Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXIIby Nurul Kabir
Rabindranath Tagore was born into Brahmaism, a monotheistic belief system within the fold of traditional Hinduism. However, he was never a typical Brahma, let alone a typical Hindu. He was, as the poems of his Gitanjali and other theological writings suggest, a believer — a believer in a pervasive impersonal God, to whom he was ever ready to surrender, in his own special way. But he never believed in any religious dogma, nor was he a practising Hindu in the conventional sense. On top of it all, he was not a communalist person. Tagore has written volumes on the need for harmony between Hindus and Muslims of Bengal for the greater interest of the country and, on many occasions, blamed the parochiality of the Hindu elite for creating a distance with the Muslim society.
Tagore, who deemed it a duty to strengthen the Hindu-Muslim unity, wrote in 1895: ‘We have a great duty to discharge — the duty of strengthening the Hindu-Muslim friendship. There is no doubt that there had been cordial relations between the Hindus and the Muslims of Bengal. In Bengal, the Muslims are greater in number, while the two communities have always maintained a good-neighbourly relationship. But the relation has started getting loose these days. … Hindutva is finding jingoistic expression in the behaviour of the educated sections [of the Hindu community]…For no reason the Muslims are often contemptuously treated in novels, plays, newspapers and periodicals. Many Muslims are learning Bangla and writing in Bangla these days. It is, therefore, only natural that the two sides have now been engaged in the tit-for-tat exercise.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Hindu O Mussalman’, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 17, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 706]
Many young educated Muslim writers from East Bengal enjoyed Tagore’s deep affection, some of them being, as their own recollections clearly suggest, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Kazi Abdul Odud, Syed Mujtaba Ali and Jasimuddin. In a letter to one MA Azam, a Bengali Muslim, Tagore wrote in 1934, ‘Neither in my nature, nor in my behaviour, there is any difference between Hindus and Muslims. I get equally ashamed and enraged by the harassment of either of the sides, and find it ignominious for the entire country.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 16, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 457] In another letter to one Altaf Chowdhury the same year, Tagore wrote, ‘There can be no worse barbarism than the one manifested in the prevalent efforts to distort the [Bangla] language and literature on the basis of communal considerations. This is something like setting fire on the family house for grievances against the brother.’[ibid, p 458]
Besides, what is less known about Tagore is that he had a large number of ordinary admirers, male and female, in the educated Muslim societies of Bengal and often took the trouble of writing back to them in acknowledgement of their admiration. In one such case, on a written request from an admiring unknown young Muslim ayurved, Tagore suggested a ‘name’ for the Aurvedic pharmacy that the former had been planning to open in Kolkata. In his letter to the young Muslim ayurved, Abdul Bari Chowdhury, on August 23, 1940, Tagore suggested that the pharmacy be named Bhoishajja Bhaban. [Bhuiyan Iqbal, Rabindranath O Muslim Samaj (Rabindranath and Muslim Society), Second edition, Prathama Prakashan, Dhaka, 2012, p 283]
Yet, regardless of his otherwise non-communal credential, Tagore actively supported the Hindu elite when they took to the street against the administrative division of Bengal to the advantage of the Muslim majority East Bengal in 1905. Politically guided by the Indian National Congress, the sole purpose of the movement for the annulment of the division was to protect the political and material interests of the Kolkata-based Hindu elite. In order to mobilise public opinion against the creation of the new East Bengal province, Tagore composed couplets with the suggestion that the Muslims and Hindus of both Eastern and Western Bengals are brothers, that there is no difference between them, and that they belong to one indivisible Bengal. Besides, he introduced tying of rakhi in the hands of Hindus and Muslims alike in a symbolic cultural gesture of forging political unity between the two communities with the view to keeping the Bengal united. Thanks to the agitation, the division of Bengal was annulled in 1911, which obviously upset the educated sections of Bengali Muslims.
Under the circumstance, one might legitimately ask why Tagore had actively taken the side of the self-seeking Hindu elite in the latter’s efforts to undo the partition of Bengal in 1905 that benefited the Muslims of Bengal. True, most of the Kolkata-based rich Hindus having zamindari estates in East Bengal, as did Tagore’s family, had opposed the partition, but to say that Tagore stood for the annulment to protect the material interest of his family would be too harsh, for he himself had once said that he loved asmandari, poetic imagination in other words, more than looking after zamindari.
The most rational explanation, even if a little charitable, for Tagore’s political stance against the interest of the Muslims of East Bengal could be that he, at that point of Bengal’s history, sincerely believed in a broad-based ‘Bengali nationalism’, comprising Bangla-speaking Hindus and Muslims of both Eastern and Western Bengals and, therefore, politically preached the political project of a united Bengal.
Tagore, however, eventually revised his thesis of the eternal Hindu-Muslim brotherhood of Bengal. In an article, ‘Baydhi O Pratikar’, in 1907, Tagore wrote: ‘There is no point in telling lies anymore. We must now admit that there is a contradiction between the Hindus and the Muslims [of Bengal]. We are not only different from each other, we are also opposed to each other.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, in Bhuiyan Iqbal, Rabindranath O Muslim Samaj (Rabindranath and Muslim Society), Second edition, Prathama Prakashan, Dhaka, 2012, p 217] In the same article, he primarily blamed the elitist attitude of the Kolkata-based educated Hindus towards the rural Muslims of East Bengal for the mistrust between the two communities.
