Home > 2017 > Rabindranath Tagore: An Extraordinary Zamindar

Mainstream, VOL LV No 21 New Delhi May 13, 2017

Rabindranath Tagore: An Extraordinary Zamindar

Sunday 14 May 2017, by A K Biswas

To mark the 156th birth anniversary of poet Rabindranath Tagore, the author has submited this article, as his tribute, underlining the poet’s role as a an enlightened zamindar in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. His role there was marked by uncommon generosity in promoting education in villages though his contemporary feudal class was extremely exploitative and orthodox.

Poet Rabindranath Tagore was also a landlord of considerable estates his grandfather Dwarka-nath Tagore had acquired in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, besides Orissa. At the age of 28, he was saddled with a staggering responsibility of managing and administering the estates at a monthly salary of Rs 250 determined by his father, Debendranath Tagore, in 1889. The feudal class then in Bengal was usually marked by arrogance, intolerance, blood-thirst and all conceivable vices.

 The Tagore estates were spread over several districts, for example, Rajshahi, Pabna, Faridpur and Jessore of East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. Pabna had witnessed an agrarian revolt in 1872. Sirajgunj, a subdivision of Pabna became the theatre of the peasant upheaval. Its SDO, P. Nolan, ICS, reported that on the decay of the ancient Natore Raj, parts of its Pargana Yusufshahi were purchased by five zamindars—the Tagores of Calcutta, Bandopadhyayas of Dacca, Sandyals of Salap, Pakrashis of Shal and Bhaduris of Porjana. From the first, relations of the newcomers and the ryots and with one another were acrimonious and unfriendly. They were involved in widespread confrontation with their ryots as they had directed their attention ab initio towards enhancing the rent by illegal means. They imposed cesses or salami, also called abwabs, not sanctioned by law, provoking resistance from their tenants.1

Sir George Campbell, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal (tenure: 1870-74), “at an early stage of the disturbances, expressed a wish that the unhappy differences between the zamindars and the ryots of the disputes might be settled by the parties themselves and that the local officers should use their influence to prevent the wholesale evils of litigation.” Only one of them—the Tagore estates—took the advice in the spirit it was desired by Campbell for resolution of the crisis. In 1874, the disputes on the Tagore estates “were adjusted without the aid of the influence of the local officers and good relations were restored between the landlords and the tenants”.2 The greed for enhancement of rent by the contumacious Bandopadhyayas, the Sandyals, the Pakrashis and the Bhaduris kept raging with its attendant fallout.

 Charles Edward Buckland, ICS and a Bengal civilian, wrote that “The ryots calmly organized themselves into bidrohi (= rebels,) as they styled themselves, a word which might be interpreted into unionists [.........] and peaceably informed the Magistrates that ‘they had united.”3

In 1872-3 agrarian troubles broke out in Pabna, accompanied by considerable distur-bances. breaches of the peace. The actual rental of the estates in the disturbed pargana had not been raised for some years, but the zamindars were in the habit of realising heavy cesses of various sorts, which had gone on for so long that it was scarcely clear what portion of their collections was rent and what illegal cesses. Whereas under the law rents could only be enhanced by a regular process after notice duly given in the previous year, no such notices were served in Pabna, but the zamindars, or many of them, attempted irregularly to effect a large enhancement both by direct increase of rent and by the consolidation of rent and cesses; and besides this enhancement they stipulated that the ryots were “to pay all cesses that might be imposed by Government, and that occupancy-ryots should be made liable to ejectment if they quarrelled with their zamindar—conditions which the ryots might very properly resist”.4

The government intervened to suppress a riotous situation. According to an official pro-clamation, all concerned were “very gravely warned” that, “while on the one hand the government will protect the people from all force and extortion, and the zamindars must assert any claims they may have by legal means only, on the other hand the government will firmly repress all violent and illegal action on the part of the ryots and will strictly bring to justice all who offend against law, to whatever class they belong”.5

The tenants, it clarified further, were “per-fectly lawful to unite in a peaceful manner to resist any excessive demands of the zamindars, but it is not lawful to unite to use violence and intimidation”.6 The revolt ultimately resulted in tenancy reforms through enactment of the Bengal Tenancy Act 1885. The Pabna agrarian revolt erupted when Rabindranath was just 11 years of age, too young perhaps to understand the ramifications and complexities leading to the conflict of feudal interests.

