Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) lived through a very turbulent phase in Indian and world history – the period when British Raj attained the peak of its colonial power and exercised most brutal authority in India, the period when Bengal (the state which allowed the first foothold of British merchants in India at the beginning of 18th century) was partitioned off and then annulled, the period of two world wars and the period which saw the rise of unstoppable swadeshi (self-rule) movement.
A poet, a novelist, a litterateur, an artist, a reformer, in short, a myriad of a man, Rabindranath Tagore lived and died in the thick of actions. He not only advanced Bengali language and culture to the world scene but also gave Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims alike – their self-esteem, identity and cultural heritage. His songs are used as national anthems in India as well as in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s national anthem drew inspirations from his song.
However, a large section of Bangladeshi die-hard Muslims with the mind-set of Pakistani religious antagonism towards Hindus had been sniping at Tagore ever since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The allegations ranged from Rabindranath being communal and anti-Muslims, citing that he opposed the partition of Bengal to deny the Muslims a separate homeland and he opposed setting up of Dhaka University etc. All of these allegations were egregious and conjecture of bigoted minds.
Many Bengali Muslims who lay such allegations on Rabindranath quote Major General (Retd) M A Matin’s book called ‘Amader Swadhinata Sangramer Dharabahikata ebong Prasangik kicchu Katha (Chronology of our freedom struggle and some associated discussions) published by Ahmad Publishing House, Dhaka in 2000. The Retd. Army Officer placed most of his allegations on heresy without any substantiation or corroboration and packaged such opinions as statement of facts!
The author, M A Matin, implied throughout the book that Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and hence anti-Muslim and that was why he opposed the partition of Bengal. As a further proof of his anti-Muslim character, he was stated to have opposed the setting up of Dacca (now Dhaka) University.
Let us look at the points whether Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and anti-Muslim or not and the reason for his opposition to the partition of Bengal. And then I would look into his attitude towards Dhaka University.
If one looks into Tagore’s ancestry over the last few centuries, one would find that Tagore’s Brahmin clan, who hailed from Jessore, had long and close association with Muslims. Two Brahmin Tagore brothers in Jessore were close to Mohammad Tahir Pir Ali, the wazir of the governor of Jessore, who himself was a Brahmin but converted to Islam for matrimonial and financial reasons. Tahir Pir Ali made Tagore brothers smell and eventually eat meat (probably beef) and because of that event the brothers had been expelled from the orthodox Brahmin sect. However, their whole family remained Brahmins and the brothers were ostracised as ‘Pirali Brahmins’ (Ref: Rabindranath Tagore, The myriad-minded man by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Bloomsbury Publishing, UK).
These two brothers (Pirali Brahmins) eventually left Jessore due possibly to social discord and moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata). One of these two brothers’ descendants – two brothers – Darpanarayan settled at Pathuriaghat (whose descendant includes Sharmila Tagore) and Nilmoni (the great-great-grandfather of Rabindranath) settled at Jorasanko. His descendant, Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, a flamboyant zamindar, and his son Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father, started the Brahmo Samaj, which was a sort of philosophical belief more akin to Buddhism and animism. Now, to allege Rabindranath Tagore, a Pirali Brahmin, was an orthodox Brahmin and anti-Muslim would be very much off the mark. Rabindranath published a book called ‘Religion of Man’ which propounded a religion embodying humanity, a religion of human consciousness merging into the limitless creation – shimar majhe ashim tumi. Rabindranath Tagore’s own description of his family as depicted in ‘The Religion of Man’ was, “The unconventional code of life for our family has been a confluence of three cultures, the Hindu, Mohammedan and British”.
In his writings, Rabindranath always showed empathy with the Muslims. In his novel called ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and the World), the main character, a Hindu zamindar, stated quite boldly that he would not condone Swadeshi activities if it meant hurting his Muslim subjects – those people were abject poor people, they did not have the luxury of boycotting foreign goods and lose their living. As the story goes, the zamindar gave up his own life when he went to protect his Muslim subjects in the thick of Hindu-Muslim riot. Rabindranath was roundly criticised for such narratives.
