Tagore's 'Deenodaan', Independence and the Gods' Last Laugh

Did we show “faith” on August 5 by excluding 14% of our country? Did we show "faith" for the remaining 86% in whose name a temple was being built, an 86% struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic and lockdown?

I can’t help but feel like the Gods had the last laugh after August 5. They were up there looking at each other and saying, “Seriously, wait, did you tell them to do this?”

They shook their heads while we in India continued the chaos and screaming matches on our TV channels and social media platforms.  I was preparing for a jam session for Tagore’s death anniversary to be held on Zoom so was fairly tuned out of the bhoomipujan drama beyond the bite size news flashes on the phone. Yet, in the midst of practicing the patriotic songs which are sung across borders in both Kolkata and Dhaka that speak to Tagore’s nationalism and humanism, it was hard not to fret about how India was peripheralising one group of its citizens both spatially and politically.

I thought of my teenage visits to Kolkata and Dhaka from the US to learn from varied “gharanas” of Rabindra sangeet – where the music transcended any notion of varied personal identity. The melodies of Tagore’s two national anthems ‘Amar sonar bangla’ and ‘Jana gana mana’  – for two countries with different religious majorities – evoke deep emotion within the lyrics of universalism and humanism. I grew up seeing brilliant stalwart Tagore singers from both cities so transported by the Baul and Sufi melodies and Tagore’s words that religious divides became secondary and imagined.

Yet, it’s the forgotten second verse of Jana Gana Mana which is the real response to the alienation that has taken place on August 5 and after.

The lyrics calling out to “Hindu, Bauddho, Shikho, Jaino, Parashiko, Musholmaano Christaani” to heed a “gracious call” and weave a garland of love amidst our diverse terrain supersedes the archaic, restrictive, limitations of any narrow minded religious thought.  The Gods laughed on August 5 as the sages already knew this from centuries ago, so what are we not getting?

Then a clairvoyant, 120 year-old poem by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Deenodaan’, went viral on the same day. ‘Deenodaan’ came to the rescue of a broken-spirited nation trying to make sense of this painful divisiveness and abandonment of pluralistic values. In the poem, the sage tells the king that his temple built with two million gold coins does not have God inside because it has turned away the poor and the suffering. Instead, God lies with the poor near the trees and on the streets.

On August 5 and since, the nation’s debate on bricks, mortar, lines and walls has felt really peculiar at best in the absence of a broader “faith” binding us all together. If we set aside the wider politics, what happened that day was the inauguration of a temple amidst a pandemic – when India’s poor have been denied the shelter, health care, transportation and physical safety they desperately need. Since the lockdown was announced with a three hour deadline on March 25, the entire community’s human rights have been violated as far as denying safe social distancing, emergency income, transportation to go home, health care, testing and treatment facilities. There have been grave bio-ethical violations of the basic right to care that would be shocking in normal times, much less in the middle of a pandemic. This is the single reason, beyond political and religious rhetoric, that making a party out of a temple commemoration, at this moment, is particularly distasteful and unnecessary.

“Migrants”, labelled almost like “Martians” in the national narrative, were immobilised, stranded, starved and virtually strangled without housing, health care, income or a meal in sight for weeks and months following March 25. We had disinfectant sprayed on a Bareilly bus and folks beaten at Bandra station with sticks, and food packets physically thrown as pity prizes while people were desperately denied their attempts to just get home to Bihar, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal for weeks.

Thereafter, a religious congregation which emerged as an unfortunate COVID hotspot led to further alienation and rights violations, with vegetable vendors being boycotted and told to pack up and reports of hospital staff in some places conspiring not to look after a certain group.

Instead of being an equaliser, the pandemic has led to the deeper perpetuation of divisions. But the abandonment of constitutional values wasn’t only in the bhoomipujan itself. The real abandonment has been in the fundamental values of health equity and justice in the face of the dire moments of life and death for hundreds of millions. That is where ‘Deenodaan’ is such a powerful anthem. How can there be “God” where there is no faith or justice for those in need?

Tagore’s message goes beyond the narrow walls of religious identity. The ethos of ‘Deenodaan’ goes beyond the second verse of Tagore’s national anthem to say that “faith” cannot be imposed. Faith is what one feels in their heart. Faith is that inexplicable belief in a larger force that speaks to our core, beyond power and acquisition. Faith is about inclusion, hope, faith and belief to overcome adversity. Did we show “faith” on August 5 by excluding 14% of our country? Did we show “faith” for the remaining 86% in whose name a temple was being built, an 86% struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic and lockdown? We couldn’t have, as the lines of ‘Deenodaan’ explain:

“In the very year in which twenty million of your subjects were struck by a terrible drought…pauperised masses without any food or shelter,
came begging at your door crying for help only to be turned away..
in that very year when you spent 2 million gold coins to build that grand temple…”

How can God exist in a temple if we haven’t opened our doors to migrants in the middle of a pandemic? How can God exist in a temple if we continue police violence towards the most vulnerable? How can God reside in a gilded structure just because we said so? So here we come back to those forgotten lines of Tagore’s second verse, so apt for India’s 73rd independence day:

Ohoro Tobo Aobhano Procharito, Shuni Tabo Udaaro Baani
Hindu Baudho Sikha Jaino Parsiko Musalmaan Christaani
Purabo Pashchimo Aashey, Tabo Singaasano Paashey,
Premohaaro Hawye Gaantha

Jano Gano Oikyo Biddhayako Jayo Hey
Bhaarato Bhaagyo Bidhaataa
Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey

(“Your call is announced continuously, we heed your gracious call
The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims and Christians,
The east and the west come, to your throne
And weave the garland of love..

Oh! You who bring in the unity of the people!
Victory be to you, dispenser of the destiny of India!”)

So, is this the destiny that Nehru, Gandhi, Subhash Bose, Ambedkar or Tagore’s wanted to dispense for India? The Gods laugh at our divisions, as they did on August 5. For ultimately, there is only that one God of faith, love and belief in each of us, atheist or not, and that is the one in ‘Deenodaan’. That is the God who left the grant temple or ‘bhavya mandir’ to be with the poor of every caste, creed and colour, by the trees and on the streets.

Isheeta Ganguly is a writer/director & Tagore fusion singer. She has a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. She tweets at @3threewomen.