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Haunting Memories

Haunting Memories Is There More to the History of Vande Mataram than Ananda Math?
VIJAYALAKSHMI BALAKRISHNAN In her thought-provoking and, at the same time, deeply troubling piece on


Haunting Memories

Is There More to the History ofVande Mataram than Ananda Math?


n her thought-provoking and, at the same time, deeply troubling piece on ‘Vande Mataram’ (EPW, September 16, 2006) Tanika Sarkar appears to suggest that there are certain crimes that should not be subject to statutes of limitation. As these crimes have long-lasting effects, which are in themselves not subject to the statutes of limitation, justice demands that inter-generational judgments be made about evil done and sufferings resulting. Ergo, if the evil is long-lasting, indeed inter-generational, then the survivors, victims of the evil, must also be part of that remembrance; the same, not similar but the same.

It is here that one begins to question the thought, word, action sequence that Sarkar captures so vividly in her essay. Beginning with the thoughtful question of why Muslims and indeed many non-Muslims experiencing discomfort with singing Vande Mataram was being perceived as anti-national, the analysis acknowledges that the term was used effectively during the first swadeshi agitation to mobilise the masses, and also acknowledges that when the whole body of work of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya is reviewed, there is really no running thread of anti-Muslim sentiment. Beginning thus on a wide canvas, Sarkar then shrinks her inquiry to the novel alone, electing to review Ananda Math in isolation from the literary, social and political milieu of the times.

Sarkar’s comparison of a rush of events in the present with the sequence of moments captured in the remembered past of a novel is ingenious. Only the comparison is incomplete. By comparing sequences of events across centuries, Sarkar allows for a near immobile notion of time, that for at least four centuries, the Muslim has been perceived as the other. Focusing on microhistory has permitted Sarkar to capture the uncertainties of experience and the acknowledgement of the macro has allowed her to sketch out the forces that are deterministic, that keep the Muslim as the other, consistently across generations and systemic political transformations.

Her analysis hints at but is unable to capture the path which allowed Vande Mataram to be culturally accepted as an instrument of mobilisation during the time of the first swadeshi agitation, despite the heightened sensibilities of the time. Thus while recording that the use of Vande Mataram, in the anti-partition movement in Bengal, led to repression by the colonial government, she does not engage with why a colonial government, planning to partition Bengal on religious lines, would concern itself with the singing of a poem that is anti-Muslim on the streets of Calcutta and Murshidabad. Her analysis does not provide space for the middle term, the time and the role of the institutions.


Memory is taught by history. With time, relationships change, as do the nature of the political problem and the ethical dilemmas. People campaigning against the partition of Bengal had been taught about the fractured political relationships between Muslims, Hindus and the British in days gone by. The same people were also familiar with the immediacy of British rule, and the nature and tonality of decision-making by European institutions. While the intent of the Congress, which led the anti-partition agitation, could be and was questioned [Aloysius 1998; Ricouer 2005; Tagore 1917; Sarkar 2002], that of the British was not in doubt. By taking a long-term view of relationships, not just in the historical past, but also in the near past, it was possible to relate memory with history and, at the level of some group identities, have experiences, make choices and participate in actions that would be troublesome at the individual level or with some group identities.

That Vande Mataram was seen as a challenge, with its ability to assist in nationalist state visualisation, is not in doubt. What Sarkar has highlighted, in some ways echoing the analysis of Rabindranath Tagore, is that for some identities Vande Mataram evokes a view of the state that is deeply disturbing. Tagore was able to observe and accept that at different points in an individual’s life, certain identities would dominate others. Tagore noticed that the domination of caste or religious identities in social interactions influenced engagements within the political space. What he also observed was that there were methodologies that could help in the creation of other identities of nationality. Just as he had noticed the inability of some communities to accept the Mother and participate in the swadeshi movement, he observed that the songs did have the power to evoke an emotional response for the nation. This response allowed for a collective experience that went beyond caste and religious identities and had the ability to bind at least temporarily.

It is well established that even within Bengal, the swadeshi movement was unable to gain acceptance and following from socially disenfranchised collectives. Like the ‘bhadralok’, many of the socially excluded groups, including the nama shudras,1 had from the last decade of the 19th century been organising themselves to gain access to education, which would bring social status, as also benefits of cooperation, in the form of government jobs.

