On November 18, the governing body of the Dyal Singh Evening College decided to rename the institution as Vande Mataram Mahavidyalaya. Amitabh Sinha, the chairman of the body and a prominent BJP leader, elaborated that this name was selected to “pay obeisance to the mother.”
Though unexpected, the decision comes at the crossroads of a series of debates over converting the institution into a day college. While the new name can be seen in direct contradiction with the secular credentials of the Dyal Singh Majithia from whose estate the morning and evening colleges function, it somewhat shifts the focus from the administrative improbabilities of running two separate day colleges from the same location. It must be noted here that unlike the college at Karnal, the Delhi institutions are not run by the Dyal Singh Trust who were forced to give up their assets to the government in 1978 due to the restrictions under the University Grants Commission.
‘Vande Mataram’ as a national symbol allows the current governing body to ostensibly legitimise any further actions (on their parts) through a reiteration of national pride and culture. This universalisation of a majoritarian symbol as ‘national’ rather than as merely ‘Hindu’ had led to the national song being categorised as a secular one in the first place.
Before I delve into our obsession with the figure of the mother and its association with the idea of the nation, one can perhaps take a look at the responses of the Rajput royals to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s yet-to-be-released film “Padmavati”. Vishvaraj Singh, a member of the Udaipur-Mewar royal family had written to the central government requesting a ban on the movie for its inaccurate representation of the legendary queen. In an interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, he explained that his statement was not just about Rajput pride but also about the larger Indian history.
Here, it is perhaps futile to discuss the historical veracity of Rani Padmini since Indian cultural narratives have repeatedly conflated myths, history and literature. I am more concerned with the projection of this legend onto a pan-Indian frame which makes this entire controversy not so much about Rajputana as about national honour and female chastity. Yet it is this very seamless association that allows the violent protestors to label the film as an attack on the honour of the quintessential Indian woman – the devoted wife who commits jauhar (choosing death over a life of apparent disgrace).
Of course, the descendants of Alauddin Khilji or the Muslim community at large have barely protested against the portrayal of the Delhi sultan as a ruthless plunderer in the trailer. Muslim masculinity (unlike its Rajput counterparts) is never subsumed within the national frame but is seen as a constant threat to Hindu women’s virtue, as is evident from the construction of ‘Love Jihad’ or the judicial overreach in the case of Hadiya.
Unsurprisingly, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Anandamath”, which is the source of the song “Vande Mataram”, portrayed the Muslim community as outsiders from whom mother India needs to be liberated. Consequently, the controversy over the film allows vigilante groups like Karni Sena to perform virulent masculinity as a staged spectacle against the assumed sexual depravity of the director who (according to them) threatens to dishonour their queen through the ghoomar.
It is not really ironic that the same group, which claims to protect the honour of Rani Padmini, also threatens to chop off the nose of the actress, Deepika Padukone. According to the perception of the violent mob, Padukone, through her performance, not only dares to emulate the queen – she also disrupts ‘history’ by making the latter dance, presumably like the ‘courtesan’ – a female artist, whom the British, in the late 19th century, supposedly conflated with the ‘prostitute’ and collectively dismissed them as a disgrace to civilized society. The marginalisation of the tawaif in the aftermath of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny was one of the several events that ensured the creation of the nation-space as a sacred entity to be associated with female virtue and endurance.
Since the early 19th century, the Bengali bhadralok (respectable man) has focused on social reforms directed largely towards upper caste women – thereby also distinguishing between the bhadramohila (respectable woman) and the ‘bad woman’ (a binary that would later become more pronounced with the advent of the ‘social purity’ movement). This coincided with the immediate nationalist need to retrieve symbols and customs that would resonate with the Hindu majority and dissociate them from an ‘Islamic past’ – something that was particularly conceptualised by British historians and attacked thereafter as ‘decadent’.
One such symbol came to be that of “Bharat Mata” – a Hindu deity which can be traced back to Abanindranath Tagore’s 1904 painting, but finds more cultural affinity with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s text. In “The History of Doing”, Radha Kumar writes – “The first half of the twentieth century saw a symbolic use of the mother as a rallying device, from feminist assertions of women’s power as mothers of the nation, to terrorist invocations of the protective and ravening mother goddess, to the Gandhian lauding of the spirit of endurance and suffering embodied in the mother.”
