Why we should read Tagore to understand Indian Nationalism?

(This is a detailed curation of EPW’s reading list on Tagore and Nationalism)

The most succinct definition of ‘nation’ was given by Benedict Anderson in his most influential book ‘Imagined Communities- Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism’. Anderson defined a nation as an imagined community. Imagined because most of the people living in a nation would never meet or see each other in their lifetimes, yet there is a commonality that binds them together.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet. It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

Anderson’s idea of nation as a ‘horizontal comradeship’ is an antithesis to the idea of nationalism of the right-wing that is premised on exclusion and otherness of minorities. The later is vacuous, loud, jingoist and violent.

At this juncture it’s pertinent to understand Tagore’s views on nationalism and why he looked at it with suspicion.

Ashis Nandy in his article titled ‘Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious’ argues that Tagore was skeptical about the conceptualization of nationalism in Europe, during 19th century. According to Tagore, nationalism is not compatible to the syncretism of India.This skepticism was visible in his 3 iconic political novels- Gora, Ghare Baire and Char Adhyay.

Tagore’s understanding of nationalism – that is, its genuine European version that took its final shape in the 19th century as an inseparable adjunct of the modern nation state and the idea of nationality – is explicit in a number of essays and letters, but the most moving and disturbing exploration of the social and ethical ramifications of the idea is in his three political novels: Gora, Ghare Baire and Char Adhyay. Each of the novels is built around a significant political formulation, though it is doubtful if the poet did so deliberately. In Gora, Tagore gives a powerful psychological definition of nationalism where nationalism becomes a defence against recognising the permeable or porous boundaries of one’s self that the cultures in his part of the world sanction. He in effect argues that the idea of nationalism is intrinsically non Indian or anti-Indianan offence against Indian civilisation and its principles of religious and cultural plurality. Ghare Baire is a story of how nationalism dismantles community life and releases the demon of ethnoreligious violence. It destroys the “home” by tinkering with the moral basis of social and cultural reciprocity and hospitality in the Indic civilisation. Char Adhyay is an early, perhaps the first exploration of the roots of industrialised, assembly line violence as a specialisation of the modern times. It anticipates the works of Hannah Arendt, Robert J Lifton and Zygmunt Bauman on the changing nature of organised mass violence and its links with nationalism.

Nandy further argues that Tagore’s belief in the cultural unity of India was not rooted into the ‘canonical texts’-the Vedas, the Upanishads and Gita. Unlike the 19th century thinkers like Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda and Aurobindo, who made these texts as the basis to explain the Indian unity, Tagore referred to the mystics, poets and thinkers of the 13th century to explain the Indianness and Indian unity. Nandy adds, “In such a country, importing the western concept of nationalism was like Switzerland trying to build a navy.”

Tagore’s position opened up the possibility of viewing India as a cultural entity defined by a number of mystics and saints, the boundaries of whose religious identities were never exactly clear. Like Kabir, Nanak, Bulleh Shah and a Lalan they could simultaneously belong to more than one religious tradition. Also, this way of defining India’s oneness partly dissociated Indianness from the state and allowed some degree of scepticism towards the ideology of a national state, an ideology towards which modern India was already showing a certain fondness.

Further into the article, Nandy goes on to explain what is nationalism, drawing from Tagore’s ideas on the subject. Read each of these words carefully because no other literature on nationalism will explain the idea better than this.

Nationalism is an ideology. Even those who use the term nationalism without caring about its ideological contents, end up imbibing some of the contents. This is because they have to constantly interact with those who carry the ideological baggage of nationalism and are affected by such consensual validation. Nationalism, thus, is more specific, ideologically tinged, ardent form of “love of one’s own kind” that is essentially ego-defensive and overlies some degree of fearful dislike or positive hostility to “outsiders”. It is ego defensive because it is often a reaction to the inner, unacknowledged fears of atomisation or psychological homelessness induced by the weakening or dissolution of primordial ties and growing individuation, alienating work and the death of vocations, in turn brought about by technocratic capitalism, urbanisation and industrialisation. Often such nationalism is honed by the uprooting – and the consequent sense of loss – that urbanisation and development bring about.

Ashis Nandy draws a clear distinction between nationalism and patriotism.

Unlike nationalism, which demands a uniform allegiance or loyalty to the state, patriotism can live with different levels of loyalty, affiliation and allegiance to the state. The relationship between the state and patriotism is open to bargaining. Nationalism insists on the primacy of national identity over identities built on subnational allegiances – religions, castes, sects, linguistic affiliations and ethnicities. It promotes decontextualised formulae or slogans like “we are Indians first, then Hindus, Tamils or dalits”. For nationalism expects all identities to be subservient to the interests of the national state. As a general rule, nationalism fears other identities as potential rivals and subversive presences. Patriotism does not automatically demand such primacy; on the whole, the state is expected to serve the needs of a society and a culture, not the other way round.

