Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tagore’s Nationalism for Our Times

Antara Ray Chaudhury

Nationalism and the notion of nation state has always been a matter of contestation and debate among the historians and public intellectuals in India. Ironic at the outset, in post-globalisation years (where nations and history were supposed to have met their end), the concept and meaning of nationalism has come to dominate the public discourse and has generated a novel ‘political’ around it with much vigour and force. The issue of ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ which assumed serious proportions, depth, meanings as a mobilising point of cultural, political forces and ideas in 2015, was sought to be brandished as ‘anti-national’. The mockery of intolerance became the latest feed or a trending topic in our social media. Nationalism was now equated with faith in our ancient ‘advanced’ ‘inherently tolerant’ ‘Vedic’ culture, and patriotism. The naysayers, doubters, agnostics were retroactively committing heresy, blasphemy and treason by uttering  the mere innocuous liberal term ‘intolerance’. This identification of nation with culture and tradition has led to what many fear as a threat to the ‘idea of India’. Thus it becomes important to visit and revisit questions such as ‘what does it mean to be an Indian? Whether there are some essential characteristics, a particular faith is required to be practiced in order to be called as an Indian? And what are the markers of being a nationalist?’ It is in this context the need to re-engage with the concept of Nationalism arises.

Historians of different schools of thought (Nationalist, Cambridge, Marxist, Subaltern) have given the contours of the concept of nationalism and also their respective arguments about the formation of Indian nation-state. Among all the disagreements there is one aspect about which all these schools agree is the heterogeneity and pluralism of the Indian society. However if one looks at the current socio-political atmosphere in the country one cannot ignore the fact that, it is the very plurality and heterogeneity of Indian society which is being challenged and undermined in the name of nationalism. 

My aim in this article is not to go back and revisit these debates among the different schools of thoughts regarding Indian nationalism. Rather I have taken up the exercise of revisiting one classic text written on Nationalism - Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘essays on Nationalism’. It was one of his most political and controversial text written at the height of the national movement and First World War. I have not only tried to engage with the text critically but also tried to read it in the current context. Thus the title of my article is Tagore’s Nationalism for Our Times.


Rabindranath  Tagore’s essays on Nationalism is a compilation of his lectures that he delivered in Japan and United States of America in 1916. It was first published by Macmillan, New York in 1917. The text contains three essays Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan & Nationalism in India.

Tagore was a poet first. Hence he follows the maxim as E.P.Thompson noted in the introduction of 1991 edition of Nationalism “never opt for a straight forward definition when a simile would suffice.” However, in case of nation Tagore actually gives us a very clear definition of what he meant by nation and from that his subsequent argument about nationalism that (nationalism is a great menace)[1] follows. Therefore discussion about Tagore’s view on nationalism should begin with the question ‘what is Tagores concept of  nation?

In the essay ‘nationalism in the West’ he says that a nation is ‘that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose[2]. It immediately looks like a distinctively modern and exclusively western concept. Its mechanical purpose implicates an instrumental rationality in its political organisational form. Therefore it seems that for Tagore the nation is always the nation-state.

However what is interesting to note is that this view of nation was markedly different from Tagores earlier view on the same. In two essays Nation ki? (what is nation?) and Bharatbarshiya Samaj (Indian Society), published in 1901 he seems to hold up the nation as an ideal which is worth striving for; in a nation the selfish interest of the individual must give way to the welfare of the inhabitants of the nation as a whole. A Nation, he says-“is a vital spirit, a living entity” and he goes to the extent of saying that-“everyone in a nation sacrifices his interest to protect the national interest.”

Tagore was heavily influenced at that time by the writings of French Philosopher Ernest Renan. Shortly after this he himself got involve with the Swadeshi movement in the aftermath of Partition of Bengal in 1905. He was writing songs, giving speeches, taking part in mass rallies. He also set up a match factory, a local bank, and a weaving centre as his way of giving leadership to the movement. He was the one who set Bankims ‘वनदे मातरम’ (‘Vande Mataram’) as the movements theme song.

One thing to be noted here is the absence of mechanical, coercive notion of the nation that we found in his later writings. The first indication of his disillusionment with the idea of nation can be found in his essay ‘Sadupay’ (The Right Means) published in 1908 where he clearly stated his reasons for rejecting the swadeshi militant nationalism. Citing the examples of poor Muslims and low caste Hindu peasants; he criticised the way in which elite leaders of the movement forced the boycott of British-made goods to the downtrodden. Tagore vehemently criticised the use of force by the elites to get the poor peasants for their agenda. In the essay Sadupay we can see Tagore inching towards his later opinion about the nation as a terrible absurdity organised for a mechanical purpose. Historian Sumit Sarkar has noted that “it is this notion of freedom, or individual human rights, affirmed, if needed against community disciplines, that lay at the heart of Tagores more general criticism of nationalism”[3]

A more subtle and nuanced analyses of nationalism can be found in two of his most celebrated novels ‘Gora’ (written in 1909) and ‘Ghare Baire' (1915) which needs a brief discussion.

