Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fanatics sing an anti-national song (August 27, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A determined band of fanatics committed to unrelenting jihad against all "non-believers" have landed Muslims in a soup. A YouGov survey published in Friday's Daily Telegraph revealed that 53 per cent of Britons believe "Islam posed a threat to Western liberal democracy". In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 less than a third of the United Kingdom held such views. What began as a "war on terror" in the West is fast escalating into the much-feared "clash of civilisations."

Coming on the heels of another survey which suggested that nearly one-third of British Muslims are in sympathy with those President Bush called "Islamic fascists", it is not surprising that the West is gripped by a dread of Islam - a fear which explains the disproportionate reaction to 12 exuberant Mumbai Muslims on the flight from Amsterdam. "We simply do not know", admitted writer William Shawcross in the Wall Street Journal, "how to deal with the fact that we are threatened by a vast fifth column..."

It would be sheer escapism to insist these fears are missing from India. The Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey conducted after the Mumbai blasts showed that a whopping 35 per cent of Indians believe that terrorism is supported by Indian Muslims. A few more terrorist incidents and the perception may end up becoming common sense.

Amid this growing polarisation, it was heartening that a Ulema-convened conference on terrorism adopted a resolution condemning "all forms of terror" and describing terrorism as "completely un-Islamic". Regardless of the conference being too much of a sarkari show, the declaration was a positive move.

Yet one step forward was accompanied by two steps backward. On the sidelines of the conference, SQR Ilyas, spokesman of the All India Muslim Personal Board, announced that Muslims will not sing the country's national song Vande Mataram. "We love the country but don't worship (it)", announced Ilyas, "The song talks about worshipping, as in idol worship, which is against the fundamental ethos of Islam. It is a very sensitive issue for Muslims, so they can't be asked to do this for even a single day."

Sectarian objections to Vande Mataram were a key component of the Muslim League's separatist agenda prior to 1947. Yet, since the first two stanzas of the song was adopted as the national song in 1950 and put on par with the national anthem, the controversy was deemed to have been settled. By putting its authority behind an organised boycott of the most potent symbol of the freedom struggle, the AIMPLB has wilfully sought to pit Muslims versus India. The move is not only deeply offensive but an assault on the Constitution. It is tantamount to burning the national flag.

A weak UPA Government has declared that singing Vande Mataram is not compulsory. The issue is not the exercise of individual vocal cords; it is respecting and acknowledging Vande Mataram. By declaring a symbol of nationhood to be optional, the Government has opened the floodgates of emotional separatism. In its deposition before the Unlawful Activities tribunal, SIMI has stated that it is not obliged to sing the national anthem. Will the Government acquiesce to this outrageous assertion on the grounds of pluralism? Where will this assault on Indian nationhood stop?

Many Muslims have reacted sharply to the AIMPLB diktat. They recognise the enormous problems this decision will create for ordinary Muslims who are neither terrorists nor anti-India. They understand the grave implications of narrow-minded dogmatism on communal harmony. They must be encouraged to speak up, defy the bigots and speak up for India.

The appeal of Vande Mataram is inspirational, as AR Rehman demonstrated some years ago. September 7 will mark the 101st anniversary of Vande Mataram being anointed the national song. It should be observed this year and all years to come as Vande Mataram Day, a day when the soul of a nation long suppressed found expression. Let Vande Mataram symbolise both our commitment to India and our defiance of those who want to destroy it.

Published in Sunday Pioneer, August 27, 2006)

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