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Do We Need to Rethink the Idea of the Bharat 'Mata’?

author Avani Bansal
Mar 08, 2023
How does it add value to our understanding of how we relate to our nation?

With the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh installing the Bharat Mata statue at the RSS office in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, on March 6, it is now anyone’s guess what a Bharat Mata holding a saffron flag is meant to depict. Hindu nationalism is an idea that works for the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party, but an idea that is simply against the idea of the Constitution and the idea of India that emanates from it.

So we need to think deeply about what we mean by Bharat ‘Mata’.

The Constitution of India doesn’t provide a gender for ‘Bharat’. The very first Article of the Indian constitution states that ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States’ (Article 1). So why not let ‘Bharat’, just be ‘Bharat’? Why add the suffix ‘Mata’, and does this add any value to our understanding of how we relate to our nation?

Now this idea of seeing one’s nation either as a patriarchal or a matriarchal figure is not uncommon and varies from country to country and time to time. Why is Germany a father figure, requiring a male pronoun, and why is the United Kingdom a ‘she’? These questions are difficult to answer with some solid logic except by looking into the culture and political/historical milieu of every nation and, of course, some history.

While gender neutral terms do exist – ‘homeland’ or ‘ancient land’, there are also some countries which don’t use any of these suffixes, oddly referred to as ‘orphans’ (I vehemently oppose that term!), here.

How India came to be called ‘Bharat Mata’ is an interesting story in itself. But before coming to that – why does this question matter?

I will argue that merely using the word ‘Mata’, without thinking of deeper questions, does us a disservice. Here’s how:

Firstly, the logic that ours is a land where women are worshipped as goddesses has done little in actually increasing the collective respect that we accord to women in our society and in our country.

With the increasing crime rate against women, scant attention on women’s reproductive health, education of school girls, women’s safety and most importantly, women’s representation in public offices including politics, shows that women are far from being ‘worshipped’ in India. As in ‘Pratima Visarjan’, the famous painting by Gaganendranath Tagore, we think of women, like goddesses, on specified days and then go on to submerge them in the rivers and in our active memories, making peace with everyday injustice against those most close to us.

A detail from Pratima Visarjan, a watercolour painting by Gaganendranath Tagore. Photo courtesy: Victoria Memorial Hall, Rabindra Bharati Society Collection

Second, this particular form of love for the ‘mother’ has been well adorned and subjected to poetry, literature, essays, books among others, not just in India but around the world.

In India, a mother’s love has reached the epitome of love’s expression with mothers cooking for their sons until they can no longer cook, while ‘mamma’s boy’ is considered as a badge of honour for men rather than showing their lack of independence.

The close familial ties in India means that the expression ‘Mata’ or ‘mother’ can be naturally extended to the nation-state, with seemingly little or no objection from anyone, and common rejoice in the emotional war cry of ‘living and dying for the mother and the motherland’. But here’s the challenge.

While we exalt the love of the mother, why do we have such trouble accepting ‘Bharat’ as just a woman – and by the same analogy, her in different roles – of a lover, a sexual being, a single woman, among others? What, for instance, explains the controversy around M.F. Hussain’s famous painting of the ‘Bharat Mata’?

Third, if the idea of India is all inclusive, as per our constitution, then exalting ‘Bharat’ as a mother may in some way exclude people belonging to other religions who may not see the concept of a nation tied to that of a mother or a father.

But then, if Jews have a fatherland, Russians have a motherland, why can’t we have a motherland? Because, we have never aped anyone.

Differences existed even when our constitution was being drafted, with members belonging to the extreme right and left wing, including moderates, trying to shape the India of their dreams. But it is the idea, as prescribed in the constitution, that won the day.

So if our idea of secularism comes with the constitution, and that of gender equality, gender neutrality, and non-discrimination, then by logic, if we believe in the constitution as our guiding principle, then we need to rethink the idea of Bharat ‘Mata’.

Finally, by calling Bharat ‘Bharat Mata’, we somehow think we have done what needs to be done for the women in the country.

In other words, the rhetoric around the word ‘Mata’, and the trait of being satisfied with this symbolism means that we think precious little about doing something tangible and significant to improve the lives of women. Not just that, the larger communicable disease of paying lip service deadens our collective spirit and the need to engage in deeper questioning of the systemic and individual discrimination that we witness everyday.

Recently, on a field trip to Maharashtra’s Mendha Lekha village, which has a large tribal population, known for their collective form of decision-making with the village motto, ‘In Delhi and Mumbai, we have our government but in our village, we are the government’, the headman of the village remarked, “For us, those who consider ourselves as guardians of the forests, engaging in any type of agriculture was like using the plough on the stomach of our motherland!”

Of course, this attitude has softened over the years and they do engage in agriculture now. However, they are still aware of what it could mean to do or not to do in one’s ‘motherland’. This may be an extreme example. But let’s think of more everyday ones – those sprinkled all around us.

