Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Vande Mataram Controversy

A short break from the unrelenting flow of national security posts here.

A friend of mine asked me to comment on the recent Vande Mataram controversy and I wrote the following reply which I now share with you.

It is difficult for me to discuss the song Vande Mataram, without the specific context in which it was rendered, i.e. the conversation between two characters Jivananda and Mahendra in Bankim Chandra's epic, Anandamath. I recently chanced upon a write up by Tapan Raychaudhuri, which details the influence of a cult of Goddess worship on Indian nationalism. Tapan very carefully links the Pitasthan legends of the Puranas to an incipient form of Indian nationalism and then goes on suggest that Anandamath and the concepts therein reflected a more dramatic appearance of the same Goddess Worship ideas.

I find little to fault in Tapan's analysis. A simple survey of the war cries of major Indian Army regiments reveals a large surplus of Goddess worship in them. In general Goddess symbols are abundant in India. It is also easy to see why the great Bengal famines would have provoked a strong reactions from Goddess worshippers in India. Goddess worship generally places great emphasis on the Earth (i.e. the land itself) as being an icon of the Goddess herself. Like the Goddess, the Earth represents nourishment and fertility and this contributes to a strong prevalence of Goddess ideology among agriculturalists. A famine like the one caused by the brutal taxation of the British Government in Bengal would have denigrated one of the most prominent icons of Goddess worship. This is kind of disgusting degradation by the British could only have had one result.

The Muslim anxiety over the concepts espoused in Anandamath and Vande Mataram arises from Bankim's identification of the Muslims as collaborators of the British. A more traditional Muslim world view places Islam as a religion at odds with Goddess Worship. To quote an Indian Muslim member of parliament, " We Muslims, do not bow our head before the mother, we bow only before Allah". I need to provide you no examples when I say that Islam as it stands today diminishes the status of women and generally downplays any references to a sacred effeminate. I am personally convinced that this rejection of the concept of the Sacred Feminine has resulted in Islamic society hosting some of the most eggregious displays of male chauvinism in known history. I am not saying "Hinduism", or Christianity are free from such tendencies, but Islam today a poster-child for religiously motivated repression of women.

With this balance of facts laid out, in my opinion, the Indian Muslim rejection of Vande Mataram cannot be taken to imply a rejection of Indian nationalism itself. Neither can it be taken as the expression of the desire to reject "Hinduism" as a whole either because there is more to "Hinduism" or Indian Nationalism than just Goddess Worship. I agree that characters like the Nizam of Hyderabad were out of line to ban the singing of Vande Mataram, but I don't see how their actions were different from those other morally bankrupt regimes that had sided with the British Indian government? I mean this guy left his wives and ran for it when the Indian Police action took his beloved capital and his Vazir, Mir Laik Ali actually ordered Kasim Rizvi and the Razakars to attempt genocide to deter the Indian police from entering Hyderabad State. Can you take the actions of a Hitleresque figure to represent an entire community? I'd rather not go down that road.

I personally find that Goddess Worship is an acceptable thread woven into the greater body of the faith in India. I grew up surrounded by a very large number of Goddess icons and I have no problems saying things like "Mother India" etc... but I don't particularly care if anyone else sees things the same way I do. At the end of the day, the Goddess Worship iconography and terminology really only serves to neatly audit and represent national interests, it does not represent actual national interest in completeness so I don't see any point in making a big fuss about it.

If some Indian Muslims want to reject Vande Mataram on religious grounds, it is within their rights to do so. Doing so does not in my opinion erode the national spirit in any way, it merely challenges us all to come up with a more acceptable language to articulate our views. If such a rewording provokes a more holistic thinking on national interests what can be so bad about it?

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Mohammed Afzal Gooru Case

I am sure you have all heard about the December 13 2001 attack on the Parliament Hall, and that a person called Mohammed Afzal Gooru was convicted of involvement in the attack. You may even know that he has been sentenced to death by the court and that his appeal for clemency has reached President Kalam.

His family and many Kashmiri organizations and many so-called Human Rights groups in India have asked the clemency appeal be granted.

Gooru's wife has filed a letter in which she claims that Gooru was a surrendered militant who cooperated with Special Task Force at Humhuma. She goes on to claim that Gooru repeatedly paid huge sums of money to the STF people for his safety and that he only participated in the events leading up to the attack on the parliament after STF personnel instructed him to. According to Gooru's wife, STF officers instructed Gooru to transport two of the attackers to Delhi.

You may recall that after the attack, the Pakistanis had accused India of "stage managing" the attack on the Parliament to "give Pakistan a bad name" and later to " start hostilities with Pakistan".

The Supreme Court has acquitted the co-accused in the case, S. A. R. Geelani and Navjot Sandhu but upheld the death penalty for Afzal Gooru. Some people have argued that media politicized the case and perhaps that might have affected the court's judgement, but if at this point a presidential clemency plea is given to Gooru, it will reinforce the fiction that the Pakistanis have been perpetrating all this time.

It is important to remember that there are many people called Geelani involved in the Kashmir terrorism and communication with them has to have a unique clarity about it. There is a need to avoid sending mixed messages.