Kolkata: On Monday, while addressing a political gathering in Hooghly district of West Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a scathing attack on the state’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government for having left a house that has been associated with the song ‘Vande Mataram’ “in a very bad shape”. Modi said that the neglect was not incidental, but part of the TMC’s policy of trumping patriotism with the “politics of appeasement”.
The house concerned is situated in the town of Chinsurah, on a bank of the river Hooghly. Chinsurah is on the opposite bank of the town of Naihati where the novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who penned ‘Vande Mataram’, was born and brought up. He lived in this house in Chinsurah for five years while working as a deputy collector in the district.
“I have been told that Vande Mataram Bhavan, where Bankim Chandra lived for five years, is in a very bad state. This is the building where he conceived the penning of ‘Vande Mataram’. It is that ‘Vande Mataram’ that injected new life to the freedom struggle, gave new power to our revolutionaries, inspired every people of the country to turn the motherland sujalam, sufalam,” Modi said.
“’Vande Mataram’, these two words, provided fresh awakening to the countrymen living hopelessly under foreign rule. Not maintaining the place of a person who penned such a song is a great injustice to the people of Bengal,” said the prime minister.
He then took digs at the state government at its ‘vote bank politics’ for the alleged neglect.
“And there is a grand politics behind this injustice. This is that politics that prioritises ‘vote bank’ over patriotism, and appeasement over development for all. This very politics today stops the people of Bengal from worshipping Maa Durga. These people will never be forgiven,” he said.
The song has caused controversy over the years, with some religious groups refusing to sing it.
However, a fact-check about the state of the buildings tells us a different story.
The building, in reality, is well-maintained. Painted in white, it has a bust of the author in front. Even the riverbank along the building has been beautified.
Talking about the present state of the building, Sankha Subhra Ganguly, a local resident who has been writing on the heritage of Hooghly, said that the building was in perfect shape.
“The building is not in shambles. It’s in regular use and regularly cleaned. There may be scope for improvement in the photo gallery that the building houses, but the building itself is not in bad shape at all,” Ganguly said.
He is part of the group which runs a Facebook page called ‘Hooghly Heritage‘ and lives barely a couple of kilometres from the building concerned.
The building is alternately called Bankim Bhavan and Vande Mataram Bhavan. It is located at Joraghat in Chinsurah town. It has two floors, a ground floor and an underground floor. Because of the underground floor, some locals also call it Patalbari.
Historical evidence says Bankim Chandra moved to this place in 1876. By that time, he had already penned the first two stanzas of ‘Vande Mataram’, which is treated as India’s national song. The first two stanzas appeared separately in Banga Darshan journal, which Bankim himself edited.
Some accounts say he penned the song on Kartik Shukla Navami (November 7) in 1875. At that time, he was residing at his Kanthalpara home in Naihati.
Bankim joined as a deputy magistrate and deputy collector in Hooghly district in March 1876 and relocated to this residence in Chinsurah after a few months.
This residence has found references in several memoirs of Bankim’s contemporary intellectuals, such as Haraprasad Shastri and Chandra Nath Basu. According to Bankim’s biography by Shrish Chandra Chattopadhyay, the former in a July 1880 letter to Nabin Chandra Sen had written that it was while residing at this Chinsurah home that he wrote the novel Ananda Math, of which the whole five-stanza song became part. Ananda Math was published as a book in 1882, a year after Bankim left the Chinsurah house.
Therefore, is it most likely that Bankim penned that last three stanzas of the song – the stanzas that actually created controversy as a probable national song because it was about hailing goddess Durga – which were not accepted as part of India’s national song.
There are also references that the song was first put to tune by one Khetra Nath (or Kshetra Mohan) Mukhopadhyay in this Chinsurah home. However, the two most-known music composers for this song are Jadunath Bhattacharya and Rabindranath Tagore, who set the poem to the tune during the 1880s.
Coming back to the Chinsurah house, a video of an event at Vande Mataram Bhavan on Bankim Chandra’s birth anniversary on June 28, 2020 shows no sign of the house being in shambles. Another video story on this building taken in February 2020 reveals the same picture.
Another video report on July 19, 2020 shows senior TMC leaders, including minister Chandrima Bhattacharya and MLAs Tapan Dasgupta and Asit Majumdar, paying floral tribute to Bankim Chandra’s statue at an event held in front of the building.
This September 2019 video shows the building in no worse state.
Local residents say that the building used to be in shambles in the 1990s. The erstwhile Left Front government acquired it through the state heritage commission in 1992 but no work took place till 1998 and the building kept deteriorating. It was covered with weeds, with ceilings and walls broken, and anti-social elements often found it a good hub for gathering.
The renovation started in 2006 under the Left-led Hooghly-Chinsurah municipality’s initiatives. However, the building actually found its shine after the municipality was won by the Trinamool Congress in 2010.
Gouri Kanta Mukherjee, who has been Hooghly-Chinsurah’s civic chief since 2010 and is at present the municipal administrator of the town, said, “The prime minister lied with a straight face. I hope he has better people around to inform him, if not the distortion of truth was intentional. The municipality maintains the building regularly. We hold events every January 23, January 26, August 15, Bankim’s birthday and death anniversary. It also hosts other events, such as art exhibitions.”
The building, which is now painted every year, has two floors. The ground floor contains a photo gallery spreading over two rooms, containing oil paintings of Bankim Chandra and his wife, photos of his family members, photos of notable contemporaries of Bakim who visited this place, and a list of his published books, with the year of publication and persons they were dedicated to. An easy chair that Bankim used has also been kept.
The underground floor is used as a gallery for contemporary arts where exhibitions are held.
Trinamool Congress reacted sharply to Modi’s statements. “The prime minister is an expert in misleading the people without doing anything good in particular. There is no question of the TMC ever disrespecting ‘Vande Mataram’ or its creator, because ‘Vande Mataram’ has been our central slogan since the birth of the party,” said Dilip Yadav, the TMC’s Hooghly district unit president.
This, however, is not the first time that the BJP has tried to trigger controversy in Bengal over ‘Vande Mataram’. In 2018, Amit Shah, who was then the BJP’s president, had alleged in Kolkata that the move by the Congress to accept only a truncated version of the song in 1937 as the national song ‘led to the Partition of India’.
However, historical evidence reveals that the Jawaharlal Nehru-led Congress took this decision after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose reached out to Rabindranath Tagore for his opinion and Tagore opined that those believing in monotheism, including people who follow the Brahmo Samaj – which included Tagore himself – could legitimately find the last three stanzas objectionable.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.