Saturday, November 7, 2009

To sing or not to sing?

Its funny season again in Indian politics. The latest controversy to preoccupy our television media is the fatwa issued by the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind against the national song, Vande Mataram. The resolution asking Muslims not to sing the national song was passed at the national convention of the Jamiat, one of the largest groups of Muslim clerics in India, held at Darul Uloom Deoband, one the largest Muslim seminaries in South Asia. It was attended by Home Minister P Chidambaram. Now this is the kind of news that makes the nearly down and out BJP drool in anticipation. The BJP has condemned 2 different aspects of this bit of news. Obviously they have taken issue with the JEU for issuing the fatwa. And they are probably rubbing their hands in glee that no less than the Home Minister was at this convention. Mr Chidambaram has of course since distanced himself from the fatwa. The JEU however have taken refuge in the Constitution and the freedom of religious expression provided to every Indian therein. “Some of its lines are of course against the religious principles of Islam. We cannot bow before anybody other than the Allah. It is un-Islamic”, said Moulana Muizuddin of the Jamiat.

Written by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in response to the British Government making the singing of God Save the Queen compulsory, Vande Mataram was so successful in inspiring freedom fighters at the time, that the British at one time banned the utterance of the cry in public forums. The song, in its later stanzas, compares Mother India to Goddess Durga and therefore was unacceptable as the National Anthem to some of India’s more orthodox Muslims. So as a concession, Jana Gana Mana was adopted as the National Anthem and only the 1st two stanzas of Vande Mataram which describe the beauty of India, was adopted as the National Song. The idea of a National Song or National Anthem or any of our other symbols of nationalism is to inspire pride and patriotism in our citizens. And as a nation we need as many proud and patriotic Indians as we can inspire. Given the historical import of the Vande Mataram and its role in our freedom struggle and the concessions that have already been made to Muslim sensitivities, I’m not really sure what the JEU was taking exception to. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression to all citizens of India, a right that reflects the secular intentions of the people who framed it and the greatness of the Indian nation. Vande Mataram sings paeans to that greatness. To refuse to sing that song because it invites you to pay respects to Mother India, is the worst kind of narrow minded communalist sentiment. And to call this song un-Islamic is, in my view at least, anti-Indian.

Now it’s a whole different story if, as BJP governments in the past have done, someone makes the singing of Vande Mataram compulsory. The whole idea of being a democracy is that one has the freedom to do or not do what one chooses as long as it stays within the limits of the law and does not impinge on one’s neighbour’s freedoms. I don’t think the singing of the national song should be made compulsory just as I don’t think a fatwa should be issued advising Indian Muslims that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic. Its offensive to the sensibilities of a large number of people who prefer to see themselves as Indians first. Javed Akhtar put it best when he said he would not sing a single verse of the song if the BJP made it compulsory but would publicly sing the whole song including its un-Islamic later verses if a fatwa is issued against it.

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