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Practicing Bankim Chandra's philosophy

Amit Shah’s insightful speech highlighted the importance of reiterating Bankim Chandra in today’s narrative of nation building

Practicing Bankim Chandras philosophy

Delivering a riveting and thought-provoking memorial oration on the iconic intellectual giant Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in Kolkata on June 27, 2018, BJP national president Amit Shah made a very profound observation, which was obviously unpalatable for many. It was the first time that a memorial oration was being organised in the memory of Bankim Chandra in West Bengal and, for the first time, after a long and apparently interminable spell of silence, that he was again on the centre-stage in the land whose spirit, imagery, psyche and intellectual imagination he had once shaped and articulated.

The fact that Bankim Chandra could once more keep the intellectual dimension of the people of West Bengal and of Kolkata in a state of churn was disapproved by a section of the intelligentsia, especially among the Left who had, in their lifetime, done much to marginalise and straitjacket Bankim Chandra. Bankim's foremost biographer, Amitrasudan Bhattacharya, who shared the stage with Shah, was profuse in his praise for the effort – he termed the effort an Utsava (festival) and reminded everyone how Bankim's legacy was neglected and ignored and how he belonged not only to Bengal but also to the whole of India and the world. Much to the chagrin of many veteran writers, Buddhadeb Guha too shared the stage with Shah, giving his imprint on the evening.

Among those others who were present on the dais with Shah, were Professors Achintya Biswas, former Vice Chancellor of Gaur Banga University and a well know nationalist thinker, Smriti Kumar Sarkar, former vice chancellor of the University of Burdwan, Purabi Roy, one of the most well known scholars and voices on the life and legacy of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Radha Raman Chakraborty, a leading scholar of international relations, a Vivekananda scholar and sometime distinguished Vivekananda professor at the University of Calcutta. Each of these personalities has spent a lifetime dedicating themselves to their areas of research and made a mark on the academic and intellectual field of Bengal. Just because the Left and the Congress intellectual syndicate does not acknowledge them, does not mean that their contribution is less or negligible.

In his more than half an hour long inspiring address, Amit Shah argued that the moment the Congress decided to truncate the national song and settled for singing just two stanzas of it, justifying that singing it in its entirety would hurt religious sentiments of a certain community, it announced the era of appeasement politics leading the way to the eventual partition of the country. The division of Vande Mataram led to the division of the country, Shah told a packed auditorium. Shah was perhaps the first leading politician of the country to state this bitter truth publicly and without reserve or hesitation.

Shah's unequivocal reiteration of this point, of the vivisection of Vande Mataram leading ultimately to the vivisection of the country because of the rise of appeasement politics, reminded one of a conversation that one of modern India's greatest sages Sri Aurobindo had with a disciple towards the end of 1939. When told that some people were objecting to the singing of Vande Mataram as the national song and that some Congressmen supported the 'removal of some parts of the song', Sri Aurobindo retorted 'But it is not a religious song: it is a national song and the Durga spoken of is India as the Mother. It is an image used in poetry. In the Indian conception of nationality, the Hindu view would naturally be there. If it cannot find a place there, the Hindus may as well be asked to give up their culture…' Sri Aurobindo, who had himself conferred on Bankim the honorific of 'Rishi' – seer and one of the makers of modern India – had clearly seen the symbolism of Bankim's 'Bharat Mata', a symbolism that was eventually clouded and distorted by the reductionism of appeasement politics. The Congress then as the Congress now gave in to the demands of appeasement politics and to the exigencies of minorityism.

The fact that the song was meant for the country as a whole and stirred and inspired all those who fought for freedom, regardless of their religious affiliation, was forgotten or deliberately ignored and obfuscated. Shah called Bankim, the father of modern cultural nationalism and described his vision of India as a geocultural entity. Bengal has produced an incessant line of teachers and philosophers, Shah reminded those who had thronged the venue to listen to him, from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda to Bankim and Sri Aurobindo who had contributed to a strong and steady flow of cultural nationalism in this land. They had all seen and articulated the vision of India as a geocultural and not a geopolitical formation. The term Rashtra in our context was different from the description of a nation-state, he argued.

For many, it was an interesting occasion to hear him speak on high political thoughts and ideas – ideas that essentially define political philosophy. It was for them a novel experience to listen to a leading politician speak on Bankim Chandra and his philosophy of cultural nationalism. Such a trend and habit had long vacated our political space. The likes of Triguna Sen, Devaprasad Ghose and Radhakund Mookerjee had disappeared from the canvas of Bengal's public life.

Shah's approach to the topic, his delivery and articulation, has, as a civil servant who was present at the programme observed, set a new high in the field of political dialectics. The front-ranking leaders of political parties in India, at least the major ones, must be able to engage and participate in such activities, with the aim of replenishing the pool of political thought, with the objective of engaging in debate and coming up with new interpretations and thoughts of those thinkers and leaders who have shaped India's polity and her intellectual world in the past.

A large number of young intellectuals and academics from across the state, a large number of public personalities and members of civil society, who had never before come forward to participate in such programmes, had come in large numbers to listen to Shah speak on Bankim Chandra. The topic, the image of Abanindranath Tagore's Bharat Mata on the dais, the presentation to Shah of the iconic Kali image from Lalgola in Murshidabad, which, it is said, inspired Bankim to describe 'Bharat Mata', generated discussion.

These were efforts to symbolically rekindle or bring attention to a past of Bengal, which had stimulated much of India and had launched the formidable struggle for freedom. It was a past that was hardly discussed or focused upon in the last nearly 50 years. There is, for example, no university in the state or the country named after Bankim, though apologists for this deliberate amnesia are quick to point out that a college does exist in West Bengal, but then, is that enough, have we paid our debt to Bankim by just naming a college after him?

It has served the political purposes of a section of the intelligentsia to keep Bankim Chandra and his contribution, especially his immortal ode Vande Mataram, under wraps and away from mainstream discourses and narratives, it is members of this intellectual and political class who were unnerved by Amit Shah's address, it is they who were flustered that Bankim Chandra was again being reawakened in mass consciousness and imagination.

Shah's objective in delivering the first Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial Oration was just that, it was to reiterate and relocate Bankim and his vision in the present consciousness of the people of West Bengal and of India as a whole. It was to generate a renewed debate and narrative on the Rishi's contributions and its relevance to Bengal's and India's quest for a cultural and civilisational self-recovery.

(The author is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Anirban Ganguly

Anirban Ganguly

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