Feudal Character portrayed in Contemporary Fiction

Mir Mosharraf Hossain (1847-1912), a gifted litterateur portrayed in a Bengali play, Jamidar Darpan (1873), the life and times of tenants under the rapacious zamindars. Besides oppression and exploitation, the work depicts kidnapping of the pregnant wife of a poor tenant in arrears of rent by the landlord’s goons. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Deputy Magistrate and novelist, reviewed and appreciated the play in the columns of Banga Darshan, a monthly literary journal he edited. In the same breadth, however, he had warned the playwright against its publication and circulation in view of the unhappy agrarian environment and exacerbated relations between the zamindars and tenants in the backdrop of the Pabna agrarian distur-bances.

Debendranath Tagore asked the newly appointed zamindar to relocate himself deep into the interior of rural East Bengal. The idea of residing in rural East Bengal, criss-crossed by hundreds of rivers, rivulets, creeks, marshes and swamps, requiring burges, boats, canoes and ferries to traverse from one place to another almost round the year, initially did not appeal to him. But the young zamindar adopted a new home and life far away from his glittering city. The challenges, both physical and psychological, he encountered in the process enriched and endowed him with an uncommon perception, personality and broad-mindedness marked by humanism, catholicity and charitable outlook. Without the richness of life reflecting the fascinating varieties and breathtaking beauty of rural Bengal, we wonder, whether the poet could bloom into what ultimately he contributed to mankind. His humanism for the ordinary poor ryots found eloquent expression in his speech he delivered as the President of Bengal Provincial Congress at Pabna in 1908:

“This is what I am saying to the landlords: if you do not empower the unfortunate ryots and allow them to be independent and able to save themselves from your own clutches and those of others, no laws, however good, and no government, however friendly, will be able to save them. The tongues of the greedy start watering the moment they see these people. If the majority of the people are forever exposed to the machinations of landlords, moneylenders, policemen and court officials, how do you expect them to take charge of their own destinies?”7

A Bloodthirsty Class

These pointed observations were just the tip of the iceberg of the feudal world of Bengal. Rampant extortion of the tenants, provoked by insatiable greed was the hallmark of feudalism. To appreciate the inherent implications pointed to by the poet, citation of a few specific illustrations would be candid. There was rarely a landlord who did not fleece tenants for illegal cess, or salami also known as abwab. According to the Director of Land Records and Survey (DLRS), Bengal, the zamindars’ names were hateful to the ears of the tenants. The total abwabs varied from 4 annas to 9 annas per rupee of rent. In the large estates, where regular exactions were made of fixed amounts and at fixed time, the exactions were less harassing than those which belonged to “the class of pure and simple extortion”. In the annual report the DLRS expressed the view that the absentee landlords were one of the main causes of oppression. “He leaves his reputation in the hands of unscrupulous and oppressive agents who make their master’s name dreadful to his ryots.” Few invidious examples of feudal extortion cited by him are here. Withholding the name of the worthy zamindars and their estates, the DLRS wrote about one, “who, having a house to build, has collected Rs 16,000 towards it”. The second “the far-seeing gentleman, having to fight his tenants in the settlement court, tried to collect annas 6-9 per rupee of rent from them beforehand to pay his costs”.8 The colonial bureaucracy considered Rajshahi as one of the civilised districts of Bengal. So we better know the class of landlords who created an underbelly there. They collected a variety of exactions, a few of which were as follows:

1. Gram Kharcha, that is, contributions towards cost of feeding the officers and peons of an estate on their visits to different parts of the property, the pay of the local staff and expenditure on entertainments during Punyah. The incidence of abwab was distributed among the villages concerned at so much per rupee.

