Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda are long gone, but the legacy of their ideas and works continue to evoke strong passions as the country prepares to celebrate their 150th birth anniversaries.

In the case of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, it is 12 of his paintings that are at the eye of the most recent storm. London auctioneer Sotheby's plans to put them up for sale next month, setting off a barrage of demands, led by West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to bring the art work back home to India.

Yechury rakes up issue

When Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and West Bengal MP Sitaram Yechury brought up the issue at the first meeting of the National Committee for Commemoration of 150th birth anniversary of ‘Gurudev' Rabindranath held on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned that it could be difficult, even as he promised that the government would look into the issue.

Sources at the meeting say that Dr. Singh pointed out that even in the case of Mahatma Gandhi's memorabilia, the government had faced legal issues in trying to retrieve them when they went under the hammer in the U.S. last year. Despite a massive diplomatic and legal effort, it was finally left to billionaire businessman Vijay Mallya to bid for the articles, including Gandhiji's distinctive round glasses.

Regionalism debate

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal then asked Mr. Yechury why he did not bid for Tagore's paintings himself and bring them back to India. According to sources, Mr. Yechury shot back, asking if they felt that Tagore was only the heritage of Bengal, and not of India.

In fact, the Prime Minister also brought up the issue in his speech, noting that “the first set of proposals that have been received by the Committee have come mainly from West Bengal,” and added his suggestion “that we encourage proposals from different corners of the country.”

If it was regionalism that sparked debate in the Tagore committee, it was secularism that was the flashpoint at the Vivekananda committee meeting, held later in the day.

Hindu icon: Modi

When Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi spoke of him as a great Hindu icon and suggested that the anniversary be used to promote yoga, Mr. Yechury quoted the Swami's own words, saying that he pitied those who believed that their glory lay in the destruction of other religions, and that assimilation and not destruction was to be promoted.

According to sources, Mr. Yechury pointed out that the Swami is also a youth icon, and suggested that the celebrations locate him in the present and not in the past. “It must be remembered that his vision was for a strong and modern India which is secular and democratic,” he said.

Broadbasing appeal

Proposals considered by the two committees reflect the need to broadbase the appeal of two of India's great thinkers, with plans to translate their works and rekindle interest in areas as far apart as Bangladesh and Chicago.