Poet of the Padma

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

How Tagore, once disowned as a Hindu poet by Bengali Muslims, became part of Bangladesh's freedom movement is fascinating history.

BENGALI-SPEAKING people were and, still are, sharply divided into two religious communities of nearly equal sizes, Hindus and Muslims. Coupled with economic inequality as well as social hierarchy and a rigorous caste system, there was little communal harmony between them, particularly between the dominant upper class Hindus and Muslims in general. Inspired by the rising tide of religious nationalism in the 1940s, Muslims chose to form a separate country of their own, which came to be known as East Pakistan. Despite the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was one of the greatest geniuses ever born, and the only Asian until then to have received the Nobel Prize, he was hardly identified by the Bengali Muslim community to be one of their own. Instead, he was branded by them as a Hindu poet. Therefore, it seemed almost unbelievable when, a quarter of a century later, in 1971, the predominantly Muslim Bangladesh chose one of the songs written and set to music by Tagore as its national anthem. How the once disowned and neglected Tagore became part of the freedom movement of Bangladesh is, indeed, a fascinating history.

Muslim dissatisfaction

Traditionally, more than 97 per cent of Bengali Muslims, like the low caste Hindus, lived in villages and were mainly farmers and artisans. For generations, they adhered to their caste occupations and hardly had any interest in having any formal education. On the contrary, upper caste Hindus eagerly accepted English education and engaged in commercial activities with the English. Thousands of them also bought landed properties and became zamindars, or landlords. These caste Hindus, about 10 per cent of the entire Hindu population, formed the upper and middle classes in Bengali society and contributed to as well as benefited from the so-called Bengali Renaissance. Muslims lagged miles and decades behind them socially, culturally and economically. As a result, the Bengali Muslims, mostly poor farmers, were resentful of Hindu dominance and exploitation by zamindars, and identified themselves as not belonging to Bengal.

Apart from this, the English rulers used this Muslim dissatisfaction to divide the two communities and pursue the advantageous policy of Divide and Rule. However, as a growing number of Muslims gradually came to have some education in the beginning of the 20th century and became more aware of their inferior status in society, the alienation between Hindus and Muslims increased.

This alienation was so strong that in the early 20th century, Muslims, who were very much sons of the soil and spoke Bengali for centuries, underwent an identity crisis and even raised the question whether their mother tongue was Bengali. Although the debate died down by the early 1930s, politics took a sharp turn and saw the growth of a movement for an independent Muslim land in the early 1940s.

After the creation of Pakistan, a unique state with its two wings separated by more than a thousand miles, its leaders realised that there was little in common between the people of West Pakistan and those of the East, except the unity of religion. Therefore, they planned to develop another element which they hoped would bond the two parts, namely, having a single official language. This they wanted to achieve by reducing the use of Bengali, importing as much of Arabic and Persian elements into Bengali as possible, and by making Urdu the only official language for both wings. In short, they wanted to discard Bengali, the mother tongue of the majority of the population of Pakistan. It was a well-calculated plan to destroy the Bengali identity of the people of East Pakistan and draw a dividing line between Hindu West Bengal and Muslim East Pakistan. Part of this plan was to replace Tagore, first with Allama Iqbal, and then with Nazrul Islam, by projecting them as alternatives to Tagore. In short, they wanted the Bengali-speaking people in East Bengal to lose sense of their linguistic identity and cultural heritage.

Despite their indifference until then towards the Bengali language, Bengali Muslims resented this concerted assault by Pakistani leaders on Bengali and, soon after Partition, started a political agitation demanding that Bengali be recognised as one of the official languages of Pakistan. In 1947-48, however, this movement remained confined among the teachers and students of Dhaka, particularly of the University of Dhaka. Police repression in March 1948 turned it into an emotional issue and as time passed the movement gathered momentum and gradually spread throughout the province. It culminated in a bloody political movement on February 21, 1952, when the police opened fire on protesters, mainly students, and killed more than 10 people. The following day, more people were killed. This brutal police repression, along with enormous disparity, particularly in the field of economy and participation in governance gave birth to a movement for democratic rights.

It had an even more profound influence on their linguistic identity. Badruddin Umar calls it the return of the Bengali Muslims to their own land. Until then, mentally and sentimentally, they lived in the Middle East (West Asia), but soon after the language movement in the 1950s, they increasingly started to identify themselves with Bengal along with its language, literature, music and culture. It was during this time that they came to love Tagore. To them, he became the symbol of secular Bengali nationalism and someone who they could be immensely proud of. They could no longer ignore Tagore as a Hindu poet.

