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Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose - Part 1

adapted from Rabindranath O Subhas Chandra by Nepal Majumdar

Subhas Chandra Bose had first met Rabindranath Tagore in 1914 in Shantiniketan. He went there with a group of students and asked the poet on the duty of the students. The poet had advised them to devote time for the upliftment of the villages. After Subhas Chandra Bose was ousted from the Presidency College and from Calcutta University, Rabindranath, had written an article on what kind of mistreatment had driven the students to take such a drastic measure as beating a professor. He was sympathetic to the students and even had forwarded his article to Lord Carmichael, possibly hoping for a leniency from the Government w.r.t the errant students.

While returning from England after relinquishing his ICS, determined to serve the country, a young Subhas Bose had happened to travel by the same ship as Rabindranath. The poet was returning from his Europe tour. He had advised Subhas to meet Gandhiji and was not altogether averse towards the idea of Non Cooperation as long as it remained on the constructive course. According to the book Indian Struggles, the poet, in the course of his conversations with Subhas during the voyage, expressed his opinion that there should be more of the constructive side of the Non Cooperation Movement. The poet changed his mind on Non Cooperation Movement and opposed it after landing in Bombay when some people against the Non Cooperation Movement had negatively influenced him.

Between 1921 and 1930 there were no appreciable contacts between Rabindranath and Subhas Chandra Bose, although the poet knew Subhas. Subhas was more intimate with Kazi Nazrul Islam and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, two other great luminaries of Bengali literature. In August 1931, the Poet had agreed to support the appeals from Flood Relief Committee of Bengal Congress led by Subhas Chandra Bose. Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore again came very close to each other after the police firing incident in Hijli prison that had killed two person and injured twenty five. Subhas and Jatindramohan Sengupta, the two bitter rivals in Congress, buried their hatchets and addressed a vast crowd from a joint platform by condemning the incident in the strongest terms. On 26th September Rabindranath joined Subhas and Jatindramohan in publicly condemning the incident in a huge assembly under the Monument.

Subhas requested both Rabindranath and Gandhiji to provide a introductory letter when he was exiled in Europe for the first time, so that he could get access to some of the most influential people of Europe like Romain Rolland for discussing on India's political situation. Gandhiji never even responded. Rabindranath wrote an introduction but it was not detailed enough to help Subhas. Subhas was disappointed. He also requested for the poet's help in getting a Foreward for his book from George Bernard Shaw. But the poet declined saying that Shaw would not necessarily follow the poet's recommendation and it was best that Subhas tried himself to get in touch with the luminary. After that Subhas Chandra Bose relied only on his own abilities and willpower to break the glass ceiling of recognition and fame.

In 1936 the poet became very close to Subhas Chandra Bose. When Subhas was arrested after coming to India in 1936, for taking part in the Lucknow Congress, the poet wrote an anguished letter demanding the release of all political prisoners including Subhas. When Subhas was released in 1937, Rabindranath was very happy. On 6th April 1937 a huge public meeting was organized to celebrate Subhas Bose's release, and Ramananda Chatterjee, editor of Prabasi, presided over the gathering. Rabindranath had sent a written congratulatory note from Shantiniketan. In August 1937, Rabindranath presided over a meeting to demand the release of political prisoners and to bring back the prisoners from Andaman to the mainland. Subhas Chandra Bose, who was under treatment in Dalhousie, wholeheartedly supported the movement. The major problem was that the Bengal Provincial Government under Fazlul Haq and Khwaja Nazimuddin, for communal or other reasons, were not interested in bringing back the prisoners from Andaman and the British Government had forcibly interned many young men and women without trial in different prisons. The poet had registered strong protest against the heartlessness of the Government bureaucracy and had spearheaded the movement against the forceful incarceration of political prisoners. Several people had died in Cellular jail while fasting unto death seeking their transfer to the main land, because of brutal force feeding by the Government. The poet was elected as the President of the Andaman Political Prisoners' Aid Committee. On 14th August the great poet expressed his stringent disapproval of the nonchalant attitude of the Haq Government in bringing back the political prisoners from Andaman. Meanwhile the condition of the prisoners who were fasting unto death, was deteriorating. Then Gandhi and Nehru intervened and once the prisoners gave an undertaking that they would not take up the path of violence, the Bengal Provincial Government had no other option than to bring them back.

In the context of the controversy regarding Vande Mataram, which the Muslims in Bengal had refused to accept along with other Hindu symbols, and had been fueling the intense communal hatred against the Hindus, Subhas wrote a letter to Rabindranath Tagore asking for his viewpoint in 1937, when he (Subhas) was recovering in Gidhapahad in Kurseong. Tagore advocated that Hindus need not compete with the Muslims in the matters of communalism. Since Vande Mataram was not acceptable to a large section of the Muslims, in the interest of the Nation it was better to take an impartial view. Rabindranath of course strongly condemned the Muslim communal attitude and advised an impartial judgement in the benefit of the larger interest of a collective battle. Subhas Chandra Bose remained silent in this matter as he did not want to antagonize the Hindu and Muslim youths. The Congress adopted the first two stanzas of Vande Mataram as a compromise formula since the song was intimately related to the Nationalist movement. But this decision of the Congress was largely criticized by the Nationalist Hindus and even Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra as the President of Congress came under the direct line of fire. But Subhas agreed with Rabindranath on principle - the priority was to gain independence and after that the matters pertaining to the bilateral issues would be sorted out between the two communities.

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