Hindus sing it with chauvinistic fervour as their national song. Muslims reject it as a manifestation of idolatry because it conceives India as the mother goddess akin to Durga which is represented in temples in the form of idols and worshipped. Muslims also reject it because of being part of the novel Anandmath, which advocates ethnic cleansing of Muslims. Anandmath was set in 1176, of the Bengali calendar corresponding roughly to 1770 AD, the year of a severe famine in the province of Bengal. Bengal at that time included what is today Bangladesh, west Bengal, Assam, Odhisa, Bihar and Jharkhand.
A Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (born 1838) composed the song Vande Mataram (Hail motherland) in a mixture of Bengali and Sanskrit. He incorporated it in his political novel titled Anandmath (Monastery of joy) written in 1882. Vande Mataram became India’s most famous, and at the same time the most controversial, song.
Bengal had been a province of the Mughal Empire ruled by a nawab. As the Mughal Empire started collapsing after Aurangzeb’s death, the nawab became effectively independent. During the 1750s Allah Wardi Khan ruled Bengal from Murshidabad. He died in 1756, and was succeeded by his grandson Siraj-ud-Daula. Nawab Siraj resented the rise of English influence in his province, which they wielded with the support of native Hindu merchants. So he asked them not to strengthen their fortifications which they refused to do.
In order to enforce his authority he advanced on Fort Williams Calcutta in June 1756, and captured it. He put 146 English prisoners into an ill-ventilated room, which later British chronicles called the ‘Black Hole.’ A majority of them died of heat and suffocation. Before Siraj, the English used this ‘Black Hole’ for confining defaulters.
Robert Clive was the British Governor of Fort Saint David at Cuddalore, 14 miles south of Pondicherry. He proceeded towards Fort Williams by sea route and re-captured it in January 1757.
Clive then hatched a conspiracy with Mir Jaffar, Siraj’s commander-in-chief, and with Hindu moneylenders such as Omi Chand. Omi Chand should have been thankful to Siraj because he released him from English custody in Fort Williams at the time of ‘Black Hole’ incident. Instead, Chand repaid Siraj by plotting with his enemies (pp.273 & 303 The Rise of British Power in India by Mount Stuart Elphinstone).
This intrigue against Siraj led to the Battle of Plassey, fought on June 23, 1757. However, it was not a battle in the real sense. Siraj’s commander Mir Jaffer had already entered into a deal with Clive. When the make-believe contest opened Mir Jaffer ran away with 50,000 men leaving Siraj to face Clive and his men. Mir Jaffer’s son, Miran, captured Siraj and put him to death. The British looted the Bengal treasury. Also, they put Mir Jaffer in Siraj’s place as the nawab of Bengal. While as they looted Bengal the blame of misrule fell on Mir Jaffer’s shoulders. Mir Jaffer granted the British East India Company the right to trade in Bengal province without paying usual tolls. Thus the English traders (called English Nabobs) and their native Hindu underlings made enormous profits (p. 31Pricely India and Lapse of British Paramountcy by VB Kulkerni).
In October 1760, the British placed Mir Jaffer’s son-in-law, Mir Qasim Ali, as the nawab of Bengal. Two years later Mir Qasim re-imposed tolls on British Company traders to enhance his revenues. This infuriated the British. They forced him to run away. He sought shelter with nawab Shuja-ud-Daula of Oudh. At this time there was another fugitive, the blind Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, residing in Oudh because Marathas had chased him away. (Meanwhile Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan, with active assistance from Oudh, crushed Maratha power beyond repair in the third battle of Panipat in 1761).
In place of Mir Qasim, the British re-inducted Mir Jaffer as Nawab of Bengal in July 1763. Next year Mir Qasim proceeded from Oudh, along with Shuja-ud-Daula and Shah Alam, to assert his claim on Bengal. The British met him at Buxor in western Bihar in September 1764 and gave the combined might of three a crushing defeat.
At about this time Shah Alam sought protection under British patronage. Shah Alam was no more than a scarecrow. His writ didn’t run even from Delhi to Palam. He was the titular Mughal Emperor of India. He conferred upon the British the diwani – civil and financial government–rights over Bengal province. The nizamat–military and dispensation of criminal cases–continued to remain under the native Nawab who was already under their thumb. It was a case of British having power without responsibility while nawabs had only responsibility and no power. Mir Jaffer died in February 1765, his second son Najm-ud-Daula succeeded him. In the same year the British forced Shuja-ud-Daula of Oudh to accept British supremacy. Sometime later they pensioned off Najm-ud-Daula and assumed direct government of Bengal. Thus ended the dual government in Bengal province. Concurrently with all this political and military gimmickry they looted Bengal and siphoned enormous amounts of money from Bengal to English banks. Clive, who had come to India clad in a torn shirt, returned after some years to be the richest person in the United Kingdoms. In fact the English people in England called a person who returned from India to Europe with a fortune as nabob.
