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the past is Orange

I have no time for the Orange Order but banning its festival is not the right response
Published on 4 June 2015  The Herald Newspaper

Iain Macwhirter
Orangemen need a “clause four” moment to prove they’ve changed.

I remember my first experience of an Orange Walk. I was in a student flat in Edinburgh’s Leith when I was woken at some unearthly hour of the afternoon by loud banging. It sounded like someone was demolishing the tenement.

I craned out of the window to see curious folk with orange sashes and bowlers shouting offensive remarks about the Pope, throwing sticks in the air and hurling threats at residents waving the Irish Tricolour from their windows. The banging was from the Lambeg Drum, an instrument designed to resonate off tenement walls and instil fear.

I later learned that I was dossing in a supposedly Catholic area of town and this was one of many Orange walks. I’d had a sheltered atheist upbringing in which such things as religious sectarianism were unknowable. This was one aspect of 20th century working class culture that didn’t appeal.

The “walk” was more like an army of occupation, which is pretty much what the Orange Order is, or used to be, all about: it is about promoting and defending Protestant supremacy. The paramilitary standards, flutes and drums were primarily about intimidation.

Later when I was working for the BBC in the 1980s I frequently faced the Big Daddy of Protestant sectarianism: the annual July 12th celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which King Billy – William of Orange – overwhelmed the Catholic supporters of James V11th (James 11 in England).

I suppose this was celebrating community in one sense, but it mainly seemed to be about getting very drunk and trying to provoke fights. In fact I vividly remember seeing what could only be described as a riot in central Glasgow with broken heads and windows.

I was amazed that this didn’t dominate the evening news and the next day’s papers. I was advised by a BBC colleague that the broadcasters tended to underplay these events in the interest of public safety and not provoking further violence.

I don’t believe this was ever editorial policy in the BBC, but it seemed to me to be a form of self-censorship. It was as if Scotland just couldn’t face up to its sectarianism, which until pretty recently we frankly couldn’t.

And so we come to this weekend’s Orangefest, a celebration of the “history and culture” of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland which will take place in George Square with Glasgow Council’s blessing on Saturday.

The Order presents itself as an “ethnic minority” with a right to hold its own cultural celebration. Let’s hope other tribes don’t come to celebrate theirs.

We’re assured that breaking heads will not be part of Orangefest, but the big Lambeg drum will be. “Big Drums are part of our culture”, said Edward Hyde, Grand Master of the County Grand Orange Lodge of Glasgow on BBC radio yesterday. The Black Skull Corps of Fife and Drum will be there, along with face-painting and no doubt a bouncy Londonderry Castle.

Orangefest also allows the boys to hold an extra Orange walk this year through the centre of the city. Will there be songs that could be illegal if sung at a football ground?

There has been outrage at all of this. Yesterday alone 20,000 people signed a petition calling on the event to be disowned by the council and even banned. “The Klu Klux Klan wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate its culture in George Square” said one. “The Order is no more the voice of Protestantism than the Provisional IRA is the voice of Catholicism, or ISIS of Sunni Islam”, said a comment piece on Bella Caledonia.

The SNP opposition on Glasgow City Council don’t seem too happy either at giving civic reception to the Orangemen. Nationalists are still smarting from the events of September 19 last year, when Loyalists invaded George Square tearing up saltires and giving Nazi salutes to the Yes supporters.

And it’s true that the Orange Order is a sectarian organisation in that it doesn’t allow Catholics to join; not that I imagine they’d be queuing up so do to. But I’m not sure banning is the right response. If every organisation that insisted its members abide by its core beliefs were to be outlawed then we would be banning lots of religious organisations.

I loathe everything that the Orange Order has stood for in the past. But it claims that it is no longer a militant organisation and that it no longer seeks confrontation with Catholics. People will scoff at this, and perhaps with justification.

However, it is not all that long ago since the Church of Scotland itself was militantly anti-Catholic. In the 1920s, Kirk figures openly called Catholic immigrants “vermin” and “carriers of disease”. The Kirk is no longer a sectarian organisation, though it still expects its members to be Protestant.

