Everything is different in Kolkata. While the rest of the country fasts for Navratri, Kolkatans feast for Durga Puja. When the rest of the country cheers for Dussehra, in Kolkata there are tears for Bijoya Dashami. On Diwali, Kolkata has Kali Puja, and for Holi, Dol Jatra. Little surprise then that there should be an alternate story for Raksha Bandhan as well.

It began in 1905, the year British India’s Viceroy and Governor-General Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. Back then, Bengal consisted of the present-day states of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Assam as well as what is now known as Bangladesh. This created a province that was the size of France but had a population several times greater. The administration of a province so large was proving difficult with the eastern half in particular, so the government announced that it had decided to partition the state into two.

Assam, along with the districts of Dacca, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Backergunge, Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Rajashahi, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna and Malda would form the new province of East Bengal & Assam. But while administrative efficiency was the stated reason, the Bengalis smelt a rat – the eastern half of Bengal was predominantly Muslim, while the western half was predominantly Hindu, and this was considered an extension of the old “divide and rule” principle deployed by the British in India. The Bengalis wanted none of it.

Image credit: Oxford University Press/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The resistance to the partition of Bengal was explosive and all-pervasive. The Indian National Congress announced the Swadeshi movement, exhorting the masses to boycott all foreign goods, thus hitting the colonial government where it hurt the most. The mass burning of foreign clothes became a regular affair. But the protest, like everything else in Bengal, took on a unique character under the leadership of the greatest of all Bengali icons – Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore declared the day of the partition, October 16, to be a day of national mourning – no food would be cooked in Bengali homes that day. To signify the bond between Bengali Hindus and Muslims, Tagore chose the rakhi, the sacred thread tied to a brother’s wrist by his sister, in exchange for his protection. Traditionally, the sister would pray for the brother to live a long life, as he pledged to protect her as long as she was alive. Instead, Tagore wanted Hindus and Muslims to tie rakhis for one another, creating a lifelong bond of protection that no one could break.

Rabindranath Tagore. Image credit: Cherishsantosh/Wikipedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0]

Tagore began his day on October 16 with a dip in the Ganga. From the banks, a procession accompanied him as he walked through the streets tying rakhis on the wrists of all those he met. The enthusiastic poet carried an abundant number of rakhis, but those accompanying him felt he had taken things too far when he wanted to step inside a mosque to the south of his house, to tie rakhis on the wrists of the maulvis inside. Tagore was never one to be deterred – luckily for him, the maulvis had no objections either and the procession carried on.

A massive crowd had gathered on both sides of the street. Those accompanying Tagore were singing a song he had written specially for the occasion, a prayer to God to keep Bengal safe and united. From the rooftops, women sprinkled puffed rice and blew conch shells at the procession.

That afternoon, the foundation stone for Federation Hall was laid – a grand edifice symbolising the unity of the two Bengals. Barrister Ananda Mohan Bose was supposed to preside over the meeting, but he was elderly and sick, so it was Tagore that read out his speech. From there began the second procession of the day, from Federation Hall to the magnificent Basu Bati, home of Pasupati and Nandalal Basu in Bagbazar. The National Fund was announced here, and contributions were sought from members of the public. The fund would sponsor deserving students and finance Bengali entrepreneurs’ trips to England for scientific and technical training. With this, the Bengalis hoped, their reliance on foreign imports could be reduced over time, as more and more things would begin to be produced at home.

Federation Hall. Image credit: Deepanjan Ghosh

Although the protests did have their desired effect, ultimately keeping Bengal united would prove impossible. In 1912, Bihar, Assam and Odhish were separated from Bengal. This time the partition was on linguistic grounds. Thirty-five years later, with the bloodbath of Direct Action Day, the dream of a united Bengal would finally come to an end.

The structures associated with the movement still stand. Federation Hall is now the Federation Hall Society and it continues to serve the people of Kolkata. Basu Bati is a forgotten ruin, rotting away for a decade thanks to apathy. But for those who migrated from the east in Bengal, yearning for the lost homeland still lingers, as do memories of this other rakhi.

Basu Bati. Image credit: Deepanjan Ghosh