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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

On Rabindranath’s Prasna and Nandigram Events

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by P K Chatterjee

[(COMMUNICATION)]

Your quotation of Tagore’s famous poem in lieu of the editorial in the November 17, 2007 issue of Mainstream is very appropriate. If my memory is not failing me, the poet composed this poem out of his agonised heart on the dastardly action of the British Government in firing on the unarmed prisoners in Hijli Central Jail. Hijli Jail was notorious in those days for the torture and oppression perpetrated on the political prisoners to extract information and confession from them, by the police, but killing of the prisoners was the worst of all. In the museum at Santiniketan the draft manuscript of this and many other famous poems of Tagore are displayed. In your footnote you say that the poet wrote it on being shocked at the censoring of his statement on the arrest of Gandhiji. I think this is not accurate. Secondly, if my memory is correct, the manuscript shows that Tagore had originally written ‘pratikarheen prabaler aparadhe’ and thereafter corrected it by writing ‘shakter aparadhe’. In Sanchaita the word is ‘shakti’ not ‘shakta’. In the West Bengal Government publication of the Complete Works of Tagore the word is ‘shakta’ as you have written; this appears to be a printing error.

There is no Tagore today in Bengal. At Hijli Jail it was a crime by the imperialist foreign power to suppress the freedom movement of the people, but the Nandigram episode is much more disgraceful and shameful. The crime is by our own elected government with Indian Ministers, their party cadres and the State Police who shamefully betrayed the very people whom they were under oath and duty to protect. Newton’s third law is bound to have its effect and the perpetrators of the crime would be made to pay for their misdeeds with compound interest.

210, Jor Bagh,
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- Ph.: (R) 24611466 (O) 23387845 P.K. Chatterjee

Editor’s Note:
-The footnote of the poem Prasna (published in lieu of the editorial in Mainstream, November 17, 2007) has been taken from Krishna Kripalani’s Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (p. 383-84) where the author writes: “The Rabindra Jayanti or Tagore Festival which had been organised by the citizens of Calcutta at the end of the year was suddenly cut short on 4 January 1932 when the news was received of the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi within a week of his return to India from London where he had been invited to participate in a Round Table Conference. The poet, who had still considerable faith left in the British professions of justice and fair play, sent a cable to the British Prime Minister, Mr Ramsay Macdonald, protesting against ‘... the policy of indiscriminate repression... causing permanent alienation of our people from yours’. On 26 January he issued a statement which the Government censorship of press did not allow to be fully published. The poet, hurt and mortified, expressed his feelings in a poem, called ‘Prasna’ (The Question) ...”

While Gandhiji’s arrest and the press censorship not permitting his statement on the issue to be published in full were the immediate reasons for the poet composing the poem, it is true that the background to it was what P.K. Chatterjee has mentioned in his letter. As Krishna Kripalani points out in the preceding paragraph, “... India was passing through difficult times. Hundreds of brave Bengali youths, the flower of the people, were languishing in concentration camps on the mere suspicion of their sympathies with the revolutionary underground movement for freedom. In one such camp at Hijli, two youths were murdered in cold blood by the guards. When the news of this outrage leaked out, Tagore was greatly perturbed and existed and gave vent to his feelings at a mammoth public meeting held in Calcutta. Earlier he had sent a message of greetings in a poem to the prisoners in another concentration camp, at Buxa...”

Incidentally, both Gopal Haldar in the second part of his Bengali autobiography Rupnarayaner Kule (On the Banks of Rupnarayan) on pages 351-53, and Chinmohan Sehanavis in his Bengali book Rabindranath O Biplabi Samaj (Rabindranath and Revolutionary Society) on pages 67-70 likewise mention that the poet composed the concerned poem against the backdrop of the British atrocities on the young men in Bengal, in particular the wanton firing on them at the Hijli camp resulting in the deaths, since these incidents had shocked him beyond measure.

Regarding the issue of whether the word “shakta” or the word “shakti” was used in the poem, I have nothing more to add beyond pointing out that in the Complete Works of Tagore brought out by the West Bengal Government the word “shakta” has been used. I am not sure whether this is a printing error.

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