Secular Bengali nationalism

The language movement, emotional as it was, had a tremendous effect on the politics of East Pakistan and resulted in all but depleting the Muslim League as a political party in the 1954 elections. It was a very significant development because the Muslim League had created Pakistan. In fact, the language movement heralded the rise of a strong secular and regional movement for more autonomy, which eventually led to the independence of Bangladesh. Thus the language movement was the beginning of the end of Pakistan.

The rise of this secular Bengali nationalism, replacing the very foundation of Pakistan, that is, Muslim nationalism, was reflected through small but important symbolic developments, such as giving children Bengali names, writing number plates of motor vehicles and names of houses in Bengali, putting one's signature in Bengali, celebrating the birth anniversaries of Tagore, Nazrul Islam and Sukanta Bhattacharji (a promising poet who died very young) as well as celebrating seasonal festivals such as spring, monsoon and autumn. Tagore was, for the first time, loved by Bengali Muslims as their own.

This tide of secular Bengali nationalism developed fast in the midst of a favourable atmosphere of the politics of discontent in East Pakistan. Utterly frustrated by the unequal treatment by West Pakistan in governance and economy, East Pakistan simmered in disgruntlement and looked for friends elsewhere. It was soon after the elections of 1954 that the demand for a country called Bangladesh was, for the first time, pronounced by Fazlul Huq, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan. Even though he was soon silenced, the dream survived in the minds of young leaders such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In fact, there is evidence that the latter went secretly to the neighbouring Indian State of Tripura in 1962 to explore the possibility of getting help for freeing East Pakistan from the bondage of West Pakistan.

Tagore's East Bengal years

Tagore had strong ties with East Bengal. In order to manage his father's large zamindaris in East Bengal, he lived in Shilaidaha in the district of Kustia from 1890 to 1901. Apart from this, he lived temporarily in East Bengal on many an occasion. He was born and brought up in the seclusion of the aristocratic Tagore family in the city of Calcutta and had never been exposed to either rural Bengal or the inhabitants thereof. He has himself narrated how East Bengal broadened his vision and made him aware of what Bengali society was really like. In more than 200 letters he wrote to his niece, Indira Devi, during this time, which were later collected into a volume called Glimpses of Bengal, he describes passionately how he was stimulated vigorously both by the beauty of the landscape and the simplicity of the people he saw around him.

As a result, he encountered an explosion of creativity in different branches of literature and music. More significantly, he wrote his first short story almost immediately after he settled in Shilaidaha and went on writing many more. Out of a total of 119 stories, he wrote 59 while he lived in East Bengal between 1890 and 1901. Inspired by the scenic beauty of rural Bengal and the simple lifestyle of the people, he also wrote many poems and songs while there. In many of these poems, included mainly in Sonar Tari, Chitra and Chaitali, we find references to the exquisite beauty of golden Bengal. Indeed, East Bengal played a significant role in shaping his mind. Even though he moved away from East Bengal to Santiniketan, East Bengal left a permanent impression on him and occupied a very important place in his world.

It was during the period of the post-language movement that the people of East Pakistan started to sing his patriotic songs and use his poems, during the anniversary of the language movement and on other occasions. They also made good use of patriotic songs and poetry by Hindu poets such as Atulprasad Sen and Dwijendralal Ray. This was a clear shift on the part of Bengali Muslims from their earlier stance of creating a Muslim Bengal and crafting a Bengali language purified with Muslim elements.

Defying government & celebrating Tagore

Tagore continued to reinforce his position among Bengalis in East Pakistan in this environment. The government could do little to stop this process. However, as the Tagore centenary in 1961 approached, it took definite steps to undermine the occasion by discouraging everyone, particularly government officials, from celebrating the occasion. The largest circulated daily, Azad, joined hands with the government and started a propaganda war, claiming that Tagore was a sectarian poet. There was not a single day before and during the celebrations when articles vilifying Tagore did not appear on its editorial page. This was not surprising in view of the fact that Azad was a staunch nationalist newspaper. However, what was more significant was that the dailies Ittefak and Sambad defended Tagore equally vocally, quoting what he had written about and in support of Muslims. This was important because it showed a definite shift in the tide towards and development of a secular linguistic nationalism. It also enhanced interest in the Bengali language and literature.

Tagore was remembered not just by these dailies or the people in Dhaka, but also by hundreds of educational institutions and cultural organisations all over the province, including those in villages, which celebrated the occasion with as much enthusiasm as they could. They perceived it as a protest against the government's ban on Tagore and the suppression of Bengali culture. Hence, they observed it with grandeur. Whatever the quality of the celebrations, there was a revival of interest in Tagore among the people of East Pakistan. The study of Tagore, the spread of his songs and a keen interest in films based on his stories and novels received an enormous boost from that time on.

