Across the country, it seems, among people with a small-minded definition of the Indian republic, the readiness to chant “Bharat Mata ki jai”—Victory to Mother India—is the new test of patriotism. In early February, the host of a panel show on the television channel India News shouted down two of his invitees—Kanhaiya Kumar, the head of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, and Dinesh Varshney, a leader of the Communist Party of India-—demanding that they recite the slogan. On 16 March, Waris Yusuf Pathan, an elected MLA from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, was suspended from the Maharashtra state assembly for refusing to parrot the words. In the weeks afterwards, the entrepreneur and yoga teacher Baba Ramdev called for a law that would force everyone in India to say “Bharat Mata ki jai,” and also declared that, were it not illegal, he would gladly decapitate those who didn’t.
This is a subterfuge—an attempt to smuggle in a particular notion of patriotism and make it common currency. No one is being asked to chant “Bharat ki jai”—Victory to India. The crux of the issue is the term “Bharat Mata,” or Mother India, which suggests a certain kind of deification of the nation—one that many Indians are uncomfortable with, and many Muslims and Christians believe clashes with the tenets of their faiths. It is precisely this deification which has rallied the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its associates behind it. But even some others who would not identify themselves with the Sangh Parivar have, wittingly or unwittingly, jumped onboard. For instance, even MLAs of the avowedly secular Congress demanded Pathan’s suspension from the assembly. As a caution to them, and as a reminder for the rest of us watching the sophistry unfold, a lesson on the deep inanity and prejudice at the root of the notion of Bharat Mata seems in order.
That notion connects directly to the RSS’s vision of India as a Hindu Rashtra—a sacred motherland of the Hindus—and has very little to do with the Republic of India as it is envisaged in the constitution. Every meeting of the RSS involves the singing of a prayer, “Namaste Sada Vatsale,” whose text is in Sanskrit except for a closing line in Hindi: “Bharat Mata ki jai.” The text makes it clear that Bharat Mata is synonymous with the term “Hindubhumi,” or the land of the Hindus, and states that members of the RSS bow before the motherland. “Bharat Mata ki jai,” then, is an invocation of the RSS’s fundamental beliefs. At the core of these is the organisation’s definition of a Hindu Rashtra, which stems from its definition of a Hindu—both of which exclude particular minorities from its idea of India.
In 1922, VD Savarkar completed Essentials of Hindutva, the work that largely defined the philosophy of the Hindu right as we know it today. Savarkar appropriated the idea of nationalism, prevalent in Europe for over a century by then, and attempted to define a community in keeping with it. Like European nationalism, Hindutva was steeped in blood and geography. The constituent of the community it defined was the Hindu, who, according to Savarkar, was
he who feels attachment to the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu as the land of his forefathers—as his Fatherland; who inherits the blood of the great race whose first and discernible source could be traced from the Himalayan altitudes of the Vedic Saptasindhus and which assimilating all that was incorporated and ennobling all that was assimilated has grown into and come to be known as the Hindu people; and who, as a consequence of the foregoing attributes, has inherited and claims as his own the Hindu Sanskriti, the Hindu civilization, as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.
As a definition, this one commits the cardinal sin of being circular, invoking the very term—“Hindu”—that it seeks to define. Today, this definition is commonly expressed in shorthand, to say that a Hindu is someone who thinks of Bharat as his fatherland and holy land. (Savarkar’s emphasis on “the blood of the great race” is often omitted from this compression. This is easy to understand, as today the existence of the “great race” he refers to—that is, the Aryan race—is questionable.) But that shorthand conceals that defining a holy land just geographically is not enough, since religious believers of myriad persuasions could view the same land as sacred in their own ways. It is also necessary to specify the belief system under which the land must be considered holy—in this case Hinduism, “the system of religious beliefs found common amongst the Hindu people.” So the shorthand definition, when completed, reads: a Hindu is someone for whom Bharat is rendered holy through the system of religious beliefs found common among the Hindu people. Again, the circularity is evident. Quite clearly, Savarkar faced many of the same problems that have often bedevilled anyone trying to make sense of just who is a Hindu and who is not. His answer amounts to no more than saying that a Hindu is a Hindu.
Later commentators on Hindutva have largely overlooked the failings of Savarkar’s definition of a Hindu. One who did not was MS Golwalkar—the second sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader, of the RSS, who shaped much of what the organisation is today, and the man Narendra Modi has described as his guru.
In his book Bunch of Thoughts, first published in 1966, Golwalkar describes the difficulty of defining a Hindu. “All the sects, the various castes in the Hindu fold, can be defined,” he writes, “but the term ‘Hindu’ cannot be defined because it comprises all.” Upon greater reflection, Golwalkar comes to the conclusion that a Hindu recognises that the “innate Spark of Divinity, the Reality in him—which alone takes man to the state of everlasting supreme bliss, is the one great aim before him.” But the Hindu, Golwalkar continues, recognises that he cannot reach this “supreme stage” within just one lifetime. Therefore, it is “the Hindu alone, in the vast mass of humanity,” who accepts that “the theory of rebirth for the realisation of our oneness with that Ultimate Reality is the one great hope for the human soul.”
For Golwalkar, a Hindu is anyone who believes in rebirth. This has the great disadvantage of leaving out many groups, such as the Charvakas, as well as almost anyone who is a rigorous student of modern science. Savarkar was an atheist, and hence unlikely to qualify as a Hindu under Golwalkar’s definition, which is perhaps why he kept away from any prescriptive definition of Hindutva.
As Essentials of Hindutva makes clear, Savarkar’s definition was motivated less by logic than by the need to arrive at certain conclusions. Like many colonised people, he wanted to prove that he belonged to a group superior to his colonisers. He writes,
The ideal conditions, therefore, under which a nation can attain perfect solidarity and cohesion would, other things being equal, be found in the case of those people who inhabit the land they adore, the land of whose forefathers is also the land of their Gods and Angels, of Seers and Prophets; the scenes of whose history are also the scenes of their mythology. The Hindus are about the only people who are blessed with these ideal conditions that are at the same time incentive to national solidarity, cohesion and greatness.
But it was not enough to feel superior to those who colonised his people. Savarkar also needed to distance himself from those who were responsible for the degradation of his mythic nation of Hindus in the first place.
That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen who had originally been forcibly converted to a non-Hindu religion and who consequently have inherited along with Hindus, a common Fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture—language, law, customs, folklore and history—are not and cannot be recognised as Hindus. For though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland too. Their holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided. Nay, if some of them be really believing what they profess to do, then there can be no choice—they must, to a man, set their Holy-land above their Fatherland in their love and allegiance. That is but natural. We are not condemning nor are we lamenting. We are simply telling facts as they stand.
The recurrent need to target Muslims and Christians, directly through violence or indirectly through the rhetoric of exclusion, is located here. Despite the RSS’s prevarications since then, from the very time the Hindu Rashtra was envisaged it was clear that Muslims and Christians were not equal citizens of it.
By the time we move from Savarkar to Golwalkar, there is very little attempt to conceal the prejudices that were already part of the original formulation. “In practically every place,” Golwalkar writes in Bunch of Thoughts, “there are Muslims who are in constant touch with Pakistan over the transmitter enjoying not only the rights of an average citizen but also some extra privileges and extra favour because they are ‘minorities’!”
It is against this background that we have to assess the present emphasis on “Bharat Mata ki jai.”
The slogan is being used today, as it has always been, in the service of an ideology whose essential aim is to exclude all religious minorities.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.