Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Literary, Political

Tagore and Bengali Identity

If there is one person who embodies Bengal, Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore.

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Bangladesh was liberated from the yoke of Pakistan in 1971 as the land of Bangla (বাংলা) speaking people; not as an outpost of alien culture of Pakistan or Middle East. What started as the language movement, following the brutal killing of university students in 1952 demanding Bengali as a national language, eventually turned into ‘linguistic nationalism’ that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh.

For long 24 years, from 1947 to 1971, Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language of Pakistan and obliterate Bengali language and Bengali culture from the indigenous population of the then East Pakistan. The leaders of Pakistan implanted and patronised Islamism in East Pakistan and that helped to evolve Razakar, al-Badr and many other factions of Islamist organisations during the liberation war not only to defeat the nationalist movement but also to wipe out Bengali-ness among the people. But they failed. These Razakars changed their guise, but maintained their ‘Muslim-ness’ as an opposition force against the dominant cultural identity of the people in post-independent Bangladesh.

The ‘Muslim’ identity people might have retreated temporarily following the defeat of their patron, Pakistan, but they were not beaten. They kept reappearing, as and when opportunity arose, to undermine Bengali language and culture. The other arm of their strategy is to propagate Islamic culture as a replacement of Bengali culture. The proliferation of ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’ and ‘burqa’ among Bangladeshi women, the trend of inserting adjuncts like ‘bin’ or ‘bint’ (for men and women respectively) in names, increasing use of Arabic words replacing common Bengali words, all testify cultural invasion under the guise of religion.

This twin strategy of undermining Bengali language and culture, and the import of alien culture had become apparent during the period of military rules in Bangladesh from 1975 to 1992 and then whenever Islamic-oriented political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), often supported by the more overtly Islamist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islam, came to power. Of late, in anticipation of the BNP coming to power in the forthcoming national election at the end of this year, these ‘Muslim’ identity people at the behest of BNP are gearing up and attacking Bengali language and culture.

Although, Willem van Schendel in his book ‘A History of Bangladesh’ identified two competing identity groups distinguishing them as (i) “Bengali-ness” that upholds Bangladesh as the homeland for Bengalis and embraces linguistic community of Tagore, Nazrul, Bankim, Madhushudan, Jasimuddin, Jibanananda Das, Sarat Chandra, Golam Mostafa and so forth and (ii) “Bangladeshi-ness” which takes the view that Bangladesh is, in effect, a logical outcome of Pakistan and the homeland of Muslim Bengal. As, the argument goes, without Pakistan, Bangladesh would not have come into existence and hence Bangladesh remains Muslim and it is ‘overwhelmingly and essentially Muslim’. (They conveniently forget or ignore the fact that during the liberation struggle they did everything to stop Bangladesh coming into existence and now they are claiming it to be Muslim Bangladesh!)

This second group, despite Schendel’s branding it as “Bangladeshi-ness”, is a misnomer and gross misrepresentation. It should rightly be put under “Muslim-ness”, as they put Muslim as their prime identity and their country affiliation comes far below. They accept disgruntledly Bengali as the national language, but many of them would happily accept Urdu as the national language, which conforms to their Muslim identity. They are, in effect, the remnants of the Pakistani period.

Bengali is one of the richest languages in the world. It is the direct descendant of Sanskrit, which is a Proto Indo-European language that has evolved over four millennia. That is why one can find similarities and resemblances between many Bengali words and Italian, English and Cyrillic words.

Of all the Bengali litterateurs, the person that stands out head and shoulder above the rest is Rabindranath Tagore, who was the poet, essayist, novelist, song writer and composer, playwright, philosopher and educationist. He was simply a literary giant not only in India but also in the whole world. He was the only person from Indian subcontinent who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) and his songs are sung as national anthems in two sovereign States – India and Bangladesh.

