Protecting India’s history from a Distant land

1. Please tell us about yourself
It will be too difficult to cut a long story short. In my awareness, myself is interwoven with my family, my family with my epoch, and so on. I shall try, however, to be brief. My father Tejendra Nath Mukherjee (1909-1989) was the eldest son of the revolutionary leader Bagha Jatin or Jatindra Nath Mukherjee (1879-1915). He was running six when his father fought and fell. The Government confiscated all the family belongings. Jatin’s elder sister and accomplished alter ego Vinodebala Devi (1874-1943) earned her livelihood as a teacher and, with her sister-in-law Indubala, brought up young Ashalata, Tejendra and Birendra. Tejendra had to change very often his residence, his school and even the district, since the authorities, under pressure of the Police, could not accept him as student for a long time. Compelled by social obligation to accommodate him momentarily, a close and well-to-do relative offered him a corner of the outhouse reserved for the domestics, with whom he shared his meals.

On reaching Calcutta as a stripling, Tejendra rose early in the morning to purchase fresh vegetables from the Sealdah railway station and delivered them to the market not only to pay his studies but, also, send his savings to the family. For a period, he went to college with the poet Premendra Mitra. Known among his other close friends – with diverse political preferences – were Bejoylal Chatterjee (senior poet), Pradosh Dasgupta (sculptor), Tridib Chaudhuri, Bhupesh Gupta, Pramode Sen, Smarajit Banerjee, Bimal Ghose (‘Moumachhi’)… One of the earliest branches of the secret society founded by Bagha Jatin was in Kushtia; it was being looked after Jatin’s cousin Haripada Chatterjee. Tejendra had taken part in its activities, before he joined Bhupendra Kumar Datta, one of the followers of his father and eminent leader of the Jugantar. Busy finding hide-out in Calcutta for absconding Chittagong revolutionaries, he was arrested in 1930. Asked by the notorious Commissioner Charles Tegart, Tejendra’s guardians got him married; he had with my mother Usharani Devi (nee Chatterjee) three children : Rothin (1934), myself (1936) and Togo (1937).

In order to prove that he had grown “docile”, Tejendra assisted Gandhiji for some time: we have his photo, conducting a boisterous meeting in Calcutta, while the Father of the Nation was being profusely hooted. I belonged to the vast Manimela movement managed by ‘Moumachhi’, with its weekly children’s supplement in the Anandabazar Patrika : its objective was to indoctrinate adolescents to Gandhism. Hoping to be pious like our Idol of the moment, I had been observing silence and fasting every Monday morning; retrospectively I discovered that the whole charm of it was the glassful of fresh orange juice my mother offered me before lunch, with a judicious dose of honey and glucose in it. Thanks to my father, I was to spend a full day with Gandhiji, when I was ten. Happy with my efficiency in spinning, Gandhiji gave me a takli. Quite like my father and others of the generation, ‘Moumachhi’ had not, however, sacrificed his cult of the Jugantar : in 1946, at the All India Manimela Conference, he invited me to deliver the first public speech of my life; the subject matter was… Bagha Jatin. It was presided over by the best-selling novelist Tarashankar Banerjee, with Sajanikanta Das as Chief Guest. Both of them, without knowing my relation with the Hero, congratulated me for this initiative and invited other young people to gather more information on such builders of the Nation.

Soon, fed up with the erratic Mahatma, Tejendra met Subhas Chandra Bose who held my grandfather in a great esteem. Towards the end of his life, Tejendra was heard regretting the behaviour of the Congress leaders which threw away Netaji out of his orbit, preventing him from serving the Nation with a positive programme. After Netaji’s departure, during the War, Tejendra turned to Sri Aurobindo : considering Bagha Jatin to have been his friend and trusted right-hand man, Sri Aurobindo had kept an eye on the becoming of this family; his sister Sarojini was a good friend of Vinodebala, and they met often.

