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Understanding Muslim opposition to Vande Mataram

The recent controversy on Vande Mataram isn’t about whether singing/ respecting it alone makes one patriotic, as many pseudo-secularists would want us to believe. Of course, respect cannot be imposed. And in a free country, anybody can decline to sing a particular song - however revered - because of any number of reasons, reasonable or not.

Briefly the opposition to Vande Mataram hinges on:

  • The song worships the nation as Mother India and Goddess Durga. First, it goes against the basic Islamic tenet of Allah being the only worshipable entity. Second, it worships an idolized form of India, again against Islamic tenets where idolatry is strictly prohibited. Third, with its allusion to Hindu symbols more than explicit, it personifies Hindu cultural nationalism and doesn’t strike an emotive chord with Muslims.
  • The poem appears in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Anandamath, which calls for Hindu nationalism to uproot Turko-Afghan Islamic imperialism in Bengal while it’s struggling against the ascendant British power. (the book’s plot is set in 1771, although it was published in 1882).

To these, my arguments are:

  • The Sanskrit word for worship, puja, has several connotations and is used to denote devotion to anybody or anything. Its usage isn’t restricted to devotion to God alone. Thus we have use words like Guru-puja, Vriksha-puja, pitrudeva puja etc. where devotion and respect are implied. Muslims surely respect their symbols too like the mosques, tombs, book etc. and are devoted to the learned, parents and saints.  
  • Seen in this context, all that’s being asked is to respect the sentiment behind the song - not necessarily the song itself (which is a masterpiece in use of Classical Bengali). Also, every nation has its ethos steeped in its history which is frequently evoked for emotive purposes, not necessarily because they’re factual or politically correct ideas. Sample “God Save the King” (Britain) or "The Star Spangled Banner” (USA); they originated from a historical perspective that’s no longer relevant. Thousands of revolutionaries happily treaded their path to martyrdom with Vande Mataram on their lips. That’s the sentiment which needs to be respected - not frowned upon or rejected.
  • A cursory read at the Anandamath’s Wikipedia entry shows that it’s the fight against British that’s central to the novel. Some anti-Islamic sentiments are found - but they’re set in the context of Bengal’s Muslim rulers’ atrocities against Hindus. It’s clear that the author was expressing his angst against the previous rulers, not commoners.

But these in turn direct our attention to why the song is not seen as Indian song devoid of religious prism.

"Indian MUSLIMS"? Aren’t they "Muslim INDIANS"?

One thing that should concern every self-respecting Indian is coining of the word “Indian Muslims” to identify those Indians who happen to be Muslims. Semantics matter, tremendously.

The adjective refers to sub-identity while the noun indicates main-identity.

Media uses “Indian Muslims” and most Muslims in India self-identify themselves as such. It’s probable that this usage isn’t intentional and people are merely continuing a norm without bothering to question it. But this is a telling example of pan-Islamic identity that theoretically puts your relationship with a gross outsider thousands of miles from your home above your relations with your neighbour (who’s a non-Muslim). The usage implies that being a Muslim is the primary identity and being Indian is merely incidental.

And this has been the problem that has plagued India since ages. The first active involvement of Muslims in Indian freedom movement is most ironically Khilafat movement - aimed at restoring Turkish Caliphate which was annulled due to British victory in World War I. Thus, what concerned the agitators weren’t local grievances or British misrule in India; it in fact had nothing to do with India at all. Rather, they identified themselves with a Caliph thousands of miles away from India and with whom they shared no ethnical / national bond.

Cut to present, Indian Muslims protest the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar at Azad Maidan, Mumbai in 2012 and desecrate Indian Amar Jawan memorial, dedicated to Indian army martyrs. Why should Muslims from India protest against killings in Myanmar with whom they’re barely related and create havoc to their fellow Indians? And while desecrating an Army memorial, aren’t they disrespecting the very institution that gave them the freedom to live fearlessly in the first place?

Contrast this with how diverse Americans identify themselves: African American, Arab American, Asian American, European American, Latino American, Native American etc. Notice that they identify themselves - first and foremost - as Americans.

Why Indian Secularism is at fault

The pan-Islam identity is aggravated by the perverted implementation of secularism in India. A secular government by definition should have nothing to do with religion. It doesn’t require respecting all religions equally as practiced in India. It needs to be totally indifferent to citizen’s identity as a follower of religion. In practice this should mean that Indian government shouldn’t have religion-specific policies like reservation, special packages etc. It needs to treat all citizens as Indians only and its functioning shouldn’t be influenced by one’s religion.

But in reality, the Indian version of secularism recognizes minorities as minorities, not minorities as individuals. State-sponsored segregation of Indians on religious basis turns the idea of secularism on its head. By practicing this, the state decides to govern citizens based on their religion rather than treating them as Indians above all who may possess multi-layered identities. This is akin to Pakistan’s official policy of denying Ahmediyas the right to call themselves Muslims because the state decides who’s a true Muslim.

This flawed understanding makes media denounce those Muslims, who’re critical of this opposition to Vande Mataram, as “token” Muslims. Why can’t a Muslim subscribe to views of his own and still remain a true Muslim? Why loyalty to religion is doubted if one’s opinions don’t match the mainstream one.

Also, this prevents State from protecting an individual's freedom just because he belongs to a community. In the classic Shah Bano Case, a Muslim woman was denied justice per modern liberal law, simply because she was a Muslim and fundamentalists believed that her case should be decided per Shariah [Islamic laws] . How can a state call itself secular when it bends to fundamentalists who insist [and usually succeed] that they should be ruled through laws of Shariah rather than Uniform Civil Code.

Why was Anna Hazare’s movement labelled as not secular simply because it didn’t have Muslim presence? Any movement comprises individuals who’re united by a common cause - why should one include Muslims merely to get the secular certificate? If any Indian is interested, he’ll join; else let him be indifferent. Why identify the participants as Hindus or Muslims when their stated aim has nothing to do with religion at all ?

Only in India, is a CM like Narendra Modi, who always speaks only for 6 crore Gujaratis and doesn’t pander to any group is called “communal”; whereas Congress CMs who openly offer doles to different groups and divide them are called “secular”.

Thanks to votebank politics, many politicians pander to minority appeasement and cause friction amongst communities. Note that it was secular India that banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses even before the Islamic countries. The Da Vinci Code (movie) was banned in India to cater to Christian sentiments whereas nations where they’re the majority released them without problem. Through Shah Bano case, our government demonstrated that it’s willing to even bend law to appease its votebase notwithstanding its grave implications to our secular fabric.

Its time Indians are treated as just Indians - and their other identities are made irrelevant as far as State’s policies are concerned. The problem with Vande Mataram wouldn’t have arisen had those opposing it identified themselves as Indians first and then Muslims. If they don’t like, they can simply bear it and excuse themselves from the place after it’s sung. Why hurt others' sentiments in the process?

“What if, one’s patriotism is judged by their readiness to eat pork or beef?”  few ask. This is a false parallel for nobody is hurt by a person’s insistence to not eat pork or beef. This is their personal choice and as long as there is no deliberate attempt to cause mischief, this has seldom caused trouble in India. Lakhs of people consume these items daily, and barely anybody bothers.

I really hope that Muslims of India start calling and considering themselves Muslim Indians.


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