POLITICS

Two Long-Dead Bengalis Are The Scapegoats Of The Latest Debate On Nationalism

Cherchez la Bengali indeed.

27/07/2017 12:17 PM IST | Updated 27/07/2017 12:17 PM IST
Jayanta Shaw / Reuters
Indian students decorate the front of a photograph of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore with flowers during celebrations of his 145th birth anniversary in Kolkata May 9, 2006.

As a Bengali I apologize. It seems that when it comes to the nation's many headaches these days, more often than not there's a Bengali to blame. And it's not Didi. Even long-dead Bengalis are a nuisance.

Cherchez la Bengali indeed. On one hand there's Rabindranath Tagore, Noble laureate and eternal troublemaker.

The Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas (SSUN), an educational activism organization founded and headed by Dinanath Batra, wants a bit of Tagore removed from schoolbooks shaping impressionable minds.

The offending bit is about Tagore's view that humanism is above nationalism. The textbook says, "Rabindranath Tagore held humanity above everything. Religion has become an explosive issue. But fanaticism and radicalism have to be eliminated in order to ensure stability."

"Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live."

But these days nationalism is the flavour of the season. Thus a vice chancellor wants a tank in the middle of Jawaharlal Nehru University to instill patriotism at gunpoint as it were in the minds of seditious students. "The presence of the tank will remain thousands of students about the great sacrifices and valour of the Indian army," said vice chancellor Jagadesh Kumar.

And now the Madras High Court has decreed that Vande Mataram, the national song, should be sung in all schools and colleges across Tamil Nadu at least once a week and in government and private offices at least once a month. Younger minds obviously need more nationalism refreshers than babus.

Justice M V Muralidharan said it was "considering the larger public interest and to instill a sense of patriotism in every citizen". He worried that in these fast-paced times "sometimes we forget our nation" but "patriotism is an essential requirement for every citizen of this country."

But if you delve a little deeper into this order you will find that once again a Bengali is to blame.

An individual named K Veeramani failed to make a Teacher's Board Recruitment test by one mark. In response to the question: "In which language was Vande Mataram written first?" Veeramani had answered "Bengali". The song, of course, was penned by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee of Ananda Math fame.

The answer was marked wrong. The government said the correct answer should have been Sanskrit. Veeramani challenged the ruling. Finally the Advocate-General admitted while the song's origin was Sanskrit, it was indeed written in Bengali.

The Bong connection struck again.

Veeramani made the list. That should have been the end of the story.

But the Madras High Court in a burst of judicial enthusiasm decided that was an excellent opportunity to do some Vande Mataram proselytization, an issue which is anyway pending before the Supreme Court. It will hear a demand that singing the national song become mandatory in schools, Parliament, state assemblies, public offices and courts.

Now whether this becomes a backdoor way to de facto privilege Vande Mataram, a song the RSS approves of, over Jana Gana Mana, a song about which there is much suspicion is a different matter altogether. RSS general secretary Bhaiyyaji Joshi has said that while both songs should be respected "if one considers the true meaning, then Vande Mataram is the national anthem."

The tussle between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana in the race to become national anthem is well known and documented here. Incidentally, the person who first recited Vande Mataram at an Indian National Congress convention was Tagore. As far as Bengali asmita goes it's Bong vs Bong.

What we are seeing over and over again is this idea that patriotism is not something that wells up from inside us but something that must be imposed from outside.

But let's leave the Jana Gana versus Vande Mataram debate aside. What we are seeing over and over again is this idea that patriotism is not something that wells up from inside us but something that must be imposed from outside. In a way it's a profound lack of faith in the country, oddly at a time when a nationalist party is solidly at the helm. There cannot be anything quiet about patriotism. It must be performed in schools, movie theatres and parliament, like a Bengali child in elocution class. The props of patriotism — whether it's tanks or the lyrics of Vande Mataram — become more important than the feeling itself.

A truly patriotic nation would not litter. It would not poison its rivers. It would not strip its forests.

We have been singing Jana Gana Mana in cinema halls for a few months now. We have all been standing in the dark watching a not very well animated flag flutter on screen. I don't know if we have become a more patriotic a nation. A truly patriotic nation would not litter. It would not poison its rivers. It would not strip its forests. And it would not tell a poor manual scavenger to sell his wife if he did not have the money to build a toilet. Or at least apologize for saying it if he felt misunderstood.

But it's much easier to measure patriotism by prescribing the number of times a national song is sung. Perhaps that's why that old Bengal poet said in a letter to his friend: "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live."

There cannot be anything quiet about patriotism. It must be performed in schools, movie theatres, and parliament, like a Bengali child in elocution class.

The time might not be far, as Trinamool MP Sugata Bose warned in Parliament, when Tagore himself could find himself dubbed anti-national for his views on nationalism.

Paranoid Bengalis will see an anti-Tagore conspiracy in the machinations of Dinanath Batra. More pragmatic ones will be brushing up on their Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder and a useful Bengali to know in these times.

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