Legacy of Rabindranath :

Discard the Dead, Uphold the Living

Arindam Sen

(Continued from Liberation May 2011)

“While all others are engaged all the time in a hundred worldly avocations,
You like a truant boy freed from restraints...
Played your flute the livelong day. O ye rise up
Lo, fire has broken out somewhere!
Whose conch is blowing to rouse the world!
Wherefrom the world is filled with sobbing?
Where in the dark dungeon tightly tethered
The helpless is crying for help?”
Written in 1894, these lines from Ebar phirao mor-e (Recall me now) captures the conflict eternal in Rabindranath’s life and personality: between the aasmandari of a fugitive poet, an worshipper of the shantam-shivam-aadyaitam (the tranquil, blissful, indivisible Brahma) and the call of duty heard by a responsible citizen of the strife-torn real world. In this case the immediate provocation came from British imperialists’ heinous attack on the peace-loving Matabele tribe in Africa, but such emotional awakenings would occur time and again. Shankha (The Conch, 1914) for example, according to William Radice, “is a call to a self, a people or even a world that have ignored Krishna’s words, has let his conch -- the symbol of the ‘ideal of fight’ (Religion of Man, p 65), since heroes in Indian epic rally their troops by blowing conches -- lie neglected in the dust.”[1]  In the poem cited above, the author in his youth wakes up to feel the agony of the suffering multitude, and takes a pledge:
                                “To these dull, wan and mute faces
Words are to be fed -- these tired, arid, crumpled breasts
Must respond with hope -- I must call out to them,
‘For a moment you stand united with heads raised high;
That which you dared, that injustice is even more timorous than you;
As you wake up instantly it will flee your presence...’ ”
The honest resolve did not lead to any practical course of action, but love and compassion for the downtrodden -- for women, the socially ostracised and the sab-hara (the utterly destitute) -- remained the mainstay of his artistic creations till the very end. In some of these, for example in plays like Praishchitta (The Redemption, 1908), Muktadhara (The Waterfall, 1922) and Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders, 1926), we see a creative artist’s portrayals of struggle against evil, against the wealthy and the powerful.
The Poet Protests
“Politics [are] wholly against my nature;” wrote Rabindranath in May 1921, “and yet, belonging to an unfortunate country, born to an abnormal situation, we find so difficult to avoid their [sic] outbursts.” [2]  Below we examine his actual role during some of these “outbursts” or explosive situations.
“Brothers will not part”
Robi Thakur was not an organiser of the agitation against partition of Bengal. But the excellent speeches he delivered in a few mass meetings and large indoor assemblies, and the many superb patriotic poems and songs he composed, easily earned him recognition as the greatest inspiration behind the movement. Lines like “Listen, someone is calling forth from the path of the rising Sun: o ye, fear not -- those who will make the supreme sacrifice will attain immortal glory” (Suprovat) directly encouraged the youth of Bengal to walk the path of fire then and in subsequent decades too.
On his proposal a unique form of protest was organised on 16 October 1905, the day Bengal was partitioned by administrative proclamation. A prabhat pheri (morning rally with musical accompaniments) toured the streets of Calcutta swaying to the tunes of the Bande Mataram and a couple of new songs composed by the poet specifically for the occasion. One of these was addressed to the people: “The tighter they bind you in chains, the more quickly will the chains snap” and the other to the British authorities: “You dare try and break the bond created by the Almighty -- are you stronger than Him?” Rabindranath led others in tying the rakhi -- a yellow thread symbolising an inseparable bond of kinship -- on the wrists of one another with a very simple, very touching mantra -- bhai bhai ek thain (Brothers will not part). Every passerby was thus adorned, irrespective of caste and creed, and including even police constables on duty. In the afternoon the foundation stone of a Milan Mandir (Federation Hall, symbolising a federation of the two Bengals) was laid in the presence of an estimated 50,000 people. Here too Robi Babu played a very prominent role.

The conch

“How can we bear to see your conch lying there in the dirt?
The tragedy of it cuts off air and blocks out light.
          Warriors, rise, brandish your banners!
          Singers, get up and sing! Doers,
          Charge into action! Do not falter!
How can we let your inspiring conch stare up at us from the dirt?

I came to the prayer- room with an offering of flowers neatly laid out,
Longing to end my long day ’s labour with heavenly quiet….
What  am I doing with this prayer-lamp, what do I mean by this prayer ?
Must I drop my flowers of peace –weave scarlett garlands of war?...

When I looked to you for rest I received nothing but shame;
But dress me for a battle now, let armour cover each limb
             Let new obstructions chafe and challenge me;
             I shall take all blows and hurts unflinchingly;
             My heart shall drum redress for your injuries;

I shall give all my strength, win back your conch and make it BOOM.”


