At a time when the country is witnessing a surge in religious intolerance, an instance from the annals of history serves as a timely reminder of religious harmony. As we celebrate Raksha Bandhan on August 26, 2018, it’s interesting to take cognizance of how more than a century ago, the concept and sentiment behind the festival was used to unite two communities, Hindus and Muslims.
Bengal was at its peak of nationalist movement at the dawn of 19th century, which eventually emerged as a formidable threat to the British Raj. To curb this nationalist movement, the Britishers decided to divide Bengal, a move vehemently opposed by various leaders of the time, including Rabindranath Tagore.
The decision was taken at a meeting between Lord Curzon and a Muslim delegation in Assam in June 1905, where the Muslims were convinced of the idea of a separate state to keep their identity. The plan was to divide the Hindu majority regions of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha from Muslim-dominated areas of Assam and Sylhet.
The British government passed the orders of partition in August 1905, which came into effect on October 16 of the same year. However, the date fell in the month of Shravan, when the festival of Raksha Bandhan was celebrated by the Hindu community. Tagore deftly used the concept of brotherhood, togetherness and ‘the thread of protection’ as a medium to protest against British’s partition policy by showing a picture of unity among the two communities.
Following Tagore’s call, hundreds of Hindus and Muslims in Kolkata, Dhaka and Sylhet came out in large numbers to tie Rakhi threads as a symbol of unity. “He transformed the religious tradition of Raksha Bandhan to a secular motif of unity among diversity and resisted Banga Bhanga (Partition of Bengal),” writes A Majumdar in his book ‘Tagore by Fireside’.
The decision to partition Bengal was withdrawn in 1911, after six years of widespread protest by both the communities from West and East Bengal. But its vision was short lived as the religious venoms led to the partition of India in 1947.
Some other historical incidents of Raksha Bandhan:
Battle of Hydadpes
Historically, Rakhi was celebrated to strengthen political ties among kingdoms. Porus refrained from striking Alexander the Great to stick to his brotherhood commitment as his wife Roxana tied him Rakhi, with a request of her husband’s life.
Humayun and Chittor queen Karnavati
It was an instance from the biography of Mughal Emperor Humayun, where the king restored the kingdom of Chittor to keep his brotherly promise. Humayun received a rakhi from Chittor queen Rani Karnavati with a request to protect her kingdom from Gujarat Sultan Bahadur Shah’s invasion. Though Bahadur Shah invaded the kingdom and Rani Karnavati, with other women, set themselves on fire to avoid captivity, Humayun honoured the rakhi sent to him by restoring the empire and giving it to Rani Karnavati’s son, as a symbol of respect and love.
The epic novel gives a sense of brotherhood and humanity coined with this festival. Once Draupadi tied a piece of cloth on Lord Krishna’s wrist, as he was bleeding profusely. As a gesture of brotherhood, Lord Krishna helped Draupadi during the episode of bastraharan by ensuring she was always covered with a sari.
Akin to these historical instances, Tagore’s attempt at unifying Bengal using Raksha Bandhan portrays how a festival can act to unite a community and society. His poem on RakshaBandhan, “Amar Sonar Bangla”, “Banglar mati Banglar jal” (O lord! give blessings to the Earth and Water of Bengal) amplifies a sense of love for the motherland and the countrymen. Tagore’s heartland Santiniketan still follows the tradition and the university students tied Rakhi to neighbours and common people to give a message of harmony.
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