Gandhi and Bengal: A complicated relationship     

Bengali literary journals between 1920 and 1930 actually reflect mutual respect and admiration between the Mahatma on the one hand and Bengali literary and intellectual leaders on the other

Gandhi and Bengal: A complicated relationship      

Sarvani Gooptu

The allegedly ‘complicated relationship’ between the Mahatma and Bengal has attained mythical status, relished by most Bengalis using or rather misusing differences in opinion between him and legendary figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and ignoring the basic similarities of ideas and the mutual respect for difference in approach to the same goal.

My research in contemporary writing in the journals show quite another approach to the ‘complicated’ question, where there is appreciation of both the charisma of the Mahatma as well as serious discussion on the issues of Khadi and Charkha dealing with both negative as well as their ‘positive’ aspects.

The 35 essays and poems published between 1916-1939 in Bangabani, Bharati, Bharatvarsha, Bichitra and Prabashi, and the newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika, which followed the Tagore-Gandhi relationship between (1922-1932) coinciding with the prime time of the Gandhian movements in India reflect a Bengali viewpoint frequently ignored in discussions on the subject.

Gandhi’s relationship with Bengal began much before he became the Mahatma, starting with an article he sent for translation and publication in Bharati in 1902 on Indian Colonisation in South Africa. From 1921, regular poems and essays appeared — some in uncomplicated admiration of his persona, ideal of Satyagraha and hope for the future through poems by Satyendranath Dutta, Hemendralal Roy, Pyarimohan Sen Gupta’s Gandhi Bandana, and other poems on khadi and charkha including the famous song of Charkha by Kazi Nazrul Islam, and an article on the Salt March to Dandi by an enthusiastic volunteer from Bolpur, Akshoy Kumar Roy (Bichitra, 1931).

There were others which dealt in a more complicated manner on his advocacy for eradicating economic problems of the poverty-stricken rural and urban poor through charkha and khadi. Basanta Kumar Chattopadhyay and Sarala Debi Chowdhurani (Bharati, 1926) appeal to the educated and the wealthy who have forgotten their past in their present ambition to ally with the alien rulers for mere economic benefit, while essays by Jogesh Chandra Roy (Prabashi 1922) suggests that if the farmer could cultivate cotton, it would supplement his income, and his household’.

Hemendralal Roy (Bharatvarsha, 1925) reminds his readers that “during the floods in north Bengal, it was the charkha which provided the people sustenance.” Importance of institutionalisation was acknowledged and there were articles on Kalashala at Sodepur set up by Satish Chandra Dasgupta for propagation of khaddar.

The contentious issue of Gandhi’s relationship with some leading Bengali intellectuals was also dealt with in the periodicals but in all the articles it was their mutual respect which was highlighted and regret expressed on the issues of discord.

Bangabani carried a number of articles by Kalinganath Ghosh who discussed issues of difference between the Mahatma and Swami Vivekanada, concluding that similarities of idealism far outweighed the imagined differences.

Though the rhetoric of Gandhi being unsympathetic towards Bengali idol Subhas Chandra Bose, especially after the Tripuri Congress (1939), where lack of Gandhian support forced Bose to resign from presidency, has been the main focus of the Bengali angst, there is hardly any article in the contemporary journals on this subject.

The poet, Rabindranath Tagore, and Mahatma’s relationship has been the subject of discussion of scholars for a long time but it is more fruitful to follow Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) right from the storm that broke when Tagore received a gold medal from the hands of the Governor of Bengal on the day of Gandhi’s imprisonment in 1922, to Tagore’s criticism of Gandhian ideals of Swaraj and khadi in 1923.To be fair to Tagore, his criticism was never personal and is more than proven by his interviews and speeches even during the Non-Cooperation Movement which he criticised.

“The greatness of Mahatma’s character is undeniable. His life is the epitome of sacrifice,” Tagore told the press in 1922 and a message of support during the Mahatma’s illness was sent through C.F. Andrews.

The Mahatma too never gave up on his attempts at retrieving his relationship with the poet and visited Bolpur and Sriniketan in 1925.

ABP also followed the debate between the Poet and the Mahatma over ‘the symbolic stress on charkha’ as well as Gandhi’s rejoinder in Young India on their relationship, which was also discussed by Sarala Debi (Bharati 1926) in ‘Clash between the Poet and the Worker (Kobi O Karmir Lodai)’ in the context of Tagore being heckled at the Gujarat Literary Conference in 1920 and warned the Mahatma about the dangers of believing in the confidence of supporters.

In 1931, Rabindranath Tagore joined intellectuals in Bengal led by Bipin Chandra Pal and Subhas Chandra Bose in signing an appeal to the people of Bengal to spontaneously join a gathering on Mahatma’s birth anniversary on October 2 to show respect to the great soul and acknowledge his impact on Bengal, and his self-sacrifice for the cause of India’s Independence. Gandhi Jayanti was celebrated in Santiniketan as well as in Calcutta.

Bichitra published Tagore’s speech in 1932 which hailed the Mahatma as a “great man, almost divine, a rare appearance in the world”, while in a similar spirit in December 1945, during a visit to Santiniketan, the Mahatma said, “Gurudev was like a great bird, wide and swift of wings, under which he gave protection to many...we all miss the warmth of his protecting wings...Santiniketan has been the abode of peace to me and since my family was given shelter on arrival from South Africa, it is a pilgrimage to me and whenever I got the opportunity, I came here to seek peace and tranquillity.”

No relationship can remain static or fail to evolve. They wind through twists and turns. The relationship between the Mahatma and Bengal too underwent changes and upheavals in response to dilemmas confronting Indians fighting the battle for Independence.

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