2. Tehir, that is, payment to the clerical staff for writing receipts.

3. Piadar roz, that is, contribution for the food of peons who visit the village.

4. Faragati, that is, payment for settlement of accounts.

5. Parbani, that is, payment for puja entertain-ments.

6. Payment on account of a warm clothes.

7. Shadiana or marriage fees. As instances of such fees the landlord of one estate expects Re 1-10 from per tenant who make a regular marriage (shadi) and Rs. 3-8 in case of nikah contracts; in exacting another estate the marriage fee is Rs 2-4 for Hindus and Rs 4-8 for Muhammadans. (Italicised by this writer) The communal overtone in the marriage fees must not be overlooked.9

The following extract from the report of an officer engaged in settlement operations in Rajshahi is interesting as it illuminated the working of the system.

“The tehshildar of one estate realizes 3 annas to 8 annas in the rupee as kharcha under varying heads, that is, ijaradari kharcha, sadar kharcha, mofussil kharcha, etc. Besides this, the tenants who breed poultry are required to supply a fixed number of well-developed hens at an inadequate price to the local cutcherry every year. Thus the tenants of one village have to supply well-developed hens ordinarily sold at 8 annas to 10 annas per head at 2 annas per head every year. The tenants of another village have to supply 16 well-developed hens every year on the same terms. A second large proprietor realizes 4 annas to 6 annas and a third 2 annas to 3½ annas in the rupee as kharcha, while small landlords realize from 2 annas to 8 annas for every rupee of rent.”10

The contributions were levied at irregular intervals when the zamindar was to incur heavy capital expenditure were called bhiksha or mangan. Few typical instances of these demands might, with benefit, be cited. One landlord collected one anna per rupee for the upkeep of an elephant. He also tried to collect 6½ annas per rupee of rent on account of the expenditure which he had to meet in order to protect his interest against the tenants during the settlement operations. Another demanded 8 annas per rupee of rent for the cost of some new buildings he was erecting in Dacca and actually succeeded in collecting Rs 16,000.

In Rangpur, to illustrate further, zamindari servants fanned out to collect an uncommon abwab called Sadhankul, on plea of pregnancy of their master’s wife. Sadhunkul was, according to the District Magistrate of Rangpur, E.G. Glazier, a salami levied on plea or pretext of conception of the zamindar’s wife.11 Their whimsical pretexts were mind-boggling for extorting money.

John Beames, District Magistrate of Balasore, Orissa documented a large variety of salamis the tenants were subjected to pay to zamindars. Some of them under the garb of religiosity were as follows:

1. Baruni asnan: Sums of money raised when the zamindar went to bathe at the festival at Jaspore. 

2. Mandir: Cost of building a temple. No zamindar built temples without without blackmail extracting from their tenants. Larger the number of temples built by one, the greater was the extortion of tenants of the zamindari. 

3. Purushottam kharcha: Money collected to defray expenses when the zamindar went on pilgrimage to Puri.

4. Hathbhara mohaprasad: When the zamindar returned from Puri he brought with him some sacred food, called mohaprasad, each ryot had to take a handful of this and to pay for it.12 To blackmail tenants into buying this so-called mohaprasad, dreadful stories of divine wrath befalling the recalcitrant ones were dinned into their ears. Dreadful stories were fabricated to facilitate these exactions.

 Rani Bhawani had built 380 temples, ashrams and dharamshalas, guesthouses etc. at Benares alone. She was credited with spending altogether 50 crores of rupees in religious acts and charity.13 Propitiation of religious beliefs and quests were the most fertile and unerring pretext for exploitation of the tearful ryots by zamindars. Nobody questioned them, much less protested and opposed such brazen pretension. There was/is enigmatic public acquiescence for exploitation of this kind to invite adverse attention! The curse persists even today. The Chief Minister of the newly created State of Telangana has grabbed print and electronic media headlines by his senseless extravaganza involving donation of gold and golden jewelleries weighing 19 kilograms valued at Rs 5 crores of public money, to the Tirupati temple!14 Such men, who, needless to state, have shamed the people and disgraced the high office they hold are threats to democracy and the secular spirit of the nation.