This drain of wealth from Bengal added to the cash capital of the United Kingdom and it became the basis for the industrial revolution, which began around 1770. Such was the enormity of drain of wealth from Bengal province. This revolution produced a manufacturing class in Britain who demanded the government to reverse its policy of importing finished goods like cotton textiles, metal works, glass, paper, etc. from India. Under pressure of this cartel of British industrialists, British government closed its markets for Indian goods and the East India Company opened Indian markets for British commodities. This resulted in great employment opportunities in England, and at the same time destruction of cottage industry and mass unemployment and poverty in India. Later on the British refined their tactics. They purchased raw materials for English industry in India at cheap rates, shipped them home, and brought back finished goods to sell them at high prices in India.
Also the British adopted policies to break the strength of Muslims in Bengal and elsewhere because they feared them. Muslims constituted the political and intellectual might of India. Besides, they possessed the knack of governing. In them the British perceived a threat lest they might assert their right to rule. So the foreigners dispossessed Muslim landlords of their land under one or the other pretext, transferred it to Hindu moneyed classes who were favourably disposed to English rule, and thereby reduced Muslims, the former rulers, to tenants-at-will. In this way British not only deprived Muslims of their lands but also brought into existence a new class of Hindu landowners who identified their interests with the interests of the White foreigners.
The British did not stop here. They cancelled land grants called Muafis belonging to education institutions. Education institutions used the income generated from Muafis to educate the people. With the Muafis gone, the education system instituted by Mughals crumbled. However, common people, both Hindus and Muslims, suffered heavily at the hands of the British. British loot so impoverished the people of Bengal that when famine struck the province about 1770, they could not cope up with scarcity. The result was that the people of Bengal province, once very prosperous peasants, now died of starvation. Some of them even turned to banditry. It is this 1770 famine that Bankim Chandra has used to construct his anti-Muslim narrative of Anandmath.
Story of Anandmath
The novel is divided into a prologue and four sections. The four sections are further divided into 18, 08, 12, and 08 chapters respectively.
In the year 1174 and 1175 of Bengali calendar crops fail in Bengal. Government tax collector Mohammad Raza Khan collects tax as usual leaving the peasants little to eat. By 1176 (1770 AD) conditions in the province deteriorate so much that people start fasting alternatively. Then they resort to begging. They sell their cattle, land, houses, daughters, sons, and even their wives.
Mahindra Singh, a landlord, and his wife Kalyani, abandon their famine struck village called Padchin. Mid-way on their journey they enter a village. Mahindra leaves behind his wife and daughter Sukumari in an abandoned house to look for a stray cow so that he could milk her. Some dacoits kidnap Sukumari and Kalyani. They take them into a forest located by the side of the Murshidabad-Calcutta highway.
In the forest the dacoits snatch valuables from Kalyani. But they realise that valuables were no use because no amount of gold could buy them food in those days of extreme scarcity. Hunger makes them angry. They quarrel among themselves. One of them strikes dead their own Sardar (leader). To assuage their hunger they light a fire to roast the Sardar so that they could eat him. Another suggests that it would be better to roast the baby (Sukumari) so that they could relish her tender meat before eating the hard and old flesh of the Sardar.
Taking advantage of the dacoit’s preoccupation with lighting the fire Kalyani runs away along with Sukumari. A Sanyasi (ascetic) rescues them. He takes them to a very old two-storey building in the forest. This building is called Anandmath meaning the monastery of joy. Anandmath has actually been a Vihara (Buddhist monastery) which Hindus have appropriated and converted into a Math (Hindu monastery). The ascetic who saves Kalyani is called Satyanand. He is a rebel leader who leads an army of saffron clad ascetics with their hideout in the Math. The ascetics have the suffix “anand” added to their given names (implying that they lived perpetually in a state of bliss).
The ascetics have, under Satyanand’s inspiration, taken a vow to renounce worldly life; and to dedicate themselves to the service of the motherland which is deified as mother goddess Durga; who is worshipped in temples and whose idols also adorn the walls of Anandmat, but who is enslaved by Muslims and needs to be freed. The ascetic army survives on loot. Even on the Kalyani episode day they have looted a great quantity of grain, which the government functionaries were carrying for the Kotwal (police chief).
