The Tagore Mania: Identity Crisis and Anti-Bangladesh Syndrome
Simon Fraser University, Canada
Published on May 11, 2006
I simply pity these people along with those who regard Rabindranath Tagore as the best poet, lyricist, short-story writer, novelist, essayist, Nobel Laureate, Zamindar, master, human being and what not! Those among these fanatically blind Rabindra-Bhaktas, who do not believe in God, consider him as one and all his writings as the substitute for the Bible, Quran and the Vedas. They are no better than the most fanatic mullahs, Hindu revivalists and the Neo-Cons in and around Washington D.C. All of them are dangerous to human dignity, peace and civilization. Their role vis-à-vis a sovereign Bangladesh, which has NO reason to be merged with West Bengal or India to become their slave (again?), is simply vicious, heinous and all Bangladeshis should be aware of it.
India has already captured our market. Do these India-Bhakta Tagorites want physical merger with India? I would not be surprised if this is in their hidden or not-so-hidden transcript!
I do not dispute the fact that Tagore was a good poet, much better than most of his contemporaries in undivided Bengal. But please give me a break; one who died in 1941 at 80 should be still regarded as the most relevant poet, essayist, novelist and lyricist! While English-speaking people have profound regard for Shakespeare and Byron, Keats and Shelley, Whitman and Tennyson, Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell they do not stick to these luminaries’ ideas considering them indispensable unlike what these Rabindra-Bhakta buffoons do with their ONLY idol. While Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone, Dean Martin and Dionne Warwick, the Beatles and ABBA (and even Michael Jackson) had their hey days, now Western music lovers have other icons and favourite singers.
Tomorrow’s generations will have their own favourite writers and singers, poets and philosophers. And this is called progress. The way Rabindra-Bhaktas glorify Tagore songs and whatever came out of his mouth or pen during the last two centuries establishes nothing but their cultural bankruptcy and inferiority complex.
With hindsight, I blame Ayub Khan, his Information Minister Khwaja Shahabuddin and his clownish Governor Monem Khan for this ongoing Rabindra-Mania in Bangladesh since 1967. Since the Pakistani ruling elite tried to impose a ban on Tagore song (which was a foolish, undemocratic move) during the ascendancy of Bengali Nationalism in East Pakistan one year after the introduction of the famous Six-point Programme of the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (which was not meant for secession but greater autonomy for East Pakistan), it simply backfired and Tagore became the symbol of Bengali Nationalism. It was nothing but a negative support for Tagore to defy and eventually overthrow the Ayub regime for the restive Bengali nationalists. Consequently those who could hardly understand anything about Tagore song, started patronizing and singing his lyrics. Chhayanat and similar music schools proliferated afterwards. And the rest is history.
Even the radical maverick, brave and honest Professor Ahmed Sharif (my guru for various reasons, especially his integrity, courage and scholarship) would privately tell us: “Ei Rabi Thakurer ‘tumi’ ta ke re bapu, eta to bujhlam na.” He was also critical of Tagore’s opposition to the Dhaka University proposal and his feudal, anti-people, pro-British stand most of the time up to his seventies.
Those who deny Tagore’s anti-Muslim, anti-East Bengali, anti-peasant, anti-communist and out and out pro-Zamindar, pro-Bhadralok (Hindu professional classes) and pro-Mahajan (moneylender)
stand, at least up to the 1930s (in his seventies), are in a state of denial or totally ignorant of the facts. Why did the Hindu Zamindar-Bhadralok-Mahajan triumvirate oppose the Partition of Bengal? Was not the main reason for their concerted opposition to a separate province of Eastern Bengal & Assam due to their apprehension of losing out their Zamindari estates in East Bengal, legal profession and jobs eventually to the majority Muslim community? Those Bangladeshis who deny these facts are either die hard fanatics or supporters of United Bengal (as former slaves often suffer from the a perpetual sense of devotion or Bhakti for their former masters – I am NOT making this up, one may check with the vast literature on social-psychology, cultural anthropology and history, especially writings by Ranajit Guha and other “Subaltern” historians).
In view of the above, Tagore’s opposition to the Partition of Bengal (1905-11) and the Dhaka University proposal (1914-20) had nothing so “patriotic” about it. He was not at all different from fellow Hindu Zamindar – Bhadralok who preferred to live in the urban comfort of Calcutta to the rural discomfort of East Bengal but by exploiting East Bengali peasants and working classes as landlords, lawyers and moneylenders. They also opposed the Partition and any move to establish a university in Dhaka, which they rightly envisaged, would eventually strip of their undue privileges and advantages as the hegemons of East Bengali masses. Calcutta based Hindu lawyers did not want another High Court in Dhaka, let alone another university to produce East Bengali Muslim graduates to compete in the shrinking job market, legal profession and in the arena of politics. One Fazlul Huq and one Suhrawardy were too much for them to swallow in the 1930s and 1940s.
With hindsight we realize that had there been no Partition of Bengal in 1905 and eventually in 1947 (the second one mainly due to Hindu Bhadralok opposition to united Bengal as Hindus would be perpetually a minority there against the Muslims) there would not have been any Bangladesh in 1971 or later. So, those who regard Tagore as the “dreamer” of Bangladesh a la Iqbal as the “dreamer of Pakistan”, are simply misinforming themselves and others by romanticizing history with no regard to facts and figures.