The great swadeshi movement was not free from shortcomings and in course of time these became more pronounced. Boycott of imported cloth, salt and other necessities of life began to be forcibly imposed on poor people who found the indigenously produced alternatives too costly. Rabindranath had supported and encouraged voluntary boycott of foreign goods in favour of swadeshi once but opposed coercion, which was leading to divisions among the people, even communal clashes. Protesting against such deviations and also against what he considered unproductive and harmful excesses he left the movement towards the end of 1905. Criticising those “who think that mere defiance of the government means the cultivation of atmashakti and self-reliance”, he declared, “if one surrenders oneself to excitement, one loses, if even slightly, one’s vision and has to reap dejection as a consequence. So, I have decided not to join the madness of incendiarism; rather, I would light my little lamp and wait by the roadside as long as I live.” In essays like Sadupaye (An Honest Means, 1908, CW 12) -- and later in the novel Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1916) -- he forcefully argued his points but even those who partly agreed to his reservations, sharply criticised his decision to step aside. Indeed this came as a rude shock to all concerned. Interestingly, even after dissociation from the agitation he wrote a number of highly inspiring poems and songs, among them Namaskar (My Salutation, 1907) addressed to the incarcerated Aurobindo Ghosh, who had sharply criticized the poet only a short while ago for opposing boycott.
Renouncing the title of honour
The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre (13 April, 1919) and other incidents of barbaric police repression in Punjab made Robi Thakur agonised and anxious for more information, since strict censorship made it impossible to know the actual situation in Punjab. In consultation with him, C F Andrews, his closest friend and associate, soon left for Delhi and thence went to Amritsar. He was arrested then and there and sent back to Delhi. He came back to Bengal in the last week of May and told Rabindranath everything he came to know. The latter conferred with friends on how to organise a protest. He had two specific proposals. One was that he and Gandhi should try and visit Punjab in spite of police restrictions. Gandhi rejected the proposal, for he was in no mood to defy the government at that point. The poet personally met CR Das to convey the other proposal: let there be a protest rally in Calcutta to be presided over and addressed by Rabindranath himself. Here too, he was given to understand that if he wanted to do something, he would have to do it all by himself. Dejected and alone, he protested -- the only public figure who could summon the courage to do so -- by renouncing the title of Knighthood (see box for excerpts from his letter to the Viceroy dated 30 may 1919).
Was Robi Thakur right in accepting the title of honour in the first place? The question naturally arose both when the title was conferred on him in 1915 and also after he renounced it. He offered two different explanations on the two occasions. On the first he wrote in a letter to CF Andrews in 1915 that he did not like it but could not refuse the wish personally expressed to him by the then Viceroy Lord Hardinge, for whom he had high respects. In 1926 he declared that he renounced the title solely to express his indignation at the massacre and not to show “contempt for a title of honour which was conferred on me in recognition of my literary work.”[3] Considering all the facts and contexts together, the conclusion becomes inescapable that generally he was for full friendly relations and co-operation with the British government, but would not hesitate to oppose its policies and measures in specific cases.
President of All India Civil Liberties Union
Jallianwalla Bagh was not the first occasion when Rabindranath expressed his concerns for civil liberties. His essays and speeches against the Sedition Bill of 1898 -- e.g., Prasanga Katha (A Relevant Comment) and Kantharodh (The Act of Throttle, both available in CW 12) were much more forceful than the feeble dissension expressed by the then Congress leadership. Similarly, he played a frontal role in the protests against the Defence of India Act (1915) and against the incarceration of the Home Rule Movement leader Annie Besant the same year.
After Jallianwalla Bagh, police repression continued and reached a new peak in the late 1920s and 1930s. Sharat Chandra Chattopadhya’s novel Pother Dabi (The Right Of Way) was proscribed in 1926 and the author requested Robi Babu to issue a statement against the decision. The latter declined straightaway. His logic was that if one chose to stand up against the power of the King, one should have the strength of character to withstand the reprisal; the more so because according to him, compared to other governments in the world the British government was more tolerant about opposition from its subjects! [4]  This was no aberration, nor born of personal grudge against Bengal’s most popular novelist of the time (as some believe to be the case) but a consistent ideological position. It should not be forgotten that Rabindranath did not join the nationwide protest against the death sentences on Bhagat Singh and his comrades. However, he lent his powerful voice to the protests against numerous incidents like the firing at Hijli jail (Medinipore, Bengal, September 1931) the killings in the Andaman cellular jail (May 1933) and in support of the mass hunger strike started by political prisoners in Andaman in July 1937. He was easily the natural choice for the posts of president of the Bengal-based Association for Aid to Political Prisoners of Andaman and also of the All India Civil Liberties Union organized on the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru. His criticism of police atrocities used to be sharp and sincere, but always counterbalanced by appeals to the people for maintaining peace and restrain.

“Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India.... Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the noble vision of statesmanship in our government,... the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when the badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer in degradation not fit for human beings....”