On August 16, 1907, an English weekly magazine reported the highhandedness of a zamindar under the caption “Zamindari Tyranny”. “In the month Falgoon [1907] Babu Girija Prosanna Mookerjee, zamindar of Gobardanga [in the district of 24-Parganas], in order to meet the expenses of his son’s marriage gave order to his amlas, (zamindari servants) to realize from his tenant an additional six annas for each rupee of rent due from them. [ ........] The tenants of other zamindars get relief on occasions of marriage but the reverse is the case with this zamindar family. Moreover the order is that the Hindu tenants might be dealt with little leniently but from the Mussalmans the utmost farthing has been realized. The moharir or the gomasta has even extracted 8 annas per rupee from some of the Mussalmans. When anybody raised objection, he is summoned and addressed, ‘Sala nere, tor darite suor bendhe dibo.’ [Scoundrel Musalman, I’ll tie up a pig to your beard] The name of this worthy gomasta is Ananth and we hear that the zamindar has promoted him to the post of a gomasta for his efficiency. Is there than no remedy for this highhandedness? Now the zulum of the worthy gomasta will much increase.”15

In Rajshahi, marriage fee was discrimi-natory—in some estates, a fee of Rs 2 and annas 4 was levied from Hindus and Rs 4 and annas 8 from Muslims.16 Communal and caste overtones in feudal activities and culture were glaringly common and endemic.

Feudalism Fertilised, Protected and Perpetuated Caste System

Feudalism had enormous baggage contributory to promote, hurbour and patronise caste to the advantage of the upper social strata. Lakhs of acres of land in Bengal were gifted by landlords, large, medium or small to satisfy causes, termed as ‘religious’ aspirations and sentiments. More often than not it toughened the sharp edges of caste to the extreme disadvantage of the lower strata. The unabashed zamindars were pro-tectors and devotees of the caste system. An incident from the Burdwan Raj may be cited as a case in point. This zamindar was a close ally of the British Empire which sanctioned for him 13 gun salutes in recognition his spectacular loyalty extended to the alien rule during the Santal revolt (1855) and sepoy mutiny (1857-58).

“.....Kirti Chandra, Raja of Burdwan, who once found a poor fatherless boy, the son of a Brahman, tending cattle; he gave him a village, with as much land as he could run over without stopping; and disinherited the the Sudra who had dared to employ the son of a Brahman in so a mean an occupation. The same Raja ordered a man to be cut in pieces for refusing to restore to a Brahman a grant of land which the former had bought in a lot offered for sale.”17

The enormity of the feudal action in question can rarely be elaborated in a solitary sentence. Such an event, on the one hand, was aimed to enhance the stature of the Brahman in the eye of the masses and on the other it served as a blueprint for other zamindars and men to emulate with blind devotion while wielding authority in any form. In either way, this was baneful and demeaning for everyone concerned. It conveyed a message to landlords to do likewise if the situation ever cropped up.

The strength of the zamindars was enormous. The official record of the era did not fail to boldly underscore a fact that the zamindars’ total collection of salami or illegal cess was far in excess of the revenue payable to the govern-ment. A table, demonstrating the demand, collection and arrears of revenue of few selected districts may be seen below. (Table-1).

In 1887-88, out of a total demand of Rs 27,05,129, the collection stood at Rs 26,22,088 of four districts, for example, Rajshahi, Pabna, Faridpur and Jessore. It implies that total rent collection amounted to 96.9 per cent, leaving a sum of Rs 83,041 which was a meagre three per cent in arrears. Zamindars of Pabna, the theatre of agrarian revolt in 1872-73, as noted before, succeeded in recovery of 97.7 per cent, leaving just 2.3 per cent in arrears. This undoubtedly suggests rampant use of iron hands against ryots in collection of rent together with equal amount of salami. Notwithstanding the reforms in tenancy law, feudal predators, as exemplified by the zamindars of Gobardanga of the district 24-Parganas, were yet be stamped out of Bengal.

