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Indian Song, Controversy Turn 100

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Across India today, they're singing Vande Mataram, that's India's national song. It's not India's national anthem, that's another song, though both songs have equal status. The Indian government has decided that today is Vande Mataram centenary. However, celebrations are being overshadowed by traditional conflicts between India's majority Hindus and minority Muslims.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi.

PHILIP REEVES: India has been arguing about the song Vande Mataram since before the age of the motorcar, now it's flared up again with a debate that touches on the country's most sensitive fault line - relations between its Hindus and Muslims. It's reached the streets.

Mr. FAISAL OLA(ph) (Resident): (Speaking Foreign Language)

REEVES: I'm not singing that song, says Faisal Ola, a Muslim student in New Delhi. I'm not supposed to because of my religion.

The latest controversy kicked off when an Indian government minister suddenly decided Vande Mataram should be sung by all the peoples in India's schools today to mark the centenary. He eventually backtracked but the government's largest political opponent, the Hindu nationalist BJP Party, took up the issue. It demanded the singsong goes ahead. In his busy office in New Delhi, BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar brushes aside calls for singing to be optional.

Mr. PRAKASH JAVADEKAR (Spokesman, BJP Party): Optional is absurd. How it can be national symbol cannot be optional. No country allows that anybody should show disrespect. Not singing is a disrespect, and that no country will allow.

(Soundbite of Vande Mataram)

Professor PUSHPESH PANT (Jawaharlal Nehru University): It is really a beautiful song. It paints word pictures of India - sujalam suphalam, shasyashyaamalam, and so on. Shiit Mataram vande, which means all lush green fields of swift flowing streams, Mother, I praise thee, I salute thee.

REEVES: That's Professor Pushpesh Pant of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. Those last few words he quotes, Mother, I salute or bow to thee, are why some of India's Muslim religious leaders say they have a problem with the song. They say Islam only permits the worship of one God, and that God is not the motherland. They also object because Vande Mataram was written as a hymn to the Hindu goddess Durga.

The dispute is the latest installment in Vande Mataram's long and exotic stories. Over the years, debate over its status and meaning drew in India's founding fathers, Gandhi and Neru.

(Soundbite of British national anthem)

CHOIR: God save our gracious King. Long live our noble King. God save our King. Send him victorious, happy and glorious. Long to reign over us. God save our King.

REEVES: Vande Mataram dates back to the days when India was part of the British Empire. And when this is what the British monarch expected his subject to sing.

(Soundbite of British national anthem)

CHOIR: Send him victorious, happy and glorious. Long to reign over us. God save our King.

REEVES: Vande Mataram came to prominence when it appeared as a poem in a novel in 1881 by the Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Banned by the British, it became popular in Bengal and by the turn of the century, spread beyond that. Professor Pushpesh Pant says the song became a rallying cry for those fighting British rule, people known to the Brits as terrorists.

Professor PANT: There have been countless people who gave up their lives. They literally walked to the gallows singing the song with a very familiar tune.

(Soundbite of Vande Mataram)

Professor PANT: And people defied British rule by just simply saying Vande Mataram, I salute thee, my mother - in this case, my motherland.

REEVES: Eventually, the song took on sectarian overtones, though political commentator Imtiaz Ahmed - himself a Muslim - says many of India's Muslims have willing sung Vande Mataram.

Mr. IMTIAZ AHMED (Political Commentator): I remember very well, as a school going boy, I would sing it in the school assemblies. It didn't bother me because after all there is an exercise of freedom of choice that I have.

REEVES: Ahmed believes the key issue is the right of an individual - Muslims or otherwise - to make that choice.

Mr. AHMED: The very idea of a group within the society rising and saying that you must sing this song, and that it is a hallmark of your nationalism and patriotism, is something that goes against the very grain of democracy. And I wish, therefore, that the Muslims had really anchored their opposition to the song in this democratic principle and not in terms of its religious character and its opposition to religion.

REEVES: Today's controversy is steeped in the politics of the street, fueled by chauvinist Hindu and Muslim political forces happy to drum up sectarian passions, if it means votes. And yet, in some ways, Vande Mataram hasn't much populist appeal. It's in Sanskrit. Professor Dipankar Gupta says that means most people don't actually know what it means.

Professor DIPANKAR GUPTA (Jawaharlal Nehru University): Utterly, utterly incomprehensible. You know, you have to really study it to know what's going on. And that is why when people say it is nationalism and if you don't know this then you can't be Indian, how many Indians know Sanskrit?

REEVES: In one respect, though, Indians seem to agree about this national song. A new version appeared a few years ago by the composer AR Rahman, a Bollywood favorite. It's a huge hit and Mr. Rahman is a Muslim.

Philip Reeves, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of Vande Mataram)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram. Sujalam. Sujalam.

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.