New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi Saturday invoked Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata to make a point that several important aspects of India’s history were overlooked by historians, who wrote about it without delving deep into the subject, both during the British rule and after Independence.
Speaking after dedicating to the nation four refurbished heritage buildings of the city — the Old Currency Building, the Belvedere House, the Metcalfe House and the Victoria Memorial Hall — Modi recalled Tagore’s words from a 1903 essay in which he said “India’s history is not that what students study for examinations”.
“Some people came from outside, killed their own relatives, brothers for the sake of throne… is not our history. This was said by Gurudev himself. He had said in this history, it is not mentioned what the people of the country was doing. Didn’t they have any existence?” Modi said.
The PM was referring to Rabindranath Tagore’s essay, Bharatbarsher Itihas (History of India), which he wrote in 1903.
“The history of India that we read and write in examinations after memorising it is only a nightmare.
Some people came from somewhere, unleashed bloodbath, fights started between fathers and sons, between brothers… If one group somehow left, another came — Pathan, Mughal, Portugese, French, British, all of them together made this nightmare even more complicated over time,” Tagore wrote in his opening lines for the essay.
You cannot see the real India if you see it with this blood-stained vision, he continued. “Where were the Indians (then)? This history doesn’t answer that. As if there were no Indians (then), there only existed those who executed the deadly violence.”
Even in those days of horror, normal life must have gone on, Tagore wondered.
“On a stormy day, the storm itself is not the only event of the day… For human beings, the events of births and deaths, joy and sadness taking place on that day are more important. But a foreigner sees only the storm, because he is outside the houses, not inside.
“That’s why, in the history written by foreigners, we only see stories of that dust and storm, not of the homes. When we read that history, it seems there was no India then, the Mughals and Pathans, raising their flags, just marched around from north to south and west to east,” he wrote.
But there did exist an India, Tagore added. “…otherwise, who gave birth to Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, Tukaram amid all this turmoil?
“It wasn’t like there were only Delhi and Agra then. There were Kashi and Nabadweep (birthplace of 15th century Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu) too. The life stream flowing around that time in the real India, the waves of efforts that were rising, the social changes that were happening, we don’t find any description of that in history.”
Tagore asserted that Indians are not “branches and shrubs” but “our hundreds and thousands of roots through centuries have occupied prime position in India”.
“But the kind of history we are made to read makes our children forget all this. It seems, we don’t exist in India, only the visitors do,” he wrote.
Tagore on ‘absence of Indian history’
Bharatbarsher Itihas is not his only work where Tagore has criticised Indian history written by foreigners.
In is essay, Aitihasik Chitra (Historical Picture), published in a magazine by the same name, he wrote in 1898: “One can become a pundit and score high marks in examinations by memorising history created by others, but the efforts to collect and create own history not only result in expertise but also open the blocked streams of our thoughts. In that enthusiasm and effort lies our health, our life.”
In Bhanusingha Thakurer Jibani (1884), Tagore talked about the absence of Indian history as he rued the fact that there was nothing much to read about “ancient Vaishnav poet Bhanusingha Thakur”.
“We don’t get to learn anything in the absence of history, and it’s proven by the fact that we don’t know anything about ancient Vaishnav poet Bhanusingha Thakur. This is unfortunate.”
The Nobel laureate’s 1877 essay Jhansir Rani (Queen of Jhansi) makes a special mention in the end that he knew “only this much” about Laxmibai from the British history, and added, “It’s our desire to publish in future the history that we have collected about the queen.”
Idea of India and its pluralism
In Bharatbarsher Itihas, Tagore also wrote that India’s written history has clouded its idea of ‘swadesh’ or native land.
“Countries that are lucky, find their eternal homeland in their history. People are introduced to their country from childhood through this history. But it’s exactly the opposite in India’s case. It’s the country’s history that has kept the idea of ‘swadesh’ under a cloud.”
In his essay, Tagore also took a critical view of the educated Indians who “question” the idea of India as they ask “who do you call nation, where is it, where was it?”.
Tagore said, “You don’t get an answer to these questions. The matter is so micro, but so massive, that it can’t be understood through logic.”
But if someone asked what is the main significance of India, Tagore said, there is an answer.
“India’s history will corroborate that answer. India has always made only one effort, to forge unity in diversity, to direct different paths to one destination…”
The essay also talked about India’s inclusivity and its responsibility to maintain that.
“India has always laid the foundation for an inclusive civilisation… She has never driven away any outsider, never ostracised anyone calling the person non-Aryan, hasn’t made fun of anyone incompatible. India has taken in all, accepted all.”
Tagore, however, cautioned: “Despite taking in so much, one needs to establish own system and own discipline, for the sake of self-defence. When there is a battle of survival, the country cannot unleash them all on each other like animals. They have to be bound by a basic idea. The instrument can be from anywhere, but the discipline has to be India’s, that basic idea will be of India.”
Adversities in education system
Coming back to the education system, Tagore listed adversities. “Whatever we learn is adverse, the way we learn in adverse, the educator is adverse too. If we have learnt anything despite this, and put this learning to any use, it’s our credit.”
However, he added, Indians need to take responsibility for education if they want to rid themselves of foreign education.
“The way India has for ages built our inner nature, if we try to distort that, willingly or at somebody else’s behest, we will fail in the world and be embarrassed.”
Tagore concluded his essay with a note of hope.
“From our vast educated lot, there will definitely rise a few who will hate the business of education and accept teaching a hereditary vow. They will sacrifice luxury and go to every corner of the country to open schools of modern education… Education will attain independence and dignity in those schools. Despite the footprints of British royal merchants and their education, I firmly believe Bengal will give birth to some of such ‘gurus’.”
(Excerpts from Rabindranath Tagore’s essays have been translated by ThePrint)