Appropriating Tagore as a Hindu Nationalist: Chancellor Modi’s Pre-Election Address to Visva – Bharati.

Narendra Modi

by Aurobindo Ghose

Visva – Bharati University founded in 1921 just completed a hundred years. Located at the Abode of Peace, Shantiniketan, it has however seen much disturbance and violence between the civil society and the Varsity authorities over the past centenary year. With the West Bengal elections slated four months hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the University Chancellor had quite a job at hand when he delivered the virtual centenary address to the students and teachers, one day before Christmas. And the PM delivered a perfect pre-election speech moulding and appropriating poet and universal spiritualist Rabindranath Tagore as a Hindu Nationalist in the continuing tradition “from the Ved to Vivekananda”.

The bickering started in January 2020 when Visva – Bharati students protested against an invitation to a BJP Rajya Sabha member to speak on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, as the subject would fuel religious animosity. The lecture had to be cancelled. Contrary to Tagore’s concept of inclusiveness, concrete walls started coming up segregating the University from the neighbouring residential colonies. And if that was not enough, the University cancelled the iconic spring festival (Basanta Utsav) and winter festival (Poush Mela). The Vice-Chancellor also called Tagore an ‘outsider’. Violence erupted over the construction of a wall around the Poush Mela ground.

In this background, Modi tried to break the ice by beginning with reconciliatory remarks about the Poush Mela and his reference to Tagore as Gurudev.

He was soon back on track. Modi’s characterization of Tagore’s thoughts as a continuity of the Bhakti movement, the influence of the Kali Bhakta Ramkrishna Parmahansa, mention of so many universities founded about the same time as Visva – Bharati (indicating that it was not unique but part of a nationalist trend) and narrative about Tagore’s familial affinity to Gujarat, were all part of his ploy to mould and appropriate Tagore as their own Hindu Nationalist.

Was Tagore a Hindu nationalist as Modi would have us believe?

First of all, he was not a staunch sanatani Hindu, belonging to the reformist Brahmo Samaj, believing neither in idol worship nor religious ritual. Tagore preferred humanity to nationalism or patriotism. In 1908, he wrote: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter. My refuge is humanity. 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.” Even the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas headed by Dinanath Batra has objected to Tagore’s thoughts, particularly to nationalism and the divide between religion and humanity, and has demanded they be deleted from the NCERT school textbooks.

Modi could have dwelt a little more on the three unique features of Visva-Bharati rather than make valiant, unsuccessful efforts to fit or fix Tagore and his ideas on education into the strict framework of his perspective or thinking.

First, the origins of Tagore’s educational experiments and their uniqueness can be traced to the Ashram School which Tagore started at Shantiniketan in 1901.

Tagore abhorred the traditional school with its four walls and a rigid curriculum. He saw it as a prison. So, at Shantiniketan classes are held in the open air under the shade of a tree, along with personal contact between teachers and students, training in self-governance, and emphasis on co-curricular activities (social, literary, artistic, and sports) besides the curriculum of studies. The idea is to be close to nature where students could define their boundaries of knowledge.  Students are encouraged to think rather than score marks by rote-learning.

Second, Visva – Bharati was closely connected with the nearby villages and there was the interaction between the students and teachers on the one hand and villagers and handicraftsmen on the other. Students would visit the villages on excursions and learn from the surroundings. The Poush Mela’s main purpose was cultural and economic interaction between Shantiniketan and its surrounding villages. The rural handicrafts would be marketed at the Poush Mela.

Third, the curriculum of Visva – Bharati was not of the usual universities having courses of study restricted to arts, commerce, and sciences. It was highly diversified with subjects like comparative religion, languages both Indian and international, fine arts, sculpture, handicrafts, and above all music. There have been notable students. Amartya Sen who resided at Santiniketan went to the Ashram school. Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post, studied comparative religion, Satyajit Ray studied fine arts at Kala Bhawan for three years, and Bangladeshi singer Rejwana Chowdhury studied music at the Sangeet Bhawan for six years. Such a diversity of subjects of learning cannot easily be found in other universities of India.

To prove his point that Visva – Bharati was neither unique nor separate but part of the nationalist trend, Modi gives a long list of contemporary universities started at about the same time (1915-30)  as Visva – Bharati. However, none of them share the system of education, its connection with the rural people, or the diversity of its curriculum, which is there in Visva – Bharati. Besides in his haste to paint a pattern, Modi has listed even universities not contemporaneous to the founding of Visva – Bharati, such as Aligarh Muslim University (founded in 1875), Lukhnow University (1867), and National College of Arts, Lahore (1875).

Modi is more to the point and purpose of his address when he concludes with a quotation from Tagore: “O! re Grihabashi, khol dwar khol!”. Modi’s plea to the Bengal electorate,  based on part-fact, part-myth, and outright fiction is that it opens the doors for his party and politics. However, Modi’s plea for openness is one-sided, there is no assurance that the traditions and dignity of Visva – Bharati will be maintained and peace will prevail.

In 1940, a year before he died, Rabindranath Tagore placed a letter in Mahatma Gandhi’s hand. The letter said: “Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure, and I  hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation”.

In my humble opinion, it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of India who is also the Chancellor of Visva – Bharati, to heed to Rabindranath Tagore’s last wishes for the preservation of his “life’s best treasure” – Visva – Bharati.

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The writer is a scholar, lawyer, and human rights activist.

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