First things first. India’s national song is Vande Mataram, with a “V”. However, in its original part-Bangla and part-Sanskrit form, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and featuring in his seminal work Anandamath (1882), it was Bande Mataram with a “B”.

This was how it was pronounced as such for about 50 years, before the song became popular in the Hindi belt. And just like all things Indian after 1947, the Hindi belt’s mispronunciation became the official format for the national song of the Union.

In Bangla, the closest we have to the “V” sound is “Bh”, as in Bharat. So, if you wrote the word “love” in Bangla, the “v” would become “bh” in our alphabet. And, as it turns out, Chattopadhyay did not have in mind India or Bharat when he wrote this song.

Over the years, the song has been a source of disharmony between upper caste Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan and pre-Partition Bengal and Punjab. It was up there with similar divisive issues of the time, such as the demand that music should not be played before mosques especially during idol immersions and cow slaughter for qurbani.

These remain explosive issues even today, used to trigger communal tension or riot every now and then. Not to be outdone, Vande Mataram, though not a riotous issue, continues be used to needle.

This was seen once again on Thursday, in Uttar Pradesh. During a session of the Meerut Municipal Corporation, seven Muslim councilors walked out when the national song was song, at the start of the meeting. When the returned to the venue after the song was over, they were not allowed in. Meerut Mayor Harikant Ahluwalia, who reportedly blocked their entry, said in his defence: “It was the decision of everyone in the session that those who boycott the national song should be boycotted. I just agreed with [the demand of] my people.”

A motion to terminate the membership of the seven councillors was passed. There was even a proposal to expel the people’s representatives because of their refusal to sing along, which was turned down by the municipal commissioner as it was illegal. According to some reports, a handful of enthusiastic singing Hindu councilors also said: “Hindustan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hai” – If you want to live in India, you have to say Vande Mataram.

Tired controversy

The old and tired bone of contention goes as follows. Muslims contend that signing the song, which deifies India as the motherland, amounts to worshiping an entity other than what Islam holds as the one true god. Hindus, on the other hand, contend that the song is a stand-in for Indian nationalism and any disrespect to it is a sign of disloyalty to to the country – the implication being that the creed of Muslims is inherently treasonous vis-à-vis Indian nationalism due to their prioritisation of Islam over Vande Mataram.

The song is particularly useful to Hindu nationalists to buttress the age-old charge that Muslims are not loyal to the nation. The centrality of this issue in what was a meeting of a municipal body entrusted with matters of urban governance shows the extent of communal toxin that now flows in the politics of Meerut. It is not accidental that Meerut is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which, along with its earlier and bigger avataar under the British – as the United Provinces – has witnessed the most Hindu-Muslim riots throughout history. Hindi-Hindu and Urdu-Muslim nationalisms were born here. Ever since Partition, they dominate the two biggest chunks of the erstwhile British-conquered territories of South Asia.

In 2006, addressing the controversy around Vande Mataram, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said: “We do not aim at idol worship [through the rendition of Vande Mataram]. Those who do not believe in idol worship are free to pray in their own way. But when it comes to worshiping India, our motherland, there should be no controversy.”

Vajpayee got one crucial thing wrong: the song is not about worshiping India. It is, indeed, about worshiping the motherland, but that motherland is not Vajpayee’s but that of the song’s author, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. That motherland is Bengal.

Bengal links

To understand that this song has nothing to do with India and has everything to do with Bengal, one needs to move beyond the stanzas that are designated as the “national song”. This is how the later part of it goes, translated by Aurobindo Ghose, the anti-colonial revolutionary-turned-mystic, which has been officially adopted by a government of India portal.

“Who hath said thou art weak in thy lands
When the swords flash out in seventy million hands
And seventy million voices roar
Thy dreadful name from shore to shore?
With many strengths who art mighty and stored,
To thee I call Mother and Lord!
Thou who savest, arise and save!
To her I cry who ever her foeman drove
Back from plain and Sea
And shook herself free.”

Who are these 70 million people? It is a reference to the population of the undivided Bengal, Hindus and Muslims included. According to the 1871 census, the population of Bengal (including British administered areas and feudatory states) was 62.6 million, which was referred to as 70 million or seven crore (saptakoti, as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote) in common parlance.

The population of the Empire of India, according to the same Census, was 238.8 million or 23 crores – which Chattopadhyay could have written as Troyo Bingshokoti. But he did not, because he was not writing about India, he was writing about Bengal.

In time, Bande Mataram became the war cry of Bengali revolutionary terrorists (Ghose being a key early figure in that movement). Their heroism made their slogan ripe for adoption by the Bengal Congress and soon, the Indian National Congress. The “Bande Mataram” slogan spread geographically and in that process, became Vande Mataram.

Co-opted symbols

This co-opting of something particularly Bengali in the convenient service of Bharat, with accompanying historical origins, is not a unique. Another contemporary divisive concept, again involving invocations to a maternal figure, has similar roots. The pictorial idea of Mother India or Bharat Mata is attributed to the Bengali painter and polymath Abanindranath Thakur (or Tagore), a nephew of Rabindranath Thakur. His 1905 painting of a female monk-like figure with four hands has been co-opted as Bharat Mata. No image of Bharat Mata exists prior to this.

However, at least for the painter himself, the artwork depicted Banga Mata or Mother Bengal, for that is what Abanindranath had named his painting.

That Chattopadhyay was writing about Bengal and Abanindranath was painting Mother Bengal will not seem odd at all if we remember what Aurobindo Ghose had to say about his own translation of Bande Mataram: “It is difficult to translate the National Anthem of Bengal into verse in another language owing to its unique union of sweetness, simple directness and high poetic force.”

People like CR Das (Aurobindo’s lawyer in the Alipore bomb case, where a number of Bengali revolutionaries were put on trial in 1908-’09) and Subhas Chandra Bose repeatedly refer to the “Bengali nation” in their writings and speeches. That Bengal might have had a national anthem and a nationhood separate from that of India might be treasonous today, but that was the idea of Bengal in the minds of people who came to be hailed as the greatest Indian revolutionaries. Clearly, in their conception, Bengal was clearly a nation unto itself. Their theory of India was not a one-nation or two-nation theory but a multi-nation theory.