How are we okay with sexist jokes; wife jokes; sexist words for which there is no male equivalent (‘rakhel’ or ‘keep’, for instance); sexist songs, which reduce women to objects, which we defend in the name of entertainment; sexist advertisements, which we defend in the name of commercialisation; sexist behaviour such as non-transfer of equal property to women inspite of there being a clear law for it, in the name of culture?

How are we okay when we don’t see women in public spaces – not in the garden, in sports grounds, or out of homes after evening hours? How are we okay with the deafening silence of women in our private spaces, where women hardly have space to express their opinion? How are we okay when someone we know character assassinates another woman in a powerful position, just because it is easy to drag her down by talking of her character?

Also read: The Patriarchy’s Curfew Won’t Save Indian Women From Violence

And no, it’s not just about men discriminating against women, but women discriminating against their own gender, too. And why identify ‘Bharat’ with gender at all – isn’t there space for those who have fluid gender, too? Don’t we also see discrimination against men in our society? Don’t we have societies in India, which are women-centric, sometimes leading to reverse discrimination against men?

So it boils down to this. Where does our need for identifying our nation with gender come from? I will argue that assuming the best, even if the intent of its origin is well-placed, there exists no purpose beyond empty slogans, repeated ad nauseam to keep the collective energy high in all political gatherings, and now increasingly to suit vested political agendas.

Whether it is the BJP or the Congress Sevadal’s ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ – every time we say this slogan, we need to pause, and ponder – are we doing enough for the women, are we doing enough for all humans, for all living beings around it?

Any politics which is based on ‘humanism’ cannot stop at the slogan of women, it has to constantly work tirelessly towards the emancipation of the women.

While the cultural expression of ‘motherland’ definitely got a boost in popular imagination with movies such as Mother India, the political expression of it is worthy of taking note.

Interestingly, the image of ‘Bharat Mata’ that is used by the RSS and the BJP to depict a Hindu goddess was born out of angst against the Britishers’ divide and rule policy implemented first through the partition of Bengal – mainly the Hindu West from the majority Mulsim East.

Abanindranath Tagore decided to use art to reclaim Indian heritage, and painted ‘Bharat Mata’, drawing upon the Japanese painter, Okakura Kakuzo.

‘Bharat Mata’. Photo: Abanindranath Tagore/Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

This painting of Bharat Mata was not to depict her as some Hindu goddess, what one may perceive, and the RSS will have us believe looking at her saffron robe, but as a pastoral deity holding ‘the four gifts of the motherland’: a white cloth, a book, a sheaf of paddy, and prayer beads; representing clothing, learning, food, and spiritual salvation.

These symbols of Indian motherhood, which held emotive substance for Hindus and Muslims alike, are key to Tagore’s aim of conceptualising a ‘spiritual’ identity for his people, in direct contrast with the perceived ‘materialism’ of Europe.’

Then came Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Anand Math’ which celebrated India as a motherland – as a goddess – thereby taking this idea deeper into the imagination of the masses. But while both Tagore and Chattopadhyaya’s idea of ‘Bharat Mata’ came from a nationalistic fervour, it was the RSS which added the ‘Hindu goddess’ tint to it.

Therefore, it’s important to remember that those who championed the idea of ‘Bharat Mata’ earlier, did so because its origins were in ‘inclusive nationalism’ – that stresses on the emotions of seeing and treating one’s nation as a motherland, according women the highest respect in words and in action, and definitely a mother – who is a mother for all – a mother who doesn’t discriminate between her Hindu daughter and Muslim daughter.

One illustration of this is in Nehru’s own words who asked the people he met: “Who is this Bharat Mata, whose victory you wish?” and then he explained that “the mountains and rivers, forests and fields are of course dear to everyone” but what counted ultimately “is the people of India…”.

The RSS is now reversing this very idea of India and also that of ‘Bharat Mata’. While exalting ‘Bharat Mata’ and installing her statue in different RSS offices, they are striking at the root of its origins – a Bharat for all, where all are treated with a mother’s love. As a people, we need to see the RSS’s way of appropriating symbols and using them to serve their own political agendas, which is in sharp contrast with what that symbol originally represented – with the spirit of the Indian Constitution.

The Bharat Mata statue. Photo: Special arrangement

So every time we use the expression ‘Bharat Mata’ now, we need to rethink and think deeper. We need to install the constitution in the hearts of the people, and make ‘the people’ realise that it is us who are Bharat ‘Mata’. Bharat, thy name is enough.

Victory to the people, we have given this constitution to ourselves. Yes, yes, we are Bharat! And what we need, for a statue-loving country that we are, unwilling to compromise on the politics of symbolism, which may have some purpose, is a constitution in every square and circle of our country.

Avani Bansal is an advocate and a member of the Congress party. She tweets @bansalavani. 

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