 For administration of impartial justice, the role of efficient and competent officers can rarely be exaggerated. A deplorable lack of them, however, was the norm of the era. Apathy on this count was studied and calculated to benefit the vested interests. The District Magistrate of Jessore, James Westland, had diagnosed why the Bengal administration blatantly failed to control the situation.

“The zamindars followed the example of Government and transferred the task of adminis-tration to subordinates selected by themselves, not with reference to their ability or uprightness, but solely with reference to their readiness to secure their masters’ interests. The people were oppressed that the zamindar might have his rent, and they were plundered in order that the zamindar’s servants might become rich. The zamindars, who performed all police duties on contract, kept up the most wretchedly inefficient establishments for the purpose; and dacoits and robbers plied their profession with vigor, finding little hindrance from the police, and often with them, and even with the zamindar himself or high officers.”19

From the police to the judicial branch of the administration, these elements, powerful as they were, had well-oiled network to defeat any initiative aimed at suppression of the lawless elements. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had compared the courts with brothels where money alone succeeded to yield the desired results.

Rapacity of Bengali Zamindars

From the district of Nadia in 1871, a case of extreme highhandedness subjecting 10-15 ryots residing in a village inundated by floods came to light. The Bengal Administrative Report of 1872-73 revealed that a zamindari gomasta proceeded with their peons to this village during the inundation of 1871, and apportioning an average of their requirements at three annas to every rupee of rental demanded a benevolence of fifty-four rupees and two annas.20 Regardless of the woeful condition of the villagers, reeling under deep flood water, the aim of the invading feudal army was to exact a sum of Rs 54 and 2 annas. The Government articulated the agony of the victims thus, “The above sum was actually realized...... yet the ryots did not complain.” They never would have complained in this case had the zamindars allowed matter to stop at this point. But the zamindars ventured within three or four days after the realisation of this amount to impose another cess of forty rupees upon this petty village as its contribution towards the marriage expenses of the daughter of one of their own member. Yet even in these straits the ryots exhausted every means of complying with the additional exaction. They sowed indigo for the planter, and they applied to him for assistance, but in vain; they approached their mahajan for money, but fruit-lessly, and only as a last recourse filed petition to the Magistrate for redress.21

The Board of Revenue of Bengal had high-lighted this specific case in its report to the government underlining “the unmerciful manner in which unauthorized cesses were demanded”.22 The tenants had no escape from the shackles of their zamindars. Under fear, the oppressed ryot complied with every of illegitimate demands, “the illegality of which they may be aware” in the face of the extreme difficulty of obtaining any adequate redress.” The case displayed conclusively the urgency of putting in place the means for “the Government to check the rapacity of the zamindars and their agents, and to afford protection to their victims”.23 Any fanciful needs were funded, through sheer extortion and intimidation of their ryots, and this unscrupulous behaviour promised and actually yielded limitless flow of revenue to the zamindariexchequer.

Glory of Vedic Rituals: Marriage of two monkeys in Nadia

A scion of the Maharaja Krishna Chandra Roy (1710-1712) of Nadia left a colourful record by his generosity over marriage ceremonies of two monkeys. James Long, a Christian missionary of Serampore of immense repute, in an article in the Calcutta Review wrote that Iswar Chandra Roy, Raja of Nadia during his tenure 1788-1793, spent 100,000 rupees in marrying two monkeys. Iswar Chandra was the 32nd zamindar of Nadia Raj and second successor of Maharaja Krishna Chandra Roy. On this occasion “all the parade common at Hindu marriage was exhibited. In the marriage procession were seen elephants, camels, horses, richly caparisoned palanquins, lamps and flambeaus. The male monkey was fastened in a fine palanquin, having crown on his head, with men standing by his side to fan him, then followed singing, and every degree of low mirth were exhibited at the bridegroom’s place for twelve days together.” Many of his philanthropic activities had endeared Long to the Bengalis.

