of their concept of the Hindu rashtra, distinct from the people, their suffering, their dreams, their aspirations. Owaisi, with his own sectarian and fundamentalist-based politics, takes advantage to further divide, to attempt to mobilise the minority community on the basis of fundamentalist interpretations of what is “permissible” in Islam.

The politics represented by Mohan Bhagwat and Owaisi are two sides of the same coin. They both seek to polarize society into narrow, windowless compartments, the structure of which is determined by their own sectarian interpretations of religion and religious identity. But there is a difference. As Nehru had once stated, that whereas both minority and majority communalism are bad, the latter is more dangerous as it masquerades as nationalism.

This is precisely what the BJP- RSS seek to do today: parade their majoritarian communalism as nationalism. We should say no to both. As for slogans, we have the national anthem, we have the constitution. Nothing else is or can be made mandatory, no one can force you to say this or that slogan, least of all as a representation of nationalism.

If you want to say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, do so; if you prefer “Jai Hind”, that’s okay too; if you don’t like either, it does not make you anti-national. If you believe that your greatest patriotic duty is to fight for revolution, say “Inquilab Zindabad”. Any brand of nationalism which links the future of the nation to the imposition of any one particular religious belief or cultures emanating from it does damage to the interests of our people and weakens India.