India: Songs That Sow the Seeds of Division

Issue: 
(310)

Readers of this magazine will doubtless be familiar with the rampaging anti-Muslim bias which afflicts the media in the West. Unfortunately, the same attitudes are also rooted in large sections of the media in India - even those which pride themselves in being "secular" and "progressive".

Some weeks ago, they were awash with reports about Muslims who were protesting against the suggestion that all children studying in schools be forced to sing the Vande Mataram song - with numerous newspapers, television channels and politicians declaring that it was India's "national song". Refusal to sing, they claimed, was thoroughly "unpatriotic" and even "anti-national". Once again, Muslims in India were forced to prove their loyalty.

Few mainstream Indian papers cared to discuss the history of the controversial song. The Vande Mataram is part of a novel called the Anandmath, and was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a late 19th century Bengali brahmin and a major cult figure in Hindu nationalist circles. Anandmath's pages reek of anti-Muslim hatred. The crux of the novel is an ardent appeal to Hindus to rally against Muslims and drive them out of India. The Vande Mataram, sung as a war cry to rouse Hindu mobs, exhorts Hindus to slaughter for the sake of mother India.

Yet, curiously for a novel that is projected by its advocates as an emblem of Indian nationalism, it ends with the hero welcoming the British takeover of India. "Now the British have arrived," he exclaims with ill concealed glee, "our wealth and lives will be safe... The subjects [Hindus] would be happy in the English kingdom... [so] refrain from waging war with the Englishmen."

So much for a novel which is bandied about as the herald of Indian nationalism. Even more curious is the fact that the media decided not to inform their readers that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was hardly the ardent nationalist that he is made out to be. In the immediate aftermath of the failed Indian revolt of 1857, he was appointed to the post of deputy magistrate by the British - the first Indian to enjoy such a dubious privilege. When he retired in 1891, he was conferred with the titles of Rai Bahadur and Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire by the British, an "honour" reserved only for pro-British toadies.

The Congress Party - the main party in government that supports a "soft" version of the Hindu chauvinism known as Hindutva - together with the hardcore Hindutva lobby around the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the mainstream media were aware of the tension they were stoking. Failure to sing the Vande Mataram has simply become another stick for Hindutva fascists to beat Muslims with. Yet the secular Indian media was completely unwilling to question the need for Indians to sing a song that was written in highly Sanskritised Bengali that even most Hindus do not know or understand.

Inconceivable

Another glaring instance of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Indian media is the coverage of the recent bomb blasts outside a mosque in the town of Malegaon, in the state of Maharashtra, that claimed the lives of almost 40 Muslims. The Mumbai train blasts in July were in the headlines for days, and rightly so, but the Malegaon tragedy has however received relatively little attention. The identity of the perpetrators of the Mumbai bombings is yet to be ascertained, but police and media are insistent that there was an "Islamist terrorist" hand in it. Consequently, hundreds of Muslims were arrested in the aftermath of the blasts.

The contrast with the Malegaon bombing could not be more striking. While it is entirely plausible that the attack was the work of Hindutva activists, the media is awash with conspiratorial stories about a "radical Islamist" or Pakistani secret service plan behind the blasts. In light of the hundreds of anti-Muslim pogroms in India in recent decades, is it really inconceivable that the bombing in Malegaon could be the work of Hindu extremists?

Nevertheless, the Malegaon tragedy appears to be fast disappearing from our screens and newspapers, being replaced with stories about the court cases relating to the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, in which Muslims are said to have been involved. Even here the reporting is obviously biased as the context of the wave of anti-Muslim violence that was spreading across large parts of India has been removed. Is the fact that in 1992 the Babri Masjid, one of the most historically important mosques in India, was destroyed by a mob of up to 200,000 Hindu nationalists really an irrelevant detail?

If so, what about the thousands of Muslims who were slaughtered in cold blood in the rioting that followed? Are their lives worth so much less than those of the Hindus who died in the bombings a year later?

The fact that our media cannot truthfully answer these questions says much about its "secular" pretensions.


Yoginder Sikand moderates South Asian Leftists Dialoguing With Religion.