Vande Mataram: India’s “national song” splits Hindus, Muslims

Vande Mataram: India’s “national song” splits Hindus, Muslims September 4, 2006
And sing like you mean it

Though Hindus are overwhelming majority of India’s billion-plus population, the country’s secular-minded framework has sought (sometimes in theory alone) not to alienate any of its many minorities, chief among them over 154 million Muslims (nearly as many as in neighbouring Muslim-dominated Pakistan). September 7th is the 100th anniversary of “Vande Mataram” (“Hail to the Mother(land)!“), a loose approximation of America’s “Pledge of Allegiance” and former contender for India’s national anthem, used often during campaigns to free India (and pre-partition Pakistan, for that matter) from British colonial rule. A campaign to urge schoolchildren across India to sing the song has stirred controversy, with some Muslim schools, supported by Muslim institutions, refusing to sing it on the grounds that it invokes the worship of Hindu deities, specifically Durga. Although “Vande Mataram” mostly praises India’s geography, the title can be translated to “I bow to thee, mother,” which clashes with Muslim traditions of bowing only to God. However, despite their theological concerns, leading Muslim bodies such as the Darul Uloom Deoband have steered clear of the issue, saying that Muslims were “being unnecessarily dragged into the Vande Mataram controversy,” according to DUD leader Maulana Margoobur Rehman, adding that there was no need to question Muslims about their patriotism or issue a fatwa against the song (though they did issue a fatwa calling Hindu-nationalist BJP party leaders “anti-Muslim” for deriding Muslim non-participants). The Muslim body had earlier called for Muslim students to stay away from school, but later reversed its position. Other prominent Muslims have used the issue to express their patriotism anyway, including the famous Indian Muslim musician and composer A.R. Rahman, who recorded a popular modern version of the song in 1998. Secular-minded Hindus and Muslims still feel uneasy with the religious imagery (as many in the US do about religious references in public life), though defenders insist it’s not a prayer. “This is just a salaam or namaskar to Mother Earth and everybody does it in his own way,” says Madhya Pradesh Governor Balram Jakhar. “In the song it is ‘vande’ [namaskar or salute] and not ‘vandana’ [prayer].” Although the Indian government says singing “Vande” is optional, the BJP says otherwise, mandating compulsory use (in tune or not) in states where it governs. “There should be no compromising attitude on the national song,” said BJP leader LK Advani. “Showing respect to national symbols cannot be made optional.” Schools in Mumbai and elsewhere have agreed to start singing the song this week along with the occasional madrassa (finding the few that do appears to be a priority). Though the issue could be over once the first two stanzas of the song are sung, the political ramifications could continue. “Rendition of the national song should not be equated with patriotism of Muslims who have always been honest in their duty towards the nation,” said Muslim religious leader Moulana Quttubiddin Rizvi. “Giving it a political colour will only spoil young minds who are the future of our nation.”

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England.

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