As election looms in West Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore has been dragged out and dusted again by politicians. From BJP’s Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to TMC’s Mamata Banerjee, Tagore is being liberally invoked. But intentional misinterpretation of the thoughts of great Indian thinkers for political benefit is quite a popular game in India today.
This game has four common rules. Selection, decoration, and dissemination are the three pillars upon which the game-board is placed. Without contextualising a text, a part of it is selected. Then that selected text is decorated with calligraphies and pictures. Once the digital or physical poster is ready, it is either posted on social media or published through other mediums. Sometimes it goes viral in a moment. People read and believe it. These three rules are at least grounded on a narrow premise. But the fourth rule of the game is the most heinous one. In our boyhood days, we often invented interesting quotes in the examination hall and passed them off in our answer-scripts as remarks of great historians so that examiners would give us more marks. We never thought that the high-school game would one day also become part of ‘WhatsApp University’ and political propaganda.
I can still remember that afternoon. A journalist friend rang me up. “Did Rabindranath say Indian languages are rivers and Hindi the Mahanadi? This quotation has been circulated on the notice-board of a reputed university in the name of Tagore without specifying the source,” he said. I was taken aback and searched the writings of Tagore thoroughly, but could not find it. Rabindranath never undermined the importance of Hindi as an Indian language. Hindi-Bhavana was established in his academic institution, Visva Bharati, in 1938, for cultivating the language and literature. But that does not mean the poet believed in language hierarchy. The ‘Hindi Mahanadi’ quotation is fabricated in the name of Tagore to justify the superior position of one of the many Indian languages. And as the election campaigns heat up, and the BJP tries to claim Tagore, we must put everything distilled to us in his name through a litmus test.
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Although it is difficult to stop this game of selectively quoting or misquoting, we can arrange a litmus test for those fabricated quotations. First, we must politely ask the quotation-makers to provide the source or the name of the text from which the lines are taken. Second, we should date the text, if possible, and compare it with other writings of that thinker to contextualise it. For example, if we read Tagore’s writings in chronological order, we will find that he opposes the centrality of any particular language, religion, icon and nation over others. In his writings on ‘History of India’, he underlines that in our society, differences are natural but the differences are neither erased in the name of artificial oneness nor do they block the spirit of amity. Tagore proposes a ‘Ramrajya’ where each one can believe in his or her own Rama instead of an iconic super hero.
Rabindranath in his poem ‘Bhasa O Chanda’(Language and Metre) describes a meeting between Narada, the great devotee of Vishnu, and Valmiki, the ancient poet, at a topavana on the bank of river Tamasa. During their talks, Valmiki hesitantly asks Narada, “How can I write the life story of Rama? I am afraid of deviating from the truth.” Narada calmly replies, “Whatever you write is true. / Happenings are not always true. / O Poet, your heart is more reliable than the birthplace of Rama.” Tagore, a believer in liberty of expression, stands for poetic imagination. He knew that India is a land of varied Ramayanas. In this land of diversity, Valmiki can imagine his own Rama. During the Bhakti movement, poets conceived their own Rama without hurting others.
But the realpolitik of Hindutva does not believe in many Ramayanas. The Ramjanmabhoomi project certainly goes against what Tagore’s Narada had to say. Instead of keeping one’s Rama to one’s heart, the soldiers of Hindutva want to crown their political fetish on a particular geographical ground by erecting a huge temple. Setting up an immense statue or temple generally satisfies the ego of its founder or builder.
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Of kings and kingdoms
Rabindranath Tagore categorically criticises the futile egomania of politicians and kings in his writings. Organised religion and state-owned technology provide power-mongers with tools to nurture their pride. He retells the story of a sage named Narottom who sits under a tree outside a golden temple. A curious king comes to him and says, “Look, My Lord, I have built this skyscraper. But instead of going to the shining shrine, why are you singing the name of God under this tree?” Narottom replies, “God is not in the temple. Without giving support to the poor and fire-devastated subjects, you have used the money to construct this structure not for worshipping God but for embellishing your own pride.” This candid comment makes the king furious and he labels the sage an ‘agnostic’. Nowadays, liberals are called ‘anti-national’. Bhakta Narottom hardly pays any attention to this comment.
In Tagore’s drama ‘Waterfall’, an engineer embanks a muktadhara (free river current) to control a kingdom’s water resource and stop it from reaching the colonies. The king wants to tax the people for water, and so the barrage is raised. One of Tagore’s finest plays, ‘Waterfall’ ends on a rebellious note. The heir to the king’s throne, Abhijit, demolishes the dam and right to equality is reinstated in the land.
Muktadhara was written after the First World War. Tagore had experienced the narrowness of jingoism and described vividly the modalities of State power in his next play Raktakarabi. It tells the story of a city named Yakshapuri that flourishes around a gold mine. Farmers are enticed to be miners. They enter the city to test their fate and eventually are controlled by the central power. In that city, armoury, temple and wine shop stand side by side to lure the people into fantasies. Nandini and Ranjan happen to come to Yakshapuri, and they inspire the miners to revolt against the capitalist system. At the end of the play, the king comes out of his hiding place, and, as his mind undergoes a change, joins the rebels to change the system to benefit the farmers.
