In defence of the right not to sing Vande Mataram

Organised religion should leave it to individuals to decide on organised patriotism

It is undoubtable that the fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram (via DesiPundit) by Muslim clerics in Hyderabad is motivated by, and is a manifestation of, the phenomenon of competitive intolerance that has found purchase in contemporary India. It is inexplicable why now, almost a century after it first became an icon of Indian nationalism, Hyderabad’s religious establishment felt that it was aggravating enough to call for a religous injunction. Their action may be fairly criticised for its attempt to divide society through the communalisation of a well-regarded national icon. But it is equally important to recognise that citizens have the right to opt out of organised patriotism as much as they have a right to opt out of organised religion.

If, on account of personal beliefs, a citizen decides not to respect symbols or observe certain rites of patriotism, it should not automatically follow that the citizen is demonstrating a lack of patriotism. But this should come as a result of an individual’s free choice. National symbols are intended to be secular, but it need not be incumbent on each and every citizen to accept this interpretation. Acceptance of say, the Vande Mataram as a secular expression of patriotism has waxed and waned with general levels of tolerance, broad-mindedness and unity of purpose in Indian society. Regardless of perception, or even actual fact, individual citizens have a right to interpret the hymn in the light of their personal beliefs. So those Muslims who feel that the hymn is against the teachings of Islam should be free not to sing it. It is, however, a totally different matter for one or more of them to enforce their interpretation on their co-religionists, or for that matter, on anyone else. The decision not to sing Vande Mataram is defensible only on the grounds of individual freedom.

There are important caveats though — personal beliefs cannot condone breaking public law or private rules. They also cannot justify wilful disrespect of national symbols. If a school or an organisation that an individual has voluntarily joined requires certain songs sung or certain invocations made, then it is incumbent on the individual to respect those rules or part ways. Again this is a decision for individuals to make. Organised religion, in most of its forms, purports to place restrictions on individual freedoms. The Hyderabad fatwas must be condemned as much for their attempt to encroach on individual freedoms as for their insidious use of a national icon to further their political agenda.

Related Link: Americans are contending with similar issues too — Dan Drezner covers the US Senate’s move to make burning their flag illegal.

55 thoughts on “In defence of the right not to sing Vande Mataram

  1. Yet another interesting case in the US was the one about the Pledge of Allegiance, where a father maintained that and how the words “under God” added to the Pledge in 1954 were in gross violation of constitutional rights. The father’s stand – the words “under God” was an unconstitutional “endorsement of religion”. The case was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2004, on terms of technicality. The court never addressed the question of separating church and state.

    In 2005, a federal judge declared that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was unconstitutional.

    A U.S. district judge ruled that the phrase violates children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.” The issue is expected to return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  2. Bazargan, we, Indians, are already a long way towards becoming dhimmis. It’s Europes turn now and eventually US. Then minorities will have not rights in Islamic land whereas minorities will trimumph, in the name of tolerance, in the rest of the lands. Nice little formula.

    I also wonder what the little towns in Britain would have said if the local Jews had a similar complain about pigs. I can just imagine.

  3. On a somewhat different note, I am surprised that no-one has brought up devout Muslim AR Rahman’s approach to the Vande Mataram issue. Rahman is evidently of the view that the second line of the song is in some tension with his individual religious principles; yet he has a beautiful song called “Maa Tujhe Salaam” wherein “Vande Mataram” is a refrain; note that the “…I bow to thee” language hs been replaced by “Maa Tujhe Salaam” (i.e. “Hail to you, Mother”). As I read it it’s an interesting approach, signalling that for many of us the fact that certain lines in a certain song offend us does not mean that we cannot show equal patriotism in other ways.

  4. Nitin,
    The tone of the argument fundamentally unrealistic and immature.
    What you have here is not a matter of choice.

    It is utter blindness to take this fatwa in isolation and merely invent your own notions of propriety and choice and use those notions to analyze this case.

    The purpose of the futwah is obviously not merely a matter of personal religious discipline. And We know pretty well the consequences of this “religious sentiment” in the creation of pukeland and the ongoing battle in Kashmir.

    Let all of us hindu, muslim or christian realize, that our religious freedom is guaranteed by an act of national will. The kafir is fighting to protect the religious freedom of the momin. The unity of India is not a simple and trivial matter. Let it not be trivialized by the secularized apologists of the monstrous futwahs.

    By all means individual preferences will prevail. There is no way I can enforce one variety of patriotism or another. But if the ulema of the momin has to proclaim his alligence to religion in this manner, let him in the same breath proclaim his stronger alligence to India. Or at the very least declare he has no intentions to remain an Indian citizen.

Comments are closed.