Having consulted Sri Aurobindo, Tejendra stood by the side of Dr Syamaprasad Mookerji, under the direct leadership of Ashutosh Lahiri, another disciple of Bagha Jatin. Tejendra founded the Sanatana Dharma Parishad and re-issued the militant organ Sarathi, to look after the fate of the Hindus under the Muslim league Government in Bengal. One day, desirous to have Sri Aurobindo’s guidance, Dr Mookerji sent a word through Surendra Mohan Ghose. The Master from Pondicherry replied : “Had Jatin Mukherjee been there, he would have accomplished the needful, before coming to tell me : Look here, Aurobindo, this is what I could do!” In 1951, Dr Mookerji went to Pondicherry and received the Mother’s guidance.

We lived in the Southern-most area of Calcutta, called Ballygunj Place. All around our house there were large fields, palm groves and, in the evenings, a chorus of jackals. Farther in the East and the North there lived Hindu milkmen and, beyond, heavy Muslim colonies. The impact of the War with V2s flying over Calcutta, American soldiers (mostly black) marching up and down; exodus to Mihijam, a quiet spot on the Bengal-Bihar border; the famine… All these left a deep scar on our conscience. We shall not forget the gory days following 16 August 1946. Then came the ravaging event called Independence, on 15 August, 1947.

Making use of our parents’ second visit to Pondicherry, we three brothers accompanied them in August 1948. Finding there the Home of our soul, we approached the Mother and received her permission to become inmates of the Ashram. She entrusted Tejendra with the creative task of teen-agers’ artistic blossoming. Side by side, he kept himself busy with several activities : in spite of a difficult soil, he got choice plants sent from Mihijam and grew roses very much liked by the Mother; he helped his Marxist friend Pramode Sen to turn to Sri Aurobindo and convert his organ, Shrinvantu, into a mouthpiece of Pondicherry; I remember Shri Eknath Ranade coming to see my father several times with his project for the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. Conscientious subscriber to The Indian Express, Tejendra was happy when I took to contribute in its supplement, the Sunday Standard.

Seven years after settling at Pondicherry, in 1955, before completing my studies in history, philosophy, languages and musicology, I started teaching at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education and composing for the Ashram band pieces based on Ragas, with harmony and counter-point. At the same time I began publishing. Before I was twenty, anthologies and manuals of the Sahitya Akademi mentioned me as a promising poet. I was the first to introduce in India through my writings, lectures and translations important French writers like Albert Camus, Rene Char, St-John Perse. Since my coming to France, I have translated volumes of Bengali literature for the Unesco and other publishing concerns. Nobody in French has written as much on Tagore as I have done. In fact, nobody has ever published as much in French as in Bengali, as I have done : it is worth citing in books of records. My French anthology of one thousand years of Bengali poetry has been well appreciated, as much as my works on the 9th century Charyapada and the Baul songs. These corpora are directly influenced by the sahaj yana school of spiritual and philosophic practice.

It was also in 1955 that I started my research on Bagha Jatin. Having corresponded with and met people who knew him, I consulted under the guidance of Bhupendra Kumar Datta archives in Calcutta and New Delhi, having access to microfilms with the Indo-German Plot (freshly received from the USA). In 1966, with a French Government scholarship I came to Paris and had ample time to go to major European archives. This all led me to complete my Thesis in French for State Doctorate (PhD), supervised by the world-famous historian Raymond Aron at the University of Paris IV. Aron considered this thesis – Intellectual Roots of India’s Freedom Movement (1893-1918) – to bring a missing link in the understanding of contemporary History. He sensed that having caught a glimpse of Truth in History, I was determined to reveal it by all means. He helped me as much as he could. In 1981, with his backing, I obtained a Fulbright scholarship and went to the US archives, coast to coast.

As a patriot, I had never thought that I could stay abroad for such a length of time (more than forty years). But, had I remained home (or if I went elsewhere in the world), no university would grant me the facility of writing such a thesis. In France, too, in order to write the thesis, I had to live on expedient solutions such as part-time teaching jobs at two Paris faculties, part-time producer for Radio France for broadcasts on Indian culture, free-lance journalist, till I was admitted at the C.N.R.S., French National Centre of Scientific Research (in Human & Social Sciences: Department of Ethnomusicology). My study on the Scales of North & South Indian Music, published by the Indira Gandhi Centre of New Delhi, has been acclaimed as “monumental” by Pandit Ravi Shankar in the foreword.

