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On May 9, What Could Amit Shah Say on Rabindranath Tagore, the High Priest of Harmony?

Despite championing communal, caste and class harmony all his life, Tagore in some of his early work did glorify Maratha, Sikh and Rajput valour against Mughals. These have become favourites of the Hindutva forces.
Rabindranath Tagore. On the foreground is Amit Shah. Photos: Wikimedia Commons and Twitter.

Kolkata: Union home minister Amit Shah is scheduled to deliver a speech on Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata on May 9. The day is the 162nd birth anniversary of the world’s first non-European Nobel laureate.

This fact has created a great deal of curiosity in West Bengal, Tagore’s home state, especially among people belonging to the secular-liberal camp.

The poster advertising the ‘Khola Hawa’ event at which Amit Shah and others will speak on Tagore on May 9.

Apart from Shah, former Bharatiya Janata Party Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta and the party’s leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, are also slated to speak on Tagore. This is the BJP’s first major celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary – one of the biggest annual cultural festivals in the state – even though the event is being held under the banner of ‘Khola Hawa’, a little known Hindutva-linked socio-cultural platform.

Tagore has always been noted for his strong stand against religious fundamentalism and exclusionary politics. He fought for Hindu-Muslim unity most of his life and criticised Hindus for the distance between the two communities far more than he criticised Muslims. “Those blinded by religious obsession only kill or get killed,” he wrote in the poem Dhormomoho (‘religious or religion obsession’), calling for the ‘prison walls of religion’ to be hammered down so that the light of wisdom can bathe a cursed land.

A staunch internationalist, who would ‘never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity,’ his writings are eminently quotable, with scathing attacks on social conservatism, religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, discrimination, and other exclusionary action. His dharma was bishwamanobota, or universal humanism. It has been frequently said that Tagore would have been branded ‘anti-national’ or ‘urban Naxal’– terms used in a derogatory sense by BJP and other Hindu nationalists – if he were alive in Narendra Modi’s India.

According to historian Ramachandra Guha, it was by reading and speaking to Tagore that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru “developed an idea of India that was inclusive and open-minded, that did not privilege a certain religion, language or caste within India, and that did not set India apart from the world.”

How dearly Bengali Muslims hold him close to their heart is indicated by what Bangladeshi author-journalist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury wrote in a 2010 article in a Dhaka-based Bengali daily. Attributing these words to the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Chowdhury cites:

“Independent Bangladesh has two invincible security guards – Bengali language and Rabindranath Tagore…our impenetrable armours for self-defense.”

Mujibur Rahman considered Tagore among a rare creed of ‘genuinely anti-communal’ personalities in British India. It is for a reason that the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority nation adopted a Tagore song as its national anthem.

Chowdhury, who penned the iconic Bangladesh Liberation War song Amar Bhai-er Rokte Rangano Ekushe February (‘red with my brother’s blood, February 21‘), remarked that even though Tagore’s thoughts and struggles for harmony could not prevent India’s division, Tagore himself remained undivided, and if Bangladesh were to ever unite with India, it would be Tagore who would play the bridge.

At a time the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations in Bengal are busy developing anti-Muslim sentiments by a persistent othering of Bangladesh, people in the secular camp are wondering what message on Tagore a top leader of the BJP may possibly have to offer.

This is Shah’s second speech on a Bengali cultural personality, the first being on novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in Kolkata in 2018. The choice of Chattopadhyay as the subject of his speech was not surprising. Chattopadhyay played a pioneering role in shaping the ideals of Hindu nationalism in the 19th century. Shah, perhaps quite aptly, described Chattopadhyay as the fountainhead of Indian cultural nationalism. Notably, the Sangh Parivar describes Hindutva as ‘Hindu cultural nationalism.’

In fact, during his 2018 speech, Shah blamed the Congress for dividing India by accepting a truncated version of Chattopadhyay’s original Bande Mataram hymn – only the first two stanzas – as the national song in 1937.

The fact remains that both Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose had sought Tagore’s opinion. It was Tagore who first publicly sang the song, at the Congress’ 1896 session in Kolkata. The poet, nevertheless, opined in favour of taking only the first two stanzas. Since the latter stanzas involved idol worship, it may not connect with monotheists, like Tagore himself (who was a Brahmo), the poet had argued.

Early tryst with Hindu nationalism

What take on him Shah has to offer remains to be seen but people part of the Bengal BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership said that this event is a culmination of efforts to study Tagore that has been going on for over a decade. During this process, a number of writings have been identified that reflect Tagore’s Hindu nationalist tendencies, a Bengal RSS veteran said.

Over the past couple of years, a number of Hindutva-linked Bengali web portals have been popularising these writings.

The writings that the Hindu nationalists refer to are from the pre-1905 period, a turning point in Tagore’s thinking. Growing up in an atmosphere of growing Hindu nationalist sentiments in 19th-century Bengal – the Hindu Mela was started when he was six and the Tagore family was deeply involved with its organisation – he, too, had his share of influence from the ideals of Hindu revival, seeking glory in an ancient past.

It is during this phase that he penned a few poems glorifying the Maratha, Sikh, and Rajput battles against Mughals and Pathans, in some cases contrasting Sikh valour and devotion against Pathan/Mughal brutality.

A depiction of Maratha king Shivaji.

“At a time the Union government is being criticised for shortening Mughal history in school syllabus, Shah quoting from Tagore poems on Shivaji or Bhai Taru Singh to elaborate the point against Mughals would not be surprising. I have no idea about possible contents of his speech but I feel it would be an appropriate time to highlight such poems,” said a senior leader of Bengal’s Hindutva camp.

