By Indrajit Hazra HindustanTimes Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Today Vande Mataram retains its iconic status, but like the resounding anti-semitism in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice or in Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, there’s the niggling business of it being anachronistic in an embarrassing way. The poem/song was written purportedly as a ‘page-filler’ for the magazine Bangadarshan in 1875, six years before Anandamath was serialised in the same magazine and seven years before the novel was first published as a book...Standard historiography during the 19th century (with British encouragement) also successfully portrayed Muslim rule as the ‘dark ages’ sandwiched between the Golden Age of pre-Islamic India and the progress-oriented British era. The ‘buffer’ of Muslim tyranny during the time of Siraj-ud-daula (the period in which Anandamath is set) not only served Bankim to write about the need to write “our [the Bengalis’] own history” but also to (safely) use his imagination as a novelist “to achieve the effects he desires” — that is, to drum up a sense of nationalism in a colonised nation (more Bengal than India).If there was any immediate catalyst to Vande Mataram and Anandamath, it was the 1873 peasant riots in the Yusufshahi pargana of Pabna-Sirajganj district. Farmers in Muslim-majority Bengal rose against (Hindu) zamindars who increased rent and started evicting them from their land for non-payment. After 43 leading peasant leaders refused to pay the increased rent, the zamindars filed a case. The court decreed in favour of the zamindars in 1872, incensing Bankim. In May 1873, after a civil judge reversed the earlier judgment, a group of peasants declared ‘independence’. What started off as a peaceful agitation turned violent with the British authorities clamping down on the unrest. If that didn’t break the back of the peasantry, the 1873-74 famine did.Bankim wrote a series of scathing essays, ‘Bengal’s peasantry’, in 1873 to highlight the woes of Bengal’s farmers. The parallels with the sannyasi uprising — both the historical revolt of the peasantry against the East India Company in the 1770s as well as the fictionalised one in Anandamath — are obvious if anyone cares to see them.The time when Vande Mataram really gained currency was during the agitations against the 1905 Partition of Bengal. This was when the expression was first used as a political slogan. As Julius Lipner notes in his exhaustive introduction to his translation of Bankim’s novel (Anandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood, OUP), “The chanting [during the August 7, 1905, protest procession against the impending decision in Calcutta] was not confined to Hindus; people of all communities were reported to have been involved.” A violent police assault in Barishal against protestors chanting Vande Mataram in April 14, 1906, cemented the anti-British, Hindu-Muslim movement further.The overt ‘Hinduisation’ of the anti-Partition movement came about only later with the appearance of the English language revolutionary paper, Bande Mataram, on August 6, 1906. One of its editors, Aurobindo Ghose, was the first in a line of others who started to co-opt Bankim’s nationalistic credo into a dominant Hindu one. By 1921, 10 years after the Bengal Partition was reversed and when many bhadralok started to perceive a Bengali Muslim resentment against the decision, Vande Mataram was being used as a slogan by Hindu rioters against Muslims.