Forerunner of self-reliance

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As Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a historic trip to Deoghar last week, becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the iconic Baidyanath Dham and inaugurated a slew of mega development projects of more than Rs 1,6000 crore, which would not only enhance the ease of living of a large number of people across the region but has also given a major push to the narrative and vision of Purvoday – the rise of eastern India, my mind went back to Deoghar and its connection to India’s aspiration for freedom and self-recovery. Perhaps no other Prime Minister in independent India’s history has done, as much as Modi, in reinstating the legacy, especially the revolutionary legacy, of India’s freedom movement.

When we speak of the narrative of “Amrit Kaal” and of the India that is to be built and readied over the next quarter century, we must necessarily refer to the legacy and contributions of those thinkers, epoch-makers, avant-garde nationalists whose meditations and contemplations helped shape the narrative and imagination of a free India. It is therefore imperative that in this phase of “Amrit Kaal”, we keep linking these legacies to the aspirations of 21st century India. It is important that when we speak of and imagine the Indian century, we refer to these thinkers and icons, who in their times and era, had straddled many worlds but whose legacies faced marginalisation in free India up until now when a reversal of that neglect is being seen.

My mind therefore wandered to the legacy of one of those early nationalist thinker, philosopher and epoch-maker of his era, who was a resident of Deoghar, Rishi Rajnarayan Bose (1826-1899), easily one of the principal thought-leaders of India’s cultural and political awakening, who spent his final years in Deoghar, where he was visited by some of those who fashioned and shaped the thought of modern India such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Akhandananda, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and a host of others.

Rishi Rajnarayan was fondly called, “grandfather of Indian nationalism”, because he was Sri Aurobindo’s maternal grandfather. Sri Aurobindo himself would be looked upon in the years to come, in the words of his lawyer [Deshbandhu] Chittaranjan Das, “as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism.” Of Sri Aurobindo’s personality and traits, Bipin Pal observes, that “Aravinda owes not only his rich spiritual nature but even his very superior literary capacity to his inherited endowments from his mother’s line.”

Between 1894, when he first visited Deoghar to meet his grandfather and 1907, Sri Aurobindo would frequent Deoghar from time to time to meet members of his family including his mother, Swarnalata Devi. One of the finest biographers of Sri Aurobindo’s pre-Pondicherry days, litterateur and celebrated author Manoj Das writes, “It was in early 1894 that Sri Aurobindo paid his first visit to Deoghur after his return from England. Rishi Rajnarain [sic] embraced him ecstatically…” Of the young Aurobindo’s visit to Deoghar, Basanti Chakravarty, daughter of Krishna Kumar Mitra, Sri Aurobindo’s maternal uncle and a leading nationalist figure of Bengal, writes, “Aurodada would arrive with two or three trunks. I wondered how many beautiful and costly suits and attractive items they contained. But what’s this! Only a few pieces of clothes apart, they contained only books and books. O Lord, Aurodada loved reading so much! We would love to use the holidays for chatting and playing, but Aurodada would pass those sweet days with his books! …But this did not mean that he never joined us in our chatting and laughter. His talks and letters were steeped in humour.”

To Bipin Chandra Pal, himself among the principal pillars of the early nationalist movement, Rishi Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899), was “one of the makers of modern Bengal”, whose “writings and speeches did a good deal to create [a] spirit of self-respect and self-assertion in the educated classes” that found strong expression later during the Swadeshi era. To Pal, who made a masterly evaluation of the principal personalities of the early nationalist phase, in his then widely read, ‘Indian Nationalism: Its Principles and Personalities’ (1918), Rajnarayan’s “sturdy patriotism” and sense of “national self-respect” made him see the “on-rush of European goods into Indian markets, and [he] tried to stem the tide by quickening…the Swadeshi spirit, long before anyone else had thought of it.”

Succinctly describing Rishi Rajnarayan, in his autobiographical opus, ‘Memories of My Life and Times’, Pal observes, that the Rishi was “personally a progressive Brahmo” who was a “born lover of his own country, and his love of country was organised in the very make and constitution of his mind and morals through his deep and deathless devotion to the ideals of Indian and more particularly of Hindu culture.”

