Why Tagore’s opposition to the concept of nationalism is not valid in modern India

There has been much buzz around Tagore’s criticism of nationalism in the left-liberal circles. Tagore’s idea’s have been cited to justify criticism of the slogan ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ among the so called ‘intellectual’ class. But this comparison between modern India and Tagore has been a lazy exercise. The same old reel was replayed recently when an article about Irfan Habib was titled – Tagore would be an ‘anti-national’ in today’s India, says Irfan Habib.

Tagore opposed nationalism because his ideas took shape in the context of colonialism and wars fought under the influence of European brand of nationalism. European nationalism in 19th and 20th century were based on the principle of one race, one language and one nation concept. Despite how left might attempt to caricature ‘Hindu nationalism’ or the modern wave of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ nationalism as following the same principle, the guiding principles are not the same.

Interestingly, the one aspects that the leftists completely ignore is that while Tagore is right in criticizing ‘war under the pretext of nationalism’, he offers the caste system of India as an alternative to the same. This aspect is not irrelevant to the debate, as we will later see.

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This selective quoting of Tagore needs to be called out nonetheless. Contrary to expectations of all well known models, India has developed its own nationalism based on shared history of independence movement and an aspiration to make India a great nation in the comity of nations.

Tagore’s essay : Nationalism in India

Let us first see what Tagore had written:

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative.

– Rabindranath Tagore in Nationalism in India

Rabindranath Tagore published the book ‘Nationalism‘ in 1917. The source of this current new found love for Tagore lies in an essay titled Nationalism in India which was one among the three essays of the book.

In his essay, Tagore begins by saying that the problems of India were social and not political. He criticizes the western concept of nationalism based on races. He points out that rivalry among nations had led to exploitation and commercialization of natural resources. Managing racial diversity is the key problem as per Tagore:

But from the earliest beginnings of history, India has had her own problem constantly before her – it is the race problem. Each nation must be conscious of its mission and we, in India, must realize that we cut a poor figure when we are trying to be political, simply because we have not yet been finally able to accomplish what was set before us by our providence.

This problem of race unity which we have been trying to solve for so many years has likewise to be faced by you here in America. Many people in this country ask me what is happening as to the caste distinctions in India. But when this question is asked me, it is usually done with a superior air. And I feel tempted to put the same question to our American critics with a slight modification, ‘What have you done with the Red Indian and the Negro?’ For you have not got over your attitude of caste toward them. You have used violent methods to keep aloof from other races, but until you have solved the question here in America, you have no right to question India.

He then goes on to say that “what India has been, the whole world is now.” In the subsequent parts of his, he talks about how European nations have victims in other parts of the world and their nationalism rests on exploitation of others. His idealism manifests in these words:

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 countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

While posing a solution to the defects of nationalism, Tagore interestingly the caste system and calls Hinduism as a United States of social federation:

A true unity is like a round globe, it rolls on, carrying its burden easily; but diversity is a many-cornered thing which has to be dragged and pushed with all force. Be it said to the credit of India that this diversity was not her own creation; she has had to accept it as a fact from the beginning of her history. In America and Australia, Europe has simplified her problem by almost exterminating the original population. Even in the present age this spirit of extermination is making itself manifest, by inhospitably shutting out aliens, through those who themselves were aliens in the lands they now occupy.But India tolerated difference of races from the first, and that spirit of toleration has acted all through her history.

Her caste system is the outcome of this spirit of toleration. For India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, yet fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. The tie has been as loose as possible, yet as close as the circumstances permitted. This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism. […]

Therefore in her caste regulations India recognized differences, but not the mutability which is the law of life. In trying to avoid collisions she set up boundaries of immovable walls, thus giving to her numerous races the negative benefit of peace and order but not the positive opportunity of expansion and movement. She accepted nature where it produces diversity, but ignored it where it uses that diversity for its world-game of infinite permutations and combinations. She treated life in all truth where it is manifold, but insulted it where it is ever moving. Therefore Life departed from her social system and in its place she is worshiping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured.

Now this is where the hypocrisy and dishonesty of those who selectively quote Tagore comes in. They will say that Tagore’s appreciation of caste system is not endorsement of a hierarchical caste system that is exploitative and against the ideas of equality. Tagore is talking about how different sets of castes have been able to co-exist without going to an internecine war (World War I was going on when this book was published), and they are right. But if they can appreciate the context of talking in favour of caste system, they should also be able to appreciate the context when he was talking against ‘nationalism’.

Not just the fact that Tagore saw nationalism causing wars, we must also note that he didn’t live to see the violent division of India into two nations, and the roots of modern nationalism in India.

Tagore’s apprehensions are not valid today

Whatever be his good intentions behind opposing the concept of nationalism of 19th and early 20th century, they can be argued to be not applicable today. We can not afford to rely on caste identities in a modern India. A common Indian identity is the only solution for India’s social problems today. All other identities, though important must be subordinated, to the national identity to achieve social unity and progress.

We live in an age where colonies have ceased to exist. Most of the modern democracies have accommodated diversity into their definition of nationhood. Indian nationalism too is finding new meaning over the years. We have been able to enhance the unity of the country after formation of linguistic states. Racism is abhorred by all nations. Thus most of the arguments put up by Tagore are not major issues of the day.

Indian nationalism doesn’t demand too much from its citizens. Respecting the flag and its anthem are the only two requirements. Thus, Tagore’s words ‘Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles‘ are not applicable to the present day scenario.

The oft-repeated phrase ‘Tagore would be considered anti-national today’ is silly, because Tagore formed his opinions in a different time, in a different context. Unfortunately, Tagore’s ideas have been used as an instrument to score brownie points against ideological rivals.

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