Over time, a certain effort has been made by the intellectual Bengali elite to recast cultural icons of yore into stereotypes that fit perfectly with their own imaginations. In their effort, certain Bengali icons who have greatly influenced Bengali culture have been discarded while others have been fashioned as symbols of the supposed inherent secular Bengali culture.
In this endeavour, icons like Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and Sri Aurobindo don’t find a place for themselves in the pantheon of Bengali stalwarts while those like Raja Ram Mohan Roy do. However, contrary to what liberals would have us believe, the opinions of such icons did not always conform with their fancy notions.
Rabindranath Tagore is one such Bengali stalwart. Decades after his death, his songs are still sung and heard by every single Bengali Hindu family. His songs, which capture a variety of human emotions, have an entirely separate category unto themselves. ‘Rabindra Sangeet’ it is called. He is indeed an absolute cultural icon and over time, the Bengali intellectual elite has claimed him to be secular to present the ‘highly refined Bengali culture’ to be in stark contrast with the ‘rustic bigoted North Indian culture’.
However, was Rabindranath Tagore really secular as the term is understood now? Was he really a deracinated intellectual as most of the Bengali elite is now? Let us discard the notions liberals have fed us and make up our own minds on the basis of the legend’s own words.
From his works, it is abundantly clear that the great poet was not too fond of Islam and Christianity, to put it mildly. He said of them once, “There are two religions in earth, which have distinct enmity against all other religions. These two are Christianity and Islam. They are not just satisfied with observing their own religions but are determined to destroy all other religions. That’s why the only way to make peace with them is to embrace their religions.” (Original works of Rabindranath Vol. 24, page 375, Vishwa Bharti; 1982.)
In a letter to Hemantabala Sarkar, written on the 16th of October, 1933, quoted in Bengali weekly ‘Swastika’ on 21-6-1999, he says, “The terrible situation of the country makes my mind restless and I cannot keep silent. Meaningless ritual keeps the Hindus divided into hundred sects. So we are suffering from a series of defeats. We are tired and worn-out by the fortunes by the internal-external enemies. The Muslims are united in religion and rituals. The Bengali Muslims the South Indian Muslims and even the Muslims outside India-all are united. They always stand united in face of danger. The broken and divided Hindus will not be able to combat them. Days are coming when the Hindus will be again humiliated by the Muslims. “You are a mother of children, one day you will die, passing the future of Hindus society on the weak shoulders of your children, but think about their future.”
Read also: Ambedkar on Islam and Muslims
Rabindranath Tagore also blamed the Muslim community for the everlasting communal tensions between the two communities. Particularly, he blamed the pan-Islamic identity of the Muslim community and their penchant to put their religion over the nation which he claimed stood in the way of peaceful relations between Hindus and Muslims.
In an interview with Times of India in 1924, which was quoted by the Hindu intellectual stalwart Sita Ram Goel in his book ‘Muslim Separatism – Causes and Consequences’ (1987), Tagore said, “A very important factor which is making it almost impossible for Hindu-Muslim unity to become an accomplished fact is that the Muslims can not confine their patriotism to any one country. I had frankly asked (the Muslims) whether, in the event of any Mohammedan power invading India, they (Muslims) would stand side by side with their Hindu neighbours to defend their common land. I was not satisfied with the reply I got from them… Even such a man as Mr Mohammad Ali (one of the famous Ali brothers, the leaders of the Khilafat Movement-the compiler) has declared that under no circumstances is it permissible for any Mohammedan, whatever be his country, to stand against any Mohammedan.”
On another occasion, “Swamy Shraddananda’’, written by Rabindranath in Magh, 1333 Bangabda; compiled in the book ‘Kalantar’, he exhorted the Hindus to shed their weakness. “Weakness harbours sin. So, if the Muslims beat us and we, the Hindus, tolerate this without resistance-then, we will know that it is made possible only by our weakness. For the sake of ourselves and our neighbour Muslims also, we have to discard our weakness. We can appeal to our neighbour Muslims, ‘Please don’t be cruel to us. No religion can be based on genocide’ – but this kind of appeal is nothing, but the weeping of the weak person. When the low pressure is created in the air, a storm comes spontaneously; nobody can stop it for the sake of religion. Similarly, if weakness is cherished and be allowed to exist, torture comes automatically – nobody can stop it.”
He also harboured a very pessimistic outlook about the future of Hindu-Muslim relation. He went on to add, “Possibly, the Hindus and the Muslims can make a fake friendship to each other for a while, but that cannot last forever. As long as you don’t purify the soil, which grows only thorny shrubs you can not expect any fruit.”
Rabindranath Tagore, simultaneously, harboured great faith in Hinduism. He said, “When two-three different religions claim that only their own religions are true and all other religions are false, their religions are only ways to Heaven, conflicts cannot be avoided. Thus, fundamentalism tries to abolish all other religions. This is called Bolshevism in religion. Only the path shown by the Hinduism can relieve the world form this meanness.” (Tagore, ‘Aatmaparichapa’ in his book `Parichaya’)
Of course, Tagore’s intelligence means that his opinions were extremely nuanced and it’s quite impossible to capture the entirety of his worldview in a single article. However, one thing is for certain, Tagore was certainly not the ‘secular hero’ the current Bengali elite imagine him to be. If he said the words now that he did then, the stalwart would be immediately labelled as a Hindutva Bigot.
To be fair, certain Left-Liberals maintain their honesty in this respect and do already label him as Islamophobic and a bigot. That is indeed worthy of much more appreciation than the attempts to recast the great man into something he was not. Pitamber Kaushik, in an article published in Countercurrents titled ‘What Did Rabindranath Tagore Think About Islam?’, says “an oft-unnoticed facet of this multiarmed polyglot, is remarkable, that of an undeniable bigot.” He adds, “Albeit Tagore did much to overhaul the exploitative social system and was the harbinger of progressive, modernist thought in Bengal, he was no Namboodripad or Nehru. Averse to the Abrahamic religions, and in spite of all ideological reformist endeavours, Tagore harboured an unmistakably soft spot for Hinduism, his religion of birth and upbringing.”
One certain Saif Khan, writing for the Left-Liberal website Youth ki Awaaz, placed Tagore in the list of ‘Islamophobic Indians‘. And it is further said, “Tagore’s flawed analogy if repeated by a political leader today would earn him the title of being ‘communal’.” Certain Maulanas, too, claim that Tagore’s ideas are being used to spread hatred against Muslims.
Tagore was an extremely complicated man born into an extremely complicated era. Unfortunately enough, he became a victim of the newly minted artificially secular regime’s revisionist project. As a consequence, the enormous complexity of the man was reduced to dull shades of black and white and the grandeur of his achievements was reduced to merely a political tool in the hands of vested interests.
Quite ostensibly, Tagore was not a proponent of the Hindu Right as we understand it today. However, he was certainly not one of the ‘secular intellectual elite’ of today either. More importantly, Tagore’s legacy is not the intellectual property of the current set of deracinated Bengali elite. His music and legacy is cherished by every Indian. When the entire country rises for the National Anthem, they are paying tribute to the nation through a song composed by Tagore. Cultural Icons from the past ought to be celebrated and cherished, to use them as sticks to beat fellow countrymen with is a sheer disgrace.