When Tagore joined hands with rakhi

Rabindranath Tagore. Photo credit: DH

A traditional Hindu festival in which a sister ties an amulet as a symbol of protection on her brother's wrists, Rakhi symbolises unity and bond between two people. But 114 years ago, a person from Bengal used the sacred thread to conjoin two lands divided by the then Imperial British administration, a stroke that carried with it the burden of political strategy. Rabindranath Tagore, in one move, brought together the torn apart communities and regions, thereby giving Rakhi a connotation where it transcended the prevalent conventional boundary. On the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, let us look back at a glorious piece of history. 

Bengal was the furnace of India's independence movement, and its huge geographical area and population made life difficult for the British administration. The Bengal Presidency, as the region was known as, comprised of Bengal with modern-day Bihar, parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Assam. With a population of 78.5 million, it was British India's largest province. So the British Empire decided to follow the policy of divide and rule. Initially, they planned to divide just based on language, but then Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, decided to create a new region for the Muslim population. It was meant to weaken the revolutionary movements of Bengal and create an irrevocable dissection in the Bengali society. 

The orders were passed in August 1905 and came into effect on October 16. It resulted in a great uproar in the Bengali society, with a visible Hindu-Muslim rift. The Muslim leaders, who initially thought the partition as disadvantageous, gave their assent after the Muslim majority province of Eastern Bengal and Assam were created. The Hindu protest against the partition was seen as interference in a Muslim province. While the Hindu Bengali leaders feared that they would be reduced to a minority in the Muslim dominated regions, the Muslim Bengali leaders saw that as an opportunity to have their separate land and create an independent identity. A move that will have its effect 100 years later, when the West Bengal and present Bangladesh will see the rise of the ugly monster of communal hatred with religious intolerance gaining ground, blurring the barrier of Padma river, and the geographical boundaries. 

When the British government was embroiled in a full-fledged effort to divide Bengal and a fissure in the Hindu-Muslim unity was becoming more and more apparent and imminent, Rabindranath Tagore appeared as the bacon of peace. Always a visionary, the bard decided to use the occasion of Raksha Bandhan which coincided with the partition as a weapon against the prevalent loathing in a society that was fast suffering from an injected existential crisis. 

In the month of Shravan, the 'Kobiguru' (as he is affectionately called in Bengali) gave a clarion call to the two communities, Hindus and Muslims, to tie Rakhi on each other’s hand. The act carried with it a strong urge to send out a message of unity and brotherhood laced with defiance against the British order. 

Tagore was by then was already a prominent figure in the Bengali society by dint of his literary works (he would win the Nobel Prize in 1913), and hundreds of people from the communities responded to his call. The streets of Kolkata, Dhaka, Barishal, Chittagong, Rangpur, Sylhet were thronged with enthusiastic people tying rakhi on each other's hand. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone participated on that occasion, putting the essence of humanity above caste, religion and class difference. Though the move failed to deter the British administration, it gained a universal symbol of amalgamation of contrasts and shed new light on Raksha Bandhan. 

It gave birth to ripples of protests that refused to die down, and it resulted in the unification of Bengal when King George announced in December 1911 that eastern Bengal would be assimilated into the Bengal Presidency. Bengali dominated districts were once again unified and Assam, Bihar, and Orissa were separated. The capital was shifted to New Delhi to undermine former capital Kolkata, and Bengal's importance in Indian politics.  

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