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MADRAS, India — India has a national song, and a national anthem. The first, “Vande Mataram (Salute to the Mother),” signified the cry for freedom from British brutality. The song pushed the nation into a nationalistic frenzy that often caused fear and panic among the occupying British forces. The first two words of the song had such power to incite men and women that the British at one point banned the song and arrested anybody found singing it.

Today, Vande Mataram — the song that once drove Indians to unite and fight superior British forces — is dividing the country along religious and political lines. The song is disliked by India’s Muslims because it evokes the Hindu Goddess Durga and can be construed as a veiled call for a motherland free from Islamic rule. Another reason for Muslim antipathy was a recent government notification that school students, irrespective of their faith, should sing it.

Vande Mataram was written by the great Bengali thinker, poet and novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1876. The song was later incorporated into his pathbreaking novel “Anandamath (A Hut of Joy).” This literary masterpiece, written in the Bengali language, was first serialized in Chatterjee’s magazine, “Banga Darshan,” in 1881, then published as a book the following year.

At the 1896 Calcutta convention of the Indian National Congress, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore sang Vande Mataram. He soon realized, though, that the song could only go so far in uniting India’s communities. He was certain that it would have limited appeal after the nation’s independence.

In a letter to freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose in 1937, Tagore wrote: “The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to Goddess Durga: This is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankim Chandra Chatterjee does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Muslim can be expected patriotically to worship the 10-handed deity of Durga as ‘Swadesh’ (a nation).”

Realizing that Chatterjee’s soul-stirring song could be a double-edged sword, India’s Constituent Assembly, which met after India’s Independence in 1947, chose Tagore’s “Jana Gana Mana” as the national anthem in January 1950. Vande Mataram was relegated to the secondary position of national song.

While the founding fathers of India’s Constitution could not overlook the important role Vande Mataram played in the freedom struggle, they could not disregard Muslim sentiment.

Jana Gana Mana starts with: “Thou art the rulers of the minds of all people, dispenser of India’s destiny. Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sind, Gujarat and Maratha, Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal.”

In July, the government instructed schools and state institutions to mark Sept. 7 as the centennial of Vande Mataram. Students and government officials were asked to sing the song at 11 a.m. that day.

Historians were baffled: If the song was composed 130 years ago, why the centenary connection? Muslims were furious; they said the administration had no right to ask Muslim citizens to sing a song with denominational undertones.

So the government hastily modified the rule, stating that the singing of Vande Mataram was not compulsory. But the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized the opportunity to embarrass the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi. The BJP, essentially a Hindu nationalist party, accused the government of trying to “appease” the minority Muslim community by amending the decree.

Things got worse. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi (Italian by birth) failed to attend the party’s celebration of Vande Mataram on Sept. 7, the BJP called her “unpatriotic,” adding that she was trying to mollify Muslims to win votes.

India’s first leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, never failed to highlight the fact that the country won its freedom with the help of every community. The Muslims were equal and willing participants in the struggle to rid India of British rule. Thus the Congress party made it clear that Vande Mataram should not be forced on the unwilling. It is not clear, though, why the July notification was issued in the first place.

The current UPA government has been trying to remove traces of Hindu majoritarianism, pushed and promoted by the earlier BJP administration. Modern Indian nationhood is built on the pillar of secularism, of which Vande Mataram cannot be a symbol. It can, at best, be a reminder of a great national awakening.

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