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Delhi indiagate040When I first visited Delhi, I visited the Memorial of Martyrs.  I admit the use of the word martyr made me feel uneasy.

Now I admit coming from a Christian background the word perhaps has a different sense and connotation.

Perhaps, my unease comes from its Islamist use in our post 911 media.

I wondered if all war dead could really be called martyrs. The word comes from the Greek meaning witness; someone who proclaims, preaches or dies for a belief.

From the early days fighting for Independence,   the image of Mother India, the Bharat Matahas adorned the memory of dead men. The first female example was Indira Gandhi during the 1971 war with East Pakistan, and later her assassination.

bhagat singh

The most notable early example was of the atheist socialist Bhagat Singh, hung in 1931. The Islamic term shaheed was applied to him.  The word shaheed, similar to the Greek martyr, refers to a pious Muslim who dies in defence of Allah.

While I honour the memory of those who sacrifice for their belief of Independence, was this a religious act?

Has religion been  replaced by the religion of nationalism?

That India is a secular state (although some of the Hindu right would prefer it not be) suggests nationalism has usurped religion into the ideology of the state. Many of the founders were British educated and perhaps inspired by the enlightenment. For me, thereligious pursuit of truth becomes a problem when draped by the call to the tribe.

Now, India has always respected female deities. Nationalist Aurobindo Ghoshe once proclaimed “Do you see this map? It is not a map, but the portrait of Bharat mata: its cities and mountains, rivers and jungles form her physical body. All her children are her nerves, large and small…. Concentrate on Bharat [India] as a living mother, worship her with the nine-fold bhakti [devotion].”

As art historian Jyotindra Jain writes how this art form uses “a visual language of collage and citation which, in turn, act[s] as a vehicle of cultural force, creating and negotiating interstices between the sacred, the erotic, the political, and the colonial modern” .

ma ki pakar

As previously explained, following the 1857 Mutiny, some British claimed revolutionaries were exploiting Indian tendency toward eroticism and criminality. To Victorian mind, early marriage weakened the mind.

Hindu nationalists like Aurobindu Ghose would use both the Bharat Mata and Kali’s image to inspired armed revolt against British invaders.

Or as Aurobindo Ghose insisted rhetorically in 1905, ‘What is a nation? What is our mother country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty female power (shakti), composed of all the powers of all the millions of units that make up the nation” .

“It is curious how one cannot resist the tendency to give an anthropomorphic form to a country. “ wrote Nehru in 1936, who is note for a less violent patriotism “Such is the force of habit and early associations. India becomes Bharat Mata, Mother India, a beautiful lady, very old but ever youthful in appearance, sad-eyed and forlorn, cruelly treated by aliens and outsiders, and calling upon her children to protect her. Some such picture rouses the emotions of hundreds of thousands and drives them to action and sacrifice.”

It was during the country wide elections of 1937 that many patriotic Muslims, unable to worship India as the mother Durga , were accused of being unpatriotic.

It is also true of other nations. China has a ‘long tradition of embargoes on national maps’ writes Timothy Brooks in his book Roads to Mr Seldons Map of China who had a map confiscated at the border. To the border official, the map ‘did not merely represent China’s sovereignty: it was that sovereignty. For him the map existed on a level of reality higher than the real world.”

amar bharat atma

“The geography of a country is not the whole truth. No one can give up his life for a map” wrote Rabindranath Tagore in 1919. But in in 1948 Gandhi was shown  ina poster Swargarohan (Ascent to Heaven), irising to heaven as if for the map. The Hindu trinity, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, along with their wives, waits to welcome him.


For me, a more potent memory is the death of Indira Gandhi.

The poster Indira Gandhi: Mere Khun Ka Har Katara Desh Ko Mazbut Karega (Indira Gandhi: Every Drop of My Blood Will Strengthen the Nation;) is described by Pinney :

Indira is reported to have said this [“every drop of my blood will strengthen the nation”] at a rally in Orissa shortly before her death and her supporters believed this to be her premonition of her own murder…. Raja mirrors this linguistic message with a visual trace of Indira’s blood?several drops and rivulets at the bottom left of the image?on what must be the surface of the image. Like all his [Raja’s] images, this picture lacks depth. Indira is not a body located in three dimension space but a flat representation looking out at the viewer, and the most significant space of the image is not behind the picture plane, but in front, where the blood drips … In Raja’s portrait the only space that matters is that between Indira and the viewer, the space deter mined by her gaze meeting one’s own and in which the viewer can reach out and touch the blood on the surface of the image.

To my mind, Democracy means reasoned, well informed debate which sadly rarely win votes. Hating an enemy – real or imagined – is more news worthy.

As  Joan Landes  reminds us “The nation is a greedy institution; economically, physically, and emotionally. It is the object of a special kind of love; one whose demands are sometimes known to exceed all others, even to the point of death”



I am extremely indebted to Sumathi Ramaswamy for the article Maps, Mother/Goddesses, and Martyrdom in Modern India that sourced the image and many details for this blog post.

Maps, Mother/Goddesses, and Martyrdom in Modern India, Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Aug., 2008), pp. 819-853Published by: Association for Asian StudiesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20203426 .Accessed: 23/07/2014 00:52Your