KOLKATA: History stands testimony to how raksha bandhan has helped to melt differences between and among humans belonging to different groups. It is said that in the Middle Ages, in the second quarter of 16th century, Queen Karnavati, the widowed queen of Chittor, sent a rakhi to Mughal emperor Humayun, son of Babur and father of Akbar, when she required his help. The festival apparently grew in popularity after this.

The story goes that 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. According to ancient narratives, when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BC, his wife Roxana sent a sacred thread to Puru, asking him not to harm her husband in battle. In accordance with tradition, Puru, a Katoch king, gave full respect to the rakhi. On the battlefield, when he was about to deliver a final blow to Alexander, he allegedly looked at the rakhi on his own wrist and restrained himself.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 shook Rabindranath Tagore so much that he composed a poem titled "Rakhi" and marched through Calcutta with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh for a holy mass dip in the Ganges. They tied rakhi to people's hands as a symbol of the unbreakable unity of Bengal. In certain parts of India, especially in the east, Hindus and Muslims tie rakhis to each other to promote communal harmony.

When the British government decided to partition Bengal in 1905, Rabindranath Tagore used Raksha Bandhan that fell on the same day when partition plan was to take effect on October 16, 1905, to send a political message of communal-harmony by encouraging Hindu and Muslims to tie the sacred threads of fraternity and unity on each other’s wrists and urged everyone to fast for a day. “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. 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,” writes journalist Arnab Mitra in a well-researched article (The Indian Express, August 8 2017). Students, teachers and the entire community who live and work in Tagore’s Santiniketan still follow the tradition. Students tied Rakhi to neighbours and common people to give a message of harmony.

Most recently, Baduria and Bashirhat in West Bengal, two places dominated media headlines in July after reports communal riots over morphed photo on Facebook. The locality has since tried to overcome communal tension by organizing several interfaith programs. Hindus and Muslims of riot hit Basirhat celebrated Raksha Bandhan by tying rakhi on each other’s wrists under the banner ‘Bangla Sanskriti Mancha’ at the Basirhat Town Hall to spread the message of peace and harmony. The programme was co-organized by NGO ‘Rights to Life Foundation’ and a local media, Times Bangla. Besides locals, some civil society members from Kolkata also participated in the event attended by over 100 people. Around 20 intellectuals from various fields, including literary world, artist, writers, poets, teachers, and journalists attended the event where cultural programs were also organized. Pannalal Mallick, a Bengali writer from Bashirhat, said, “The current political situation in Bengal demand that we follow the path of Tagore who thwarted the divide and rule policy of British by organizing Raksha Bandhan. Through rakhi we are trying to remind each other of our peaceful coexistence.”

"Bengal is the Land of Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Netaji Subash Chandra Bose where Hindus and Muslims have lived together peacefully. Through this program, we want to send the message of peace and harmony,” said Samirul Islam of ‘Rights to Life Foundation,’ adding, “Bengalis will stand firm and fight all kinds of communal forces.” Nirmal Ghosh of All India People's Forum, several local madrassa teachers from nearby villages, journalists and locals attended the program.

“Tagore 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.

The vital question that raises its ugly head in the midst of all these historical examples of how Raksha Bandhan has been strategically used to mend relations between and among decimated groups, is that – does this kind of lip-service – if one can call it that – really smoothen the fractured relationships between and among people?

It is a token of bonding as we understand it. It is a reinstatement of the brother-sister bonding in an age where globalization has distanced members of the same family through geographical and cultural spaces. India today is right in the middle of a Hindu revivalist ideology that goes against the grain of the secular spirit of a democratic republic that is engraved in our Constitution.

Within an ambience of fear, hate, insecurity and uncertaintly, one can only send up fervent prayers hoping raksha bandhan will transcend the borders of mere rituals and step into a wider world of humanitarian harmony.