In Support of Striking Workers
The plight of jute growers and jute mill workers in Bengal was for Rabindranath a specific case of “draconian” capitalist exploitation, which came in for sharp condemnation in many of his works. The poem Madho (1937) for example tells the story of a tough and truthful jute mill worker from his childhood days – one who refuses to be a black sheep during a strike. The backdrop to this poem was provided by a prolonged strike by nearly 1, 70, 000 jute workers in Bengal in early 1937. The Fazlul Huq ministry of Bengal took recourse to violent repression and various conspiratorial means to break the strike. Robi Babu issued a press statement on 29 April:
“It has deeply aggrieved me to learn of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of jute workers who have struck work since February last.... the demands for higher wages and for more humane conditions of work are just and reasonable.... May we not expect that the Ministers under the new constitution would take up this question affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and their families immediately and see that justice is done to them. Humanity demands that those who bear the burden of the society should be protected and looked after by the society itself. To give this strike a communal turn by stirring up ugly communal passions, should be condemned by every right-thinking man.
“I appeal to my countrymen to help the jute workers and their helpless women and children in this period of their suffering and distress.”
The Poet and the Congress
Right from the early decades of the Indian National Congress, Rabindranath was engaging it with his own social and political ideas. In keeping with the general culture of the Bengali bhadralok (with a few exceptions like the Thakur Badi) all business in Congress conferences at provincial and lower levels used to be conducted in English. Even mass meetings were addressed in the rulers’ language. This showed that Congress leaders were totally estranged from the people and that whatever they said or wrote were meant for the masters and the political elite alone. Like Bipin Chandra Pal, Robi Babu believed that in the name of India they actually loved Europe. Against their servile mendicancy and empty phrase-mongering he counterposed notions like cultivation of self-respect and nation-building (economic self-help) rather than begging for favours; formulation of a national education policy, based on the mother tongue, for spreading the awakened national consciousness among all sections of the population including women and for cementing bonds of unity; and building up a self-reliant “swadeshi samaj” as an embodiment of swaraj within British India.[5]  Starting with the Bengal Provincial Political Conference (Natore, 1897) he fought relentlessly for the introduction of the mother tongue in Congress conferences; inviting bitter sarcasm and opposition from top leaders. Eventually, when asked to preside over the Pabna conference in 1908, he made history by delivering the president’s address in Bengali.

With the advent of the Gandhi era in Congress politics, Rabindranath’s attitude came to be marked by profound admiration for the “Mahatma’s” spiritual appeal and capacity to awaken the broad masses on one hand and rejection of his agitational programmes as well as his Charkha panacea on the other. Much has been written about the great mutual respect and sharp debates between the two towering personalities; in the space available here we will only mention one episode that throws some light on the poet’s political preferences.

The rise of a Left wing in the Congress since the end of 1920s attracted the poet’s attention and support. The election of Jawaharlal as Congress president in the Lucknow (1936) and Faizpur (1937) Congresses and of Subhas Bose in Haripura Congress (1938) led to a growing conflict with the Gandhian Right. Robi Thakur was particularly impressed with the progressive turn in Congress policies under the stewardship of Bose. Dr. Meghnad Saha met him in Shantiniketan and convinced him that the re-election of Bose was necessary for the continuation and implementation of projects like the National Planning Commission proposed by Bose. On his suggestion Rabindranath wrote to Gandhi and Jawaharlal recommending the re-election of Bose (the Communist Party had already made the same proposal in the 16 October 1938 number of National Front) but to no avail. What Happened in the Tripuri Congress and thereafter is well-known. What needs to be noted is the poet’s open and angry condemnation of the “fascist” attitude of the Congress high command and blind obedience to the “dictator”, coupled with unequivocal and ebullient support to Bose: “on behalf of Bengal I welcome you to the high office of leader of the nation”.[6]

In Part I of this article published in May 2011, please read, in the first line of editorial note – “May 7, 1861” in place of “May 8, 1861”. In endnote no.2, please read “Rabindranath-er” in place of “Rabindranath Thakur-er”.
[1] Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Poems, translated, edited and annotated by William Radice, Penguin Books, 1994 edition, p 144. Comparable poems include Suprovat (The morning deluge,1907) and Rupnarain-er kule (On the bank of Rup-Narain), written less than three months before his death, where the poet says: “I arise, awake:/ this world, I realise/is not a dream./In words writ in blood I saw/my being manifest...”.
[2]  Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p 134
[3]  Cited by Hitendra Mitra, Tagore Without Illusions, Sanyal Prakashan, Kolkata, 1983, pp 154 -- 55
[4]  See Rabindrajbani by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya, Visva Bharati, volume 3, p 269
[5]  To study the evolution of these ideas, see shikshar her fer (Variations in Education) and ingrej o bharatbasi (the English and the Indians) both written in 1892-93 and “swadeshi samaj” (1904).

[6]  Gandhi allowed his supporters to address him as dictator and the clear allusion to Hitler and Mussolini was strongly criticised by Rabindranath in the essay Congress (1939). The quote is from Deshnaik (Leader of the Nation (1939). Both are available in CW volume 13.