The Hindu nationalist influence continued at varying degrees from his teenage in the mid-1870s to 1905, the last year marking the British attempt to bifurcate Bengal saw him take up a leading role in protesting the move. This also turned out to be a turning point in his thinking.

After witnessing the lukewarm response from Muslim-majority eastern Bengal to the call of protest and resistance through Swadeshi movement, he came to the conclusion that Hindus did not do enough to bring Muslims closer. It is also from this time onwards that he shed all the Hindu nationalist traits and became a critic of nationalism, including the Swadeshi movement of the time.

According to Pabitra Sarkar, former vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, the traits of Hindu nationalism that are found in some of his writings, for example, a few poems in the books Noibedyo and Kotha O Kahini and some essays, are all from the pre-1905 period.

“The attempted first Partition of Bengal and the response of the Hindu and Muslim Bengalis deeply disturbed him. By 1908, he had started writing the verses of Gitanjali. He evolved to become what we all know him for – one who did not believe in any division or discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, race, creed or class, a preacher and seeker of universal humanity,” said Sarkar.

“If Shah chooses to quote from his early writings to prove him a Hindu nationalist, without mentioning his evolved views, it would be an insult to Tagore and Bengalis should protest that,” he said.

Quotes and contexts 

The apprehension of Tagore being quoted out of context can not be readily rubbished. In 2015, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat evoked Tagore and quoted a couple of lines from his essay, Swadeshi Samaj, to prove his point on Hindu Rashtra. According to the news agency PTI, Bhagwat “made an appeal for turning the country into a ‘Hindu nation’ saying Hinduism believes in the principle of unity in diversity as visualised by Tagore.”

The news agency said that Bhagwat further cited Tagore’s observation that Hindus and Muslims, instead of finishing off each other by fighting among themselves, will rather find a way out and that path will be of “Hindu Rashtra.”

The essay concerned was written in 1904, the same year that he penned the poem titled Shivaji Utsav on the occasion of the introduction of the Shivaji festival in Kolkata by Sakharam Deuskar.

A reading of the whole essay, however, shows that Tagore was not meaning by ‘Hindu way’ what India’s Hindu nationalists mean by Hindu Rashtra. The essay essentially championed the traditional Indian ways against European but it was full of criticism of contemporary Hindu society and practices – some charges that may still stand, perhaps even stronger, in times of rising intolerance that India has witnessed since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014.

Here is a loose translation of the relevant paragraphs:

“The underlying religion of India is to feel unity in diversity, to establish unity amidst variety – India does not regard difference as hostility and the other as the enemy. That is why without exclusion or destruction, it wants to accommodate everybody within the great system. That is why it accepts all paths and sees the greatness of each in its own sphere.”

“Because we Indians have this ability, we shall not be apprehensive of any society considering them inimical. With each new conflict, we will ultimately hope to expand ourselves. On this land, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Muslim, and the Christian will not fight each other – they will find a congruence. That congruity would not be non-Hindu but very specifically Hindu. However foreign may be the body parts, the life, and spirit will be India’s.”

But by Hindu, Tagore meant Indians, and not the Aryan-Brahmanical system, as he used the term to also refer to India’s pre-Aryan indigenous population. He describes Aryans as invaders, a theory that the Sangh Parivar has been vehemently opposed to.

This becomes clear from a translation of the relevant paragraph:

“This (British rule) is not the first conflict the Hindu society is having with outsiders. The Aryans were engaged in a great conflict with the original inhabitants as soon as they entered (India). Aryans won this battle but it did not result in the uprooting of the non-Aryans the way Australian Aboriginals or Americans were thrown out. Non-Aryans found a place in the new social system with all their distinctness. The Aryan society became more diverse by absorbing them.”

However, even during this phase of his writings, he was distinctively different from Bankim Chandra and other Hindu nationalists. He never called for or wished for the restoration of pre-Islamic India. He blamed British rule for many of the troubles Indians were facing but never expressed any hostility towards Christians or Europeans in general.

Therefore, even in Swadeshi Samaj, he said, “Every race is part of Biswomanob (universal human)” and strongly criticised the post-Buddha Hindu society for secluding itself with barricades to avoid any connection with the outer world.

When such articles can be used to justify the demand for establishing Hindu Rashtra in India, many other possibilities crop up.

Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has cited two examples of distortion of Tagore’s quotations. In a 2019 article, he showed how a sentence that was actually an indictment of the caste-divided Hindu society was doctored to create anti-conversion sentiments.

The purported Tagore quote that someone forwarded to him read: “Everyday lower-class Hindus keep becoming Muslims or Christians [but] Bhatpara [pandits] remain unconcerned.” This sounds like a call to Hindus to wake up against conversions. However, the actual sentence began thus: “Every day, to save themselves from social humiliation [samajik asamman], lower-class Hindus keep becoming…”

The other example Chakravarty cited was in a Bengali article in 2021. A couple of sentences critical of Islam and Christianity that Tagore wrote in a letter were in circulation. However, the whole letter offered far more critical views of the Hindus.

With an open mind, Tagore criticised different aspects of almost all major religions in various writings. It is the Hindu society that he criticised most – not the spirit of Hinduism but the rituals and practices, its closedness and conservatism.

Shah, Dasgupta, and Adhikari’s speeches can possibly give a clearer idea of how Hindutva wants Tagore to be seen.

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