In a rare case of cross-party solidarity, members of Maharashtra’s Legislative Assembly voted on Wednesday to suspend All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen member Waris Pathan until the end of the session after he refused to chant “Bharat Mata ki jai” in the assembly.

The motion moved by Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Ranjit Patil said that Pathan had “shown disrespect to Bharat mata in the name of freedom of expression” and was supported across party lines. Pathan, who represents Byculla in south central Mumbai, is one of only two members of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen in the house.

At his home in Bandra on Wednesday evening, Pathan vehemently defended himself to a long line of news channels. His thundering for Times Now’s News Hour was audible even from behind a closed door – even though the channel turned down his volume during broadcast.

“Patriotism is in my heart,” he said to one reporter after the next. “I love this country. I was born here, I live here and god willing, I will die and be buried in this soil. We don’t need to prove our patriotism and get certificates from the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh]. We are proud Indians, we are proud Indian Muslims.”

He repeated two phrases constantly. “I say this now and will say it again: Jai Hind, Hindustan Zindabad.”

Building divides

Also in Pathan’s house and in queue for fewer interviews was Imtiaz Jaleel, MLA from Aurangabad and the only other AIMIM member in the house.

It was Jaleel’s speech criticising the governor’s inaugural address to the Assembly that triggered the ruckus. Jaleel called out the governor for seemingly prioritising memorials for dead political leaders over real issue the state was facing, such as farmer suicides and corruption.

“I said that the only person saying Bharat Mata ki jai was Vijay Mallya when he was leaving the country with his Rs 900 crore,” Jaleel said. “The same people who let him leave are the ones who are now making us say this.”

AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi had in a speech at a rally in Latur, criticised Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh head Mohan Bhagwat for calling on people to say "Bharat Mata ki jai" and had said that he would not himself say that phrase even at knife point.

Even this, Jaleel said, was well received by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. While the speaker had allotted him only three minutes to speak, other members encouraged him to continue beyond the time limit despite protests from the BJP. It was only when Jaleel said that he paid his taxes for the public good, not for building statues and memorials to leaders of other parties that Ram Kadam, a BJP MLA, got up and demanded that he chant “Bharat Mata ki jai”.

Pathan then rose to defend his party colleague, shouting without a microphone that nobody could force them to say this and that the Constitution did not require them to do so. (“I have a big voice, I can be heard even without a mic,” he explained later.)

At this, the entire house called for the two to chant this slogan. Pathan refused, but said that he would say "Jai Hind" and "Hindustan Zindabad" because he was a patriot. This furore engulfed the rest of the proceedings and resulted in Pathan’s suspension.

“There was no reason that I was suspended,” Pathan said. “It will be a bad precedent for democracy and the country if this is not removed.”

On home ground

According to some Byculla residents, Pathan got what he deserved. “He should have said ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ – what’s wrong with that?” said Syed Mohammed Zaidi, the owner of a fast food restaurant near Pathan’s office. “Our Prophet had very clearly said one must love and respect the land of one’s country. This is just a political stunt by these so-called Muslim leaders who are trying to use Muslim voters.”

Interestingly, other Muslim voters in the area chose to cite the same teachings by the Prophet – about the need to love one’s nation – to defend Pathan’s position.

“Pathan has been targeted simply because he is Muslim,” said Ayan Sheikh (name changed), a middle-aged travel agency owner who did not wish to be named. “The Prophet did tell us to love our country. It is a part of the faith and we are already doing it, so there is no need for anyone to prove it to anybody.”

According to Sheikh, calling the country "Bharat Mata" would be tantamount to turning it into a goddess, which is often regarded as un-Islamic. “We are taught to believe in just one god, so it would not be fitting for Muslims to say ‘Bharat Mata',” he said. “People can be faulted for going against the Constitution, but even our Constitution does not mandate the use of such phrases to express patriotism.”

Iqbal Ahmad, another Byculla businessman, agreed that Pathan had been suspended only because of his religious identity. He summed up his defence of the legislator in poetic style, quoting a couplet by legendary Urdu poet Allama Iqbal.

“Many Muslims consider Iqbal the biggest philosopher of the last century, and he wrote, ‘Patthar ki moorton mein samjha hai tu khuda hai,/Khaak-e-watan ka mujhko har zarra devta hai,’" said Ahmad. You see god in stone idols, I see god in every speck of my country’s dust. The question to ask, he added, is "why are the big political parties so insistent on saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, when they are the ones insulting the land with corruption and letting allowing looters like Vijay Mallya to escape the country?”