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India's National Song Stirs Controversy

The song that was India's anti-colonial rallying cry, which is 100 years old next Thursday, is at the center of a religious controversy. Muslim leaders are objecting to the song being sung in all schools on its anniversary, saying it comes too close to Hindu deity worship. Hindu nationalists say refusal to sing the song displays a lack of patriotism.

The Sanskrit-language song Vande Mataram, or I Bow to Thee, Mother, was the rallying cry for Indians during the freedom struggle against British colonial rule. It was first sung at a Congress Party session in 1905, and although another song was chosen as the national anthem after independence in 1947, Vande Mataram was given the status of national song.

Earlier this month, the Congress-led government decided to culminate yearlong centenary celebrations of the song by asking all schools, including Islamic madrassahs, to sing it on September 7.

But several Muslim leaders objected, saying singing the song violates the tenets of Islam, because in revering India as a holy goddess, the song has strong connotations of Hindu deity worship.

Abdur Raheem Qureshi, secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Board, says singing the song is not a yardstick of patriotism, and Muslims cannot be expected to go against their faith.

"This was not written for the motherland or for India, this was written in praise of Kali, who is a deity worshipped by Hindus, and we do not believe in worshipping various deities, we believe in worshipping the creator only," he said.

The government quickly backed down, and said the singing of the song next Thursday would be voluntary.

That only added fuel to the controversy. The Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party replied that refusal to sing the song would show disrespect to a vibrant national symbol.

"The point is of respect to a national symbol," says Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior BJP leader. "You cannot even sing for two minutes for one day, for a song which has been the beacon of Indian freedom movement, for a song which was given the national anthem status, and a song which is sung on the conclusion of Indian Parliament in every session. That is the larger issue."

The BJP is accusing the government of pandering to Muslims, who make up about 13 percent of the predominantly Hindu nation's population.

The Hindu nationalists says the five states they control will make the singing of Vande Mataram mandatory on September 7 in schools and Islamic madrassahs, and say they will take action against those who disobey.

The controversy has sparked a debate on patriotism, nationalism and faith among ordinary Indians. Ironically, the most popular rendition of the song was set to modern music in 1996 by a well-known Muslim composer, AR Rehman.