When the 1905 swadeshi movement started as a call against the partition of Bengal, with a clear if not always effectively articulated objective of nationhood, the nama shudras2 interpreted it as an attempt by the upper castes to return the country to a time when the caste system would be practised as effectively as in the years before colonial rule. They were at the forefront of the anti-boycott campaign and forged a limited and uneasy alliance with Muslim groups. Muslims and nama shudras were regularly in competition for government jobs and the alliance was uneasy at best. However, both groups were deeply suspicious of the motives of the caste Hindus, and saw in the boycott call an insidious attempt to take away the limited opportunities that they had gained under

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 colonial rule. It was not that the nama shudras were enamoured of the colonial power – the community had effectively kept at a distance missionary efforts to convert them and while interested in government employment, it was primarily as an opportunity to gain respectability.

Tagore in his essay ‘The Right Way’ explains why a range of socially disenfranchised groups chose not to participate in the swadeshi movement, though Indian salt and cloth were in reality cheaper than the foreign stuff. “We have demanded closeness and brotherhood from them without ever having tried to be close to them earlier... We imagine that the Mother has become real for the whole country through songs and emotional ecstasy alone.” He noticed that the farmers, lower castes and Muslims were alienated from the brahmins and the newly emerged professionals, and attributed their unwillingness to participate in the swadeshi movement to the otherwise regular use of coercion to get support. Through his analysis Tagore highlighted key flaws in the mobilisation strategy of the swadeshi campaign. While challenging the global construct, it had ignored the political boundaries within itself. What was achieved was a pyrrhic victory, for it was the empire which retreated; the Congress was not able to emerge a winner.

Tagore thus saw that the freedom which this swadeshi campaign imagined and visualised for the community was not in consonance with the reality the socially disenfranchised experienced within the community every day. “Our misfortune is that we want freedom, but we do not believe in freedom in our hearts…Threats of consigning forefathers to hell, social ostracism through withdrawing the services of washermen and barbers, burning homesteads, beating up recalcitrants on village paths … all these are ways of making slave mentalities permanent within us.”3

In his analysis, Tagore highlights the struggles for survival, memories of past wrongs and the alienation from the community, which lead to a sense of being a minority and political boundaries being created within social boundaries – experienced on both sides and yet not visible or acknowledged.

Tagore had recommended that the Congress accept the first two stanzas as a national song. In so doing, he did not ask for the rejection of the rest of the poem, but a constant reminder that the task of nationbuilding did not end with the replacement of a British government with an Indian elected one. He was asking the Congress to accept a notion of history as collective memory that includes both remembrance and justice. The notion of nationhood that they were attempting to create had not just an immediate enemy, in the European institutions of governance, but a deeper structural history in the experiences and memories of exclusion. By asking for the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram to be accepted as the national song, he asked for an acknowledgement of the fractured notion of nationhood that the poem and its roots in a deeply troubling novel and the wider social milieu provided, and India, nearly four centuries later, should be grappling with. Counselling the Congress, Tagore wanted an acknowledgement that the song Vande Mataram had resonance beyond what the author had originally intended and also an acknowledgement that in so elevating the song, its roots within the novel and an ideology are not forgotten.

In his analysis and from it his recommendation to the Congress and through that institution, the nation, Tagore suggests that there must be an ability to distinguish between the retrospective lens through which the past is viewed and the perspective of the people who found themselves faced with a situation. There is a difference, he suggests, between representation as equivalent to the realities of the past, and representation at the level of novella narrative, which is part illusion, part fantasy, all at play with some notions of reality.

For Sarkar, the novel Ananda Math and the song Vande Mataram are the point of departure to inquire into the idea of Hindu nationhood. In Tagore’s understanding, the song is one of the many encounters that built the memory of nationhood. Perhaps there is more to the histories of national identity formation, Hindu and others, than Vande Mataram and Ananda Math.




[The title is taken from that of an international conference, “Haunting Memories: History in Europe after Authoritarianism”.]

1 The nama shudras were originally known as chandalas. Through the efforts of a chieftain, Guru Chand, they were enthused to educate themselves, earn money, and be respectable. Towards this goal, the chandalas renamed themselves nama shudras and began to practise a debrahminised form of Vaishnavism.

2 Suggested in Aloysius 1998.

3 Quoted in Sarkar 2002, Chapter V, ‘Nationalism and Stri-Swadhinta: The Contexts and Meanings of Rabindranath’s Ghare Bhaire’, p 122 (translation by Sumit Sarkar).


Aloysius, G (1998): Nationalism without a Nation in India, OUP, New Delhi.

Ricouer, Paul (2005): ‘History, Memory, Forgetting’, Lecture to the International Conference on Haunting Memories: History in Europe after Authoritarianism, Budapest, March 8.

Sarkar, Sumit (2002): Beyond Nationalist Frames, Permanent Black, New Delhi. Tagore, Rabindranath (1917): Nationalism, reprinted, Rupa, New Delhi.



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