It is 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 was in 1947. His concerns, issues and priorities remain what they were at the time of Independence.
One day, he sees 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 vengeance, like a mutating deadly disease.
Look at this Vande Mataram business. This is not the first time we have debated it. It has been there for as long as I can remember. In fact, it precedes the 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. 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 Anand Math (1882), the song has the poet addressing India as the divine mother or mother goddess and bowing his head in total submission before it.
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 baulked at treating the nation as a divine power and mother goddess.
This does not mean 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 emphasizes and celebrates the unity and oneness of God as Islam does. It does not tolerate any imitation and visual representation of God. It also strictly forbids visual portrayal of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and even of his disciples. This is something that Muslims have always found hard to explain to Hindu brethren.
The issue over Vande Mataram was ostensibly resolved after Independence.. Probably in view of Muslim sensitivities and those of other religions, India’s founding fathers adopted Jana Gana Mana, another great song by another Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, as the national anthem. Vande Mataram, however, remains popular.
That decision on the national anthem by the Constituent Assembly should have put an end to the controversy. However, 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 country, with the Right repeatedly using it to target vulnerable minorities.
India’s Supreme Court ruled long ago that singing Vande Mataram - or for that matter the national anthem of Jana Gana Mana - is totally optional and that nobody can be compelled to join in the collective crooning. But desperate politicians being what they are, they continue to flog this dead horse whenever they run out of original ideas.
And we have almost always played into their hands. We get easily worked up only to walk, eyes wide shut, into the trap laid by our adversaries. Remember the fatwa against Vande Mataram issued by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind at its Darul Uloom Deoband convention some years ago?
JUH is an organization of eminent religious scholars that was in the forefront of India’s independence movement and vehemently opposed the 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 over India. Darul Uloom Deoband, closely associated with JUH, is arguably the most respected Islamic university in the world after Al-Azhar in Egypt.
Although I understand why we have qualms about singing Vande Mataram, what really beats me is why the Muslim leadership is forever fighting phantoms obsessing over non-issues at the cost of far bigger problems and challenges facing the community. By getting drawn into these endless and needless controversies and debates, we only end up furthering the Right’s agenda.
I have great respect for our Ulema. But is there no way of ignoring irrelevant issues and confrontational politics to focus on the real concerns and interests 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 groups throughout those turbulent years, helping the very forces they claimed to fight..
Today, wittingly or unwittingly, they continue to play the same zero-sum game, reacting and responding to every balloon sent up by you know who. After all those years, they have not learned a thing! When do we realize that this disadvantaged and voiceless minority cannot afford to get bogged down by every issue and controversy raked up by the opposition? When will we learn to choose our battles wisely?
As if Indian Muslims do not already have enough headaches, we are perpetually looking for fresh ones. In any case, under the current dispensation in Delhi whose love for all things Muslim is now legendary, you really do not have to search for opportunities to become enraged.
And all of this is happening when the community, according to every social and economic indicator, performs worse than the lowest of the low in every respect. From education to employment and economic to 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 the community locked away in the past? Isn’t it time to let in the fresh winds of change? Indian Muslims need smart, sincere leaders with smart strategies to deal with today’s challenges.
[Aijaz Zaka Syed is an independent journalist and former newspaper editor. The article was first published by Saudi Gazette.]
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