The government's efforts to discourage Tagore, however, continued unabated. One of the steps it took was to ban Tagore songs on government-controlled TV and radio during the war between India and Pakistan in early September 1965. The ban continued until the anniversary of Tagore's birth in May 1966. Harsher was the decision by the government in 1967 to stop Tagore songs from being broadcast on radio and television. The decision was announced in Parliament by the Information Minister.

The intelligentsia in Dhaka, particularly teachers and students, protested angrily against this announcement and asked the government to withdraw the decision immediately. The government initially ignored the agitation but when people from all over the country joined in a chorus of protests it withdrew the embargo.

The earlier ban on Tagore songs, in 1965, saw the establishment of a cultural organisation called Chhayanot. Its influence was unprecedented. It did not confine itself to just cultural activities, and soon took the form of a protest movement. It is said that the celebration of Rabindra Jayanti, that is, the anniversary of the birth of Tagore, in 1966, which Chhayanot had organised, was attended by tens of thousands of people. It goes without saying that all these people were not connoisseurs of Tagore songs and dances; they attended the open-air festivals and assemblies to protest against the government's repression of their culture. Chhayanot also began celebrating Bengali New Year's Day, which has now, in the post-independence period, become the second largest celebration after the Language Movement Day. Indeed, it has developed into a cultural movement rather than just being a cultural event.

Several educational and cultural organisations took Chhayanot's lead to celebrate Rabindra Jayanti defying the government's attempts to discourage them. Thus Tagore, who had so long been limited mainly to textbooks, came back to life in East Pakistan. East Pakistanis earned him through a political and cultural movement. The study of Tagore certainly received a lift in Bangladesh. Articles and books on Tagore started to come out and performances of his plays and dance dramas became popular. Educated middle-class Bengali Muslims began to buy discs of Tagore songs, whether they really appreciated the songs or not. It was fashionable to be identified as Tagoreans. The people who did not show any interest in Tagore were considered by others to be less than cultured. The celebration of hardly any cultural event was regarded as complete without the rendering of Tagore songs. Gradually even East Pakistani films started to use them. This growing popularity of Tagore's songs encouraged Chhayanot to release a set of discs in 1969. Tagore's patriotic songs, in particular, were considered to be both inspiring and appealing.

National anthem

It was during this process that his songs, such as Amar sonar Bangla ami tomay bhalobasi' (My golden Bengal, I love you) and Sarthak janam amar janmechhi ei deshe' (My life has been fulfilled as I was born in this country) and dozens of others, won the hearts of the people. These songs became so integral to their lives that people started to use them to boost their political and cultural movements. Amar sonar Bangla' was seen to be the national anthem of the future Bangladesh even before Bangladesh was created. The song Dhana-dhanya-pushpa-bhara' (Full of wealth, rice and flowers, this country of ours) by Dwijendralal Ray also became extremely popular (now it is Bangladesh's official patriotic song). A song by Atulprasad Sen Moder garob, moder asha/A mori Bangla bhasha' (Our pride, our hope/Oh, this Bangla language of ours) became a widely used slogan for banners. During the late 1950s and the entire 1960s, the people of East Bengal, who were once unmoved by Tagore, came to love him as their own and thus earned him through a struggle in the face of strong opposition. He came out of textbooks and was transformed into a living entity.

However, the attitude towards Tagore in Bangladesh, after its independence, has changed to a large extent. Although the government gave him due recognition, the perception of the people towards him has changed. He is now no longer seen as their companion in their struggle for an independent Bangladesh, as the struggle itself has become redundant with no one to repress it. Moreover, at the instance of the rise of a global Islamic nationalism and with the monetary help of the Middle Eastern countries, especially of Saudi Arabia, there has been a revival of Islam in Bangladesh. This attitude has also been enhanced by popular anti-Indian fear. India's big brotherly attitude towards Bangladesh has also contributed to it. Tagore is now no longer as inspiring and alive' as he was 40 years ago. However, he still symbolises the spirit of a secular Bengali culture and Tagore songs are increasingly becoming popular and fashionable. The study of Tagore continues unabated as well, despite the fact that he has lost some of the ground he gained during the 1960s and the early 1970s.

Ghulam Murshid is a British writer of Bangladeshi origin, best known in India for his biography of the poet Michael Madhusudan Datta ( Ashar Chhalane Bhuli or Lured By Hope ) and his writings on Bengali literature and culture. He is a Senior Research fellow at SOAS, London University.

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