It was thirty-two years ago that Bankim Chandra wrote his great song and few listened. Vande Mataram in pre-independent society was not wholly accepted in the beginning. The highly instigating song needed to be taken out from the closet, just waiting to be distributed among the crusaders. But in a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions, the people of Bengal looked round for the truth and in a fated moment somebody sang Vande Mataram. The mantra had been given and in a single day a whole people had been converted to the religion of patriotism. The Mother had revealed herself.
Aurobindo Ghosh was not the first person to popularise the song, but he was the first to discern a peculiar significance in the religious semiotics of the song. Among the 'rishis' one needs to include the name of the man who gave the reviving mantra which is creating a new India, the mantra Vande Mataram. He, first of India's great publicists, understood the hollowness and inutility of the method of political agitation which prevailed in the pre-independent society. "The Mother of his vision held trenchant steel in her twice-seventy million hands and not the bowl of the mendicant. It was the gospel of fearless strength and force which he preached under a veil and in images in Anandamath...."
This almost paints a picture that Bankim Chandra was a precursor of the extremists, as opposed to the moderates, in the nationalist movement. Whether this was so, is doubtful. But the important point was that Aurobindo Ghosh correctly pointed to the role the song played: 'The bare intellectual idea of the motherland is not in itself a great driving force', but the vision that inspired people was something more- 'a form of beauty that can dominate the mind and seize the heart'. Truly, Vande Mataram in pre-independent society had successfully gathered up fighters for a common cause, owing to its sublime innate and mystic force of vivacity.
Vande Mataram in pre-independent society had to go through umpteen trials and tribulations, with esteemed nationalists at times speaking for it, at times, against it. However, nationalist pamphlets audaciously spoke for the song and the novel, Anandamath. Aurobindo Ghosh helped to popularise the song through the journal he edited, Bandemataram, which was not only the organ of the revolutionary Jugantar Party but also a very popular broadsheet read by many who were not part of the movement. Among the exhibits put up by the Prosecution in Aurobindo Ghosh's trial, one has numerous citations of Bankim Chandra in the journal. Similarly, the other periodical Ghosh started, Sandhya, upheld to its readers Vande Mataram as the national anthem and the novel Anandamath as the repository of the ideals to be followed. An article exhorted in the periodical, 'In every village, every town Anandamath must be established…Then the Mother's name will be uttered by seven crores of throats and every side will resound (with) Bande Mataram,'.
In 1917, J.C. Nixon, an ICS official in the home department compiled a report on revolutionary organisations in Bengal, gleaning information from court cases and records of the intelligence department. Nixon thought that the distinguishing trait of Aurobindo Ghosh was 'setting out his political doctrines in religious garb'. Ghosh's journal Bande mataram was prosecuted for violation in 1907, shortly before he was tried for manufacturing bombs and spreading sedition. It was an evident fact that Vande Mataram was triumphantly acting as a tremendous inciter in various phases of pre-independent society. While Aurobindo Ghosh's Jugantar Party was active in western Bengal, the revolutionary party in eastern Bengal was the Anushilan Samiti. The intelligence department report compiled on this group by B.C. Allen, the district magistrate of Dhaka in 1907, mentions that their 'war cry' was Vande Mataram, and occasionally Bharat-mata ki jai; a 'Bande Mataram promise', a vow taken by entrants to the Samiti, was required of all members. The traditional festival of Rakshabandhan was reinvented for nationalist purposes as a means of asserting national unity. On that day Vande Mataram was a slogan shouted in public by processionists, until in some areas in Bengal the slogan was banned. The pre-independent society perfectly mirrored the both sides of extremism, all for the song, Vande Mataram.
The 'official' British attitude to the song Vande Mataram is reflected very clearly in the anonymous article on Bankim Chandra in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its edition of 1910. The political significance of Bankim Chandra's song is fore-fronted: 'Of all his works ... by far the most important from its astonishing political consequences was the Ananda Math which was published about the time of the agitation arising out of the Ilbert Bill.' The song is described as 'the work of a Hindu idealist who personified Bengal under the form of a purified and spiritualized Kali'. Most of the verses, the article states, are 'harmless enough' but some parts 'are capable of very dangerous meanings in the mouths of unscrupulous agitators', given the context in the novel. The novel states that the hymn was being sung while rebels attacked British forces. Pre-independent society was not just merely about fighting eternally for the motherland, several other factors needed to be taken into account. Thus, Vande Mataram during those times made an impact on the political scale too.
During Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's lifetime the Vande Mataram, though its dangerous tendency was recognised, was not used as a party war cry. It was not raised, for instance, during the Ilbert Bill agitation, nor by the students during the trial of Surendra Nath Banerjee in 1883. It had, however, obtained an evil notoriety in the agitations that followed the partition of Bengal, 1905.
