Rabindranath Tagore’s hopes for India, from his Gitanjali
Today is India’s independence day, for 66 years ago the country freed itself from British rule, and for the first time actually became a nation, even as its people were torn asunder in one of the bloodiest, but somehow least talked about passages of violence in the history of the incredibly bloody 20th century. A nation whose history, for all its Gandhian non-violence, started in blood, and remains quite bloody with wars aflame both within and without. A nation that is a multitude of nations, where your identity starts with your language, your caste, your village, your region, yet one where a resurgent militant nationalism is being hammered into us from all directions on this independence day. I can hear the chants of Vande Mataram from the windows of my sister’s flat in Thane, where citizens of the housing society are milling about celebrating this independence day with a local flag hoisting and performances and competitions among local children.
Yes, it is Vande Mataram echoing through the windows, a chant that since its inception has been used by gatherings of people to “work themselves up into a patriotic fervour by shouting the slogan “Vande Mataram”, or “Hail to the Mother(land)!“, originally a challenge to “Hail to the Queen”! A chant that also started out as part of an invocation of Goddess Durga, and an expression of Bengali nationalism. Which is largely why the secular minded leadership of the Indian National Congress only accepted the first two verses as a national song, and eventually adopted Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana as the official national anthem. Tagore, who was one of the first to sing Vande Mataram in the context of the Indian freedom struggle, at the 1896 Calcutta Congress Session, later offered this nuanced critique of the song:
“The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim] can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’ [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram—proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate. When Bengali Mussulmans show signs of stubborn fanaticism, we regard these as intolerable. When we too copy them and make unreasonable demands, it will be self-defeating.”
And so Tagore’s song became the national anthem for a nation with secular aspirations, and remains a reminder of that legacy. Yet the spirit of its sibling national song seems to resonate more now in an India many of whose citizens seem eager to shed that cloak of secularism and embrace a more militant Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile the official national anthem too is used, in a manner Goebbels would have approved, to whip up patriotic fervor everywhere, from the cinema multiplex in Bombay’s malls to the television in our living rooms. It has been the law (intermittently) in some states to play the national anthem before every every movie screening, in between advertisements for dental hygiene products and the latest masala fare whipped up by B/T/H-ollywood. Recent versions are accompanied by über-jingoistic visuals that start with scenes of army jawans hoisting the flag in the snowy wastes of Siachen where far too many of them have also shed blood for far too little but nationalistic pride. And the expectation during these cinematic renderings of the anthem is that everyone in the audience stand up in respect, or be subject to abuse, even if they are not citizens of India. One has to wonder how effective this has been, however, given the ill-will and strife prevalent between different communities and regions within this nation.
Meanwhile, on the telly, this independence day started with speeches (from the Prime Minister on down) and parades designed to show off the nation’s military might. Never mind that today’s jingoistic military display came in the wake of a horrific tragedy last night when the fully armed torpedoes in an Indian navy submarine accidentally blew up in Bombay harbor killing 18 crew members. Not exactly the kind of fireworks that should have lit up the skies of south Bombay for independence day.
Independence day fireworks over Bombay harbor? Not exactly…
Interspersed among news coverage of the parades and last night’s tragedy, and “independence day special” broadcasts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in between commercials for axe body spray and “red bull gives you wings”, even the telly exhorts us to stand up for the national anthem many times throughout the day. I wonder how many people actually stand up in their living rooms in front of the idiot box, welling with patriotic pride…
I can’t help but think we would have been much better off as a people, as citizens of a peaceful, inclusive republic, had we heeded the other thoughts Tagore had on the concept of nationalism, for instance in his speeches in America over a century ago:
In spite of our great difficulty, however, India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity. This basis has come through our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all races of India.
In finding the solution of our problem we shall have helped to solve the world problem as well. What India has been, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.
He went on to add:
A parallelism exists between America and India – the parallelism of welding together into one body various races.
In my country, we have been seeking to find out something common to all races, which will prove their real unity. No nation looking for a mere political or commercial basis of unity will find such a solution sufficient. Men of thought and power will discover the spiritual unity, will realize it, and preach it.
India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.
Alas, in the more than hundred years since he spoke these words, we have progressed, if anything, farther away from his ideals, and deeper into the slumber from which he hoped this nation of many nations would awake “into that heaven of freedom“:
WHERE THE mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.