I write this on what we're told is the centenary of the song Vande Mataram. In what sense this is a centenary I cannot fathom, because Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote the song a couple of decades before 1906. Nevertheless, you don't need me to tell you that, as with so many things, this song too has become a lightning rod for controversy.
Yet this is not one more examination of that controversy. Except for this one point: I continue to wonder how singing a song -- even Vande Mataram -- becomes a badge of patriotism. I mean, let's suppose a murderer decides to sing it. Would we hail him as a patriot? (Can you be both a murderer and a patriot?)
But those are, I know, merely hypothetical questions, maybe even rhetorical ones. Leave them be.
Many of our elected officials, news reports tell me, sang the song on this day. Among them, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan. The only reason I single him out is that before this day, the previous prominent mention of him in the press involved the word "accident."
A professor died in Ujjain on August 26, and the Chief Minister managed to beat everyone -- the media, the police, the state CID, everyone -- to deducing how the death happened.
The professor's death, said the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, was "an accident."
Give this a few seconds' thought. As I understand it, and as I'm sure you understand it too, this is what happened. At Ujjain's Madhav College, a students' election takes place. Like many such elections these days, this one is marred by acrimony, and that may be a kind description. Professor HS Sabharwal, part of the faculty at the college, is on a team that meets to evaluate the progress of these student elections. Dissatisfied with how it has gone, they annul the election. I'm not sure how, but this decision is seen by aggrieved contestants as entirely Sabharwal's.
A mob of activists from the local chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) surround the entrance to Madhav College, demanding to see the team. Again, I'm not sure how, but there are TV cameras in attendance. Police in attendance too. The ABVP put up candidates who contested the elections, and they are particularly upset at its annulment. On screen, as it happens, a nation gets to see the ABVP men encircle another professor from the college, embark on much finger-wagging and haranguing and remonstrating with him in increasing anger. Later reports will tell us that the two most vocal men are Vimal Tomar and Shashiranjan Akela, state office-bearers of the ABVP. Those later reports place identifying circles around them on screen as they lead the haranguing. Two men who look less like students would be hard to find if you went searching, but leave that be as well.
Another brief TV clip shows men barging into the college. At no stage in any of this TV coverage can you see the police doing anything apart from standing on the sidelines.
Then there's extensive closeup footage of Professor Sabharwal being carried out of the college and into a car. The way he appears in that sequence is shocking. No other word fits. His silver-haired head lolls on his shoulder, his eyes are closed. He appears to cough once in an attempt to breathe, but that's the only sign of life. What is so shocking is that you know, watching this on your screen, watching this man's head loll like that -- you know in your bones that this is a man who is dying. If he's not already dead.
It's like the Australian official who watched video footage of Steve Irwin pull out the stingray's barb from his chest: it was awful to watch, he said, because you were watching a man dying. So with Professor Sabharwal. His last few minutes of life were just as profoundly unsettling to watch as Irwin's must have been. Sure enough, Sabharwal was dead on arrival at the hospital, from a broken rib that had punctured his lung.
The professor's death, said the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh just days later, was "an accident."
Here on out, the story gets steadily murkier, if that's possible. Nobody is arrested on the charge of murdering Sabharwal. Eventually the public outrage forces Tomar and Akela to turn themselves in. The ABVP dismisses them from the party. NHRC raises questions about Sabharwal's death and the investigation by MP's law and order machinery. Stories begin to circulate about the Professor's heart condition, insinuations that perhaps he died from that. His heart is sent to a lab for examination, but ends up at a different lab, with the seal on the bottle apparently tampered with so there's doubt about whether this is actually the correct heart. (This is true).
You'll forgive me if I've got some of these details mixed up, it's that murky. But this is the gist of this Ujjain imbroglio.
And we're being asked to believe this equation: anulled election plus disgruntled ABVP plus haranguing ABVP men plus barging in plus professor suddenly near death equals accident. Or maybe, equals fatal heart attack.
Now I hardly believe that the ABVP is particularly worse than other student parties out there. What I do believe is that a ghastly crime was committed in Ujjain, and there's every sign of a concerted attempt under way to obfuscate every aspect of it. Not that that's particularly unusual for this country either.
And when you want to obfuscate, what better way than patriotism? Especially patriotism that springs, not from delivering justice where it is due, but from singing a song?