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India Observes Controversial National Song Centenary


India has observed the centenary of its national song despite the divisions the celebrations have caused between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, many of whom refuse to sing the song.

Students in thousands of schools across India sang the Sanskrit hymn "Vande Mataram" Thursday to mark the centenary year celebrations of the song.

Several top ruling Congress Party leaders and senior leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, also recited the verses on the occasion. But the song was not sung in most Islamic schools in the country, following objections by Muslim leaders.

The song's title means "I bow to thee Mother" and Muslims say it has strong connotations of Hindu deity worship, and violates their religion. They say their religion forbids them bowing to anything except Allah.

"Vande Mataram" is not the national anthem. But it was given the status of national song because it was the slogan for freedom fighters across the country during the movement for independence from British rule. But ironically, 100 years later, the song meant to unite the country has created sharp divisions between hard-line Hindu and Muslim groups.

The controversy erupted last month after the Congress-led government ordered the verse to be chanted in all schools on Thursday to mark the 100 years since its adoption. But after Muslim leaders raised objections, the government reversed the ruling and said its singing would be voluntary.

The decision was slammed by the BJP, which ordered its compulsory recitation in the five states under its rule. BJP spokesman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, says refusing to sing the song amounts to lack of patriotism.

"Should we respect our symbols or not? And by openly declaring we will not, what kind of message are you going to give for future generations," said Prasad.

On Thursday, many Islamic schools in BJP-ruled states sidestepped the controversy by declaring a holiday.

Others stayed open but did not comply with the order to chant "Vande Mataram". Muslim students at a school in Jaipur told reporters why they could not chant the verses.

The students say their patriotism is not in question, but the song is against their religion.

Another of India's minority groups, the Sikhs, also objected to being pressurized to sing the song. Muslims make up about 13 percent of India's population, while Sikhs constitute two percent.

The controversy surrounding "Vande Mataram" is likely to continue in the months ahead. The BJP plans to make the Muslim community's refusal to sing the song into a major issue in forthcoming elections to three states.

Meanwhile, many in the Hindu majority country are urging both Muslims and Hindus not to mix politics and national symbols.