Rajnarayan’s classic, ‘Hindu Dharmer Shreshthata’ (1873), the superiority of Hindu religion, electrified and galvanised thinking Indians of his era. It was, in a sense, the “first challenge of the ancient spirit of India to the aggressive thought and civilisation of Europe.” Bipin Pal argues that this essay was “really the first public protest of the age-long Nation-Spirit in India against the threatened domination of our thought and life by the aggressive and colour-proud civilisation of Europe. It was enough that the British had secured the control of our Government and Administration. They could not be allowed to be masters of our mind and manners, of our social, religious and spiritual life.”

Prolific historian, author and journalist Jogesh Chandra Bagal, editor of the seminal ‘Bankim Rachanabali’, saw Rishi Rajnarayan as a “Lokashikshak”, an educator of the people, of the masses. To counter the motivated imparting of a deracinating education being injected then by the missionary network, Rajnarayan, as a teacher in Midnapore, not only initiated a vigorous educational movement, but in his quest for India’s educational self-recovery and self-reliance, innovated, displayed educational ingenuity and attracted youth. In Midnapore, soon, the missionary schools were abandoned by Indian youth for Rajnarayan’s learning centre. To further his ideas of mass education, Rishi Rajnarayan founded the first public library in Midnapore and also initiated a night school for labourers, besides founding a Brahmo school.

Of Rajnarayan’s famous inspiration to start the Hindu Mela, which within a few years’ time since its inception assumed a huge popularity and an iconic status across India, Pal observed that it was under “his [Rajnarayan Bose] inspiration that a Hindu Mela or National Exhibition was started a full quarter of a century before the Indian National Congress thought of an Industrial Exhibition.”

Of the “Hindu Mela”, which was thus one of the earliest organised effort at cultural self-recovery and whose founding by Nabapgopal Mitra to promote the national feeling, sense of patriotism and a spirit of self-help among historian of the nationalist movement was a high-water mark during the early nationalist phase, RC Majumdar writes, “The special features of the gatherings were patriotic songs, poems and lectures, a detailed review of the political, social, economic, and religious conditions of India, and exhibition of indigenous arts and crafts, and performance of indigenous forms of physical exercises and feats of physical strength. It had an all-India outlook, and specimens of arts and crafts were collected from Banaras, Jaipur, Lucknow, Patna and Kashmir.”

Ironically, though, “one of the most prominent products of the new English education in the country” of his era, Rishi Rajnarayan’s life saw a complete reversal when he became among the “very first to initiate a movement for the preservation and purification of our national vernacular.” He was the first to use the “medium of Bengalee in his public addresses to his own people, at a time when English lectures were almost universally in vogue.” It was through his efforts that one saw one of the first attempts to “encourage the use of indigenous clothes and other articles to the exclusion of foreign products.”

The ideals of his popular “Society for the promotion of National Feeling among the educated Natives of Bengal” was, as RC Majumdar, observes, to “resist the powerful tendency of imitating the West by reviving the old ideas, traditions and customs in every walk of life. Indigenous gymnastic exercises, Indian music, Hindu medicine, Bengali food, dress etiquette etc, were to replace the foreign forms…Boys were to learn their mother-tongue before English, cultivation of Sanskrit was to be encouraged, results of researches in Indian antiquities were to be published in Bengali, English words were not to be mixed with Bengali in ordinary conversations between Bengalis, and proceedings of meetings were to be conducted in Bengali.” Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, spoke of his early association with Rishi Rajnarayan and of how that contact engendered in him the urge to free India.

For Rishi Rajnarayan the ideal of national freedom would have to be realised in “every department of nation’s life, religious and social no less than economic, industrial and political.” In fact, he can be unarguably referred to as the father of the Swadeshi movement and of the kindler of the spirit of Indian self-reliance, a forerunner of the vision and aspiration of “Aatma-Nirbhar Bharat.” Only the purblind, lacking the vision and faith in an Indian century, say he has no relevance!

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