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From Tagore To Gandhi To Armed Forces’ Attack On The Guru’s Darbar In 1984


Jun 1, 2004
In the Modern Review, Calcutta, of April 1911(starting at page 334), there appeared a paper entitled, "The rise and fall of the Sikh power." Ostensibly, it had been written earlier by Rabinderanath Tagore (May 7, 1861-August 7, 1941) in Bangla and had then been translated to English by the well known historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar. A cursory reading of it will convince anyone that it is extremely strange in nature. The following aspects of this write up are noteworthy:

1). Regardless of the title, the paper is actually a detailed comparison of the author's understanding of both the Sikh and the Maratha situations.

2). The ‘fall’ is taken to be a fact in the relation to the Sikhs even before setting out to examine the issues. If language and approach are an indication, it is this proposition which the author appears to have set out to establish and not merely to examine. The aim clearly is to establish the superior nature of Maratha ethos and to support the imaginary phenomenal ‘Rise’ of those people.

3). It is extremely significant that Rabindernath Tagore, who is not known as a historian and to whom no significant work of history is attributed, chose to express an opinion on a subject of history. The irreverent would prefer to believe that Jadunath Sarkar wrote it and the poet translated it to Bangla and owned responsibility for writing it. Jadunath’s deep-rooted bias against the Sikhs is a fact that would lend credence to this theory. Jadunath would not lend his name to the motivated and prompted production as it is sufficient to discredit a historian having even elementary acquaintance with the Sikh and Maratha history.

4). Though the essay is so obviously defective that it does not deserve even the passing attention of a casual reader of Sikh history, yet ostensibly one of the well established historians chose to translate it for the English reading public. He also gives his comments in conformity with the author's theme to lend it a respectability of sorts. His support to the distorting of Sikh history was considered valuable. Later, this historian was dubbed as a Knight of the British Empire for his services.

5). Tagore appears to have owned the project with a definite aim to promote a skewed view of Sikh culture and history. He chose to use, somewhat superficial knowledge of Sikh history for the ultimate purpose. Yet its influence on later Hindu (particularly) Bengali leaders and political leaders of India (in particular on M. K. Gandhi) was of great magnitude. Almost all his concepts of Sikh history were accepted by them as axiomatic and can be detected in the mental make up of those who ordered the attack on the Darbar Sahib in 1984. Gandhi would, henceforth, accept Rabinderanath Tagore as his `divine teacher' ("gurudev").

6). Incredible as it may seem, it was Tagore who for the first time felt that abolition of personal Guruship was a retrogressive step. It involved the bestowing of Guruship on the Guru Granth and on the Khalsa Panth through its true democratic representatives, the `Five Beloved Ones'. One and all have commented favourably on this unique happening in the history of faiths. It is the culmination of transferring divinity to people, the proposition with which Guru Nanak had initiated during his ministry. Though many historians coming after Tagore accepted just a few of his formulations, they felt compelled to ignore this one in particular.

7). The Sikh people, after having been reawakened by the new religious ferment of the Singh Sabha, were on the verge of initiating militant activity. In the same year Tagore composed his Jan Gaan (now the national anthem of India) to welcome George V on the occasion of his visit to India. In this, throwing all self-respect and national pride to the winds, he eulogises the head of the colonial power as the `god of India's destiny'. Within less than two years Tagore was selected for the Nobel Prize for literature. These circumstances are extremely significant and have to be treated as interconnected. It gave a measure of prestige to his formulations against militancy which must be appreciated in the background of the well known English dread of Western style militant movement in India.

From the above it is possible to suggest that the project undertaken by Tagore was perhaps suggested to him by the circumstances then prevailing in India. It is more likely that the inspiration came from some organisation or authority, or may be a multiplicity of authorities, which accepted him as an ideologue or hoped to be able to project him as one. The greatness about to be bestowed on him in the near future was perhaps a part of the calculation.

There is scope for the existence of a perspective in which Rabinderanath Tagore was a part of the myth built up to serve the design of a colonial power. It was hoping to enjoy perfect peace during the remaining period of its stay in India. Although a colonial power, it entertained the dream of exiting at will with a large measure of subject support it hoped to depart honourably. Responsible de-colonisation required the projection of India as a country fit for freedom. To keep the coming `freedom struggle' within defined and safe limits, it was necessary to project a self-restrained intellectual overflowing with enthusiasm for colonial masters as the ideologue of the new dawn. The spinning of myth around Tagore was calculated to serve both purposes equally well. In a special way, Tagore was developed into a representative of the Hindu thought. This was necessary since the bulk of the Indian population subscribed to that faith and their attitude to the rapidly developing political scenario was of the greatest importance. It would determine the character and direction of the coming stage managed India’s struggle for freedom.

Before the inauguration of the twentieth century, two aspects of the colonial rule had become very clear: firstly, that the British imperialism had already started on a course which would fructify in its being extinguished on some not very distant date. The process of de-colonisation had come out of the domain of mere pious assertions and had entered the melting pot stage. Secondly, since it was certain that the British rule would wither away and the process would finally conform to democratic norms prevalent in England. It was apparent that the Hindus had the immense advantage of numbers which would eventually decide who would enjoy political power after the British had wound up their concern in India. This necessitated the development of a role model society which would make it possible for the much fragmented Hindu people to put up semblance of a struggle for freedom and a united front for capturing power when the opportunity came.

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