Among my achievements as a poet, I feel proud of having been selected by the veteran composer Henri Dutilleux who set to music my French poem “Danse cosmique” (Homage to Shiva Nataraja) as the opening movement of his opus Correspondances for Voice (Dawn Upshaw) and orchestra (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), the other movements having been penned by Solzhenitsyn, Rilke and Van Gogh; played regularly in major concert halls of the world, the poem has been already translated into more than twelve languages. I have another recent satisfaction to have been consulted assiduously by the French writer and politician Jaques Attali while writing his biography on Gandhiji, published in 2007.

The number of my book-form publications is more than 50, in addition to about 350 articles and papers that have appeared in encyclopaedias, symposiums and periodicals, a dozen LPs and CDs, a couple of documentary films (published by the C.N.R.S.-Audiovisual).
Other than the C.N.R.S. medals for my professional efficiency, among recognitions I have been awarded a special medal at the Unesco by the Society Encouraging the Advancement of Knowledge (Paris). The Governor of West Bengal has honoured me with the annual Sri Aurobindo Award, recognising my contribution in the understanding of the Master’s vision of the Future. My French biography of Sri Aurobindo ordered by a famous publishing house, had been a much expected work in France.

2. Is India forgetting its history ?
The immediate and impertinent counter-question that comes to my mind is : Which history ? Fertile inventors of myths, we have deified, down the centuries, human types and their gestures in the name of history. Fortunately Indian literature has preserved enough documents rich with social, ethnological and philosophical details of our past, enabling us to utilise them according to the needs of contemporary scientific historiography. Very often it seems that kings and their exploits were the key preoccupation of our history. In addition to reminiscences, first-hand information and, at times, official papers, as practised by Muslim writers, we had also discovered non-Indian sources left by Greek, Latin, Chinese and Arabic observers before the recent Euro-centric officials wrote on the rise of the British power in India. On joining the Commonwealth Seminar, for example, Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri mentions the degree of his surprise with the welcoming inscription on a board : “It takes a great mind to appreciate a great empire.” Flabbergasted by the cult of the British Empire, he could not believe his ears when he heard people claiming the Raj to have been the peerless model of a benevolent Empire. He could not, however, forget the sleepless nights he had spent on viewing photos from a proscribed book showing the flogging of a band of school students, handcuffed, in the streets of Punjab, near the Jalianwalla Bagh. Some exponents of the Cambridge School of history hold that the Raj – even if it had been primarily concerned with the interests of the Empire – had the benevolent merit of injecting mobility in India’s political life. It tried to prove that the national struggle in India was no conflict between the people and the Empire; but, rather a clash between the elite (native or not) and the subaltern.

The greatest danger for future researchers on Indian history will be probably the phase representing the struggle for freedom and its interpretations. Trying to forget the genocide that accompanied India’s independence, we are still taught to glorify the Mahatma’s tactics of a bloodless non-violent action.

3. Are people who fought for the country recognized and rewarded ? How do the western countries take care of their heroes ? What are lessons for India ?
Those who are recognized and rewarded had been supposedly by the side of Gandhiji, no matter whether they fought for the country or not. Others belonging to the pre-Gandhian phase (1893-1918) had known the message of ma phaleshu and sacrificed all they had – in certain cases, up to the last drop of their own blood – for the cause of the Motherland. Though they cared a two pence for recognition and reward, it was the Nation’s duty to protect their memory jealously. The presence of the former Jugantar revolutionaries (brought up by the spirit of Sri Aurobindo and Bagha Jatin) as members of the Central Government after 1947, insisted on sparing a modest monthly allowance to the families of those martyrs and political sufferers; fond of spurious glory, too many impostors littered the list. Descendants of genuine heroes had expected recognition otherwise. While writing about Bagha Jatin after having met major personalities of the contemporary world, M.N. Roy mentioned that these were great men whereas his Jatin-da was a good man; good men are seldom given a niche in the galaxy of the great; Roy concluded that such will be the state of affairs till goodness is recognised as the very basis of greatness.