Religious sects and far-right organisations like the Orange Order thrive on persecution. Denying them expression only strengthens them, lends mystique, even martyrdom. Putting them in the spotlight – like putting the former BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time – exposes them to ridicule and scrutiny. It shows us what they really are.

So I say: let the Orange Order hold their festival on Glasgow, provided it is peaceful. Police Scotland say that it is “low risk” and who am I to argue with that? Let’s see what it is about their culture that they really want to celebrate.

No doubt we will hear all about how Mozart was a freemason and how Dr Barnardo, of the children’s homes, was an Orangeman; and that King Billy was fighting against dynastic tyranny.

It’s true that William of Orange was, indeed, responsible for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which led to the Bill of Rights, the end of absolutism and the foundation of our democratic constitution.

The Jacobite rebellions are still celebrated by some Scottish nationalists. Yet Bonny Prince Charlie was attempting to restore to the UK the Stuarts and reverse the achievements of 1688; at least that’s how many Lowland Scots like the philosopher David Hume saw it.

Somehow, I’m not sure this is quite the history that the Orange Order thinks it’s celebrating. But fair dos. Organisations can change. However, they need to make positive signs that they have reconciled themselves with their own sectarian past.

So here’s a challenge to the new, inclusive, non-sectarian Orange Order. How about a statement on Saturday that it would support repeal of the 1701 Act of Settlement that prevents a Catholic from acceding to the UK throne? Call it the Orangemen’s “clause four” moment.

What better way to show that the Order really is simply celebrating the positive aspects of Protestant culture and history, and not sectarian division?

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Tagore

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Tagore’s legacy: Seeking out the man behind the mask

May 8, 2013

Tagore’s legacy: Seeking out the man behind the mask (Thinkstock photos/Getty Images)

To reconsider the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) on his 152nd birth anniversary is to confront a maze of contradictions.

What, for instance, inspired a school dropout without a college degree to establish an international university? Why did a member of the land-owning ‘zamindar’ class feel compelled to write about the lives of oppressed peasants, and to experiment with schemes for rural development? How could a man write so insightfully about the lives of women? What made him express religious devotion in erotic language, and love in the language of religion? Why did he yearn for fame, yet live in constant fear of it?

Difficult questions, but some clues may be found in the chequered narrative of Rabindranath’s own life. He was born, he tells us, at the confluence of three important movements: the wave of social and religious reform, the literary renaissance in Bengal, and the nationalist struggle. His grandfather, Dwarakanath Tagore, was a well-known entrepreneur, and his father, Debendranath Tagore, was a pioneer of the Brahmo Samaj, a group of liberals who opposed Hindu orthodoxy. The youngest of 14 children, Rabindranath grew up in a privileged household in Kolkata, in an eclectic atmosphere where he was exposed to multiple cultural influences. He could never adapt to formal systems of schooling; he received his real education from the rich cultural environment of his home and family, and his travels in India and abroad. His literary talent blossomed early, and under the influence of his brother, Jyotirindranath, he discovered his gift of music.

In childhood and adolescence, his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi became his playmate, companion and early muse. As a young man, he was sent to East Bengal (then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) to mind the family estates there. Here he fell in love with the riverine landscape of Bengal, and also developed a strong social conscience, as well as an understanding of psychology, through his direct contact with ordinary people. At 20, he married Mrinalini Devi, aged ten. They had several children, and their marriage was a happy one.

In the early 1900s, Tagore suffered a series of personal losses, with the deaths of his father, his wife, and his favourite child. During this period, he first espoused, and then moved away from, the fiery nationalism of the ‘swadeshi’ (nationalist) movement. In 1913 came the Nobel Prize, and international acclaim. In 1919, he renounced his knighthood in protest against the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre by the British soldiers. All his life, Tagore travelled restlessly, in search of diverse cultural experiences, but also often to raise funds for Visva-Bharati, his university in Santiniketan, West Bengal. Late in life, Tagore emerged as a painter of rare talent. His works drew international attention thanks to the efforts of Victoria Ocampo, an Argentinian woman with whom he formed a close friendship.

