NEW DELHI — The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules five federal states, plans to force all students, including Muslims, to sing a Hindu-flavored song, which Muslims see as running counter to the tenets of their faith.
"We will enforce it, whichever school it is will have to sing it," Vijay Kumar Malhotra, a top BJP leader, told Reuters on Tuesday August 29.
"We will see what action can be taken against those who do not," he threatened.
"Vande Mataram," penned by Bengali poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and meaning "I bow to thee Mother", was the national slogan during India's independence movement against British colonial rule.
The song was the frontrunner to become the national anthem when the country became independent in 1947, but it was rejected as Muslims felt offended over the depiction of the country as a Hindu goddess.
Instead, "Jana Gana Mana" (The Minds of All People), penned by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was chosen.
Earlier this month, the government asked all schools, including Islamic madrasahs, to get students to sing the song on September 7, the culmination of year-long celebrations to mark the centenary of its adoption as the national song.
Within days, the government backed down and made singing voluntary after Muslim leaders objected.
The BJP, which controls Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand states, criticized the government's retraction.
Muslims assert that the Sanskrit language song has strong connotations of Hindu deity worship because it reveres India as a holy goddess, which is against Islam's basic tenets.
"My problem is Islam does not allow me to worship an image of my prophet, who is the most sacred person to me, or even my mother," said Kamal Farooqui of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
"So when they represent India with an image of a Hindu goddess and ask us to sing her praise to prove we are Indians, is it fair?" he asked.
Muslim leaders accused the BJP of once again stoking anti-Islamic sentiments in the Hindu-majority country to make political gains.
Nationalism should not conflict with religion in an officially secular country, insisted Farooqui.
The BJP and its sister Hindu organizations have in the past raked up similar, communally sensitive issues such as banning cow slaughter, revered by Hindus but eaten as beef by Muslims, and opposed special marriage laws for Muslims.
The party, which rose to prominence on the back of a Hindu revivalist movement in the late 1980s, was struggling for direction after it was thrown out of power in 2004 and has been trying to experiment with communal issues, analysts say.
In 2002, riots in the western state of Gujarat claimed the lives of 2,500 people, mostly Muslims who were hacked and burnt to death by Hindus.
India's Supreme Court said the Hindu nationalist government in Gujarat was complicit in the killings.
Despite a national outcry, little has been done to catch the culprits, rights groups charge.
In other Hindu-Muslim clashes around the country, Muslims have formed the bulk of casualties.
Officially secular India is home to the world's largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan.
Hindus account for more than 80 percent of the country's 1.1 billion population while Muslims make up about 13 percent.