BJP’s appropriation of Rabindranath Tagore is a product of realpolitik

As the West Bengal state assembly elections approach, we are bound to see more such attempts at appropriation and misinterpretation by BJP as it tries to shed away its ‘outsider’ tag in the state

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


What may seem like a desperate attempt by the BJP to appropriate the legacy of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in view of the upcoming West Bengal state assembly elections is neither a recent nor a standalone phenomenon. Rather, it is a part of BJP and RSS’s well thought out strategy to popularize and strengthen Hindutva politics in West Bengal.

There is a method behind this desperation.

The relationship between Tagore and the Hindutva movement can at best be described as uneasy and even totally incompatible at the philosophical level. While RSS is an organization built upon the modern ideology of nationalism, Tagore criticized the very concept and called it an ‘evil epidemic’ and ‘brotherhood of hooliganism’.

While for the RSS, the Indian nation is an organic product of some 5000 years of history, for Tagore ‘nation’ was a machine devoid of any soul, trampling under its tread the very essence of being a human.

The Hindutva movement and Tagore stand opposed to each other on the ideas of religious tolerance and acceptance of diversity as well.

In 2017, the RSS-affiliated ‘Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas’ headed by Dina Nath Batra had sent the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) a set of recommendations about changes to be made in NCERT textbooks of which one included the removal of thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore on nationalism.

The above-mentioned differences between Tagore and the Hindutva movement are hidden from public eye. A rather more visible tension between the two which has appeared at regular intervals and has become a part of popular conversations has been around the national anthem.

The RSS has always wanted ‘Vande Maatram’ as the national anthem of India. Several RSS and BJP leaders have regularly reiterated this demand. In 2016, general secretary of the RSS Bhaiyyaji Joshi had said that real national anthem of India was ‘Vande Maatram’ and not the ‘constitutionally mandated’ Jana Gana Mana. Most recently, on December 1, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy wrote a letter to the Prime Minister urging the replacement of some words of the national anthem, to be replaced by the version of Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA.

Way back in 2015, Kalyan Singh, the then Governor of Rajasthan, had criticized the national anthem, citing a century old but still popular perception around the song. Singh said that the word ‘adhinayak’ in the song referred to King George V as the song was written in honour of the emperor who was visiting India in 1912.

This widely-held perception around the song has been systematically propagated by none other than the RSS. That it was an RSS-floated conspiracy theory was attested to by none other than the right wing journal Swarajya.

Immediately after Kalyan Singh’s allegations around the national anthem, the journal published an article titled, ‘Why should the RSS dislike Jana Gana Mana?’ in which they called the allegation an ‘urban legend’ and myth put into print by RSS pamphleteers and circulated in RSS Shakhas.

Another myth which floats through the RSS ecosystem is that the song was only made the national anthem by Jawaharlal Nehru because of its secular nature as compared to ‘Vande Matram’ in order to ‘please’ the Muslims. The magazine criticized this myth too.

This surprising critique by Swarajya magazine has nothing to do with removing misconceptions around Tagore and the national anthem and everything to do with capturing Bengal assembly.

Appropriation of Tagore for the Hindutva cause was kicked off by none other than RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in 2015, when he claimed Tagore was for a Hindu Rashtra while addressing an RSS conclave in Madhya Pradesh. Bhagwat reiterated this claim again in 2017 and portrayed Tagore as a Hindutva thinker by citing one of his works, Swadesi Samaj, again a misinterpretation of the text.

As the BJP and RSS aggressively pushed Hindutva in Bengal, the TMC resorted to Bengali sub-nationalism in order to counter it. In order to counter ‘Jai Shree Ram’, the TMC and its supporters raised the slogans ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Joy Maa Kali’.

As Snigdhendu Bhattacharya in Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment (2020) informs, the BJP was anticipating this move and developed a two pronged strategy to counter this move by TMC. Quoting a Bengal BJP leader, Bhattacharya writes; “…first was to deny Bengali ethno-regionalism any superiority over Bharatiya nationalism; and second, to emphasize that Bengal was the place of birth of Bharatiya nationalism”.

In order to do this, the BJP and RSS planned several small, medium and large scale events across Bengal to appropriate popular Bengali Icons. Apart from focusing on Swami Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra, who already are icons of the BJP, they attempted to claim other Bengali icons to woo the Bengali population like Abindranath Tagore, the painter who first created the image of Bharat Mata.

In 2018, Union Home minister Amit Shah addressed an event organized by the right wing think tank Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Research Centre. The image of Bharat Mata used in that event was not the one used by the RSS, but the original one created by Abindranath Tagore. With Bankim Chandra and Abindranath, the BJP tried to imply that two of most popular slogans of the Hindutva Movement, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Maatram’ were both products of Bengal.

BJP and RSS’s newfound love for Tagore (and other secular Bengali Icons), expressed in multiple references to Tagore by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself and other BJP leaders, is not an outcome of any genuine appreciation or admiration of the poet; rather it a product of realpolitik.

Hindutva is a reactionary majoritarian identity movement which in its attempt to create a unified ‘political Hindu’ body has never shied away from appropriating icons who have been against the movement itself. It has attempted to appropriate Ambedkar to please the Dalit community, Birsa Munda to please the tribal population, and even Mahatma Gandhi who was assassinated by a Hindutva fanatic.

As the West Bengal state assembly elections approach, we are bound to see more such attempts at appropriation and misinterpretation by the BJP as it tries to shed away its ‘outsider’ tag in the state.

The views expressed are the author’s own

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