In this view during the pre-independent society, emphasis on the semiotics of Hindu derivation in the novel and the song assumed significance in light of the British Indian bureaucracy's strategy, vis-à-vis the swadeshi agitation. The advantage of having a section of Muslim opinion in their favour was not lost on the British officialdom. The Rowlatt Report of 1917 on seditious movements in India underlined the breach within the ranks of the native subjects revealed by the half-hearted attitude of a section of Muslim opinion to the swadeshi agitators. Vande Mataram had by now, turned into a cause of national significance. As such, quite mirroring those times, parties were divided in opinion and beliefs. During 1905-08, a major objective of intelligence reports was to focus on that breach; instances of efforts to create an alliance between leaders who influenced opinions in the Hindu and Muslim communities were closely watched, evidently with apprehension.
Vande Mataram in pre-independent society was the singular cause of umpteen journals, write-ups, or even newspapers, surprisingly from Britishers also. The appeal of the slogan was not, of course, limited to Bengal. One of the earliest instances of its spread in Maharashtra occurs in the List of Proscribed Publications of the Government of India in 1910: 'a photograph containing portraits of Nana Fadnavis and others ... notorious for acts or opinion of a violent and subversive character...arranged on the words Bande Mataram.' The same year, a ban was enforced on the circulation of Bande Mataram, a journal published from Geneva and later Berlin, containing 'seditious and revolutionary ideas'. This monthly 'supported by Madam Cama'- Bhikaji Rustomji Cama-was edited and supported successively by Hardayal, V.V.S. Aiyar, and Virendra Chattopadhyay. Its importation was prohibited under the Customs Act, but the police reported its circulation in Bengal, Bombay, United Provinces, Punjab and Madras.
Apart from this journal from abroad, many pamphlets containing the slogan were issued in different parts of India despite censorship. Many of these were printed in Bengal, but a vast number elsewhere. Thus, an English pamphlet published in Madras in 1914 addressed people in Punjab to exhort them to rebel against British rule and ended with the slogan Vande Mataram. Such was the aura and authority of the poem or song in the now-legendary pre-independent society. Another English pamphlet, proscribed in 1910 and produced anonymously, was entitled Killing No Murder, and had at its masthead 'Jugantar: Jai Bande Mataram'. Another such English pamphlet was issued by the 'council of Red Bengal' in 1924. Speeches and writings of 'Srijut Arabindo Ghose' in English helped spread the slogan in Maharashtra.
However, the more important channel for popularising the slogan was undoubtedly the so-called vernacular press. Some of these publications were issued by locally organised associations, sometimes ephemeral bodies which put down their name as the publishers of these pamphlets. One gets to know of these pamphlets from the Proscribed Literature List; very few reached the libraries and survived. Among these pamphlets carrying the title Vande Mataram were those issued in Hindi or Urdu by the Tilak Vidyalaya in Muzaffarpur (1921), the Yuvak Hindu University of Benaras (1929) and above all by the well-known Nav Jivan Bharat Sabha (1929). Punjab was the source of many pamphlets entitled 'Vande Mataram'. The pre-independent society left no stones unturned to make this very song into a slogan, raching as far as England. This included a series of pamphlets published from Lahore by Ram Prashad (1921), another series under the same title published from Lahore in Hindi (1924) and a pamphlet in Urdu by Lai Singh entitled 'Bande Mataram, Sat Sri Akal, and Allah-o-Akbar' (1921). There were also a number of pamphlets entitled 'Vande Mataram' published elsewhere, mainly in Hindi-from Benaras (1924), from Ahmedabad by 'Desha Sevak' (1924), among others. The visual representation of the idea of Vande Mataram was commonly made in oleographs of an image of Bharat Mata accompanied by the slogan and pictures of national heroes.
Although the bulk of this literature was autonomously generated in regional urban centres (and often by people unrelated with the action programme of militant nationalists), there lies also some evidence that the Bengal 'biplabis' or militants made a conscious effort to reach across the language divide to access a wider readership.
This was followed by an announcement that henceforth Hindi would be taught at Anushilan Samiti and other places with the help of Marathi volunteers. However, there is no information as regards the effectiveness of such efforts in Bengal. However, leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin Chandra Pal propagated their message while touring different parts of India. For the same purpose, nationalist militants from Bengal secretly visited their contacts outside Bengal. Above all, independent of these initiatives, many nationalists outside Bengal made an effort to learn and translate the song. Vande Mataram in pre-independent society was slowly reaching to a second generation of freedom fighters, trying to educate young minds in the mantra of independence.
The most famous of the nationalist poets who helped propagate Vande Mataram was Subrahmanya Bharathi (1882-1921). It is reported that Bharathi translated the song first in 1905 for a periodical and a second time in 1908 when a collection of his works was published under the title Jatiya-gitam. The novel Anandamatham appeared in Tamil translation in 1908 and in another translation in 1919. The novel was also translated into other south Indian languages: Kannada (1897), Telugu (1907) and Malayalam (1909). Among other Indian languages, not unexpectedly, a Marathi translation came first (1897), followed by Gujarati (1901) and Hindi (1906) translations. Needless to say, these and other translations into various Indian languages made the novel one of the most widely known of Bankim Chandra's works and hence focussed attention on the message of Vande Mataram. The pre-independent society and Vande Mataram under British domination had become a kind of solace, after chanting of which every Indian perhaps felt a sense of pride and supremacy.
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