Op-Ed

Tagore’s Bengal v Mujib’s Bangladesh
Afsan Chowdhury
19 May,2016

Sheikh Mujib was a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s literature. He was fond of Tagore’s poetry and that is best exemplified by choosing “Amar Sonar Bangla”  as the national anthem. There are many other instances where the admiration has been observed. But was the sociocultural imagination of  Mujib influenced by the Tagorean vision or was it a product of his own East Bengal based society’s and self’s encounter with the then-Calcutta and later Karachi/ Islamabad upper class?

History is filled with multiple narratives so to identify who belongs to whom is not always simple. The inter-sectionality of  class, culture and traditions generate  many combinations which rise to create various social and political aspirations. Tagore is the supreme cultural personality of Bengal and his role is beyond not just debate but even discussion. We automatically assume Tagore as the primary source of our imaginations including the political.

This has been strengthened by the linkage with Sk. Mujib, Bengal’s most successful politician and the only state-maker. He was a follower of Tagore and the poet was a great source of inspiration but was Sk.Mujib’s politics inspired primarily by Tagorean thinking? This is debatable and this contradiction within Mujib and his politics is as conflicting as Tagore’s vision and the imagination of  anti-colonialism and its land taxation policies that fed Bengal politics and its rage.

Rich man’s burden

Tagore was without any doubt the grandest cultural figure to emerge out of the colonial era. He was also a product of the economics that ruined the Bengal peasantry. It was a curious co-existence of the noblest values residing in the cruelest economic system that could be devised.  The zamindari system was not just about repressive tax collection but it was a systematic and systemic withdrawal of rights of the poor. This arrangement was to be managed by this professional class of agro-capitalists whose loyalty to the colonial rulers had been proven by their participation in the initial days of colonial trading. A large number of traders later became zamindars. The money generated funded the Bengal renaissance and the Tagore family was an enthusiastic participant in this project apart from early era colonial economics.

These are fairly well known facts but what makes Tagore worth pondering is the position he took on the partition of Bengal.  He joined the Swadeshi movement which opposed the Partition of Bengal which gave identity to the majority people of East Bengal which ultimately became Bangladesh. Three elements can be noticed in the matter of East Bengal. One, overwhelming majority were peasants particularly Muslim peasants. Two, it was a common land mass which was largely based on the deltaic land and its culture and not dominated by urban Kolkata and its collaborative colonial roots. Three, the people and the area could link up with other Indian forces including the all –Indian Muslim politics in their quest to fight the zamindari system. What is most ironical is that the song which was a rallying cry against the partition of Bengal became the national anthem of the state carved out in East Bengal -Bangladesh.

But how did Tagore, the person who stood against the emergence of a peasantry powered politics of East Bengal become its major national icon?  What sort of values was he offering that would appeal to a political group of Bengali Muslims smarting and angry at the zamindari system which produced Tagore?  The answer lies in the transition of prime objective of East Bengal which failed to become independent Bengal, the first state of Bengalis in 1947.

When it became East Pakistan- the eastern part of Pakistan- it almost immediately went into conflict with (West) Pakistan the state of  non-Bengali Muslims. The simmering conflict came to the top and the East Pakistani /east Bengali leaders began to construct a new strategy to develop nationalist political goals, perhaps to continue the interrupted journey of the rest of the Bengali people to found a state for them.

And this is where Tagore was born, the cultural symbol of the new nationalism in which the erstwhile peasant leaders of erstwhile East Bengal – Huq, Bhashani, Mujib etc- also included in its ranks the Bengali Hindus, reluctant co-passengers in the Bengali nationalist boat.  It’s this movement that re-invented or re-imagined Tagore in the frame of its own political need. Tagore was a great tool in this political adventure. In a way, he was more successful in Bangladesh than elsewhere. His cultural products helped define a political process and then it became the iconic figure around which the nationalists constructed an inter-communal political alliance. It created a symbol which the Pakistanis attacked and failed to dislodge. Language based nationalism without its prime mover was impossible and the urban middle class gelled together which led the movement gelled further by this attack. So in Bangladesh, he is also a political reality while in Bengal of India and elsewhere he is largely a cultural icon. It’s in this difference that in understanding the new Tagore lies.

Anondoloke, Mongola loke

Tagore’s Bengal, the product of 1757 and Mujib’s East Bengal produced by 1905 were very different. In fact, they were contesting realities, and Tagore’s opposition to the Partition of Bengal meant he opposed the values and principles which Sk. Mujib of Faridpur stood for.  Mujib’s world is expressed best in his autobiography where he discusses the forces he was fighting against. They were usually the zamindar, the well off Kolkata locate and cultured Hindu gentleman of sophisticated mien who came to make money in East Bengal while living in West Bengal.

It was more or less the profile of Tagore. Yet the man who guarded Muslim slums against attack by Hindu mobs in 1946 Kolkata succeeded in turning Tagore from a poet to a political cause.

