How Rabindranath Tagore, an Anti-Nationalist, became an Icon of Bengali Nationalism | Mubashar Hasan

Understandably, Tagore’s vision for tolerance and humanism was instrumental for the Bengali intellectuals and political leaders, to envision a separate nation of Bengalis in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It was a logical course of action to create a discourse for a new nation. In real life, Tagore’s tolerance was remarkable. He claimed that his own family is the product of a ‘confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British’, observed Amartya Sen.

 

The partition of 1947 created two nation-states — India and Pakistan. The state of Pakistan was comprised of East Pakistan (what is current Bangladesh today) and West Pakistan (what is Pakistan today). This situation resulted from years of agitation by the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, who wanted a separate nation-state for Muslims. Soon after the creation of the new nation-state, East Pakistan lodged a nationalist agitation against the West Pakistani administration. Following a nine-month-long war against Pakistan in 1971, East Pakistan became the newly independent country Bangladesh.

During those years of the nationalist campaign, Bengali intellectuals of East Pakistan championed Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) — the Bengali Nobel Prize winner poet, songwriter, novelist, composer and philosopher — as a symbol of Bengali nationalism and political freedom. It was a logical step to counter West Pakistan’s nationalist propaganda based on Islam.

However, this article argues that, while Tagore was constructed as a symbol of Bengali nationalism and political freedom, Tagore himself was against nationalism. East Pakistan’s Bengali nationalist movement portrayed Tagore as a symbol of their nationalist movement and political freedom. Tagore was born and died in undivided India. Since the partition of 1947, the Indian state claims Tagore as an Indian poet, thinker and artist.

 

Tagore was a problem for the “Muslim” Pakistan

Ethnically Pakistan was a diverse nation. Bengalis of East Pakistan did not share any common cultural bond with West Pakistanis apart from the religion of Islam. In contrast, East Pakistani Bengalis shared a common language and culture with the Bengalis of India. Among Indian and Pakistani Bengalis, Tagore was a celebrated figure.

The Pakistan central government saw Tagore as an obstacle to the unity of a Muslim nation. A classic example is the debate which unfolded in 1961 on the occasion of the birth centenary of Tagore. When three committees of Bengali intellectuals and writers from Dhaka University and journalists of the Dhaka Press Club, were set to celebrate Tagore’s birthday, the then Pakistani Intelligence Agency accused them of receiving funding from India.

The government-backed national daily, including Azad, attacked Tagore vehemently through editorials, articles and letters to the editor on the occasion of his 100th birthday. According to Anisuzzaman, major allegations against Tagore included: ‘Tagore as a dreamer of Hindu India, a communalist, a writer who denigrated Muslims and whose ideal was antipathetic to the concept of Pakistan’. The newspaper argued that the ‘move to hold the centenary celebrations is a conspiracy to unite the two Bengals, strike at the basis of Pakistan’s ideals, and endanger the distinctive cultural life of its people’ Anisuzzaman notes.

In reply to this set of criticism, several other national newspapers supporting Bengali nationalism argued that Tagore was a humanist above all, an anti-communal person who was deeply entrenched in everyday Bengali life. The newspapers supporting Tagore also argued that ‘Hitler had banned Tagore in Germany which reminded that only fascists would take a position against him.

Furthermore, during the war between India and Pakistan in 1965, Radio Pakistan and Dhaka Television stopped broadcasting Tagore’s work as it fell under the category of ‘Indian origin’. In June 1967, the then information minister of Pakistan announced that Pakistan’s electronic media had been directed to stop any of Tagore’s songs opposed to Pakistan’s ideals. Islamic scholars (Ulemas) too supported the Pakistan government in this regard. They argued, ‘Tagore’s song should have been banned from the media from the very day Pakistan was established’. However, in protest, nineteen people issued a statement, including writers, scientists, painters and teachers, that appeared in national dailies. The statement stressed that the Pakistani Government’s decision of banning Tagore was ‘very unfortunate,’ claiming ‘Tagore as an integral part of the cultural existence of the Bengali speaking Pakistanis and that the significance of this fact should be respected in the framing of government policies’. Later, cultural associations, student organisations and political parties joined in backing the protests of the nineteen.

 

Constructing a Tagore as an icon for Bengali Nationalism and Political Freedom

 The leader of East Pakistan’s independence movement, who is now known as the father of the Bengali Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was ‘pragmatically influenced by Tagore’s unequivocal espousal of religious neutrality, individual freedom and universal humanism,’ argues Zillur R Khan in an essay titled Tagore’s Impact on the Intellectual and Political Development of Bangladesh. In Khan’s view, ‘The Non-Cooperation Movement’ of Sheikh Mujib was deeply influenced by Tagore.