Tagore was a complex person, tormented by inner conflicts. He craved for solitude, yet felt a profound sense of affinity with others. He yearned for fame, yet lived in constant fear that it would dilute his genius. Through his long career, Rabindranath was dogged by controversy. Many did not understand his ambivalence about East-West relations, for though he opposed British imperialism, he remained a great admirer of English literature and art. Deploring aggressive and materialistic forms of nationalism, Tagore criticised Japan for aping the West, yet affirmed his faith in the future resurgence of Asia. Though he and Gandhi shared a mutual admiration, they differed on many counts, for Tagore did not endorse the Non-Cooperation Movement, and placed humanism above nationalism.

When he died in 1941, Tagore left behind a staggering body or work. A prolific writer and artist, he composed not only poetry but also plays, stories, novels, essays, songs, satires, travelogues, memoirs and letters. He wrote, for instance, almost 100 short stories, over 40 plays, and more than 2,000 songs. His collected works and letters run into more than 30 volumes. About 3,000 paintings are attributed to him. His doodles blur the line between writing and visual art. Rabindrasangeet, the form of music and songs invented by Tagore, is an eclectic mix of classical, folk and foreign influences, set to exquisite lyrics that have come to be regarded as a cornerstone of Bengali culture and consciousness.

Rabindranath has the unique distinction of having composed the songs that would later become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh and is said to have inspired the anthem of Sri Lanka as well. His works have been translated into many languages. At the peak of his fame, he was feted by the Western world as the author of Gitanjali, Sadhana and The Religion of Man. His song, Ekla cholo re (“Walk alone”) inspired Gandhi, and the poems of Gitanjali stirred the imagination of W.B. Yeats and William Rothenstein. Though widely regarded as a poet-philosopher, he was also a brilliant writer of short stories, and had a profound impact on the emergence of the modern Indian novel. In Chokher Bali he highlights the plight of widows, and in Gora, denounces forms of social discrimination based on caste, creed and nationality. His letters are a treasure-trove of ideas, experiences and emotions, and plays such as Raktakarabi remain landmarks in symbolic drama. He also translated some of his own works into English.

Yet Tagore’s reputation, always fragile, stands today at a precarious crossroads between the blind adulation of his diehard admirers and the near-oblivion to which the rest of the world seems to have consigned him. To his devotees at home, Tagore remains “Gurudev”, a revered figure beyond criticism. To readers abroad, he still retains something of his earlier image, as a sage from the East with a message that might save the decadent West from disintegration. Tagore, sensitive about his public image, had himself fostered these stereotypes, to some extent. But now it is time to seek out the man behind the mask.

Who, then, is the ‘real’ Tagore? The poet and mystic with his eye trained on infinity, or the stringent social critic whose sharp, unsparing gaze targets the ground realities of his time? The visionary educationist, or the passionate lover of nature? The lyricist who sings of love and loss, rainclouds and thunderstorms, or the spinner of tales who writes so intricately of human relationships in his stories and novels? Is Tagore the presiding deity of Bengali culture, or does he belong to the world?

The “real” Tagore remains notoriously hard to pin down, for his works mean different things to different generations. Certainly, his prescience seems extraordinary. His prime concerns – gender, class, caste, nation, community, language, violence, environment, education, rural reconstruction, literature, art, relationships – continue to haunt us today. His humanism and advocacy of tolerance have not lost their significance for our divided world. “We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy”, he insisted. Rabindranath raised his voice against the dominance of some nations over others, but also recognized the power of language, literature, art and music to create bridges of understanding across geopolitical borders.

A pity, then, that young people today know so little about Tagore, for he has so much to offer them. A strong opponent of rote learning, he celebrates the imaginative freedom of the “child mind”, its closeness to the miracle of nature and creation. This is the founding principle of Visva-Bharati, conceived as a world university where young students develop their intellect and imagination in harmony with the environment. “How intensely did life throb for us! Earth, water, foliage and sky all spoke to us and would not be disregarded”, he says of his own childhood, in My Reminiscences. In a sense, Rabindranath never really grew up, for he never lost his childlike sense of wonder at the beauty of our world. If the younger generations have lost touch with their “child mind”, perhaps it is to Rabindranath Tagore they should turn, to recover something of that magic.

(Radha Chakravarty, literary critic and translator, is the co-editor of The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva-Bharati, 2011) and the author of Novelist Tagore: Gender and Modernity in Selected Texts (Routledge 2013))

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