‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’. It made me feel incredibly proud, growing up in Calcutta and listening to this all the time. It is undisputed that Bengal is the land which gave India some of the nation’s pioneers in art, science, literature, spiritualism and, most importantly, some of the most fierce revolutionaries. Between the early 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, we see a paradigm shift in the political and philosophical landscape of the country, driven to a great extent by the power, culture and ideas of an undivided Bengal. Which is why it is no surprise that some believe that the Bengal Renaissance and the Indian Renaissance are one and the same.

From authors and novelists like Bankim Chatterjee, Sarat Chatterjee and Rabindranath Thakur, to the champion of womens’ liberty and education, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar; from great social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and Prince Dwarka Nath Thakur, to some of the greatest spiritual leaders of modern India like Sri Ramkrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. When a society is touched by such exemplary luminaries within a period of just over a century, the complete overhaul of social thinking and a rise of an unprecedented collective conscience within the society is imminent. 

This is the time when we see a rise of a new ideology across the country – a strong sense of nationalism. Over the subsequent decades, some of the most potent revolutionaries from Bengal emerged, who played pivotal roles in the fight for independence. Then on January 23rd, 1897, was born one of the greatest sons and patriots of India – Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

It was a beautiful morning on Saturday, January 23rd, 2021. The winters in Kolkata are usually quite charming with lovely blue skies, bright sunshine and a little chill in the air. An ideal setting for any outdoor, public event. It was a historic day this year because we were celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of one of the most accomplished leaders in the modern world, who left his mark in politics, historical literature and military leadership. The entire nation was wrapped in a feeling of patriotism, as every corner of India paid homage to the man who inspired and influenced generations of Indians and will continue to do so in the future.

But what started and ended as a perfect day had a very regretful episode in the middle. This episode left me, like a lot of Bengalis and Indians, absolutely aghast. The Prime Minister of India was visiting Kolkata to celebrate and commemorate Netaji, the two time elected President of the Indian National Congress, the first Prime Minister that India deserved, but never got.

Our PM was standing in Kolkata in front of the historic Victoria Memorial, celebrating ‘Parakram Divas’ and the Chief Minister of West Bengal, graciously invited to address the gathering and honour the great man, just shrugged her shoulders and moved away due to an absolutely trivial matter. For one day, just for one day, I wish the political differences were kept aside and the emphasis was given to the legacy of Netaji, which our Prime Minister expressed adequately.

What saddened me even more was the rationale for such behaviour by the Chief Minister. Political or not, let us understand one thing clearly – ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is not a term of abuse and you can’t imply that you felt insulted, only because someone from the audience greeted you with these words. Almost every part of India has some form of spiritual idioms of greeting. In Bengal, whenever anyone is leaving their house, or about to do something auspicious, they always say “Dugga Dugga”, the colloquial way to refer to Goddess Durga – this used to be (and still is) a diurnal occurrence at my home. It is preposterous to imply that this could be a term of insult.

Soon after the incident, social media and television debates emerged. It was pronounced that Netaji never had any religious idioms, his way of greeting would always be ‘Jai Hind’. 

Well, let us be mindful that he was commanding one of the most diverse armed forces on the planet, with soldiers from almost every human faith, who were taking on the might of the British empire. Having ‘Jai Hind’ as a greeting was not only pragmatic, but also imbibed a sense of coherence within the force. But the conclusion that is being drawn from this action is, at best an exaggeration and at worse, deceitful. 

Netaji was someone who would always carry a Bhagavad Gita with him. He was tremendously inspired by the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda as well as Sri Ramakrishna. In fact, there was also a phase in his life when as a student in Presidency College Calcutta, he wanted to join the Ramkrishna Mission. 

In Netaji’s own words…

“The history of India has to be reckoned not in decades or in centuries but in thousands of years. The ethnic diversity of India has never been a problem – for throughout her history she has been able to absorb different races and impose on them one common culture and tradition. The most important cementing factor has been the Hindu religion. North or South, East or West, wherever you may travel, you will find the same religious ideas, the same culture and the same tradition. All Hindus look upon India as a Holy Land. The sacred rivers like the sacred cities are distributed all over the country.”  [ The Indian Struggle 1920 – 1934, Subhas C. Bose, p 9 & 10]

He was a deeply spiritual man and an epitome of leadership, one who imbibed the strongest sense of nationalism within the Indian National Army and eventually got India her freedom from British rule. But he was also sagacious enough to avoid any religious divide amongst his troops. That was what made him one of the greatest military leaders of the world. 

It is my belief that chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ wouldn’t be construed as an insult by a man who drew his strength from Swami Vivekananda and the Bhagavad Gita. His first and foremost love and passion was, and remained, national interest till the day he breathed his last.

To conclude, I certainly feel that there is a deep disconnect between the value system that I grew up with and what we witnessed on that beautiful Saturday afternoon. The memories of that day should have been the roar of ‘Kadam Kadam Badae Ja’ by one hundred and twenty five children of Bengal, Papon’s euphonious tune, Dwijendra Lal Roy’s ‘Dhono Dhanne Pushpe Bhara’ in Soumyojit’s melodious voice, Rabi Thakur’s ‘Ekla Chala Re’ in a new avatar by Usha Uthup, our national anthem and last but not the least, the Prime Minister’s eloquent and inspiring speech on Netaji. 

I had read somewhere that the human brain remembers only the good experiences, so let us hope that the memories of this historic day remain the events described above and not the twenty seconds of unfortunate churlishness. Jai Hind!

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