Former East Pakistan’s Tagore problem : A short history
HnExpress Mayank Chakravarty, Kolkata : Rabindranath Tagore, the most distinguished literary personality of the Bangali across the globe. As Shakespeare is in English,Victor Hugo in French, Goethe in German, Dante in Italian, Tolstoy in Russian, Ghalib in Urdu, Ferdousi in Persian, Kalidasa in Sanskrit—so is Rabindranath in Bengali and in Bangladesh. But it will be intresting to Know how He has been viewed throughout history in Colonial East Bengal, East Pakistan and Later Bangladesh.
Throughout decades Bengali Muslim’s attitude towards Tagore suspended between embracing and denouncing, claiming and disclaiming, loving and Hating. Tagore’s connection with land we call Bangladesh today : Tagore’s sojourn in East Bengal began in 1890 with his coming over here to look after his paternal estate spread over three places— Shelaidah of Kushtia, Sahzadpur of Pabna and Patisar of Natore. In the exotic green fields and on the floating boats.
He discharged his official duties towards the naïve tenants as a benevolent zamindar and devoted himself to writing in profusion. He came in touch with the folk singer Gagan Harkara through whom he gained access to the esoteric world of Fakir Lalon Sain’s baul music that he later popularized. This period from 1891 to 1895 has been called ‘Sadhana period’ which was named after the name of one of his magazines, and Tagore himself admitted that it was ‘the most productive period’ in his literary life, and he ‘enjoyed the greatest freedom [his] life has ever known’.
During this period he wrote a large number of poems, stories, essays and letters. More than half of the stories of Galpaguchchha were written at that time which depicted the people of East Bengal living in grinding poverty. Selected extracts from the letterswritten during his stay in three places of Bangladesh Shelaidah, Shahzadpur and Patishar were translated into English and published in a book titled Glimpses of Bengal. They testify to his feeling about the beauty of nature in East Bengal along with her people and culture.
Tagore and Bengali Muslims : However, Tagore was not always the household name that he has now become in Bangladesh. Muslims viewed Tagore with suspicion. Tagore was the poet of the Hindus. His language, beautiful as it was, drew more on the Sanskritic linguistic tradition than on the Arabic and Farsi influences that Bengali had imbibed over the centuries. Tagore was one of the first to see the conflict of interests between the Hindu landowning class that led the movement and the Muslim masses who populated the East Bengal countryside.
He developed this theme in his 1916 novel Ghare Baire, The Home and the World, which Satyajit Ray later turned into a movie. He also saw through the hypocrisy of Hindu leaders (more often than not with landed interests in East Bengal but with residences in Calcutta, now Kolkata) who were suddenly keen to find allies among the Muslim masses whom they had hitherto held in barely disguised contempt.
Tagore in East Pakistan : This situation began to change rapidly almost immediately after 1947. Chafing at the colonial fetters imposed by West Pakistan and bridling at the regime’s officially sanctioned linguistic chauvinism, the Bengalis of East Pakistan, began to carve out a new linguistic nationalism. Tagore and his songs became iconic of this struggle, The passions of the language movement of 1952, which resisted the government’s attempt to impose Urdu as the official language, created for Tagore a permanent home in the hearts of Bengali Muslims that he has not lost since.
Actually When Partition became inevitable, most educated Hindus from eastern Bengal decided to cut their losses and move to Calcutta and other parts of western Bengal. This large-scale migration caused an emptying out of teaching staff in schools and colleges, judicial officers in courts and officials in government departments. Bengali Muslim society had no choice but to rise to the occasion and step in to fill the vacancies, making the best use of existing intellectual skills and acquiring more along the way. It was this newly vibrant society that embraced the legacy of Tagore and made it its own.
The Pakistan central government saw Tagore as an obstacle to the unity of a Muslim nation. A classic example is the debate which unfolded in 1961 on the occasion of the birth centenary of Tagore. When three committees of Bengali intellectuals and writers from Dhaka University and journalists of the Dhaka Press Club, were set to celebrate Tagore’s birthday, the then Pakistani Intelligence Agency accused them of receiving funding from India.The government-backed national daily, including Azad, attacked Tagore vehemently through editorials, articles and letters to the editor on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
Major allegations against Tagore included : ‘Tagore as a dreamer of Hindu India, a communalist, a writer who denigrated Muslims and whose ideal was antipathetic to the concept of Pakistan’. The newspaper argued that the ‘move to hold the centenary celebrations is a conspiracy to unite the two Bengals, strike at the basis of Pakistan’s ideals, and endanger the distinctive cultural life of its people.’ Furthermore, during the war between India and Pakistan in 1965, Radio Pakistan and Dhaka Television stopped broadcasting Tagore’s work as it fell under the category of ‘Indian origin’.
In June 1967, the then information minister of Pakistan announced that Pakistan’s electronic media had been directed to stop any of Tagore’s songs opposed to Pakistan’s ideals. Islamic scholars (Ulemas) too supported the Pakistan government in this regard. They argued, ‘Tagore’s song should have been banned from the media from the very day Pakistan was established’. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Six Point Movement for East Pakistan, which commenced in 1966 following the Bengali Language Movement of 1952 and demanded greater political autonomy,
coincided with a burgeoning cultural pride among the Bengalis centered on Rabindra Nath Tagore. By that time, Bengali culture and language had become anathema to the Pakistani state, leading the then Governor of East Pakistan Monem Khan to ban the Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore Songs) from being played on television and radios on the basis that “Bengali was a “non- Muslim” language and a carrier of ‘cultural domination’ by Calcutta”.