It is beyond dispute that Rabindranath opposed the partition of Bengal, not because he wanted to deny the Muslims a separate homeland but because he wanted Hindus and Muslims live together in amity and harmony, as they had been doing for centuries. Moreover, it was quite natural for the Tagore clan to oppose partition, because Tagore’s roots were in East Bengal – Tagore’s zamindari was in Shilaidaha (Kushtia), Rabindranath’s wife was from Jessore (now in the district of Khulna) (Jessore and Khulna were in one district called Jessore until 1892. Rabindranath’s wife, Mrinalini was from Khulna, Ref. Islam o Rabindranath Anyanya Prasanga, by Amitabh Chowdhury, ISBN No. 81-7293-188-3) and the Tagore family maintained close ties with their ancestral home ever since they moved to Kolkata. The partition would deprive Tagore family of its roots. The partition of Bengal was implemented on October 16, 1905. On the day of partition, Rabindranath peacefully and in a friendly gesture initiated the Rakhibandhan (the tying of Rakhi, meaning friendship). The partition was, however, annulled in December 12, 1911.
The very stipulation that the proposed partition of East Bengal would provide a homeland for the Muslims was ludicrous and bog-headed in those days. Those brain-washed Muslims who propagate this view of separate homeland for Muslims are trying to backfit 1940s events (demand for Pakistan) back into the 1900s to tarnish Rabindranath’s character for opposing the partition.
It was stated in MA Matin’s above mentioned book that on March 28, 1912 a huge meeting was organised at Garer Math, Kolkata to protest against the proposed setting-up of Dhaka University and that meeting was presided over by Rabindranath Tagore. Afterwards a delegation of top-level Hindu leaders went to meet Lord Hardinge, the then Viceroy of India, and warned him that the establishment of Dhaka University would face the similar fate to the partition of Bengal. However, there were no reference or corroboration of Rabindranath’s attendance in Garer Math meeting in MA Matin’s book; simply his unsubstantiated assertion. AZM Abdul Ali, editorial board member of literary magazine ‘Kali o Kolom’, in an article immediately after the publication of MA Matin’s book disputed the statement that Rabindranath attended the meeting and asked MA Matin to provide reference or source of his information, but there was no reply!
An article by Asahabur Rahman in Dhaka Tribune on May 16, 2018 stated that a search in Tagore archives showed that on March 28, 1912 Rabindranath was at Shilaidaha. He left Kolkata on March 24 and stayed at Shilaidaha until April 12 recuperating from his illness. However, he composed 17 poems and songs during those days and, as he usually put the date and name of the place where he composed a piece, he put Shilaidaha as the place where those pieces were composed during that period. So, how could Rabindranath be in Kolkata on March 28, as the MA Matin asserted?
The Dhaka University was established on the basis of recommendations made by the Nathan Commission, appointed by the government of Bengal, on May 27, 1912. However, due to the outbreak of WW1 (Aug 1914 – Nov 1918), the Commission recommendations were shelved and then nearer the end of the war, the government of India established another Commission -the Saddler Commission – in November 1917 to look into that outstanding matter. On the basis of positive recommendation by the Saddler Commission in March 1919, Dhaka University was eventually established in 1921.
Rabindranath visited Dhaka in February 1926 as a guest of Nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Habibullah. He was given three receptions by the Dhaka University – two were organised by the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) held at the Curzon Hall and the other at Salimullah Muslim Hall (S M Hall) organised by the students of the Hall. If Tagore had been against the establishment of Dhaka University, it was highly unlikely that within five years the students of the university would forget all about his opposition and extend warm welcome and give cordial receptions by the Muslim and Hindu students alike! In addition, various institutions and organisations in Dhaka such as the Jagannath College, Dhaka Collegiate School, Hindu-Muslim Seba Sangha, Dhaka Municipality, Peoples’ Association etc organised special receptions for him.
So, where is the evidence of Tagore’s opposition to the establishment of Dhaka University? MA Matin made the allegations against Tagore without any foundation, without any evidence. Professor Rafiqul Islam of Dhaka University wrote a book entitled Dhaka Bisshobidyaloyer Ashi Bochor based on his long research. His findings didn’t support MA Matin’s assertions at all. Some of the Bengali Muslim writers, now and in the recent past, blinded by Islamic zeal tied up Tagore’s opposition to Bengal partition (which he opposed in order to maintain communal harmony) and fabricated Tagore’s opposition to the Dhaka University to make up a well-rounded story of Tagore’s anti-Muslimness! It is a classic case of joining up a lie with a truth and packaging the whole thing as truth!
– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.