Producing patriotism

History lesson: How 'Bharat Mata' became the code word for a theocratic Hindu state

Not only does it embody a Hindutva imagination of India, it categorises Muslims as a group who are unable to partake of this form of patriotism.

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”.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.