Tagore’s critique of nationalism comes from his critique of modern civilization. According to JNU professor Mohinder Singh’s article titled ‘Tagore on Modernity, Nationalism and the Surplus in Man’, Tagore defines nation as “the political and economic union of a people” and this union is the one that “a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose.” This is too narrow a definition, according to Tagore, to fit into the realities of a multicultural society like India.

The goals of this form of political organisation are endless enhancement of its economic, military, and political power and continuous ideological self-aggrandisement. Externally, at international level, nationalisms work either through diplomatic deception, lies and instrumentalisation of other nations, or through overt threat, aggression and war. Commerce and science are used by nationalisms instrumentally to attain their ever-expanding power goals, without any clear telos to give them any sense of ethical limits of their actions. Since nation states are ever in competition with each other, the spirit of unhealthy and unending competitiveness determines their behaviour externally, whereas strong disciplining and regulation of people determine their behaviour internally.

According to Singh, the basis of unity in a nation, for Tagore, is commercial and political rather than an organic arrangement of people with some commonalities.

Source: The Statesman

Tagore asserts that before the advent to the modern abstract power, human relations in samaj (community) were characterised by social cooperation. In contrast, the political power of the nation state was characterised by competition, which threatened to eliminate the spirit of social cooperation. The most problematic aspect of the political power represented by the nation was that it mobilised those aspects of life that were “least human.” In this way it amounted to an inversion of the “surplus in man” insofar as it went against the very essence of being human. It is also essential to point out here that Tagore’s critique of nationalism is inextricably connected to his critical reflections on the civilisational ideals spawned by industrial capitalism. Tagore sees nationalism, particularly its 20th century manifestation as an international phenomenon based on the ideology of competition. In contrast to most nationalist politicians, including anti-imperialist and anti-colonial nationalist intellectuals, who saw in global competition of nations the reason for promoting nationalism, Tagore saw a trap and a blind spot in this argument.

For Tagore, a broad based patriotism is an antidote to a narrow and exclusionary nationalism. Indian Social Institute’s Rudolf C Heredia has written about this in the article titled ‘Can India's Patriotism Be Built on Accepting Differences?

Rabindranath Tagore rejected a narrow aggressive nationalism, for a broad inclusive patriotism. Under Gandhi’s leadership, the Indian freedom movement struggled to convert divisive debates into integrating dialogues, to transform exclusive identities into inclusive ones, to change hostile controversy into empathetic consensus. Tagore’s idea of India was distinctly syncretic. He imagined a civilisation “embedded in the tolerance encoded in various traditional ways of life in a highly diverse plural society”, welcoming all peoples and cultures. 

Tagore was keenly aware of dangers of nationalist chauvinism and sharply critical of how European nationalism had turned 20th century Europe into a “civilisation of power”. After encountering it in Japan, he was apprehensive of the militant nationalism in India and the freedom movement. However, he remained a critical participant yet always a much valued and respected one. The genius of India he elaborated in terms of a spirit of cooperation: “Let our civilisation take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict."

Further Reading:

1) Tagore rejected 'nationalism' — and his worst fears have come true:

That is why Tagore warned of nationalism as an "evil epidemic"! In the same breath, the social thinker-poet continues to warn against this evil: "The nation is the greatest evil for the Nation, that all its precautions are against it, and any new birth of its fellow in the world is always followed in its mind by the dread of a new peril!"

Tagore did not see the birth of Pakistan in 1947 and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, but he foresaw their consequences, which, unfortunately, proved him right as all his fears about nationhood came true.

In prescient words written more than hundred years ago, Tagore depicts the reality of the politicians of the "nation" of 2017: "And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion - in fact, feeling most dangerously resentful if it is pointed out."

2) A voice in the wilderness- Rabindranath Tagore on jingoism:

In the opening essay of Nationalism, Rabindranath had posed the question, “What is this Nation?” and answered it by asserting that a nation “is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose”, and in “Nationalism in Japan”, he had cautioned the people of that country against accepting the (negative and enervating) values of Western nationalism, which he likened to “some prolific weed... based upon exclusiveness” which was “overrunning the whole world”.

Rabindranath’s words kept echoing as I watched the Lok Sabha election results come in live on television on May 23 and took on even greater urgency as I heard the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and our now and future prime minister address their party’s workers in triumphalist nationalist terms later that night. In poignant, despairing counterpoint was the torrential outpouring of rage, revulsion, helplessness, and despair that flooded my WhatsApp groups. How could this happen? Have we as a nation gone mad? If 30 per cent of its voting population is Muslim and the BJP has received over 40 per cent of the vote in West Bengal, are we to believe that a significant number of Muslims have voted for a party of Muslim-intolerant Hindu nationalists? How could they? And so on and so forth.

Gentle Leviathan

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