The glorious contribution of the Harkis – Algerian soldiers who chose to fight on the French side in the 50s – received next to nothing as far as recognition is concerned. Their descendants are still expecting a remedy to this historical injustice.

As far as lessons are concerned, when I came to Paris in 1966, Indian students were fond of selecting for their doctorate theses certain themes palatable to the French ego, such as “Baudelaire’s influence on Tagore”, “Debt of Bengali literature to France” etc. My attitude disturbed them, when I held that as adults we were supposed to bring something from India as contribution, instead of flattery. Painter friends wasting their time on producing pseudo Picasso, were vexed when I asked them what they thought of the shadanga theory by Abanindranath Tagore. India has plenty of lessons in store for people who care for them. The only lesson I can think of is that sooner or later, Truth shall prevail, challenging the justification of a series of more or less adequate monuments and tons of printed trash.

4. What do you think are the threats facing the preservation of India’s history ?
The question of preserving India’s history does not arise as long as the hush-hush concerning the pre-Gandhian period of our freedom struggle persists and leaves a truncated story which is far from convincing.

5. Tell us some personal anecdotes about Shri Bagha Jatin
In a land of prolific legends, Vinodebala Devi had lived with her brother Jatin’s memory with more care than a miser with his treasure. She knew that Independent India would ask for personal anecdotes about this brother. She was meticulous in her narration of each event, fully aware that any slip would damage the splendid image of an affectionate brother, a loving husband, a fond father. With a smiling face and tearful eyes she told us several stories. She had dozens of such anecdotes in her stock.

5.1. One day, while mother Sharat-Shashi was busy in the kitchen, Jatin came running, out of breath, struck with an unknown fear. He was about four. Sharat wanted to know what was the cause of his worry. When she learnt that he had fled at the sight of a dog in the courtyard. Pulling out a log of firewood, she asked him in a stern voice to go and chase the dog away. On seeing the boy with the log, the dog sensed the trouble ahead and scrambled. Lovingly Sharat took him in her arms with a murmur that she hated to have a cowardly son. For Vinodebala, this was for the first and the last time that she saw her brother have fear.

5.2. Another day, well past noon, having served everybody in the family, Sharat-Shashi was about to sit for lunch. Jatin entered, excited, and announced that there was a beggar. Taking away all the remaining rice from the cupboard, she served it neatly on a plate along with vegetables and fish preparations and wanted Jatin to carry it all to the beggar. Seeing Jatin’s confusion, she explained that the beggar was their guest, perhaps God in disguise of a guest; she would feel appeased when the beggar will no more feel hungry. Jatin will be reminded of this incident when he will learn from Swami Vivekananda the lessons of service to mankind and the latter’s anger against a God who cannot feed His own creatures!

5.3. An epidemic of cholera surprised the village of Koya and its surroundings. Especially it affected the poorer villagers. From his childhood Jatin had seen his mother devoting all her energy to look after needy people, to nurse the sick, as a service to God. Ring leader of a dynamic band of class-mates, Jatin asked the teachers to let them join the relief mission. Suspected of absenting from the classes to amuse themselves, they were refused the permission. The next morning, with four or five friends, Jatin hid behind a dilapidated house near the school and compelled the school-going boys to participate in the boycott with the intention of helping the cholera-stricken fishermen. Dissidents found themselves shut up inside the ‘haunted house’ till Jatin and his fellows saw from their hiding place the disappointed teachers leave the school. In an article in the Anandabazar Patrika (9 September 1947), Hemantakumar Tarafdar analysed this apparently insignificant event and found in it one of the earliest instances of students’ boycott in modern times, in the name of two motives: (a) Service to humanity; (b) Resistance to all authority.

