Battle over Bankim Chandra in Bengal

Scholars, historians doubt if appropriating icon would yield dividends for political parties

June 29, 2018 08:27 am | Updated 08:27 am IST - Kolkata

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s Bengal visit has triggered a race for ownership of one of Bengal’s foremost 19th century scholars, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.

While Mr. Shah delivered the Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, the Trinamool Congress organised a three-day programme to mark the 180th birth anniversary of the scholar who penned Vande Mataram .

The BJP chief triggered a controversy when he said that the Congress “truncated” Vande Mataram to address its political ambitions, a claim challenged by historian and TMC MP Sugata Bose.

Joining issue, political scientists and historians have asked if competition to own Bankim Chandra would help political parties in West Bengal.

Political scientist Ashis Nandy said though Bankim Chandra “may not have relevance” in today’s Bengal, in the writer’s time “a definitive strand of Hindu nationalism was evident”.

“This strand [of Hindu nationalism] was relevant during and even before Banga Bhanga [1905, first Partition of Bengal] and there was an element of love for Hindu nation-state in Bengal. But perhaps in those days, many used to nurture such sentiments, inspired by Europe,” Prof. Nandy said, adding that the BJP was perhaps trying to work on this strand.

However, he said the idea of Bengal’s Hindu nationalism, as articulated by Bankim Chandra, was “mildly violent”.

‘Less violent’

“The Bengali brand of Hindu nationalism was far less violent, which may not go well with the Sangh Parivar’s brand of violent nationalism,” Prof. Nandy said, noting that 19th century nationalism will not work in the 21st century.

Former Indian Council of Historical Research chairperson Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who penned the book Vande Mataram: The Biography of a Song , however, feels that Bankim Chandra continues to remain “relevant in our times”.

“Addressed to Mother Bengal, the song in a sense represents a stage in the transition from regional patriotism to a nationalism more broadly conceived. The fact that the song and Bankim’s works continue to be referred to even today – and controverted and defended – shows that his impact on our historical imagination was great and he continues to be relevant in our times,” Prof. Bhattacharya noted.

He does not deny that “some literary critics of Bankim's times pointed to his habit of 'heroising' Hindu characters and denigrating Muslims”.

Above all, the song Vande Mataram, which he put at the ideational core of his novel Anandamath , “in iconising the country as a mother figure, alienated Muslim sentiments.” Intellectuals affiliated to the BJP, however, claimed that Bankim Chandra was “not an anti-Muslim writer” as is usually branded in Bengal.

Historian and TMC MP Sugato Bose challenged Mr. Shah’s opinion that the “truncated” version of Vande Mataram divided the country. Prof. Bose said that at the 1937 AICC conference in Kolkata, the first two stanzas were sung so that “everyone from all religions and communities could sing it”.

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