The Sound of Dog-Whistling: 'Vande Mataram' itself is not communal. But using it to target Asaduddin Owaisi is
The swearing-in ceremony of Parliamentarians was marred by a contest of religious slogans, taken out of context and used to target. Will Parliament now become a religious akhada?
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The beginning of any newly elected Lok Sabha session is always marked by the swearing-in of elected representatives. This year's swearing-in will always stand out for the sloganeering inside Parliament, which has not been the established norm. Oath-taking has been a mere formality — but this year, religious sloganeering was made a standout aspect of it.
As the oath-taking spilled into a second day, the Lok Sabha resounded with loud chants of "Jai Shri Ram" and "Vande Mataram". When All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi stepped forward to take his oath, he was greeted with these chants. Amid the slogans, Owaisi — not one to be cowed down and who himself thrives on controversies — gestured to the sloganeering Parliamentarians to get louder.
Then, after taking his oath in Urdu, he concluded it with "Jai Bhim, Jai Meem, Takbeer Allahu Akbar, Jai Hind".
Owaisi has been a vocal opponent of the mandatory chanting of Vande Mataram at public functions.
While there is absolutely no problem in chanting Vande Mataram, the debasement of it for polarised targeting clearly is problematic. Raising it only when Owaisi takes oath clearly has something to do with his religion. Neither Vande Mataram, nor Jai Shri Ram, are communal in isolation. But raising them like a war cry inside Parliament, targeting a particular person, has a communal overtone, which was loud and clear. The treasury bench is in full strength. The BJP on its own has an overwhelming majority of 302. They could have displayed a little bit of class and humility which this thumping majority should have brought.
The sloganeering resounded again as Samajwadi Party (SP) MP Shafiqur Rahman Barq took oath.
He went on to say that Vande Matram is anti-Islam and he will never say it.
In 2013, Barq, who was Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh at the time, had walked out of the Lok Sabha when Vande Mataram was played inside the House.
While I and many like-minded Muslims do not accept Mr Barq's view as representing all Muslims, and do not agree with him when he says it is in conflict with Islam, it's the compulsion and the intent behind making it mandatory which is unacceptable. In a surcharged atmosphere in which everyone's nationalism is being questioned, and the BJP/RSS is distributing certificates of patriotism, proving one's patriotism at every instance becomes unpalatable.
Now, let us take a cursory look at the controversies surrounding the mandatory chanting of Vande Mataram over the years.
Some groups in the Muslim community have spoken against the recital of Vande Mataram as the song's third and fourth stanzas equate India with the Hindu goddesses Durga and Lakshmi. It's a beautiful song, written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his book Anandamath. In his Autobiography of An Unknown Indian, Nirad C Chaudhuri aptly described the atmosphere of the times in which the song was written — it glorified Hindu rebellion against Muslim rule and showed Muslims in a correspondingly poor light. The nationalism displayed there was more Hindu than Indian which was apt in the context of that time.
A song of meaning: The moving 'Vande Mataram' written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee has a very specific context. (Photo: Twitter/DDNewsLive)
That was the time when Muslims had been invaders — this is modern, secular, democratic India.
A BJP MLA Raj Purohit had called for mandatory chanting of Vande Mataram in Maharashtra, following the Madras High Court ruling on the song. This was even then met with vociferous opposition from MIM MLA Waris Pathan and SP leader Abu Azmi.
In many BJP-ruled states, the leaders have raised a pitch for making Vande Mataram mandatory. Uttarakhand minister for higher education Dhan Singh Rawat, in 2017, courted controversy by saying, if you want to live in Uttarakhand you have to chant Vande Mataram.
There have been repeated cases from other BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh where municipal corporations faced internal turmoil over the singing of Vande Mataram before meetings.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court has observed that there is no concept of a national song. A bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra observed that Article 51A of the Constitution requires one to promote the national anthem and national flag — but there is no reference to a national song.
With the trail of controversies behind it, and precisely for this very reason, Owaisi and Barq were taunted with sloganeering while the oath of the PM himself met with a drowning chorus of 'Modi, Modi' and Bharat Mata Ki Jai, a more innocuous chant. It was also a display of majoritarian aggression.
Indian Islam has been the most inclusive and can teach overseas radicals many lessons of peace and coexistence. During the freedom struggle, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians fought together for independence and shouted "Bharat Mata ki Jai". No Muslim leader ever raised any objection to this slogan. While Vande Mataram is otherwise an innocuous expression, literally meaning "bowing before the mother", it is the appropriation of Vande Mataram by the RSS and BJP which gives it a communal tone.
It wasn't just Owaisi and Barq though — this year's swearing-in will be remembered for dramatic moments which began on the first day itself with Bhopal MP Pragya Singh Thakur. She suffixed her spiritual guru's name, saying it was her name, drawing objections from the opposition members. The oath could be completed after the pro-tem speaker ruled that the part which is not in the Election Commission's certificate would not go in the official record.
Then, the most intense shouting was witnessed when members from Bengal took oath — all the BJP MPs from Bengal chanted Jai Shri Ram in a clear message to Mamata Banerjee who went to the other extreme of arresting anyone shouting Jai Shri Ram in Bengal. So much so that there were jokes on social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, saying if you need police in Bengal, don't dial 100 — just shout Jai Shri Ram.
The chair did not deem it necessary to ask any of these sloganeering MPs to stick to the format.
Owaisi has a penchant for controversies and there have been worries about the AIMIM brand of politics which is also stoking communalism.
Action. Reaction: Asaduddin Owaisi's politics is an answer to communal politics of larger parties like Congress and BJP. (Source: PTI)
But Owaisi's party's influence is limited to Hyderabad and pockets around along with some areas of Maharashtra. I see his politics as a reaction and a compulsive answer to the different brands of communal politics of larger national parties like the Congress and BJP, one indulging in minority politics, the other majoritarian.
People who are projecting the sloganeering in Parliament as a tit for tat need to remember that first of all, it was a reaction to the treasury bench's dominating chorus and second, most of the MPs concluded their oath with a religious chant rather than adhering to a nationalist one like Jai Hind. That includes 'dream girl' Hema Malini, who, keeping the spirit of her constituency Mathura, concluded with Radhe Radhe! Krishnam Vande Jagat Guru.
Why fault Owaisi then on concluding his with Allahu Akbar?
The Indian Constitution grants equal freedom to chant either Vande Mataram, Jai Shri Ram or Allahu Akbar.
To each his own. But shouldn't Parliament have been more sombre, more professional and not like a religious akhada?