Whose Bharat Mata is it anyway?

Just like the national song, Mother India cannot be the exclusive domain of the BJP either

(Left) The first portrait of Bharat Mata painted by Abanindranath Tagore; (right) a later adaptation of Bharat Mata
(Left) The first portrait of Bharat Mata painted by Abanindranath Tagore; (right) a later adaptation of Bharat Mata

Sujata Anandan

Who really owns Bharat Mata?

The hysterical manner in which the Bharatiya Janata Party reacted to Rahul Gandhi's speech in Parliament in which he declared they had killed Bharat Mata in Manipur, one would think that they believe they have exclusive rights over Mother India.

But here are some facts for them to consider. 

If any one person or community can claim ownership to Bharat Mata, then these are Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Abanindranath Tagore and the Bengalis. For they are the ones who first conceptualised Bharat Mata in the late 19th and early 20th century, long before the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was born or its founders were even known to the nation.

In poetry, Bharat Mata took shape in Chatterjee’s Anandamath. It was Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of the author of the national anthem, who gave her a face and a form—which would then be popularised by Sister Nivedita, the British disciple of Swami Vivekananda. And they conceptualised her in the likeness of one of the great goddesses of Bengal, four-armed and saffron garbed.

It is this gentle version of a Kali or Durga that the BJP today is trying hard to replace with a very aggressive, muscular Lord Rama, something he never was portrayed as even when slaying Ravana.

It was during the British move to partition Bengal in 1905 that the Tagore family offered fierce resistance and led the people into rebellion. While Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore (incidentally the original vishwaguru of this nation) actively campaigned amongst the people to raise nationalist feelings and prevent the tearing apart of the motherland, his nephew Abanindranath Tagore painted the iconic portrait of Bharat Mata in the style known as the Bengal School of Art.

The original painting can still be found in the Victoria Memorial Museum in Kolkata.

Whose Bharat Mata is it anyway?

It took 30 years after the first unveiling of that image of Bharat Mata for the first temple to her to come up in Benares (now Vanarasi)—and no lesser being than Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated that temple. But as far as I know, this temple did not have a traditional idol of a goddess in the sanctum sanctorum.

Instead it has a map of undivided India and, in 1936, it was a tribute to the unity and diversity of India, open to all castes, creeds and religions, and essentially a celebration of the freedom fighters who laid down their lives to liberate and secure Mother India from the British.

So, that matter of ownership? Well, neither Narendra Modi, whose constituency the temple stands in, nor the RSS, whose concept of Bharat Mata is an upper-caste, exclusivist kind of image, can lay claims to this Bharat Mata. But, yes, this Bharat Mata, as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru clearly articulated in his Discovery of India, belongs to all the people of India. 

It took nearly half a century for the next Bharat Mata temple to be built in Haridwar, on the banks of the Ganga. It was inaugurated by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi—and it was for a very good reason that she associated herself with that temple. For, while it may have been built by a Hindu priest, it was still a tribute to India and her freedom fighters.

The temple does have a statue or idol of Bharat Mata, but it has other images on its other floors. One floor is dedicated to freedom fighters, another to women warriors of India and other women achievers, a third to well-known saints from not just Hinduism but Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and so on. 

By this time, the RSS had been in existence for six decades. Yet it never occurred to any of them, including its sarsanghchalaks (heads of community), to build a Bharat Mata mandir in Nagpur or anywhere else in the country.

It was only four years after Modi became prime minister that the RSS could bring itself to be associated with a Bharat Mata temple, when one came up within the premises of the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain and Mohan Bhagwat inaugurated the same. And only this year in March did any RSS office put up a Bharat Mata statue within any of its premises—and that too not in Nagpur, their historic headquarters, or New Delhi, where they are building a huge new office, but in Bareilly (not even Lucknow), which might not be visited by many. 

So let the RSS and BJP not pretend that they care for Bharat Mata in any way, except to use her to divide us Indians.

The Bharat Mata of Abanindranath Tagore has four arms—one carrying a book, another a mala, the third a sheaf of rice and the fourth a white cloth. It was meant to symbolise shiksha, deeksha, anna and vastra—education, spirituality, food and clothing for all—having been influenced by the Bengal famine of 1876 (which took place while Anandamath was being written, though very likely the Vande Mataram anthem within it predates it and is more influenced by community memories of the great famine of 1770), and then the Swadeshi movement when Indians started burning British garments and going Indian.

It was meant to generate a nationalist spirit among all Indians, in her ascetic garb, peaceful aspect and rudraksha mala. This is, in fact, quite unlike the RSS’s Bharat Mata, who carries lotuses and trishuls, leaving no one in doubt as to what those are meant to symbolise or who she stands for and speaks to.

So the RSS—which never even accepted the national tricolour until 2002, and even then acceded only after three youth in Nagpur scaled its office building walls and brought down their saffron standard on Independence Day—can have no exclusive rights over either Bharat Mata or the tiranga.

We have not not forgotten that it described our flag as evil on 14 August  1947 in an article in their mouthpiece, Organiser. In the article, they claimed three was an inauspicious number, quite forgetting that diagrammatically Aum is the number three and we have concepts of an auspicious triplicity throughout Hinduism—the tridev (Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh), trivikrama (victor over heaven, underworld and earth), trikarna (purity of thought, speech and deeds), the triphala of Ayurveda, the trilochan or trinetra of both the Great Goddess and the Great God, their trishul (oh, irony!), and more. 

I thus stand with Rahul Gandhi when he says wherever Bharat Mata is being violated—and who can violate her more than the RSS has?—and that he will continue to fight for Mother India as fiercely as he does today.

The RSS had better come up with a more inclusive concept of Bharat Mata, for this one belongs to all of us—but not all of us, not even many Hindus, belong to the RSS.

The RSS is not, never was and never will be ‘India’. 

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