This lay in imagining Tagore as a cultural contest of Pakistani “Tamaddun” which was driven largely by the North Indian upper class Muslim culture. Tagore is the evidence of literary achievement for any educated Bengali but it also became the element which defined Bengali culture for the East Bengali elite. It was their loyalty to an icon outside Pakistan, geographically located in India, not a Muslim and more famous globally than any “Muslim” writer that triggered massive reaction from Islamabad. Pakistan’s ‘national integration’ projects were based on an anti-Indian position, a position of military defense of Pakistan against India. Tagore could never be part of that and those who followed him could never exclude him and hence never be fully Pakistani. This was primarily the source of the cultural base of the political conflict.

But East Pakistanis were not one single lump of nationhood. The Tagorean was not the same as the Mujibist led by Mujib himself.

The language movement of 1948 underwent a major change as it moved from a cultural movement led by Tamaddun Majlish- an organization of liberal Muslims along Abul Hashem’s line- and became a political movement led by the Awami Muslim League activists which formed in 1949 and supported by the still secret Communist Party activists. The 1952 movement was a major shift as the new middle class came forward to lead, many of whom were Leftists.  They were by very necessity defining the Bengali language movement in an environment still attached to pre-1947 political structures. Separate Electorate for Muslim and Hindus ended only in 1955.

But 1952  also showcased the rise of the Tagorean elite in marshalling its cultural defence and construction. The “Language Movement literary collection” edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman ( 1953) brought together all the leading literary lights and their imagination together. Most were leftists, steeped in Bangla literature which meant Tagore as the source, looking at Kolkata as the centre of Bengali literature and cultural hub, certainly embarrassed by Dhaka’s rustic environment and who dreamt of an end of Pakistan to be replaced by a socialist, secular Bengal.

It was through them as they became closer to the mainstream Bengali movement that the cultural infantry of nationalism was created and Tagoreanism became strongly middle class streamed. The values they professed were not built around peasant impulses and reality but a new urbanized social and political cultural, however nascent.

Left not right

The Left rose in the early 1950s but fell in 1957 when Awami League split and the Left under Bhashani left and never recovered. By the 1960s when the nationalist movement was firming up, the Pakistanis under the Khawja Shahabuddin Information Ministry supervision banned Tagore from the national media in what was one of the worst political blunders ever. The Pakistanis had in effect first gone after the language and then later against its most halcyon icon. It was in effect cultural blasphemy and legitimized in Bengali eyes the divide, which began as cultural and ultimately became political.

As the Left further disintegrated, Tagore was the symbol for what was the pro-Soviet Left, more successful in cultural activities, rather than the kind of militant politics that time demanded. It became not just politics but a way of life for some, and it was within this narrow band of urban elite that Tagore survived, flourished and went forward.  But what of the mainstream politics whose rein Sk. Mujib held?

Mujib retained his rural/pre-urban sensibilities, remained the resentful of the upper class effete norms that dominated Kolkata and was not very trusting of Indians including the Hindus. He crossed over to India in 1962 to discuss “Independence” but for reasons never clear, he never managed to meet the bigwigs he thought he was going to meet. Instead of being treated as the “future prime minister of a country“, he was arrested. By the time contacts were established he returned to Dhaka and never forgave them for the treatment he considered an insult. It confirmed all his political prejudices.

But his political roots were firmly in rural East Pakistan value structure and that’s where his strength was too. Meanwhile the fellow travelling Leftists were decimated by their inability to understand the nationalist project that led to Bangladesh and tried to camp closer to the AL they had later regretted leaving.

Within the AL, the Leftists formed a major group under Sirajul Alam Khan –the Nucleus- and his students and youth supporters. They were closer to Mujib than Tagore in attitude and history. Thus it was left to Tajuddin Ahmed, the General Secretary of the AL and ex-CP member to carry the Tagorean torch forward.

Mujib of course did not go to India as the Pakistani occupation closed in on the night of March 25. Tajuddin as the head of the Mujibnagar government, came the closest to power anyone belonging to the erstwhile Left ever did in the formal space. The greatest supporter of this government was the CPI and its Soviet-leaning bureaucrats who ran Delhi. In effect, the spirit of Ram Mohon, Nehru, Indian elite modernism and the consequent alienation as well were in the Tajuddin position. But the peasants who resisted the Pakistanis in 1971 belonged to an older tradition which was not Tagorean at all but rooted in the anti-zamindari movement. It was to this stream that Mujib belonged.

The constitution was certainly a product of the Tagorean values and spirit and reflected them more than the peasant traditions. Over the years as the document has undergone changes and no longer looks like what was signed into, it is actually more realistic and reflects the spirit of Mujib than the Ram Mohonites. It is not a theological documents of  Tagorean values but  more coping tool where the authors are trying to wrestle with two conflicting historical trends : the tradition of  secularism as practiced by the educated, sophisticated Tagorean/ Ram Mohonites and the tradition of religion/ faith as a guiding spirit to survive economic and natural chaos.

Sk. Mujib belonged to the latter and so did the AL politics which is also the majority’s world view. In today’s Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has upheld the Mujib tradition and even her own contradictory statements on liberalism and faith practices can be misread but her “stick- to-what-the-peasant–wants” attitude is also an expression of triumph of the Mujib of East Bengal and his values. In the end, the practical world of the rural middle and poor has overrun the idealism of the middle and upper class elite. Crudely put, Mujib and his East Bengal occupies the imagination of the majority of Bangladesh, and Tagore’s worldly values, to some extent ahistorical in Bangladesh’s reality, are on the wane.