“At the time of the marriage ceremony,” the Missionary continued, “learned Brahmans were employed in reading the formulas from the Shastras! At about the same period none of these monkeys were to be seen about Nadia; now they are numerous, that devour almost all the fruits of the orchards, as the inhabitants are afraid of hurting them.”24

So Nadia soon was overcrowded and over-whelmed with the results of bountiful fecundity of the monkeys married in faithful obedience to scriptural rituals! Their immense progeny became a baneful threat to orchards. None-theless farmers were deadly afraid to complain against the destructive monkeys, so favourite of the Maharaja of Nadia!

Experience of Tagore as Zamindar

With a human approach and attitude free from bias towards tenants, Rabindranath Tagore stood apart and had earned admiration as a zamindar, uncommon for the Bengali feudal class. His experiences of rural Bengal kept forcing itself into creative writings all his life. The acute illiteracy and ignorance, poverty, disease, squalor, etc. he witnessed left an indelible imprint on his sensitive mind. “Time and again, I came across proof how lack of education and mental stag-nation led to endless exploitation and oppression of the masses. The city-bred, English-educated sections who were trying to steer the destiny of nation did not spare a thought that the cumulative helplessness and desperation of the people in villages was one day bound to wreck and drown that ship.” (rough translation)25

The poet was rightly apprehensive of the intention of the educated class. He, however, did not have the misfortune to witness how appro-priate he was in his prognosis of them. In the colonial era, independence was the highest priority for the educated Indians. They firmly believed that reform and development would come after independence was won. Having ensconced themselves in the position of advantage and authority in the post-colonial era, the same educated class turned hostile against their countrymen living in rural India and frustrated every attempt for universali-sation of education, reform and development. The blinding darkness enveloping the country for generations has been the sordid contribution of the minuscule enlightened countrymen. Their apathy and neglect is, in the main, responsible for the gigantic backwardness of India.

Shahzadpur in Pabna boasts of a well- maintained bungalow of Rabindranath Tagore who, between 1891-1898, lived there with his family, supervising the management and administration of the ancestral zamindari in Bangladesh.

One day his milkman, a tenant of the estates, regretted his inability to supply milk any longer to the zamindari household. Perturbed, the poet demanded to know from him the reasons of his helplessness. The humble man told Tagore: “My lord, how do I supply milk? I don’t have grazing ground my milch cattle. They can’t yield milk without the benefit of grass.” The zamindar appreciated the milkman’s predicament and forthwith donated a chunk of land sufficient for the grazing of his cattle. That resolved milkman’s problem.

Now a university to commemorate the memory of the zamindar, according to the officials attached to the Tagore Museum at Shahzadpur, is under contemplation of the Bangladesh Government on the same plot of land the Rabindranath Tagore had gifted over a century ago to his milkman.26

As a zamindarRabindranath Tagore was an admirable exception. The brief remarks recorded about him in an official report in 1913-14 are self-explanatory.

“It must not be imagined that a powerful landlord is always oppressive and uncharitable. A striking instance to the contrary is given in the Settlement Officer’s account of the estate of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet whose fame is worldwide. It is clear that to his poetical genius he adds practical and beneficial ideas of estate management which could be an example to the local zamindars. A favourable example of estate government is shown in the property of the poet, Sir Rabindranath Tagore. The proprietors brook no rivals. Sub-infeudation within the estate is forbidden; ryots are not allowed to sublet on pain of ejection. There are three divisions of the estate, each under a Sub-Manager with a staff of tehshildars whose accounts are strictly supervised. Half of the dakhilas are checked by an officer of the headquarters. Employees are expected to deal fairly with ryots and unpopularity earns dismissal. Registration of transfer is granted on a fixed fee but is refused in case of an undesirable transferee. Remissions of rent are granted when inability is proved. In 1912, it is said that the amount remitted was Rs 57,595. There are lower primary schools in each division; and at Patisar the centre of management there is a High English School with 250 students and a charitable dispensary. These are maintained out of a fund to which the estate contributes annually Rs. 1250 and the ryots 6 pies per rupee of their rent. There is an annual grant of Rs 240 for the relief of crippled and the blinds.”27