Based on his empirical observations of the later years, Tagore finally realised that there were historical, social and cultural differences, and, therefore, conflicts of interests, between the two populaces of Bengal in general and its two religious communities in particular. He articulated his new realisation in November 1938, when he wrote in an essay on Bangla: ‘The history of Bengal is one of divisiveness. The East Bengal-West Bengal … divide is not a mere geographical one, with it was associated the inherent emotional division. Dissimilarity of societies was also there. It is only the language, which has still kept the unity going. That we are called Bengalis is only because of the fact that we speak Bangla.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Banglabhasha-Parichay’, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 13, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 582]
Tagore still did not realise that the part of his revised thesis that Bangla was serving like a bridge between the ‘two societies’ of East and West Bengals, Muslim and Hindu societies, was unfounded. Tagore either failed to notice, or refused to admit, that Bangla itself had already got divided into two varieties — one Sanskritised which came to be identified with the Hindu community and the other Arabicised-Persianised that came to be identified with Muslim community. Besides, the contents of Bangla literary works by Hindu and Muslim writers created a big wall between the two communities that substantially contributed to the political division and subsequent geographical bifurcation of Bengal, while Tagore himself had a role, conscious or subconscious, in causing the linguistic and literary division.
There can be no doubt that Tagore played the greatest role in enriching Bangla language and literature. Sukumar Sen rightly remarks that ‘Rabindranath [Tagore] has single-handedly infused so much strength, and generated so much potential, into Bangla that no other single writer of the world has been able to do so to any language on earth.’ [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahityer Itihas (History of Bangla Literature), Third Volume, Seventh Print, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1416 Bangla calendar, p 124]
Despite his matchless contribution to the development of Bangla language and literature, Tagore contributed in more ways than one to divide the language into two varieties — of the Hindu variety and of the Muslim one — by way of avoiding, by and large, in his literary works the words of Arabic and Persian origin used in the daily life of the Muslims of Bengal in the first place.
It is true that Tagore was not dead against the use of the words of Arabic and Persian origin, as some of his important Hindu predecessors were, but he had chosen to leave the job to the Muslim literary practitioners of Bengal.
In response to a letter from Abul Fazal (1903-1983), a Muslim prose writer from East Bengal, Tagore wrote in September 1941 that ‘the powerful Muslim writers have not adequately described in Bangla literature the Muslim lifestyle…Bangla literature would not be affected, if, in the course of depicting the Muslim lifestyle, the words used in the daily lives of the Muslim society naturally enters Bangla. The effort would rather enrich the literature.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindrnath Thakur), Vol 16, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, p 459. Also see, ‘Bangla Bhashai Arbi-Farsi Shabda: Rabindranath O Abul Fazaler Patralap’ (Arabic and Persian words in Bangla: Exchange of letters between Rabindranath and Abul Fazal, in Mahabub Ullah (ed.), op-cit, p 1258.] It is common knowledge among the educated sections of the Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, that Tagore, like most Hindu writers, did not make any ‘effort’ to ‘depict’ the ‘lifestyle’ of the ‘Muslim society’ to ‘enrich the [Bangla] literature’. Consequently, Tagore’s literary works do not contain much of the Bangla words of Arabic and Persian origin used in the daily life of the millions of Bengali Muslims.
Tagore’s reluctance to depict the Muslim society in his volumes of literary works did not go unnoticed by the educated sections of the Muslim society in the 19th and 20th century; it continued to trouble the minds of many great Muslim admirers of Tagore in the 21st century — Ahmad Sofa being a notable example.
Ahmed Sofa believed ‘Rabindranath [Tagore] was the greatest of Indians, after Gautama Buddha’. [Ahmed Sofa, ‘Jibita Thakle Rabindranathkei Jiggesh Kortam’ (I would have directly asked Rabindranath, had he been alive), in Morshed Shafiul Hasan (ed.), Ahmad Sofa: Nirbachita Prabandha, (Selected essays of Ahmed Sofa), Maola Brothers, Dhaka, 2002, p 166] Still, Sofa had a question for Tagore — why he did not write a ‘complete short story or a novel’ about his Muslim tenants of East Bengal. Sofa writes: ‘If I could meet Rabindranath, first I would have shown my respect by touching his feet, and then I would have very politely said, “I want to own you completely, but unfortunately I cannot, for you have not been able to display the magnanimity of writing a complete story about my society, the society of Bengali Muslims that is.” I would have also asked the great poetic genius, “Can you deny that it is the toiling Muslim peasants who have provided foods for your entire family? Couldn’t you recognise their labour by way of writing a single short story on them?”’ [ibid, p 167] Understandably, Sofa could not ask the question directly to Tagore, for Tagore had died in 1941 Kolkata before Sofa was born in Chittagong in 1943.
Tagore, when alive, did face the same question from his Muslim admirers of East Bengal. In response to a letter from Tagore, Abul Fazal politely complained in September 1941 that the ‘lives of the Muslim tenants’ of Tagore’s Zamindari estate at Shilaidaha of East Bengal, where he wrote the ‘wonderful short stories’ of the Galapaguccha, ‘could not become any component’ of his ‘literary exercise’, although the Muslim tenants held Tagore ‘in high esteem’. [See, ‘Bangla Bhashai Arbi-Farsi Shabda: Rabindranath O Abul Fazaler Patralap’ (Arabic and Persian words in the Bangla language: Exchange of letters between Rabindranath and Abul Fazal), in Mahabub Ullah (ed.), op-cit, p 1258.] Tagore did not reply to the letter. Did he have one? Notably, three volumes of Tagore’s Galapaguccha contains as many as 84 short stories written between 1884 and 1933, of which only five stories contains Muslim characters, while another story just mentions about the Muslims. However, in the short stories in question, Tagore ‘did not project the Muslims’, as Professor Mohammad Maniruzzaman rightly points out, ‘in any adverse manner’, ‘as did many a Hindu nationalist writer of the 19th century [Bengal]’. [Mohammad Maniruzzaman, Adhunik Bangla Sahitya (Modern Bangla literature), Bangla Academy, Dhaka, First reprint of the third edition in 1993, pp 82-83]
To be continued
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