Thursday, July 28, 2022

On Tagore’s Failure to Defend Vande Mataram

Tagore                Chatterjee

In the 1930s, when a fierce controversy erupted over Vande Mataram, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah declaring that Vande Mataram was unacceptable to the Muslims because it was an idolatrous war cry, Subhas Chandra Bose was up in arms in support of the song. In his October 1937, letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, Bose advised against discarding Vande Mataram. He argued that the Congress could not afford to discard a song for which there was massive support in the country.

In his October 20, 1937, letter to Bose, Nehru wrote: “I have managed to get an English translation of Anandamath and I am reading it at present to get the background of the song. It does seem that this background is likely to irritate the Muslims.” Apparently, the language of the song was too difficult for Nehru. He wrote in the letter: “I do not understand it without the help of a dictionary.” He told Bose that he would consult Rabindranath Tagore on the issue of Vande Mataram. (Page 32)

Tagore’s judgement of the song was mixed. In his letter to Nehru, Tagore acknowledged that the song had played a critical role in making the Indian masses aware of their history and culture. But there were portions in the song for which he could not muster any sympathy since he was brought up in the monotheistic ideals of his father. According to Tagore, the Muslim opposition to Vande Mataram was justified since this song was a hymn to Goddess Durga. Here’s an excerpt from his letter to Nehru: 

“I freely concede that the whole of Bankim’s Vande Mataram poem, read together with its context, is liable to be interpreted in ways that might wound Moslem susceptibilities, but a national song, though derived from it, which has spontaneously come to consist only of the first two stanzas of the original poem, need not remind us every time of the whole of it, much less of the story with which it was accidentally associated. It has acquired individuality and an inspiring significance of its own in which I see nothing to offend any sect or community.” (Page 34)

According to Tagore, the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram were acceptable but the rest of the song was a hymn to Goddess Durga. His view was accepted by the Congress Working Committee. The CWC resolution drafted by Nehru said: “The Committee recognize the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song… Taking all things into consideration therefore the Committee recommended that wherever the Vande Mataram is sung at national gatherings only the first two stanzas should be sung…” (Page 35-36)

Tagore’s personal popularity suffered a major setback due to the position that he had taken on Vande Mataram. Prominent Hindu intellectuals criticized him for his failure to strongly defend Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work. Feeling bitter at the criticism being heaped on him, in his letter to poet Buddhadeb Bose, Tagore lamented: “Since I have been born in Bengal the typhoon of name-calling is like the accustomed breeze of my homeland to me. I have lodged no complaint or protest. Those days are over when I was sensitive to all that….” (Page 38)

(All quotations used in this article are from Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song, by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya)

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