Meanwhile Mahindra Singh, having lost his family, decides to go to the city to request the government to lend assistance in locating them. Sepoys arrest him thinking he is a dacoit. They also arrest an ascetic called Bhavanand. Ascetics headed by Jeevanand surprise the sepoy caravan, free Bhavanand and Mahindra, loot the treasure that the sepoys carried to the city.
Mahindra tells Bhavanand that he did not subscribe to this type of daylight banditry. Bhavanad sings the song: Vande Mataram, Vande Mataram, Sufalam, Sujalam, Malayaja Sheetalam, etc. He informs Mahindra that these were not robbers but the Santan (children). Santans, Bhavanand goes on to explain, believed that the motherland was the real giver of birth; that they did not believe in any other mother than the motherland; that they did not believe in any brotherhood than the Santan brotherhood; and that they did not believe in worldly things like home, wife, children. They only believe that they were children of the motherland whom they worshipped. Mahindra is not impressed by the way Bhavanand justifies banditry.
Bhavanand then complains about the misgovernment perpetrated by Muslim ruler (Mir Jaffer). He says that Hindus lost their country, caste, self-respect, and now their life is endangered. All this because of Muslims. And in order to save Hindutva, they would have to chase that Muslim drunkard (Mir Jaffer) away from Bengal. Here Bankim Chandra has deliberately resorted to historical inaccuracy as Muslims no longer ruled Bengal in 1170. The reason was that he had to portray Muslims as enemies and aliens although the real enemy was the British, who were really a bunch of pirates and bandits, and as the rulers of Bengal had looted the province. Yet Bankim Chandra has nothing against the British. Bhavanand then compares Muslims with the British. While as, says he, the British were brave, committed, and honest; the Muslims were dishonest, cowardly, and pleasure seeking. “What about Hindus?” asks Mahindra. Bhavanand replies that though Hindus were not as good as the Englishmen, yet they will learn by and by (from the British whom he thinks had come for the betterment of Bengal).
After this piece of brainwashing, Bhavanand invites Mahindra to join Santan Sena (The army of ascetics). Mahindra answers that he would join the Santan Sena if that could be done without renouncing wife and daughter. Later in the novel, Satyanand throws further light on the Santan Dharma. He says that Santans were Vaishnavites, meaning the devotees of Hindu god called Vishnu. When asked that one of the attributes of being a Vaishnavite was being non-violent, he explains that it was a misperception spread by godless Buddhism; and that actually Vaishnav principle was to kill the unjust for the welfare of the motherland. What he (and through him Bankim Chandra) implied was that Muslims were unjust and that killing Muslims and burning Muslim villages was thoroughly in accordance with the spirit of devotion to Vishnu. In fact the novel expressly says that killing a Muslim or burning a Muslim village was as good as worshipping Vishnu. Santans sing Vande Mataram throughout the novel. Also they use it as a war cry at the time of their clashes with the government forces. Vande Mataram is a sort of Hindu reply to the Muslims’ rallying cry of Allah-u-Akbar (God is Great).
Mahindra finally takes the Santan vow upon which Satyanand asks him to return to his native village Padchin; and set up a stronghold there to manufacture and store arms and ammunition. Other important ascetics include Dheeranand; Gyananand; and Navinanand. Navinanand is actually Jeevanand’s wife Shanti disguised as an ascetic. English characters include military men such as Wenworth Sahib, Captain Tomas, Captain Hey, Lieutenant Watson, Major Edwards, and Officer Lindley. To cut a long story short, Jeevanand takes Sukumari to his village to leave her with his sister Nimi. There he meets his wife Shanti and thus falls foul of the Santan vow. Likewise Bhavanand breaks the vow by falling in love with Kalyani. Both Bhavanand and Jeevanand would have to atone for their sins of breaking their Santan pledge by fighting to death.
The ascetics fight many battles against government forces. After one such battle they proceed to declare Bengal as a Hindu province. Also they fall upon common Muslims, kill them; force them to shave off their beards and to declare themselves Hindus. Mahindra meets his wife and daughter before the final battle. In the final action that takes place in a festival ground somewhere in north Bengal the government forces give a crushing defeat to ascetics. The novel ends with a mysterious voice congratulating a disappointed Satyanand that Muslim rule has ended. The voice further advises Satyanand to welcome the British rule under the Governor-Generalship of Warren Hastings
—The author is a political historian.