5.4. Fond of riding, Jatin loved Sundari, the favourite mare of his maternal uncle. As a student at the Anglo-vernacular School of Krishnagar, Jatin was purchasing a few notebooks at a stationery shop belonging to the Nadia Trading Co. He was about thirteen. Drawn by a faint row, he saw pedestrians fleeing helter-skelter. On reaching the pavement, he heard the crowd shouting and noticed a bewildered horse charging from the left; a helpless infant on the pavement, weeping out of scare. Jatin stood akimbo in the middle of the street, barring the way. The nervous hoofbeats and the headlong gallop ended when the horse checked and looked askance at the human obstacle. With an unerring spring, Jatin caught hold of the animal’s mane and prevented it from rearing on its hind legs, neighing in a strident fury. Comfortably seated, Jatin patted the perplexed beast, soothing it with understanding and sympathy. The hose’s groom came out of the crowd with a harness in hand. Beyond the district of Nadia reached the courageous news of this schoolboy.

5.5. After the visit of the Prince of Wales in Winter 1905, Calcutta knew an epidemic of cholera caused by the affluence. Jatin’s two-year old son Tobu succumbed to its contagion. In search of wisdom and solace, Jatin set out on a trip to the Himalayas. One evening, sitting on the bank of the Ganges at Hardwar, Jatin was watching the setting sun. He heard a voice calling him “my son, my tiger, my hero” : a marvellous figure, all smiling, fair and glowing, scolded him for his momentary weakness and ordered him to have a dip in the river. After questioning the man, Jatin understood that the man was capable of helping him. He was Swami Bholanand Giri who not only initiated Jatin, Vinodebala and Indubala as disciples but, above all, promised Jatin his full spiritual support for his revolutionary scheme. Giri Maharaj had been in full sympathy with Dayanand Saraswati’s programme for the Arya Samaj. When taxed by sceptic associates for his attachment to his Guru, Jatin reminded them he had not advised anybody to follow the man; and he admitted that by taking his Guru’s name he felt himself ten times stronger, just as Hanuman did by taking the holy name of Shri Rama Chandra.

5.6. Young Paran (Suresh Chandra Majumdar, future founder of the Anandabazar Patrika) was determined to test Jatin’s generosity, under the pressure of a fellow leader. Paran had an idea of what Jatin earned. He had seen Indubala’s letter informing Jatin that without money she could not pull on with the household. The other leader had come to know that one of Jatin’s friends had just misappropriated a fat sum of money Jatin had remitted to pay off party debts to a Marwari merchant. Feigning his father’s illness, Paran told that his father was seriously ill and needed a big sum of money for his treatment. On inquiring about the amount, Jatin realised that it was exactly the salary he had just received from his office. After a moment’s thinking, he smiled, pulled out an envelope from his pocket and handed it over to Paran : “Take it. I must now leave. Keep me informed about your father’s health.” After a few paces, he turned back. Paran suspected that he was going to regret it. But Jatin asked Paran to lend him five paisa for the tramcar fare. The next morning, while Jatin was chatting with Paran and others at his Calcutta home, someone knocked rudely at the door. Jatin’s ever cheerful face grew solemn for a split second. He was about to open the door when dramatically Paran threw himself at Jatin’s feet, crying, “Dada, excuse me!” When Jatin saw Paran return him the envelope with the story, he laughed aloud and asked Paran to open the door. After the man left with his due, Jatin consoled Paran : “Never put by anything which you can’t accept in a rational way.”

5.7. On official posting at Darjeeling, once Jatin welcomed an unknown youngman named Phani Chakravarti to stay with his family. The more Phani saw Jatin, the greater grew his admiration for him. For instance, he noticed that Jatin liked milk, but the cook – after having sipped a good deal from the pan – used to pour a decent quantity of water everyday. Having had enough of the farce, Phani brought this to Jatin’s notice. On calling for the cook, Jatin gave him a slap and dismissed him. As the culprit was leaving the home, Jatin told Phani that the punishment was too big for such a small crime : “Call back that king of idiots !” Then Jatin instructed the cook to take in extra milk from that day on. Evidently, that was meant for the king of idiots. Phani had been Barin Ghose’s class-mate at Deoghar, before returning to Chingripota, his native village. At Chingripota he had his own militant band including Naren Bhattacharya (future M.N. Roy), Harikumar Chakrabarti and others. They had been attending Barin at the Maniktola bomb factory. On Phani’s return – all praise for Jatin – one day Barin rebuked him for wavering loyalty. This led Naren to see for himself what sort of a Dada Jatin was. He admits in his autobiographical writings having got caught for good.