The school at Shantiniketan, Bolpur of Birbum district (West Bengal) established in 1901 by the poet is a standing testimony of his commitment and interest in education. With patriotic fervour for the countrymen, he spent “the entire prize money of £ 8,000 for his Bolepur School”.28 Shantiniketan as an educational hub has grown into a centre of excellence in due course. While the poet set up and managed a school for ryots in East Bengal on one hand, some of his counter-parts found an obnoxious manner of funding education for their own wards in far-off England. According to O’Malley, “Another well-to-do landlord made regular collection for the education of his son as a barrister in England.”29 Most of these meritorious sons of bhadralok educated in England were endowed with prolific brains to carry their mission of prejudice against education for the masses.

The edifice of the Bengali bhadralok aristocracy was thus erected upon the lower social strata holding them in the blinding darkness of illiteracy. They proved to be the bitterest and most bigoted enemies of education for them. This may sound as a blatant accusation without proof. So, let me cite unassailable historical illustration to buttress the point. According to historian Sumit Sarkar, the Namasudras wanted to start an English high school at village Orakand because the high-caste landlords and money-lenders tricked the illiterate and ignorant peasants in everyday matters of rent and debt-payment receipts. “They encountered stiff opposition from local high-caste Kayasthas who were afraid that their sharecroppers and servants would no longer work for them if they become educated.”30 Guru Chand Thakur’s crusading zeal for education could not be crushed. The first high school amongst the Bengali untouchables was established in 1908!

Rabindranath Tagore had established an agriculture bank that advanced “loans to ryots @ 12 per cent per annum. The depositors are chiefly Calcutta friends of the poet who get interest at 7 per cent. The bank has Rs 90,000 invested in loans.”31

 In line with the same patriotic commitment he renounced the Knighthood the British Government had conferred on him in protest against the massacre committed at Jallianwala-bagh, Punjab in 1919. This event has gone down in history of the freedom struggle as a shining landmark. Many of the poet’s contemporaries died with the colonial badge of honours as valued possessions. They lacked the moral courage to follow the footprints of Tagore.

 A Tainted Angel in an Orthodox World 

The poet, sadly, had to live with the social stigma etched on him by his fellow Bengalis. A popular Bengali novelist, Ramapada Chowdhury, recently recorded in his memoirs how Bengalis were euphoric over the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to him. But Brahmans were carping relentlessly that the winner was a Pirali, implying brazenly that he was a degraded Brahman and hence the Swedish recognition from far West did not make any difference!32

How addiction to kulinism invaded and overpowered even men in high stations of life is clear from a stunning statement Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea made in 1925. “I belong to a Kulin Brahman family, which since the creation of kulinism by king Ballal Sen, had maintained their purity with proud and inflexible consis-tence. Neither the allurement of wealth nor the prospects of easy and comfortable living diverted them from their firm and traditional resolve to uphold the integrity of their status.”33 These are the first two sentences of the 389-page A Nation in Making, Banerjea’s memoirs!

In his seminal work, John Wilson, the first Vice-Chancellor, Bombay University, stated that “A Brahmani concubine of Ballala Sena is said to have had a son who was a good pandit. Ballala Sena made him the founder of this [the Panditratni] mela (sect), now of 800 families.”34 Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, the President of the College of Pandits of Nadia, disclosed in 1896 that “W.C. Bonnerjee, Advocate, Bengal High Court was a member of panditratni, or the jewel of Pandits.”35 He was the founder-President of the Indian National Congress and presided over its first session at Bombay in 1885.

Rabindranath Tagore was also one of the descendants of Bhattanarayan, who was the foremost of the five Brahmans invited from Kannauj by a Bengali king Adisur. All Bengali Brahmans bearing the surname Bandyopadhyay (Banerjee) are descendants of Bhattanarayan. While the stigma of the Tagores indelibly persisted as Pirali, no social ignominy visited the descendants of Ballal Sen’s bastard. The orthodox class saw more sheen in the kulinism of the Panditratnis than the virtues of the Tagores! Hindu scriptures are vitriolic about mixed castes. Karan, the first son of Kunti out of premarital liaison, encountered embarrass-ment for his birth all his life in the Mahabharata. In Bengal, strangely, none questioned the rationale of kulinism of a panditratni.


