Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Home Minister Amit Shah’s attempts at appropriating Rabindranath Tagore without a basic understanding of his aesthetics and ideology are questionable. Politicians should ideally refrain from meddling with artists and writers from a different – often superior – intellectual sphere. Has either Modi or Shah read a single poem, short story, novel or play written by Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, when British poets WB Yeats and Ezra Pound worked with him on the English translation of Gitanjali, and recommended it for the coveted award.

Yeats and Pound were impressed by the theme of divine love expressed in Gitanjali, at a time when World War I threatened to destroy the world. But, more significantly, Tagore’s view of the futility of war influenced another British poet, Wilfred Owen, who was enlisted as a soldier in World War I against his will. After Owen’s death on the battlefield, his distraught mother found fragments of a poem by Tagore in the pocket of her son’s uniform. This impelled her to get in touch with Tagore and ask him to send her the entire poem.

In a bid to win over the West Bengal electorate as assembly elections in the state draw closer, Modi spoke of Tagore as being a champion of swaraj. The truth is that Tagore was opposed to any narrow definitions of swaraj, which are the guiding principles of the BJP’s philosophy, and that of its ideological mentor, the RSS. Ironically, Modi made his speech at Visva-Bharati University, the institution Tagore founded at Santiniketan (Abode of Peace) on the family estates in Bolpur in 1901. Santiniketan began with just five pupils; one of them was Tagore’s own son.

‘Heaven of freedom’

Two iconic works by Tagore are enough to prove that his beliefs were radically different from those of the BJP. The first is the poem Where the Mind is Without Fear, poem number 35 in Gitanjali, which I quote in full:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

The third line of this poem speaks of the world not being broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. Can this be said of a political party that introduces divisive hate laws such as the CAA, NRC, and “Love Jihad”, and farm laws that lead to farmers agitating in and around the national capital, some of them dying in the bitter cold?

The sixth line of the poem talks of the “clear stream of reason” not losing its way to “dead habit”. Is it reason or emotion that governs the thinking of the ruling dispensation when it impulsively regards everyone who disagrees with its policies as anti-national, and even charges them with sedition, calling them names like “Urban Naxal”, “Tukde Tukde Gang” and “Lutyens Lobby”?

The phrase “heaven of freedom” in the last line of the poem’ points to utopia. In today’s India, more of a dystopia than a utopia, freedoms of various kinds are at stake.

Dislike of rabid nationalism

The other work that calls the BJP’s bluff when it appropriates Tagore is the novel Ghare Baire, translated into English as The Home and the World. The backdrop to the novel is the swaraj movement that began with the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905. The movement, as is well known, necessitated the boycott of foreign goods.

The principal characters in the novel are Nikhil, his wife Bimala, and Nikhil’s friend Sandip, who is an advocate of swaraj. However, through the character of Nikhil, Tagore expresses his dislike of the rabid nationalism of the swarajists, who made bonfires of Manchester cloth and frenziedly danced around it. Bimala is initially impressed by Sandip’s militancy and falls in love with him; in time, though, she realises her folly. Ghare Baire, published in 1916, anticipates Gandhi (through the character of Sandip) and the differences Tagore would have with Gandhi in respect of freedom from colonial rule.

What Ghare Baire establishes beyond doubt is that Tagore was no champion of swaraj. So when Prime Minister Modi associated Tagore with the swaraj movement, he was widely off the mark. No wonder a groups of Bengalis was irked enough to march to Bolpur with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to conduct its own rally. A faux pas of this kind, when it concerns a national poet, is unlikely to happen anywhere else in the world. Is it probable that a British Prime Minister would make statements about Shakespeare that aren’t factual?

Another work by Tagore that the BJP might profitably read is the novel Gora. Tagore is critical about his protagonist Gora’s fanatic Hinduism, similar to the Hindutva of today’s BJP. This is proved at the end of the novel when, rather than the puritanical upper caste Hindu that he thought he was, Gora turns out to be the son of a British couple killed in the war.

He is brought up by an Indian woman, Anandamoyi, and her spiritual husband, Krishnadayal. The revelation shatters Gora, as, in hindsight, his earlier position is exposed. The author champions Anandmoyi’s son Binoy, who is Gora’s childhood friend. But Gora is estranged from Binoy when the latter marries a Brahmo girl, Lalita – the reformist zeal of the Brahmo Samaj, started by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1828, was too much for the fanatic Gora to withstand.

It is this homework that Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah ought to have done before opportunistically citing Tagore for electoral gain.

R Raj Rao’s doctoral dissertation was on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Tagore.