In 1905, Gujarati politician and writer KM Munshi asked Aurobindo Ghosh a question that has become a vital a century later: “How can one become patriotic?”

Ghosh – one of the fathers of Hindu nationalism – replied with an answer that is especially relevant today. Pointing to a map of British India on the wall, Ghosh said:

“Do you see this map? It is not a map but the portrait of Bharat Mata: its cities and mountains rivers and jungles form her physical body. All her children are her nerves, large and small...Concentrate on Bharat as a living mother, worship her with nine-fold bhakti.

In the Maharashtra assembly

Cut to 2016. On Wednesday, in the Maharashtra Assembly, Ram Kadam, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator, exhorted Waris Pathan, from the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, to chant the slogan “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, victory to Bharat Mata, during a heated debate. Its home base in Hyderabad city, the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen is a party that draws on a Muslim vote base. Many Muslims believe that invoking the deity of Bharat Mata violates the monotheistic beliefs of Islam. Pathan refused to chant the slogan.

In the ensuing uproar, the Maharashtra Assembly showed remarkable unity. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party all asked for Waris Pathan to be suspended – a request that the Speaker put into effect with remarkable efficacy and haste. Pathan was suspended from the Maharashtra Assembly for refusing to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

That Aurobindo considered Bharat Mata worthy of navavidha bhakti or nine-fold worship is a good indicator as to how the image of India as a mother goddess had already taken root in 1905. That in 2016, a Muslim MLA was punished for not chanting a slogan for “Bharat Mata” shows just how far popular Hindu nationalism has become.

Bengali origin

The concept of worshipping prithvi, the earth, has long been part of Hinduism. However, modern forms of equating a nation with a mother goddess first arose in Bengal. This was a region where Shakto worship dominated and forms of the mother goddess such as Kali, Durga, Manasa and Chandi were popular. The first powerful expression of the motherland as a goddess came with what is now a seminal work in Bengali literature and political philosophy: the novel Ananda Math, the Abbey of Bliss, by Bankimchandra Chattopadhya.

Social scientist Carl Olson writes:

Although not the first author to emphasize the mother for political purposes, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) transforms Bharat Mata into a fully fledged Hindu goddess and symbol of India who is experiencing difficult times; her children are indifferent to her sufferings, and they need to awaken to the dire conditions and act. In 1875, Bankim Chandra composed Bande Mataram, a song about a benign goddess figure, which becomes an anthem for Indian nationalists in their struggle for liberation from British hegemony.

Ananda Math’s contribution to the development of a proto-form of Hindu nationalism is immense. In the novel, the principal antagonists are clearly Muslims who have ruled over India. Bharat Mata appears in the book as a ten-armed idol in a marble temple. Bande Mataram, contained within the novel, is a hymn to the goddess Durga and, as Tagore wrote, “Bankim Chandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end."

Enters the public sphere

During the Swadeshi movement and the agitation to annul the 1905 partition of Bengal, the idea of India and Bengal as a mother goddess was used widely in the popular realm. Bande Mataram, Praise the Mother, was the popular anthem of the time. Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath and father of modern Indian painting, created what was probably the first pictorial representation of Bharat Mata in 1905, which was widely reproduced and used in the Swadeshi movement.

Nationalism and divinity also got fused in the more militant forms of the freedom movement. The Anushilan Samiti, a group that believed that using violence against the colonisers was justified, took great inspiration from Ananda Math. Initiation ceremonies of the Samiti consisted of conducting shastra puja, weapons worship, in front of a pratima, an idol of the goddess Durga. Large sections of the Samiti went so far as to ban Muslims from joining (although given the overt Hindu religiosity of the group, Muslim participation was never really a pressing issue). One of the founders of the Samiti was Aurobindo Ghosh, who was arrested by the British in 1908 for sedition, among other charges. In prison, Ghosh underwent a change of heart and turned to mysticism, moving to Pondicherry to open his famous ashram.