1. Hunter, William, Statistical Account of Murshidabad and Pabna, vol. IX, London, 1876, p. 319. The estates spread over districts of Murshidabad, Nadia, Jessore, Birbhum and Burdwan; and O’Malley, L S S, ICS on Rajshahi District Gazetteer, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, Calcutta, 1916, p. 171.

2. Ibid., p. 324.

3. Buckland, C.E., Bengal Under Lieutenant Governors, vol. I, Calcutta, 1901, p. 545.

4. Buckland, C.E., Bengal Under Lieutenant Governors, vol. I, Calcutta, 1901, p. 544.

5. Ibid. p. 546.

6. Ibid. 

7. Sinha, Sarbari, ‘unique Landlord’, Frontline, vol. 28, Issue 27, Dec. 31, 2011- January 13, 2012.

8. O’Malley, L. S. S., Rajshahi District Gazetteer, Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta, 1916, pp. 126-127.

9. Ibid., pp. 95-96.

10. Ibid., p. 96.

11. E G Glazier, Rungpore Records, vol II, 1873, Calcutta.

12. Raychaudhuri, P. C., Singhbhum Old Records, Government of Bihar, Revenue Department, Patna, 1958, pp.225-226.

13. Ibid., p. 172.

14. The Telegraph, Calcutta, February 23, 2017 reported

that “The offerings—a lotus-shaped Saligrama haram, associated with Vishnu, and a neck ornament weighing about 19kg—had been readied over a year back, but KCR had not been able to visit the shrine till now”

 under the caption “Gold for God, at state’s expense”.

15. Selection from The Mussalman, 1906-1908, by Bhuiyan Iqbal, Papyrus, Calcutta, 1994, p. 54.

16. O’Malley, op. cit., p. 96.

17. Ward, William, A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, vol. II, Serampore, 1818, p. 284.

18. Report on the Land Revenue Administration of the Lower Provinces,1887-88; Appendix No. I, pp. i-ii.

19. Westland, James, A Report on the District of Jessore, Its Antiquities, Its History and Its Commerce, Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Office, 1871, pp. 67. This report, incidentally, forms the basis of a novel of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

20. Bengal Administration Report, 1872-73, p. 25.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Bengal Administration Report, 1872-73, pp. 25-26.

24. Rev. James Long, article, ‘Early Bengali Literature and Newspaper’, in the Calcutta Review, Vol. XIII, January 1850, p. 131. Iswar Chandra Roy was the 32nd Zamindar of Nadia 1788-1793. He was born in 1738 and died in 1793. Long is known to every educated Bengali for his noble role for promoting education in Bengal.

25. Sinha, Sarbari, op. cit.

26. Rhita Bandyopadhyay, ‘On return from a visit to Kustia and Jessore’, Weekly Bartaman, No. 37, Calcutta, January 28, 2017.

27. O’Malley, op. cit., p. 126-127.

28. Who’s Who in India, Second Supplement, Lucknow, Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow, (year not clear) pp. 85-81.

29. Ibid, p. 97.

30. Sarkar, Sumit, Beyond Nationalist Frame, Indian Univer-sity Press, 2002, p. 236.

31. O’Malley, op. cit. pp. 126-127.

32. Ramapada Chowdhury, ‘Harano Khata‘, Desh (Bengali fortnightly magazine), Kolkata, September 2014, Vol. 22, p. 55.

33. Sir Surendranath Banerjea, A Nation in Making, OUP, 1925, p. 1.

34. John Wilson, Indian Caste, vol. II, The Times of India Office, Bombay, 1877, p. 206.

35. Jogendranath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects,

Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, 1896, p. 42.

The author, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur (Bihar), can be reached at biswasatulk[at]gmail.com

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62