The novel ‘Gora’ was one of the first literary expression of new political turn which deepen over time. It was one of the first novels that Tagore wrote on modern domestic, political and social situations after ‘ChokherBali’ and ‘Noukadubi’.  Gora who knew himself as a Hindu Brahmin wants to build a Hindu India. But later on he came to know that he was Christian and Irish by birth and was brought by a Hindu family and faces an intense crisis of identity. At the end of the novel he undergoes a spiritual transformation and realises the need to transcend narrow religious identities. He tells Paresh Babu that today give me the mantra of that Deity who belongs to all. Later he goes to his foster mother Anandamayee and falls at her feet and tells her “mother, you are that mother of mine, I searched for her everywhere and all the while she sat at home, waiting for me… have no caste, no hatred, no laws, you are the image of love. You are my Bharatvarsha.” These last few lines of the novel therefore become extremely crucial to understand Tagores Idea of India.

Ghare Baire' (1915) set against the backdrop of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal was another novel where Tagore has launched his fiercest attack against the ideology of communal notion of nationalism. The novel deals with experiences of 3 characters Nikhil  a benevolent progressive zamindar, his childhood friend charismatic nationalist leader Sandip and Nikhils wife Bimala. With the help of this three characters Tagore wanted to portray the condition of Bengal tottering between the two possibilities where Nikhil is  for humanitarian global perspective based on true equality and harmony between individuals and Sandip is for radical Hindu nationalism which threaten to replace moral sensibility with national bigotry and blind fanaticism. The death of Nikhil in the end of the novel when Bimala was returning to her senses after a prolonged infatuation with Sandip and his views also signals Tagores note of caution about the future of Bengal.

These novels are extremely important in another sense in their postulation of Hindu revivalism as a modern political movement which deployed fantasy as core element, and its ideological defeat only possible through certain ‘trauma’ where the subject held under bad faith is finally able to see through the lie. 


These writings set the stage for his views on nationalism. In the first essay Nationalism in the West, Tagore begins his critique of nationalism by stating-“in the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labeled and separated off with scientific care and precision[4]. From here he goes on to ask the question ‘what is this nation?and as I mentioned earlier he gives the following clear definition ‘a nation is that aspect of which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purposeand a little later he states ‘nation is the organisation of politics and commerce[5]. He further goes on to explain why this western concept of nation and nationalism  which is not only mechanical but also not suitable for a country like India.

He says-“neither the vagueness of colourless cosmopolitanism nor the force self idolatry of nation worship is the goal of human history. India has been trying to accomplish her task  through social regulation of difference in one hand and spiritual unity on the other. He compares India with the hostess who is trying to give proper accommodation to her numerous guests whose habits and requirements are different from each other. So the true realisation of the unity of man can help in achieving this. The history of India was not just a mere history of conquest for political supremacy and aggression on the other hand; her thrones were not her concern, they passed over her head like clouds, often they brought devastation but it was soon forgotten like a catastrophe of nature.” However with the coming of imperial power it should be borne in mind that this time the machinery of the West was digging deep into our soil. This time it was not the human race of Mughals and Pathans it was the nation of England that we had to encounter. Tagore looks the imperial invasion as a major break in the history of India. History of India does not belong to any particular race. India which is ‘devoid of all politics ,the India of no nations[6], the nation of the West burst in with the rule of the British.

This western concept of nation therefore varies distinctly from what we had before the British came-“it is like the difference between hand loom and power loom". It is mechanical, monotonous and devoid of human touch. Tagore however makes a clear distinction between the spirit of the West and the nation of the West. He says that idea of universal justice which represents the spirit of the West, which has free flowing ideas of freedom, rationality has been guarded by or obstructed by the machinery of nation which works as a Dam. This dehumanising tendency works like an apparatus which has been christened as ‘Nation’ in the West. Thus this nation is a modern western construct made up of power and greed and an imposition on us.

