Two Ideas of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore

That Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengali Polymath, Nobel Laureate and thinker, is one of the key influencers behind the idea of Modern India, is often a contested topic. Tagore is known for his literature, his Nobel Prize and for his authorship of Indian National Anthem (and, for that matter, the national anthem of Bangladesh, and even the national anthem of Sri Lanka, on which he had a direct influence), but much less for his political activities. In fact, other than the renunciation of Knighthood in the aftermath of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which would most likely be counted as an empty gesture by an intellectual in Modern India, he was known for his distance from, rather than his support to, the Indian National Movement. While the leading figures of Indian National Movement, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, were close friends of Tagore, many other equally influential figures, like Subhas Chandra Bose, rejected what he called 'Vacuous Internationalism' of Tagore. Two other political groupings, the Communists and the Hindu Nationalists, which opposed the Indian National Congress and mostly cooperated with the Colonial Administration leading to India's Independence and Partition, and have since become significant political groups, often accused Tagore of collusion with the Colonialists, and called for scrapping the National Anthem at various times because, as they claimed, it was meant to have been written in the praise of the British Emperor. All this makes silence, rather than analysis, a safe strategy to deal with Tagore's politics, and treat him as a 'poet' rather than a political thinker of any significance for Modern Day India.

However, those who would take him seriously often classify him either as a cosmopolitan thinker, and a man out of his time. This is somewhat kinder than the version that surmised Tagore had nothing serious to say. These commentators focus primarily on his lectures during his tours to Japan, China and the United States, which were later published together in the book form as 'Nationalism'. These lectures aroused strong reactions among its intended recipients - they made the Japanese and the Chinese angry and irritated and disappointed the Americans! Apparently, Tagore was being both complex and out of time laying a claim to universal human spirit and castigating nationalism as a narrow quest of exclusivity at a time when nationalism was a rising force, a potent identity that could unite poor and disadvantaged nations against colonialism's global dominion. Some Chinese intellectuals, including some of Tagore's friends and correspondents themselves, concluded that nothing better could be expected from a poet from a colonised nation: Indeed, they saw, in Tagore's rejection of nationalism, the reason why India remained poor and subservient.

Later political appraisals of Tagore have revolved around these lectures of nationalism, and have taken a kinder view as the follies of extreme nationalism became clearer with time. Later historians have given him credit for being prophetic, though that did not absolve him from the mistake of misreading the public mood at the time. The Indian Communists too, found here something they could love in Tagore, particularly as the claim that Lenin read and admired these lectures got traction. However, their appreciation was eclectic - they could never be wholly at ease with Tagore's claim of universal human spirit and his aspirations of harmony - and they usually classified the unacceptable Tagore as 'complex', a poetical rather than a political thinker.