If there is one person who embodies Bengal and Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore. Although he was born in Kolkata, his ancestors were from Jessore in Bangladesh. Tagore married Mrinalini Devi who hailed from Khulna. Tagore spent more than two decades looking after the zamindari in the then East Bengal and spent extended periods in Shelaidah, Kushtia and Shahjadpur, Pabna and Petishar, Rajshahi. His poetic genius, his philosophy, his perception of life were all moulded by everyday lives of people in this part of East Bengal. He wrote many famous poems, songs, short stories while he was in the houseboat (called Padma) in Shelaidah and Shahjadpur. The most famous book of poems ‘Sonar Tari’ ( সোনার তরী) (The Golden Boat) was written in those days. He gave poetic expressions to occasions such as Bengali New Year (বাংলা নববর্ষ), welcoming rainy season (বর্ষাবরণ), spring festival (বসন্ত উৎসব) and so on that ripple through the hearts and minds of Bengali people the world over.

Tagore felt very strongly for the plight of his poor Muslim tenants (প্রজা). One such occasion that had been narrated by Krisna Dutta like this: When he called a meeting of his tenants one afternoon, he noticed that Hindu tenants were sitting on mattresses and poor Muslim tenants were sitting on grass farther apart. He was cross at this segregation and asked his tenants that everyone must sit together on mattresses; if there were not enough space in the mattresses, everyone must sit on the grass. Quite often he would relieve his poor Muslim tenants of taxes and that did not endear him to his father, Debendranath Tagore.

There is a concerted move by the ‘Muslim’ identity people – the Islamists and Islamist sympathisers – to denigrate Tagore by egregious falsification and trumped up stories. They branded Tagore as a plagiarist, a second-rate poet who attained fame only by British patronising. Needless to say, any attempt to counter such grossly egregious allegations is like going into the dirty gutters with them.

Also, it had been said by those bigots that Tagore was anti-Muslim as, they assert, he wrote a number of poems praising Hindu culture and Hindu religion; he wrote none for Islam. That is quite frankly utterly ridiculous. As a Hindu (in fact he was a follower of Brahmo sect), it was quite natural that he would write about these religions; that does not imply that he was against Islam or Jain or Buddhism. Did he write anything against Islam? No. No. So, how on earth, could he be called an anti-Muslim or racist?

Only one point that merits addressing here is that he had been accused of opposing the foundation of Dhaka University. He might have opposed it initially on economic grounds. It is also possible that he was not enthusiastic about it as he was in the process of setting up his own university at that time, which came into existence the same year that Dhaka university did. But, later on, he supported the Dhaka University when adequate financial provisions were made. He could not have opposed it strongly, as brazen Islamists claim, on grounds of race or religion, because in East Bengal in those days overwhelmingly large fraction (between 70 to 75%) of educated people primed to go to the university were Hindus. So, Tagore’s opposition to Dhaka University would have affected predominantly Hindus. The problem with semi-literate Islamists is that they think that he opposed Dhaka University because it was in Muslim-Bangladesh! How ridiculous!

Syed Abul Maksud in his book ‘Purabange Rabindranath’ (পূর্ববঙ্গে রবীন্দ্রনাথ ) (Rabindranath in East Bengal) stated that Tagore had cordial relations with Muslims in East Bengal. The Muslim aristocrat of Dhaka, Nawab Sir Salimullah “paid rich tributes to the greatest poetical genius of modern India” in a meeting organized in the city on 26 November 1912 to celebrate his Nobel Prize award. Maksud also pointed out that Tagore was given a very enthusiastic reception by the Salimullah Muslim Hall Students’ Union of the University of Dhaka on the 10th of February, 1926 during his second and last visit to Dhaka. It may be pointed out that Dhaka University was founded only five years previously. (If Tagore had opposed it, then SM Hall students’ Union was probably unaware of it and now nearly 100 years later the brazen Islamists had found it out!) It should also be pointed out that the University of Dhaka awarded Tagore an honorary doctorate in 1936.

To say that Tagore had opposed Dhaka university is totally disingenuous and dishonest. Also, the accusation that he was against Muslims has racist connotation. The ‘Muslim’ identity people are hell-bent on carrying out character assassination of Tagore and thereby undermine the very essence of ‘Bengali’ identity of the Bangladeshi people. The sooner these clandestine agents doing Pakistan’s bidding for ‘Muslim-ness’ are exposed, the better it is for the country.


A. Rahman is an author and a columnist