An allegation surfaced recently that the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana , was written by Rabindranath Tagore in praise of the British monarch. Tagore is a cherished national symbol and so it is worthwhile to try and ascertain the facts.
Tagore was a premier literary figure when Emperor George V and Empress Mary came to the Delhi durbar of 1911. In this context a few royalists asked him to compose a song in praise of the monarch. In answer, Tagore wrote to his friend P.B. Sen thus: “…A certain high official in His Majesty’s service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana (abbreviated, JGM) of that Bhagyavidhata [god of destiny] of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India's chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense…”
The song rendered at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress that year. The same day, another song, written in praise of the emperor, was also sung. Sections of the press messed up the reporting, and thus started the confusion, that has since persisted.
During his lifetime Tagore was asked more than once about JGM being written in praise of the emperor. His reply was: “I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George IV or George V as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”
The debate over the acceptability of nationalist songs, however, continued. As British-assisted communalism intensified in the 1930s, even the legendary Bande Mataram became a hindrance. The problem lay in the latter stanzas, which for example, ran thus: ... Tomari pratima gadi Mandire Mandire, Bande Maataram, Tvan hi Durga Dashaprahardharini…
In addition, the novel Anandamath , from which the song was taken, was replete with anti-Muslim rhetoric. Written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1882, it is the story of a band of monk-warriors who take on the British. The monks sing BM as an ode to both the motherland and mother-goddess. The colonial government was furious with Chatterjee and had him transferred to Orissa. The shaken author modified the novel and, in the second edition made the erstwhile Nawab of Bengal the chief antagonist. Thus an anti-colonial struggle was watered down to a Hindu versus Muslim fight!
The song was not an issue for decades. But as communalism aggravated, its ‘importance’ got pumped up. The Hindu Mahasabha organised a ‘Vande Mataram Day’ in October 1937. In March 1938, Jinnah wrote: “Muslims all over [India] have refused to accept Bande Mataram … as a binding national anthem.” It was clear the freedom fighters would have to stall these ‘divide and rule’ tactics.
Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru approached Tagore for advice. In a remarkable letter to Bose, Tagore wrote: “The core of BM is a hymn to goddess Durga: this is so plain that there can be no debate about it… no Mussulman can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as ‘Swadesh’….The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But, Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate...” In a post script, he added: “…[S]ince there are strong feelings on both sides, a balanced judgment is essential. In pursuit of our political aims we want peace, unity and good will — we do not want the endless tug of war…”
Not surprisingly, both Tagore and Gandhi came under attack from zealots. However, the national leadership stood firm. By end-October 1937, the Congress Working Committee, which included Nehru, Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel and Abul Kalam Azad, declared that “…[the first two stanzas] described in tender language the beauty of motherland… absolutely nothing in them to which objection could be from the religious or any other point of view…” However, they stated that “[the other stanzas] contain certain allusions and a religious ideology which may not be in keeping with the ideology of other religious groups in India. The Committee recognises the validity of the objection raised by Muslim friends to certain parts of the song… [T]aking all things into consideration therefore, the Committee recommend that wherever the BM is sung at national gatherings only the first two stanzas should be sung with perfect freedom to the organisers to sing any other song of an unobjectionable character…”
A sub-committee was constituted to decide which other songs could be sung at formal gatherings. Thus, while BM remained in use as a slogan, the song per se was sent into ‘retirement’ by the finest of Indians. This was no easy choice, given that many of them had a personal attachment to it. But they were pragmatic enough to banish their ‘musical weapon’ rather than allow the enemy to misuse it.
In contrast, JGM had become popular. The freedom fighters had no doubt over its meaning. Its concept of India as a pluralistic yet united nation was acceptable to all progressive Indians. It got a further boost when Bose used a Hindustani version as the national anthem of the Azad Hind government. In 1946, Gandhi observed that “the song has found a place in our national life”. Also, unlike BM, JGM could be performed by bands, and an orchestra performance received accolades at the UN in 1947. It was adopted as the anthem of the republic in 1950. The national song, BM would enjoy equal status to it, was the decision.
But what made Tagore write JGM the way he did? As with any creative expression, its inspiration could have come from many factors. The song has five stanzas and a reading of the remaining four stanzas makes it clear it is not addressed to any mortal, certainly not to a human male (Stanza 4 actually mentions the term snehomoyee tumi maata , that is, caring mother). Rather, its reference to an omnipotent destiny-maker is similar to the Supreme Being – the ultimate arbiter of human life. Indeed, this is a recurring theme in Tagore’s compositions.
Another hypothesis is that the “…charioteer, the clarion call of whose sacred conch saves us from despair…” (Stanza 3) draws its inspiration from the Mahabharata . Whether there was any human inspiration to JGM is not clear. But it has been postulated that Swami Vivekananda’s confident attitude with respect to the motherland’s greatness and destiny were inculcated into the Bharata bhagyabidhata idea. It is evident that Tagore’s ‘Lord of India’ is no colonial king but an eternal beacon for the Indian people.
Other aspects of Tagore’s life — such as setting up ashram-style schools at Shantiniketan, spearheading the anti-partition-of-Bengal movement and renouncing his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — leave no doubt of his commitment to India. Thus, the ‘pro-British’ allegation turns out to be silly.