In the second essay nationalism in Japan Tagores argument against nationalism becomes further nuanced. He begins this essay by citing the larger picture of Asia which according to the West lives in the past. We are made to believe that there is something inherent in the soil and climate of Asia that produces mental inactivity and atrophy. However Japan has proven the West wrong and she has not done it by merely imitating the West. Tagore makes a distinction about what the West has presented before us and what could be the offer from the East to that. If the West has given us conflict between individual and the state, labour and capital, man and woman, material gain and spiritual gain, organised selfishness of the nation and higher levels of humanity then the eastern mind can offer spiritual strength, love of simplicity, recognition of social obligation in order to cut a new path for this great unwidely car of progress. If genius of Europe has given her people power of organisation then genius of Japan here in particular can give vision of beauty in nature and the power of realising it. Because the ideal of ‘maitri’ is the foundation of her culture-maitri with men and with nature. Tagore firmly believes that Japan has so much to offer as an alternative to the western nationalism therefore he warns Japan not to accept the motive force of the western nationalism as her own and asks  the land of the rising sun to lead Asia and to be missionary of the East to illuminate the whole world.

Finally when we come to the last and final essay of the text Nationalism in India he begins by locating the real problem of India in the social sphere and makes the point that Indias main problem is the problem of ‘race. Here Tagore has made some interesting remarks about the caste system and its management in India as he thinks this heterogeneity and diversity caused by the caste system actually is the outcome of the ‘spirit of tolerationbecause ‘India tolerated difference of races from the very beginning and that spirit of toleration has acted through her history.

However it will be a misconception to think that Tagore supported the caste hierarchies because in this essay and in various other writings he had vehemently criticised this as by saying ‘in her caste regulation India has recognised differences but not the mutability which is the law of life[7]. And therefore he draws a parallel between America and India as both are dealing with diversity of races and also tells America to solve its race problem before pointing finger towards India. Here Tagore comes back to his main argument of the text and says-“India never had a homogeneity in terms of race. India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching and it is my conviction that my country men will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity,…I am not only against one nation in particular but against the general idea of all nationsand ‘nationalism is a great menace; it is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s trouble’[8].


Communalism and political Hindutva as the homogenising venture is as old as emergence of modern anti-colonial Indian nationalism itself. They share a complex, problematic and troubled history. The uneven nature of development of capitalism in India, its communal foundations, and incomplete transformation of feudalism in economy and ideology have shaped the contours of both anti-colonial nationalism as well as communalism. Thus, it is critical to recognise and view the ‘modern’ basis and ‘modernising’ character of Hindutva as compared to traditional conservatism. Political Hindutva’s primary aim remains capturing the state. It restructures the conservative beliefs, fetishises them into symbols of mobilisation (from ‘Bharatmata’ to ‘Ram Mandir’),  and cleverly supplants the popular mobilisations and sentiments of anti-colonialism with a communal twist through the mythical narrative of ‘fall’ from ‘golden age’. It drives a wedge through body politic where possibilities of class struggle are closed in favour of what Zizek has called as ‘ultra-politics’ to safeguard the existing property relations. This ultra-politics is ‘the attempt to depoliticise the conflict by bringing it to an extreme via the direct militarisation of politics-by reformulating it as the war between ‘us’ and ‘them’, our enemy’[9].

Like many others of the day, Rabindranath Tagore was also initially influenced by revivalist tendencies sustaining a communal vocabulary popular during the times of partition of Bengal. However, he was among the first to recognise this as a ‘modern’ development, the dangers of communal project and what it would mean for the Indian nationalism, Indian nation and its people. His is an interesting journey from his praise of Bankim’s revivalism to later day internationalism & humanism informed by modernist faith in science, and universalism, and offers valuable insights into our own engagement with categories of nation and politics around it.

Let me conclude from where we began - discussion on tolerance and what it means to nation. This is what Tagore had to say about heterodoxy and its criticality to life, let alone nation:

“If a man tells me he has heterodox ideas, but that he cannot follow them because he would be socially ostracised, I excuse him for having to live a life of untruth, in order to live at all.
The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food is sure to persist in our political organisation and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life. And tyranny will only add to the inevitable lies and hypocrisy in our political life”[10].

[1] Tagore, Nationalism.p.111.
[2] Tagore,Nationalism.p.9
[3] Sumit sarkar, ‘Ghare Baire in its time’,p.149.
[4] Tagore ,Nationalism,p.6
[5] Ibid. p.12
[6] Ibid. p.7
[7] Ibid.p.116
[8] Ibid.p.111
[9] Zizek, Slavoj ‘The Ticklish Subject’ pg.190
[10]ibid, pg.147

The author is Research Scholar at JNU.

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