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December 17, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Amberish K Diwanji

Nationalism versus Secularism: Why should the two be distinct?

The recent controversies over Vande Mataram, the Saraswati Vandana, introducing Sanskrit, Indianising the nation's education system, the debate over the greats of history, refuse to die down. The disputes have generated more heat than light by becoming slanging matches between "nationalism" and "secularism". Why the two should be distinct is still not clear but that is the level to which debate in the country has descended to.

To sing or not to sing Vande Mataram has become the most contentious dispute of all, and that is really unfortunate. Independent India's forefathers, in their wisdom, chose Jana Gana Mana as the nation's anthem. If for some people that is not good enough, they are welcome to seek a constitutional change. Vande Mataram is today the national song, hence second to the anthem. Let us remember that only the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates insist on singing the Vande Mataram at all their functions, often to the exclusion of the anthem.

For the RSS, singing Vande Mataram is a sign of patriotism. Muslims claim they cannot sing it because it means, 'I worship (or bow to) you, Mother'. The 'mother' is India. RSS posters/paintings invariably depict India as a goddess (in typical Hindu fashion with four arms and golden crown) in the foreground and the country in the background. Muslims insist that they cannot accept such an image since it is anathema to their religion.

First, any patriot is supposed to love and respect one's motherland, but there is no need (for anyone) to worship her. We all love our wives, parents and siblings, but do we worship them? Patriotism (and love for the country) is required of all Indians, irrespective of religion and belief. Since Muslims are against images or bowing to anyone but Allah, why must anyone insist that they bow before India or an image of her. Is it not enough if they love India (just as the rest of us Indians do)?

When A R Rahman sings Vande Mataram with great passion and gusto, he says the words: "Maa, tujhe salaam!" (Mother I salute you). In this form, as a salutation to our country (and love for her) surely no one will (or should) object. But alas! Today the entire dispute is being fuelled for political purposes.

There is no need to go on and on about the history of Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana. All nations need symbols of their nationhood, yet it is imperative that such symbols are accepted by everyone and not just by a section (even if it is the majority). Jana Gana Mana has been accepted by all (even Subhas Chandra Bose favoured it). The RSS's role in India's Freedom Struggle was limited and it has no right to unilaterally seek to change a potent symbol of India.

No one doubts the need to re-evaluate education in India. The trouble is can one trust any political party or one with a known pro-Hindu agenda (as opposed to a pro-Indian agenda) to do it. Thus you have the question: if Akbar is called 'the great', why not Rana Pratap?

While history must be constantly reviewed, appending 'the great' to some names was chosen with reason. Asoka and Akbar ruled over much of the subcontinent and in that capacity exercised huge influence, especially in the matter of religion (Asoka is responsible for spreading Buddhism beyond India, Akbar noted for his religious tolerance and secularism).

If anything, one can ask why some emperors from Maurya and Gupta Ages are not similarly designated? Why not the Chola and Pallava kings who established their rule in Southeast Asia (the world's largest Hindu temple is in Cambodia), and others who went beyond India's boundaries?

Rana Pratap was no doubt a brave and heroic person, who valiantly fought against Akbar. If every leader who bravely stood up to superior forces in vain deserves the title 'great', then Indian history would be replete with such 'great' men. What about Tipu Sultan whose defeat more than any other helped the British gain India (just as Rana Pratap's defeat helped Akbar consolidate the Mughal empire). Or is it a Hindu-Muslim question and hence Tipu Sultan cannot be great (he was Muslim after all).

Every brave fighter is not a 'great' king. Certainly appending 'great' needs to be looked into and reviewed when necessary, but it must be chosen with reason and applied equally to all. And why should 'the great' be limited to only rulers in the political sense? What about the great men and women who sought to reform India's social system, those who spread the message of love and brotherhood, and pioneered great ideas, who fought not just invaders but injustice?

The problem with Indianising education is -- 'What constitutes Indian'? Is it limited to only aspects of Hinduism? Naturally in any education in India, Hinduism is important, and the old texts such as the Vedas do matter. But it goes beyond Hinduism to aspects of Jainism and Buddhism, and later to the influence of Islam after it reached India.

Unfortunately, it is here that one cannot trust the RSS, who have an awful reputation for being more (brahmin) Hindu than Indian. We need a better institution to do that.

Even more important, Indian education needs to be reformed. It must get out of the "rote" mode, where memorising lessons is considered knowledge and focus on ideas, creativity, analyses, and experiments. Let students understand rather than just memorise their lessons, and apply it to today's world. The need of the hour is to ensure cent per cent education in the in the country, especially in the villages. Education in the rural areas must take into account the student's environment rather than seek to import urban images.

Sanskrit is not necessary right now. First, to say that not learning Sanskrit divorces you from your culture is humbug: do Europeans not know their culture because they do not speak Latin? Sanskrit today will only impose an additional burden on the students, who prefer to focus on the sciences and mathematics, more important in today's world. India has a three-language policy (four in case the student is in a state different from his mother tongue) and another language is totally unjustified. Hindi has also taken root in the country and a new language in schools will divert attention from it, thereby negating the entire effort to spread Hindi in India.

Moreover, teaching Sanskrit will prove just too expensive. Today, India needs more primary schools and incentives to ensure students do not drop out from schools. Fifty per cent of India is illiterate (most of them are from the so-called lower castes and tribes in the rural areas). Education accounts for only 2 per cent of the GDP today (the world norm is 5 per cent). Teaching Sanskrit to all students from Class III to Class XI (as was envisaged) can cost up to Rs 2 billion annually (more if all Indians have access to education); surely that money can be better utilised elsewhere.

Amberish K Diwanji

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