History tells us without any ambiguity that the anti-Partition Swadeshi Movement (1905-11) in Bengal was out and out a Hindu movement (only a handful of Muslim initially supported it while a fraction of them continued their support till the annulment of the Partition in 1911). Muslim elites and even peasants and working classes took a leading role against the Swadeshi Movement and villages in Mymensingh and Comilla witnessed bloody Hindu-Muslim rioting during the Swadeshi days over the Partition. In Jamalpur and elsewhere in greater Mymensingh, Hindu terrorist Swadeshi volunteers, who took oath at the alter of goddess Kali and sang Bankim’s anti-Muslim Bande Mataram, attacked Muslim supporters of the Partition with Ma Kalir Boma (Mother Kali’s Bomb).
Sumit Sarkar has beautifully narrated these events in his History of the Swadeshi Movement. One should read Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and Abul Mansur Ahmed’s Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchash Bachhar to find out the truth about the communal nature of the Swadeshi Movement. And Kabi Guru Rabindranath was among the ardent supporters of the Swadeshi Movement. He wrote “Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomay Bhalobashi” to inspire the supporters of the Swadeshi Movement. He wrote “Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya Hey” in 1911.
While some historians think he wrote this song in praise of King-Emperor George V out of gratitude as he declared the annulment of the Partition in 1911 at the Delhi Durbar, others allude it to Tagore’s love for the Indian “Jana Gana” as the “Bharata Bhagya Bidhata”. Although I am very skeptical about the second assertion, yet I am not being judgemental as I do not have any evidence to substantiate either of the assertions. However, it is most likely that he wrote the song eulogizing George V as the “Bharata Bhagya Bidhata” (determinant of the fate of the Indians).
Now, those who think Tagore was not an anti-Muslim communal person by citing examples from his short stories and fictions where he portrayed some Muslims as noble characters should re-read the following Tagore poems: Nava Barsha, Shivaji Utshab, Ma Bhoi and Brahman. What type of “non-communal” Maha Rishi (Great Saint) could glorify Hindu and Brahmin supremacy and the inhuman and barbaric Sati (Suttee) or burning of Hindu widows alive on their husband’s funeral pyre? His Shivaji Utshab was horridly a glorification of Hindutva as this poem not only eulogized Shivaji the Maratha nationalist against Mughal paramountcy (I have no problem with that) but it also contemplates the vision of “one religion in one country”. Was it very dissimilar from Hitler’s one race in one country or the fascist Shiv Sena’s and RSS’s advocacy for unadulterated Hindu supremacy in India?
We have Tagore apologists everywhere, in every forum, print and electronic media both in South Asia and beyond. One of them (Mesbahuddin Jowher) in a recent posting to the Mukto-Mona on May 8, 2006 wrote an apologia for Tagore in Bengali, “Was Tagore a Communalist?” According to him, Tagore only toyed with Hindutva and anti-Muslim expressions up to the early 20th century and afterwards he was a changed man. This is not at all true. In early 20th century Tagore was in his forties and fifties. He opposed the Dhaka University proposal during1914 and 1920 (joined a rally at Garer Math in Calcutta and put his signature to the campaign) when he was 53-59 year-old. We should not thrust any greatness on someone who in his forties and fifties continued to use very objectionable, racist and hateful expressions like javana, mlechha, nerey to denote Muslims a la Bankim style. Tagore was sort of a civil person vis-à-vis his public stand towards Hindu-Muislim problem in his seventies. By then it was too late, too little to glorify him as a saint and what not!
He was not that different so far as anti-Muslim public assertions are concerned from Bankim and Sarat Chatterjee. While Bankim considered Indian Muslims “unclean skin head foreigners” (mlechha javana nerey), Sarat Chatterjee publicly demanded the expulsion of Indian Muslims for the sake of a better India (in 1926 at a public meeting organized by the Hindu Mahasabha – see Joya Chatterjee’s Hindu Communalism and the Partition of Bengal), Tagore was sometimes more subtle in venting out his anti-Muslim sentiment.
Those Tagore apologists who defend his opposition to the Dhaka University proposal as a device to “save Calcutta University” (what a rubbish of an argument!) totally ignore the fact that Tagore in his Nobel Acceptance Lecture in 1913 (or 1914?) announced that he was going to establish a university at Bolpur (Shanti Niketan University) with the award money. Would not another university not far from Calcutta be detrimental to Calcutta University? Why could not he establish a university in East Bengal for the children of his exploited tenants? Why did not he establish anything worth mentioning other than the Patishar Bank (very similar to Grameen Bank but interest free for his tenants in Naogaon district in North Bengal not long before his death) for the poor in East Bengal? No Rabindra-Bhakta has any satisfactory answers to these questions.
In sum, let Tagore be in peace. Let people sing and listen to Tagore song, read his poems and other writings and let scholars and laymen write volumes after volumes in evaluating his literary genius. I have no problem with that. We cannot accept any assertion portraying Tagore as the most humane, non-communal, benevolent Zamindar (an oxymoronic expression like a “kind butcher” or “Hitler, the great lover of the Jews”), a “dreamer of Bangladesh”, a promoter of education (yes, almost exclusively for Hindu Bengalis) and an anti-imperialist etc.
I am very puzzled at Bengali communists’ (mostly the hitherto Muscovites also known as the “Harmonium Party”) adoration of Tagore, who in his fore-word to Pramatha Chaudhury’s book, Ryoter Katha (Calcutta 1928) compared communism with fascism and condemned those who wanted to abolish the Zaminadari and Mahajani ( usurious money-lending) systems. He sarcastically described the communists as “lalmukho” (red-faced) Russian agents and jeered at their programme: “Ei dharoni nir-jamidar nir-mahajan hoilei jeno shanty ashibe” [paraphrased] or “as if this world will be a blissful place without the Zamindar and Mahajan around.” Tagore was 67-year-old when he defended the extortionist Zamindari and Mahajani systems. And our Rabindra-Bhakta friends still consider him a great humanist friend of the poor and oppressed and “dreamer of Bangladesh”!