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.