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One can give many more examples from the texts of Tagore where the centralisation of power is criticised. And those who are quoting Tagore today would do well to read his poetry, plays and stories first. He was not a man who could be put in a box and branded — that’s what he fought all his life. He fought nationalism, organised religion, and the centralisation of power.
I am also quite sure that the writings of Bankim Chandra, Vivekananda, and Subhas Chandra Bose will also be used systematically to violate the spirit of plurality of our land. These Bengali thinkers had their own views and philosophy, but none of them opposed or suppressed the cultural and political diversity of India.
So, our litmus test becomes even more necessary in this new ‘Ramrajya’.
The author is an associate professor of Bangla at Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan. He has written in ‘The Cambridge Companion To Rabindranath Tagore‘ (2019). Views are personal.
Tagorw never questioned the correctness of the legend of Rama, there is nothing to show that he disrespected or disregarded Rama in any way, much as pseudo intellectuals would like us to believe.
Yes the faith in Rama is a matter of the heart, but even the heart needs a cage of bones to reside itself in it.
Worship of Rama does need the temple at ayodhya to be reconstructed. By all means.
A garbage write-up by a typical commie…Well can’t expect much from a commie anyways!!!
Inventing a lie is not the best way to fight another lie. But, this is what this writer has done. He quotes a sentence purportedly a dialog between Sages Narada and Valmiki: ““How can I write the life story of Rama? I am afraid of deviating from the truth.” Narada calmly replies, “Whatever you write is true. / Happenings are not always true. / O Poet, your heart is more reliable than the birthplace of Rama.”
I have verified this against the first chapter of Valmiki Ramayana, also known as Sangraha Ramayana. There is no such dialog between the sages either in this chapter or subsequent four chapters. In fact, after their meeting in the First Chapter of Valmiki Ramayana, there is no meeting of these sages in the Valmiki Rayamaya.
Now, there are hundreds of Ramayanas in India. This writer should reply to me and say from which Ramayana he got this dialog, quoting chapter and verse. Otherwise, this claim is a lie.
No wonder Visva Bharati is no longer considered an institution of repute. Such professors and academic staff do not exactly bring glory to the university.
A half baked analysis of a complex issue. Specious arguments based on spurious assumptions.
Believing in ones own RAMA is one thing. It is an entire other matter if you start denouncing the other individuals Rama!!! The Abrahamic faiths do exactly that. In essence, these would be a misfit in the Tagorian narrative of Rama Rajya!!! Most of these authors seem to not understand the main issue here. The Gorilla in the room!!! Conversion and Proselytization.
More than all these litmus tests, I think it is important to put Tagore in his place.
Here is a man, who thought poorly of the “native pagans”, so much that he and his ancestors founded a different religion. He found the existing native religions of the land, too low-class for his high standards. He felt little sympathy for the freedom fighters or for the cause they fought for – the freedom of India. He decisively turned away from the popular nationalism of that era, that was the refuge of so many freedom fighters. Here is the proof – unlike Gandhi and Nehru who he was in regular communication with, and unlike CF Andrews who was practically his disciple/colleague at Shantiniketan, Tagore never spent a day in prison. How many freedom fighters of that time spent their miserable lives in British jails? How many died there and suffered privation for a long time afterwards? How many were lathi-charged, fasted in prison, were force-fed to break those fasts?
We need better heroes.
It is more important to put ignorant and blind bhakts in their places so that they stop spewing garbage like this. Assuming you bunked history classes at school, a simple search would have told you about Tagore’s immense contribution to the freedom struggle. Just because you can write BS doesn’t mean that you should.
Very good rebuttal. In fact, Tagore himself is the father of many a disruptive thinking which later on became strong anti-national stream of thinking in Bengal. A lot has been done to repair his image during the last century. But, truth has a habit of rearing its head.
If there is indeed so much plurality in West Bengal, indeed in undivided Bengal, then why did the partition of the state happen purely on religious grounds? And why did Shri Jogendra Mondol who was the first minister for labour in Pakistan, resign from his post and flee to India? I am not even getting into Direct Action Day. It is very easy to have a sinecure in Vishwa Bharati and write such articles. And by the way, all liberals are self certified. But it they who do the name calling – Fascist, Andh Bhakth, etc etc
The choice is between SHREE RAM RAJYA or GHAZWA E HIND .
It’s a fight between ideology of DIDI , AKBARUDDIN versus progressive HINDU ideology.
It’s a fight between RIOTERS, PROSELYTIZERS versus HINDUS who believe in education and science and prosperity.
It’s a fight for survival and safety of HINDU way of life or accepting religious onslaught.
Propagandist for DIDI who now fears that SECULAR VOTERS will dump her for more committed SECULAR leader like AKBARUDDIN are bringing in some fake propaganda to save DIDI.
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