The Indian Nationhood’s Vision As Mother Goddess

pragya thakur

The oath-taking ceremony by the members of newly constituted 17th Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian parliament) on 18 June 2019 turned into a virtual slogan-shouting contest between treasury and opposition benches. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party with overwhelming strength (303 MPs) hackled and taunted an MP of Muslim party, AIMIM from Hyderabad in the house. When Asaduddin Owaisi, elected to the Lok Sabha for the fourth time got up to take an oath of office, BJP members drowned the house with slogans ‘Jai Shri Ram’, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai and ‘Vande Mataram’. Amidst the din prevailed in the house Owaisi made a feeble reaction of by raising slogans -Jai Bheem, Jai Hind and Allah Akbar. But his retaliation to the BJP offensive was insignificant. No doubt, Allahu Akbar is a war-cry so as Har Har Mahadev slogan raised by some BJP members representing a larger ideological composition of 17th Lok Sabha. Never before such slogans have been raised on the solemn swearing-in ceremony which mandates newly elected MPs to express explicitly their ‘true faith and allegiance’ to the Indian constitution in the name of God. However, an explicit political prerequisite was added to the language of the oath in 1970s which mandates MPs to swear by Indian unity and integrity also.

Show of such aggressive Hindu nationalism, of course, has emanated from the BJP’s overwhelming strength in the Lok Sabha. And it also emboldens the BJP’s parent body RSS to realize its long-cherished goal of formalizing India as ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Sugata Bose tracks in his book, The Nation AS Mother- and Other Visions of Nationhood’ ( Penguin India, 2017)near two-century long journey of ‘idea of India’ taking shape of a political ideology of ‘Hindutva’ to reach the threshold of ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Long back the Indian elite had faintly mulled the ‘idea of India’ which gave rise to the nationalistic feelings against the foreign British rulers in the late 19th century.

At that juncture, as Sugata Bose, a Harvard University professor suggests, the Bengali intelligentsia began projecting India as ‘Bharat Mata’ which was an extended version of their religious-cultural tradition of worshipping Durga as ‘Mother goddess’. After coming in active contact with the British rulers controlling Bengal as early as in second half of 18th century, the Bengali Hindu elite, known as bhadralok got equipped with knowledge of the English language and culture that gave them some glimpses of European brand of nationalism– the bedrock of nation-state brand of political dispensation there. That concept of ‘nation-state’ governance was, later, picked up RSS ideologue Veer Savarkar.

“The narrative of the nation as unfolded during the late nineteenth century and throughout the course of the twentieth century became much more complex and often flowed into divergent streams”, underlines Sugata Bose who also elected to 16th Lok Sabha as Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal. The song Bande Mataram used for invoking the mother goddess by Bakim Chandra Chatterjee in his novel Anandamath was supplemented by Abanindranath Tagore’s creation of Bharatmata painting, an enlarged version of originally conceived Mother Bengal. Thus, the invocation of ‘mother goddess’ helped to spread the India-specific brand of nationalism based on Hindu religious and cultural ethos in the sub-continent.

Later, to give a kick-start to the freedom struggle the Congress also accepted ‘Bande Mataram’ (a portion of the long song) as a national song for mobilizing the masses. Equating the nation (India) with the goddess (Bharat Mata), however, left ‘little space’ for religious minorities and other diverse groupings whose distinct identity had already got historically concretized in the Indian sub-continent. Despite protests by Muslims religiously mandated not to worship anything else than Allah (God), the Gandhian Congress, ‘infected with Hindu communalism’ insisted not only on retaining Bande Mataram but made its singing mandatory in schools in Hindi heartland as an act of triumphalism in provincial legislatures in 1937. The Bande Mataram controversy, later, exploded pushing Congress and Muslim League to assume irreconcilable positions which, ultimately, resulted in the bloody Partition creating two warring nations- India and Pakistan.

Dilating on factors that led to Partition, Sugata Bose says the representation of India as a ‘nation’ through religiously emotive slogans had ‘disfigured hard historical and political realities’. The British India of sub-continent scale had never been one country and had never been ruled by one empire in the hoary history before the British made it a centrally administered single entity.

Sugata Bose firmly underscores that “in 1947 the leadership of Indian National Congress accepted the transfer of power from British hands as the apex of unitary and centralized structure of the Indian state with the strong centre of the British Raj. The official ideology of the Indian state came to rest on a monolithic concept of sovereignty borrowed from modern Europe, denying multiple identities and several layered sovereignties that been its complex legacy from its precolonial past.”

Referring to post-independence developments, Sugata Bose points out, “there was a conflation of nation and state as Indian nation-state that ‘none-existed’, at least not until very late in the colonial era”. The new indigenous rulers, however, “succeeds in glossing over all earlier contradictions, divergences, and differences”. Thus, ‘post-colonial centralized monolithic structure’ was declared ‘sacrosanct in 1947’ which could accommodate only ‘one strand of singular nationalism’ (based on majoritarian Hindu religious ethos and culture). The structural and ideological underpinnings of the ‘India, that is Bharat’ as articulated by generations of Indian nationalist thinkers stressing a federal unity and cross-communal understanding’ went awry.

Mahatma Gandhi and others who stood for sub-continental unity got ‘defeated at the critical moment of the postcolonial transition as paranoid and pulverized Bengali and other Hindu educated classes’ insisted on the partition of Bengal and Punjab that facilitated the Congress high command to acquire a centralized New Delhi state structure. Sugata Bose refers to the Partition as the slicing of ‘Mother India’ alluding it to an anecdote from Puranic Hindu mythology. As the myth goes rishi Jamadagni ordered his five sons to kill their mother, Renuka. When four elder ones refused, the fifth, Ram obeyed and lifted parashu (kuthar, axe) struck the fatal blow. Parashuram, as he came to be called, was widely recognized in the Puranas as the sixth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, the immediate predecessor of the more famous seventh avatar, Dadarath’s son Ram whose exploits were narrated in the epic Ramayana. On the eve of Partition, newsmagazine Millat (Nation) in its editorial on 11 April 1947 accused Congress and Hindu Mahasabha of performing the role of Parashuram and slicing their “Mother India” into two.

Congress leaders Nehru, Patel et al, for whom Mahatma Gandhi had now turned ‘a black number’ went headlong for Mountbatten’s partition plan announced on 3 June, 1947. The AICC meetings on 14 and 15 June (1947) ‘swallowed the unpalatable decision of partition by 153 votes to 29’. The author observes that ‘Gandhi’s relevance to the Congress as a leader of mass movements diminished as soon as it was clear that colonial masters had read on the wall and were making up their mind to depart’.

Announcement of Radcliffe’s award pushed Punjab into anarchy. To portray the bloody scenes in Punjab, the author quotes the eminent writer of Pakistani origin, Ayesha Jalal, as saying ‘partition violence in Punjab was not about religion as faith but a scramble over zar (wealth), zameen (land) and zan (women) in the region’s patriarchal society amid the crumbling ruins of the British Raj. That is what made separating at close quarters a colossal human tragedy’.

Most of educated Punjabis and Sikhs groomed in the Nehru era of nationalistic fervor must read this book to understand how the Partition was cooked up by Congress and Muslim League leaders in a hurry to secure for them the maximum power and regions upon British withdrawal. Their cruel indifference to Punjabis particularly the Sikhs made the latter undergo unprecedented sufferings. Double losers were the Sikhs who, later, reduced to a minority in the majoritarian Indian governance that grants them ‘second-rate citizenship’ only.

Jaspal Singh Sidhu, independent journalist can be reached at [email protected]


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