Khan argues that the ‘Non-Cooperation Movement, which proved to be the catalyst for Bengali independence, was based upon the principle of dissociating oneself from instrumental evil culminating in the suppression of humanity, something professed and practised by Tagore from him literary-intellectual-educational perspective.’

‘Mujib was so touched by Tagore’s universal humanism that he did not hesitate to select a Tagore song on Bengal as new country’s national anthem: ‘Amar Shonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Bhalobashi’ (My Golden Bengal, I love You),’ Khan said. In Khan’s opinion, the national anthem of Bangladesh is a glaring example of secular Bangladesh as it captures, ‘the spirit of riverine, deltaic, fertile land and its people; it transcends the barriers of class, caste, religion, race and creed as if Tagore foresaw the result of the aspiration of Bengalis for an independent Bangladesh’.

Tagore’s Shonar Bangla’, or golden Bengal became a hallmark of Mujib’s public speeches. In private interviews, Mujib referred to the newly independent country as ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ (My Golden Bengal) ‘in the vein of Tagore’s lyrics’.

Even when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to independent Bangladesh after his nine-month-long imprisonment in a Pakistani prison during the war of independence, he greeted the newly independent nation in Tagore’s words:

“Janani Bangabhumi, Gangar Tir, Snigdha Samir Jivan Jurale Tumi” (Mother Land of Bengal; By the Banks of the Ganga, your pristine breeze, how you have soothed my heart).

In the swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Mujib’s first message to Bengalis were recitation from a Tagore Poem:

“Udoyer Pothe Shuni Kar Bani; Bhoy Nai Orey Bhoy Nai; Nisheshe Pran Je Koribe Dan; Khoy Nai tar Khoy Nai” (Whose message do I hear; When I am starting my journey; Fear not, oh Fear Not; He who sacrifices his life selflessly; For him, there is no erosion).

 

The Real Tagore was Against Nationalism and the Political Freedom it Offers

 Even though Tagore had become a symbol of Bengali nationhood and its struggle for political freedom, he personally did not believe in what he called ‘narrow idea of nationalism’ and nationalist conceptualisation of ‘political freedom’.

In 1917, in an Essay Titled Nationalism in India, which later reprinted by the Penguin in a book titled Nationalism, Tagore criticised the idea of a nation:

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general ideas of all nations. What is the nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby, man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is mechanical. Yet in this, he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality. By this device, the people who love freedom perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride in having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world to receive its desserts; honest men can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandisement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better (Nationalism, 36-37).

Written against the backdrop of on-going Hindu-Muslim contest of separation in 1917, from the above-mentioned extended excerpt of Tagore, it is clear that Tagore was dismayed by nationalist thinking. To him, the concept of nation was a shallow machine — an instrument to divide people — forcing people away from morality and ethics. In stark contrast to Bengali intellectuals and politicians who orchestrated Tagore as a symbol of freedom for Bengali nation, Tagore (2010) furthers denounced ‘political freedom’ for not being true freedom. Tagore states that:

Political freedom does not give us freedom when our mind is not free. An automobile does not create freedom of movement because it is a mere machine. When I myself am free, I can use the automobile for the purpose of my freedom(Tagore: 2010, 43-44).

Throughout Ideas of a Nation, Tagore was critical of the British’s gross human rights violation in Colonial India, creating division among people through religious lines. He sensed that violence is embedded in the concept of nationalism. The main criticism of the Western idea of the nation to Tagore was that nations in a Western sense eliminate humanism and other values while promoting self-interest that is the least human and the least spiritual. Thus, political freedom for a nation is not real freedom in Tagore’s view, it is the loss of more freedom of humans.

 

Conclusion

Understandably, Tagore’s vision for tolerance and humanism was instrumental for the Bengali intellectuals and political leaders, to envision a separate nation of Bengalis in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It was a logical course of action to create a discourse for a new nation. In real life, Tagore’s tolerance was remarkable. He claimed that his own family is the product of a ‘confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British’, observed Amartya Sen.

His novels such as Ghare Baire (The home and the world), Gora (Roman); his short stories such as Kabuliwala (Man from Kabul), and Dena Paona ( Debits and credits); his plays including Bisharjan (Sacrifice) and Rakta Karobi (Red Oleanders), reflected Tagore’s humanism and concern for different religious groups, deeply influenced Muslim Bengali intellectuals and politicians. However, Tagore’s vision for tolerance and humanism was against nationalism as noted by Tagore himself. Therefore, in the struggle to create a new nation for Bengalis, a new Tagore was constructed, who was far removed from the real Tagore. That does not mean that it was the wrong thing to do. Perhaps it was the most logical thing to do. Nonetheless, it is a crucial point to note and acknowledge.

 

 

Mubashar Hasan PhD is a Sydney based author and analyst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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