One could indeed say that the very enterprise of attempting to understand Tagore as a political man through a single published book is a misdirected effort from the start. As a man born in the immediate aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny (1856) who lived to see the rise of Indian National Congress and its struggle for Independence, who wrote prolifically and was a footloose traveller, Tagore wrote many things with direct and clear political messages. His activities, not just those of early participation in Political Action against the division of Bengal (1905) and in various sessions of Congress, then a loyalist organisation, but his correspondences with Japanese and Chinese leaders, his affiliation with Pan-Asian thinking, his enthusiasm about Russia and even with Mussolini's Italy for a short while, and indeed his various correspondences and interviews with leaders of men from around the world were all deeply politically significant. And, despite its enormity and variety, there was a clear unity in Tagore's message, which is, paradoxically, somewhat lost when seen through the prism of a single work, 'Nationalism', a product of its time and context. While this is a clear enumeration of the dangers of nationalism, it is limited in its definition of what this means for a person caught in a political moment, between competing affections and identities. This Tagore accomplished elsewhere, in his magnificent novel 'Gora', the plays which grapple with questions of authority and identity, the later novels 'Char Adhay' ('Four Chapters') and 'Ghare Baire' ('Home and the World' in translation), all of which place the political reality of a colonised nation and the question of political action in the context of individual ethic of living, re-conceptualising, as I shall claim, a different idea of nationalism than one we are accustomed with. The limited focus on 'Nationalism' - and the simple message that Tagore was an 'internationalist' rather than someone grappling with real issues of India of his day, of the urgent questions of political action which needed straight and narrow answers - allows us to obscure Tagore's contributions to the idea of India behind the appearance of a 'Poet' and a 'Mystic'.
To Think about Tagore as a political thinker, one needs to start by recognising that he was a practical and social man, deeply engaged in Education Reform, a 'Founder' - of an university and a successful publishing enterprise - and someone who had to deal with his own realities of a reformist religion. The image of Tagore, a poet hand-fed by the empire with accolades and awards, or a visionary disconnected from the ground realities of his time, are both inventions of a later time, a product of a deliberate political agenda different from ideas he stood for. And, these 'ideas', the plural is intentional, remain at the heart of the Modern Indian Republic, and misunderstanding or undermining them as either complex or impractical leads us down the path of single agenda politics and the existential danger they represent to the state we built.

Where we miss the point about Tagore's political ideas, I shall claim, starts with confusing two distinct ideas of nationalism that we commonly use. One idea starts with distinctiveness of a people, a definition of sameness through language, religion or some other historical roots, an 'Imagined Community' as some Marxist historians would call it. The other idea is of a shared culture, as Ernest Gellner would lyrically write about: He claimed he could not write about nationalism unless he was able to cry, with the help of a little alcohol, over Bohemian Folk Songs. Indeed, the two ideas may sound one and the same, they are not: If they were, origin stories would not have such a spell on nationalist politics and we would not spend so much time and blood on figuring out who originated from where (Dr Gellner was Jewish after all). Despite Tagore's clear renunciation of the politics of exclusivism, he would be perfectly at ease with the concept of shared culture. Indeed, he would write great lyrics about what India means and what being Indian means, and one of these very songs, full with the imagery of 'dormant nationhood', so popular with nationalists of all hues, have become India's national anthem.

This distinction, if it appears complex or non-existent to some people, would perhaps be clearer if we appreciate that these two concepts stand on two opposing ideals of living. In the first, the notion of a distinctive and original people belong to a land, the land exists for the people: It is the people who define the land - 'India for Indians', or more lyrically, the corner of the foreign field which will be forever England, in Rupert Brooke's vision. In the other, it is the land which shapes its people: This world is not centred on a distinctive people, but it is a land, shaped geographically by its rivers (Indus, in particular), mountains and seas (Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, drawing civilisational boundaries). In Tagore's vision, there is a mantra of this land in-between, which accepts all comers, melts all cultures and religions into Indianness. In the Heideggerian world, this is the attitude of 'Care', a symbiotic link of people and the land, rather than the 'technological attitude' where the land existed for, and was defined by, its people.

Classifying Tagore as an 'Internationalist' denies the possibility of this alternative idea of nationhood, and puts us on the slippery slope of single identity nationalism and the elusive and imaginary search for who came from where, when. It rejects the possibility of building that relationship of 'care', and pushes us to an ethic of self-centredness and extraction. Tagore's rejection of political action of his time was not rejection of love for his country and of his people, but rather of the expediencies of political action and compromises of the ethics of living that comes with it. In his construction, patriotism, the love for one's country and shared identity, is an ethic of living, whereas Nationalism, a political strategy to forge a common bond through definition and exclusion of the other, deeply inimical to the common human desire for cooperation and culture. If this vision is deemed to be impractical and poetic, one may point to the widespread disillusionment with political expediency all over the world and the reality of disenfranchised individual to appreciate the practical significance of individual political action based on a love of one's own world. Denying Tagore has anything useful to say about politics is accepting an unnecessary limit to our moral and political imagination.


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