‘Go forward in the right spirit and your victory is absolutely certain. Let your ‘sadhana’ be fruitful in good results – let India be free again – and let your lives be crowned with glory and renown.’ – Subhas Chandra Bose in his speech at the Hooghly District Student’s Conference in Chinsurah on Sunday 22nd July 1929.

‘We seek blessings from you every moment of our lives. Because we know so long as we have your blessings we shall know that we are on the right path. We all feel that your blessings are the greatest asset in our journey.’ – Subhas Chandra Bose to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan in 1939.

In his extempore reply to Rabindranath Tagore’s address of welcome at Santiniketan on 21 January 1939, Subhas Chandra Bose expressed his deep sense of gratitude to the bard for redressing the deeper issue of ‘the poverty of the inner life’. Speaking in this context, Bose highlighted the indispensability of the larger quest of spiritual actualisation in life while accomplishing individual goals: “We are today no doubt working tirelessly to attain national freedom, but our ideal is greater. We want complete fulfillment in personal and national life. We desire that every man and woman of the country and the entire nation may in every respect realize Truth. In this quest, in this Sadhana, political freedom is only a means.”

In the process of proclaiming this rare coalescence of political and spiritual goals of life, Bose acknowledged his deep sense of indebtedness to Tagore: “Those of us who are trying to work in a small way feel immensely gratified to have boundless affection, encouragement and inspiration from you.” Tagore’s direct tryst with contemporary politics was rather restricted. His recoil into the meditative world of Santiniketan, following his brief involvement with the Boycott and Swadeshi movement did evoke mixed reactions. Notwithstanding that experience, Tagore remained aloof from direct involvement in Indian politics till the late 1930s, when Bose had undisputedly emerged as the political leader of Bengal and of the Indian National Congress. In spite of Subhas’s success, in being appointed as the president of the Congress without the support of Mahatma Gandhi, he was eventually forced out of Congress politics.

Tagore on his part, though he differed with Bose on the issue of a violent struggle, openly endorsed his candidature for leading the Congress, which in turn, as historians point out, paved the way for differences with both Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, especially the former. As Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson point out in Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore: “Tagore, despite strong initial reservations about Bose, had by 1937 come to view him as the only hope for principled leadership in Bengal. He was distressed to see Bose failing politically and the increasing factionalism of Bengali politics.” Tagore’s epistolary exchanges during this period testify to his seething discontent at the turn of events. He ventilated his deep sense of distress in a letter to Nehru from Santiniketan dated 28 November 1938.

As the Congress was divided between supporters of Gandhi and Bose, Tagore advocated the latter’s cause with his write up Deshanayak or The Leader of the Country in May 1939: “I am a Bengali poet; on behalf of Bengal I hail you as the leader of the nation”. In this essay Tagore not only hailed Subhas as the leader of the country, but revealed a mellowing of his own attitude towards the revolutionaries in Bengal: “We have seen the fiery beauty of will in the hearts of Bengali youths of the next generation. They were born with light to kindle lamps within the country, but ignited a fire by mistake… but even in that heart rending failure we have witnessed the superb grandeur of the heroic heart… They, in their fearlessness, have established for all time to come the indomitable will power of Bengal… Has all the ink of law smeared on them succeeded in blackening that inherent incandescence?”

Throughout 1939, Tagore spared no effort to gain the backing of Gandhi and Nehru for Bose, though with no success. In a letter to Gandhi written on 29 March 1939 he made a fervent plea: “At the last Congress session some rude hands have deeply hurt Bengal with an ungracious persistence; please apply without delay balm to the wound with your own kind hands and prevent it from festering.” Gandhi’s reply on 2 April, confirmed the stalemate: “I have your letter full of tenderness. The problem you set before me is difficult. I have made certain suggestions to Subhas, I see no other way out of the impasse.”

(To be Concluded.)| The writer is Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Kolkata.