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Opinion

January 20, 2018

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Choose your battles

It’s been seven decades since India became free. The world has changed beyond recognition. So has India from what it used to be 70 winters ago. The priorities, concerns and attitudes of its people have undergone a watershed transformation.

If anything has remained static in this forever-evolving landscape of mindboggling diversity, it is the Indian Muslim. He remains where he had been in 1947. His concerns, issues and priorities remain what they had been at the time of Independence.

One day, he sees his Shariah under attack. At other times, either his religious places are threatened or there is a clear and present danger to his religious rights and sentiments. When he gets some time to breathe, he has to worry about his identity and physical protection. Many of these issues and challenges are recurring in nature. They fade away from time to time, only to come back with a vengeance like a mutating deadly disease.

Let’s consider this in the context of the Vande Mataram issue. This is not the first time that we are debating it. The debate has existed for as long as I can remember. In fact, it precedes Partition and goes right back to the early years of the Independence struggle, which once had Hindus and Muslims fighting the British together – shoulder to shoulder.

Bengal’s militant nationalist poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song celebrating Mother India has been around for over a century. And the controversy surrounding it is almost as old as the song. The all-embracing, magnanimous Hindu, who sees the divine in every manifestation of Nature, easily identifies with Vande Mataram.

Originally part of a novel and play, Anand Math (1882), by the same author, the song has the poet addressing India as the divine mother or mother goddess and bowing his head in total submission before it. Look at this stanza from the popular English translation by Sri Aurobindo: “Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,/ With her hands that strike and her

swords of sheen,/ Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned,/ And the Muse a hundred-toned,/ Pure and perfect without peer,/ Mother lend thine ear,/ Rich with thy hurrying streams,/ Bright with thy orchard gleams,/ Dark of hue O candid-fair”

While this unusual tribute to India may make perfect sense to the Hindu majority, who find this marriage of the divine and the temporal in the motherland rather convenient and fitting, Muslims have always balked at treating the nation as a divine power and mother goddess.

This does not mean that they love their country any less. It is just that their faith does not allow them to replace God with the motherland. Perhaps no monotheistic religion emphasises and celebrates the unity and oneness of God as Islam does.

This is something that Muslims have always found difficult to explain to their Hindu brethren. This is a dilemma that has always been there. The issue over Vande Mataram was ostensibly resolved after Independence. Probably in view of the Muslim’s sensitivities and those of practitioners of other religions, India’s founding fathers decided to adopt ‘Jana Gana Mana’ – another great song by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore –as the national anthem. Vande Mataram, however, was designated as the ‘national song’ and remains popular.

(Personally, I believe nothing can beat ‘Saare Jahan se Achcha Hindustan hamara!’. It brings out goosebumps all over, especially when played by the army band on special occasions. Ironically, it had been penned by someone celebrated by Pakistan as its national poet. But I guess visionaries like Iqbal are the collective heritage of humanity.)

The decision taken by the Constituent Assembly on the national anthem should have put an end to the controversy. However, it did not. Given the cynical, exploitative nature of our politics, the issue continues to pop up again and again. The politics of patriotism has been the bane of this great country, with the Hindu Right repeatedly using it to target religious minorities, especially Muslims.

India’s Supreme Court has ruled long ago that singing Vande Mataram – or, for that matter, the national anthem – is entirely optional and that nobody can be compelled to join in the collective crooning. However, desperate politicians, being what they are, continue to flog this dead horse whenever they run out of original ideas. And Muslims have almost always played into their hands.

We predictably get worked up and come out on the streets – only to walk, eyes wide shut, into the trap laid by our enemies. Remember the fatwa against singing Vande Mataram issued by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) at its Darul Uloom Deoband convention some years ago? The JUH is an organisation of eminent religious scholars that had been at the forefront of India’s Independence Movement and vehemently opposed Partition. Hundreds of its scholars spent long years, and even died, in the infamous island prisons of Andaman and Nicobar for resisting the British rule in India. Darul Uloom Deoband is arguably the most respected Islamic university in the world after Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

So, where was the need for this edict – especially when a decree had already been issued by Darul Uloom Deoband in 2006, which argues that parts of Vande Mataram go against Islam’s monotheistic philosophy?

Although I understand why most Muslims have qualms in saying ‘Vande Mataram’, what really beats me is why the Indian Muslim leadership is forever fighting phantoms obsessing over frivolous, non-issues at the cost of far bigger problems and serious challenges facing the community. Be it the matter of Vande Mataram, standing up for the national anthem or the issue of triple talaq that is currently roiling the country, by getting drawn into these endless controversies and debates, we only end up furthering the Right’s agenda.

I have great respect for our ulema and religious leaders. But is there no way of ignoring such irrelevant issues to focus on the real concerns and challenges of India’s Muslims? My generation grew up in the 1980s on a heavy dose of oppressive, all-consuming Ayodhya mosque-temple politics. Muslim leaders played right into the hands of Hindutva extremists throughout those turbulent years, helping the very forces that they claimed to be fighting against.

Today, they continue to play the same zero-sum politics, predictably reacting and responding to every balloon sent up by their adversaries. After all those years, they have not learnt a single thing. The hopelessly marginalised community cannot afford to get bogged down by every issue and controversy raked up by their enemies. When will we learn to choose our battles wisely?

As if Indian Muslims do not already have enough headaches to deal with, we are perpetually busy looking for fresh ones. In any case, under the current dispensation in Delhi, whose love for all things Muslims is now legendary, you really do not have to go look for opportunities to get enraged – that too when Muslims are, according to every social and economic indicator, worse placed than the lowest of the low caste in every respect.

From education and employment opportunities to economic and democratic representation, the world’s largest minority remains at the bottom of the pit. What are our leaders, scholars and intellectuals doing to change this state of affairs? How long will they keep themselves and us locked away forever in the past? Isn’t it time to let in the fresh winds of change?

The writer is an independent writer and former newspaper

editor.

Email: [email protected]

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