Consequently, the figure of Padmini becomes sanctified within the nationalist framework that sought to reinforce notions of Indian kshatriya-hood. Since nationalism is measured through tokenism and compulsory obedience to national symbols, recovered or re-appropriated by the state, the decision of the Dyal Singh college administration has to be understood in terms of the larger debates about the playing of the national anthem in theatres or the chanting of slogans like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
As a politics of ‘affect’, nationalism has often been used to legitimise mob violence – as is evident from the actions of the Karni Sena or the rogue lawyers at the Patiala Court who attacked Jawaharlal Nehru University students and professors in 2016. It would be puerile to dismiss these groups as fringe elements since the current central government has justified or superseded all its policies – from GST to demonetisation, beef ban to the decision on Rohingya Muslims – through the rhetoric of nationalism. The formalisation of the ‘nationalist’ as a compulsory category is evident from the suspension of Maharashtra MLA, Waris Pathan, from the House in 2016, after he refused to utter the slogan, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’.
This adarsh nagrik (ideal citizen) is then to be constructed against a binary, which in contemporary times, has become the figure of the ‘anti-national’. Being an extremely fragile concept, the nation’s sovereignty needs to be constantly reiterated through the creation and circulation of ‘enemies’ across the dominant discourses of culture. Since a nation is imagined as a large family, any voices of dissent can be seen as acts of disloyalty – and consequently, as a threat to this imagined, unified body.
Thus, one Gurmehar Kaur is reduced to a traitor – since she not only dared to take a stand on campus violence but also advocated peace with India’s ultimate enemy, Pakistan. In the recent past, the ‘anti-national’, as the new enemy of the state, has come to be associated with university spaces that have threatened to challenge the illusion of ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ by exposing a majoritarian worldview. This new category of the ‘undesirable citizen’ has to be seen as an anomaly (if not as an outcast) against the revered figure of the soldier who guards the international boundaries and contributes to the longevity of the nation. In “Cultural Roots”, Benedict Anderson notes that the cenotaphs and tombs of ‘Unknown Soldiers’, despite being probably empty, are “saturated with ghostly national imaginings.”
The February 2017 Ramjas College violence was enacted almost a year after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar in the University of Hyderabad, who became ‘anti-national’ for questioning the death sentence of Afzal Guru. Since such trials have become public spectacles which satisfy the “collective conscience” of the nation (as stated in Guru’s judgment), challenging them is tantamount to exposing the shortcomings of the highest court of law, and by association, that of the Indian democracy. Moreover, the cries of “Azadi” during the students’ protest movements have brought back into the public domain two of the most sensitive issues concerning the Indian polity that the politicians usually shy away from –structural violence against the Dalits and the issue of self-determination in Kashmir. Sadly but predictably enough, most of the cries have been reduced to tokenism since then.
The attempt to erase the legacy of Dyal Singh and saffronise the campus can also be seen as a means to check any dissident voices, particularly in the aftermath of the Ramjas College violence. As opposed to the virulent masculine nationalism of the governing body, one of the rallying cries of the women’s collective Pinjra Tod has been “Hum Bharat Ki Mata Nahi Banenge (We Won’t Be the Mothers of India).” The group recognises nationalism as a violence inflicted on the woman’s body and specifically works towards the lifting of hostel curfew hours imposed in the name of female safety.
The deification of women, therefore, not only entails dehumanisation, but also erases any possibilities of re-imagining women’s identities as anything but relational to men. Since the body of the nation is constructed as a Hindu goddess, the woman’s body automatically becomes a site of discipline and inscriptions. Hence, Padmavati cannot dance and has to conform to a normative behaviour that is expected of a Rajput queen even thousand years after her celebrated suicide. Such acts of surveillance are not restricted to women (or upper caste Hindu women in particular) as evident from the systematic Islamophobia that has pervaded the country (and even Bhansali’s creative imagination).
One can look at the testimonies of Mohammad Aamir Khan (who was acquitted after spending 14 years in prison) and Mohammad Wahid Shaikh (who was arrested for his alleged role in the 2011 Mumbai blasts) to understand how both the ‘nationalist’ and the ‘anti-national’ are boxed compartments filled with hosts, guests, strangers or outsiders. One wonders if national symbols will continue to be contested in the days to come or whether we shall witness more erasures of multiplicities and co-existences.