6. Tell us about your efforts in helping the next generation know about Shri Bagha Jatin
Since more than half a century I have been on the look out for fresh details on the life and the times of Bagha Jatin, trying to dig out from behind the obscurity of a secret society all available data. My task had been rendered difficult by Jatin himself : M.N. Roy compares him to the archetypes who apparently leave no footprints on the sand of time. It had been further complicated by impostors who, under the garb of his close associates, took considerable credit for things which he had conceived and realised single-handed. The fact that two consecutive viceroys – Lord Minto and Lord Hardinge – reached the point of exasperation by the methods which enabled Jatin to corner the Government to a standstill, decided once for all that never should the countrymen know Jatin’s real identity and his singular contribution : eternally he was to be considered as a mere regional personification of physical force, of violence, of terrorism, good enough for killing a tiger. That was the only recognition that the Raj agreed to grant him; historians in India and abroad meekly followed that injunction. One of Jatin’s right-hand men, Atul Krishna Ghose, maintained that possessed by his magnetism, his associates acted heroically; after him, scraps returned to scraps. In Bengali, French and English, as and when I have a chance to write on these findings, I keep on publishing; I have written at least ten books (including a PhD thesis) and more than one hundred papers and articles on the subject. Ideas keep on travelling. Unawares, tomorrow’s historians learn to cast a new glance on what is what.

7. Who in the government you think is working best to safeguard India’s
history ?

Fortunately for India, every major political party has had a sense of duty towards the people, and a genuine – intuitive – esteem for pioneers like Sri Aurobindo, Jatin Mukherjee, Subhas Bose. Because, unquestionably, they loved India, they lived and died for India’s glory. No government has as yet had chances of offering to the public any concrete picture of the degree of sacrifice these people made so that Future India could lead a dignified life. Unfortunately in the list of freedom fighters supplied by the Congress via internet omits lamentably Jatin Mukherjee’s name (whereas several of his followers are cited). Whereas the Congress assisted the abolition of the privileges enjoyed by the princely states, certain vested interests seem to care more for fulfilling dreams of a dynasty than safeguarding any authentic history. The twist has begun with the deification of Mahatma Gandhi. I am not there to forecast other catastrophes.

9. What other case of neglect by the government comes to your mind ?
It is easier to criticise than working out a remedy. Sri Aurobindo had found out the key to a new system of education for post-colonial India, based on original thinking, fed as much on India’s traditional wisdom as on various other traditions and Western progressive approach to a changing world. Our sudden but well-deserved success in Bangalore must compulsorily teach us to be convinced about our specific greatness as a Nation. Our system of education has to save us from the dangers of a hybrid superficial living.

10. What do you expect the government to do in response to your efforts ?
Without any claim whatsoever for any glorious role, I have lived and worked humbly as a solitary researcher. What our forefathers believed to be the key to a decent work – act, without expecting remuneration – has guided my efforts all through. I should indeed be happy if in my life-time I saw the Government snatching Bagha Jatin out of the status of a regional hero, and duly considered him as an All-Indian revolutionary philosopher and leader, with a statue or a portrait at the Parliament, streets, townships and universities named after him in the Capital and in various States, authentic biographies in all the regional languages, feature and documentary films on his life.

11. What do you think are the most serious threats that India is facing now ?
A gradual ignorance of its own values, an increasing attachment to the synthetic standards and ways of material living, hushing the deeper aspirations of the human soul, losing sight of a destiny that is our own, in keeping with the becoming of other nations.

To download the compilation by shri Prithwin Mukherjee on the life and times of one of the great revolutionaries of India Shri BAGHA JATIN QILLA click here.