Communal fissures

Historian Eric Hobswam gives us other examples of female personifications of nations such as Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe and Catalonia's Virgin of Montserrat. These “holy icons”, says Hobswam imagined the nation visually and emotionally helping forge a sense of unity. In India, though, the explicitly theocratic image of Bharat Mata actually produced communal divisions, not unity. As a result, many streams of the politics at the time moved to check the Bharat Mata cult. In 1937, Rabindranath Tagore wrote to fellow Bengali and Congress president at the time, Subhash Chandra Bose, arguing that Bande Mataram could not be India’s national anthem, given its religious nature:

The core of Bande Mataram is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it… no Mussulman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’….The novel Ananda Math is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But, Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate.

The Congress took Tagore’ views on board and expunged the explicitly religious stanzas of Bande Mataram that directly conflated the goddess Durga with the nation.

Imagining a Hindu rashtra: A 1966 image where Bhagat Singh offers his decapitated head to Bharat Mata as Subhash Chandra Bose salutes and children march by enthusiastically with bayonets.
Imagining a Hindu rashtra: A 1966 image where Bhagat Singh offers his decapitated head to Bharat Mata as Subhash Chandra Bose salutes and children march by enthusiastically with bayonets.

Enter Savarkar

However, other streams of political thought in India at the time disagreed with this and strove to reclaim the Bankim Chandra tradition of conflating the nation with Hindu divinity. Chief amongst them was Vinayak Savarkar, a Maharashtrian who, like Aurobindo Ghosh, had once believed in violent struggle. Justlike Ghosh, Savarkar had been sent to prison by the British and had emerged a changed man, swearing to abjure anti-British violence.

In his seminal 1923 work, Hindutva, Savarkar outlined a nationalism based on religious identity. Charging the Indian landmass with sacredness, Savarkar's definition of nationality was based on whichever religious groups had their places of worship in the subcontinent. Faiths such as Islam and Christianity, which originated in the Middle East, were seen to be unIndian. Otherwise a nonbeliever, Savarkar imagined “Hind” to be the “richly endowed daughter of god”.

Since then, Hindutva has reclaimed and greatly magnified the Bankim Chandra idea of Bharat Mata. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh conducts almost every event of its with blazing banners of Bharat Mata holding a saffron flag – and not the Indian tricolour. The goddess is mounted on a lion, the vahan, or divine vehicle, of the goddess Durga.

Bharat Mata temples

Other traditions have also been reclaimed. In 2013, for example, Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, conducted a public shastra puja on Bijaydashami, the day Durga defeated here enemy, thus creating a direct link to the Anushilan Samiti.

Apart from religion-based politics, Bharat Mata has also been installed as a goddess in the traditional precincts of a Hindu temple. This includes a 1936 temple in Banaras that has as its installed deity a large relief map of of the British Indian Empire. Since the concept of Bharat Mata was first created in British India, it is its geography that informs it. Hindutva versions of Bharat Mata have her and her leonine mount floating above a map that almost always includes Pakistan and Bangladesh. Regions such as Sri Lanka or Afghanistan might come and go depending on the political imagination of the bannermaker-cartographer.

Apart from Banaras, there are Bharat Mata temples in the Daulatabad fort in Maharashtra as well as one in Haridwar, inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1983.

Hindu rashtra

After being suspended, the MIM MLA Waris Pathan defended himself. “I am willing to say Jai Hind. I love my country," he said. “My objection was to their forcing me to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai.”

Of course, in this whole fracas, it doesn’t really matter whether Pathan considers himself a patriot. Judging patriotism is an absurd idea. But the challenge to Pathan by his fellow MLAs shows how the power of Bharat Mata as a symbol of Hindutva cultural nationalism. Not only does it achieve a Hindutva imagining of India, it also casts Muslims as a community who are unable to partake of this form of patriotism.

On March 3, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh head Mohan Bhagwat had sparked off what is now a full-blown political controversy by claiming that young Indians must be taught to chant “Bharat mata ki jai”. A theocratic Hindu rashtra has always been the RSS’s aim and building on the stepping stones laid down by Bankim Chandra, it seems like the RSS is now using “Bharat Mata” as a dog whistle for its concept of “Hindu rashtra”.