The Maharashtra Assembly’s unanimous decision to suspend Waris Pathan, a member of the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, for refusing to say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” brought back to memory the sultry weeks of August 2011.

Anna Hazare, who was then the mascot of the India Against Corruption movement, was on fast-unto-death at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, hoping to mount pressure on the United Progressive Alliance government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill and form an independent body to investigate n cases of graft. The Maidan was bustling with eager beavers. From the dais, one speaker after another spoke, their speeches interspersed with the cries of Vande Matram and Inquilab Zindabad.

On the day I was at Ramlila Maidan, whenever the chant of Vande Matram rent the air, the master of ceremony would dutifully declare over the loudspeaker: “Anna ke chaar siphai, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai.” Anna has four soldiers – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian. It was his valiant attempt to counter the critics who had pointed to the chanting of Vande Matram at the Maidan to suggest that it betrayed the Sangh Parivar’s influence on the IAC.

The MC’s efforts were laid waste as soon as a raucous band of Muslims from Haryana’s backward region of Mewat descended on Ramlila Maidan. A sprightly, 25-year old woman activist, Mumtaz, clambered on the dais, read out the couplets she had composed, delivered a fiery speech, and worked the crowds with thunderous cries of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Inquilab Zindabad.

Below the dais, Mumtaz’s mentor – a backward class Muslim leader who had spoken before her – gazed and smiled appreciatively. I asked him what he thought of the media commentators who had taken exception to the chanting of Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

The leader replied, “Slogans coined in another era have lost their earlier meanings.” He thought it was absurd to claim that the mere sloganeering of Bharat Mata ki Jai could make a Muslim guilty of idol worship.

On the trail...

As we know too well, the dominant IAC faction was born anew as the Aam Aadmi Party, under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal. During the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, he went on a tour of Uttar Pradesh, cutting a swathe through Ghaziabad to Kanpur and, ultimately, camped in Varanasi for weeks to battle the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.

There is scarcely a leader in India who bellows as lustily as Kejriwal in raising the slogan of Bharat Mata Ki…to which the crowd roars, Jai. Whether in Kanpur or Varanasi or other stopovers, Muslims in the crowds – their presence was always substantial – would eagerly join him in his salutation to Bharat Mata. Mind you, they were largely your stereotypical Muslim – bearded, often in kurta-pajama, mostly Urdu-speaking.

These images came rushing in as soon as the suspension of Pathan from the Maharashtra Assembly became hot news of Wednesday evening. With these also came the question: Why do Muslims object to the demand of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies to chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai? Why do they eagerly chant the same slogan with Kejriwal?

Looking back, I realise how right Mumtaz’s mentor had been in 2011. Indeed, our slogans acquire their meanings because of the context in which they are coined. In another context, decades later, they could signify something remarkably different.

In fact, it isn’t about the slogans as much as it is about the intention of leaders who expect Muslims to join in the cry of Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

In its original sense, Bharat Mata is the personification of India as a mother goddess. The inspiration behind this conception was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel, Anandamath, which is loosely based on what is known as the Sannyasi rebellion of late 18th century.

In Anandamath, though, it is not the British whom the monks battle, but the Muslims. This had triggered disquiet soon after Chattopadhyay published the novel in 1882, not least because Muslim faqirs were said to have also participated in the 18th-century rebellion.

Chattopadhyay’s supporters, however, claim he couldn’t have possibly depicted the British as the enemy or rival because they, since they were in power, wouldn’t have allowed Anandamath to be published.

The Mother Goddess

It is in Anandamath we have the song, Bande Matram, which likens Bharat Mata to Goddess Durga. The Muslims, therefore, feel that to sing the song would tantamount to worshipping the deity Bharat Mata, in whose honour a temple was built, as writer Mrinal Pande has written, in Varanasi in early 20th century and then, decades later, in Haridwar.

Since Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion, and disallows idol worship, Muslims believe any demand on them to sing Bande Matram is akin to asking them to flout the fundamental tenets of their religion. What they have in mind are these lines in the fifth stanza of Vande Matram.

Thou art Durga, Lady and Queen,

With her hands that strike and her

swords of sheen,

Thou art Lakshmi lotus-throned….

What imparted a greater charge to both Anandamath and Bande Matram was the political context in which the book acquired popularity. With nationalist leaders seeking to deepen the anti-colonial struggle and acquire a mass base, they resorted to religious symbols to connect to people.

Of this order was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s idea of celebrating the birth anniversary of Shivaji and making Ganesh Chaturthi a carnival. This was perhaps what Chattopadhyay too hoped to achieve through Anandamath.

Regardless of their motives, both Tilak and Chattopadhyay fanned the anxieties of Muslims and imbibed in them the fear that an independent India was likely to be a Hindu rashtra.

From this perspective, Bande Matram is identified as the anthem of Hindu Right, and Bharat Mata ki Jai as its emblematic slogan. For the Sangh Parivar, whether Muslims chant the slogan is a test of their loyalty to the nation.

Rallying the crowds

Yet, as I learnt in the sultry weeks of August 2011 at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, the intention and agenda of leaders who expect Muslims to join the cry of Bharat Mata matter infinitely more than its origin and meaning. They didn’t believe, and still don’t, that Kejriwal or any of the AAP leaders wish to turn India Hindu or establish a version of Hindu rashtra, perceiving the sloganeering of Bharat Mata as just a technique to enthuse crowds.

This is what they will also think of Left leaders and some Congress leaders, should they too raise the cry of Bharat Mata and expect Muslims to join them. But they will dash such expectations of BJP leaders who often, rather explicitly and, at times, menacingly, demand that Muslims say Bharat Mata ki Jai.

You can’t blame them, can you?

Here is the BJP which openly doubts the loyalty of Muslims to the nation, absurdly demands they refer to themselves as Hindu Muslim, wants them to return to Hinduism from which they converted centuries ago, accuses them of love-jihad, and wishes to withdraw the minority status Constitutionally accorded to Aligarh Muslim University.

Add to this the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the concerted efforts of Hindutva footsoldiers to foment communal riots in recent times, their indictment by several Commissions of Inquiry established to probe communal violence in the past, and the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

Rightly or wrongly, Muslims believe that even if they were to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai, a more outrageous demand will be made on them. They also know what their position is in the Sangh’s vision of India – it is one of subservience or of living under the threat of being made to feel inferior and insecure. They chant Bharat Mata ki Jai with Kejriwal because they know he intends no harm to them.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.