In recent years, around Independence Day, a chain mail about the provenance of our national anthem slips slyly into many of our inboxes. Such mails are usually best ignored; unfortunately, they aren’t. Instead, they get passed around, each forward making their contents more “credible”.
The gist of the “patriotic” e-mail I’m referring to is as follows: Rabindranath Tagore wrote Jana Gana Mana “in honour of King George V and the Queen of England”. While “most of us think it is in praise of our great motherland”.
A long, stanza-by-stanza dissection of Tagore’s poem is then conducted. It is concluded that Jana Gana Mana doesn’t “indicate any love for the motherland”. Neither does it praise God.
And then, comes a clever little suggestion, but one that provides reasonable proof of the proclivities of the ‘source’. Isn’t it time, the mail asks, that we shifted to “Vande Mataram or Saare Jahan Se Acchha, which are far better compositions in praise of India?”
We’ll come to Vande Mataram shortly, but let us first deal with the charge that Tagore was genuflecting before the crown when he composed Jana Gana Mana.
The song was first sung at the 1911 Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress. And it is true that King George was due to arrive within days of this event.
Sections of the press, the venerated Statesman included, reported that Babu Rabindranath Tagore “sang a song composed by him specially to welcome the Emperor”. Not for the first time, the press had got it horribly wrong.
In the reporters’ defence, it could be said that there was some room for confusion. The Congress session did include a resolution expressing loyalty to the King, followed by a (different) song in his praise sung by a group of boys and girls. (Tagore, who was 50 at the time, not exactly a ‘boy’, wasn’t part of this choir.)
Tagore doesn’t seem to have responded to the allegations about his motives for writing the song for decades. In 1939 he clarified: “I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”
Two years earlier, he had explained to his friend Pulin Bihari Sen, that a British official had indeed requested him to “write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor” in 1911. The request amazed the poet, and actually spurred him to write the song of victory that is now our national anthem.
There is some irony in the fact that the British official who approached the poet understood the song for what it really was. Tagore observed: “even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense.”
This deficiency, it would appear, is the preserve of Indians, and continues to this day: hence the elaborate chain mails.
But is it really that simple?
The Vande Mataram suggestion thrown in at the end, and the all cap ‘Jai Hind’ perhaps require a little more enquiry.
Vande Mataram was officially adopted as the ‘national song’ at the same time as Jana Gana Mana became the national anthem, the two were given equal status (in 1950). Vande Mataram’s associations with the freedom movement are indelible. Its echoes are regularly heard in popular culture, and this will continue. It may not be the national anthem, but it is firmly established as the national cry.
But the original must be placed in context. Vande Mataram was published in 1882, as part of the novel Anand Math, by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. As the columnist AG Noorani has pointed out, the work is neither anti-British, nor is it secular. If anything, quite the opposite.
Noorani draws from Nirad C Chaudhari on Bankim Chandra. According to the grand (very) old (and now late) man of Indian letters, Bankimbabu was “positively and fiercely” anti-Muslim.
Rebellion against Muslim rule was a regular theme of the romances of the time.
The BJP has, from time to time, tried to “own” Vande Mataram. In UP, some years ago, there was a proposal to make its singing mandatory in schools. Muslims have reacted to it differently, with fatwas one way, then another — although the first couple of stanzas (which is all most people remember anyway) are widely accepted as patriotic in an inclusive way.
But the fact that the song was sectarian was pointed out with a measure of sophistication by Syed Imam Ali in his presidential address at the second session of the All India Muslim League over 100 years ago in Amritsar, writes Noorani.
Jana Gana Mana, meanwhile, gained ground as more in tune with the diverse, and in terms of ideals, tolerant, nature of the Indian nation. Netaji was inspecting INA parades as it played, but he clung on to Vande Mataram as well.
Tagore, however, pointed out the downside of Bankimbabu’s work in a 1937 letter to Netaji: “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’.”
Tagore’s was a sensible — and sensitive — view. He pointed out that Vande Mataram was part of a literary work, and completely appropriate where it was.
He also clarified, though not exactly in these words, that you aren’t unwittingly singing a loose translation of God Save the Queen when you rise to sing Jana Gana Mana.
Vande Mataram. Jai Hind. Kindly break the chain.