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Tagore and nationalism
Tagore was born in 1861, a period during which the nationalist movement in India was crystallizing and gaining momentum. The first organized military uprising by Indian soldiers against the British Raj occurred in 1857, only four years before the poet was born. In 1905, the swadeshi movement broke out on his doorstep, as a response to the British policy of partitioning Bengal. Initially, propelled by the injustice and irrationality of the act, Tagore got actively involved in the movement, writing patriotic songs with such explosive fervor that Ezra Pound quipped, ”Tagore has sung Bengal into a nation.” But soon after, the movement took a violent turn and he made an about-face, never having anything to do with nationalism again, except to launch a systematic indictment to ”destroy the bondage of nationalism.” Even Gandhi’s urgings to join the satyagraha movement, which eventually brought about Indian independence, after the protracted period of colonial rule, in 1947, could not alter Tagore’s position on nation and nationalism. In a letter to Gandhi, he questioned the latter’s wisdom, when he asked dismissively, after explaining how in the West many ”higher minds” were trying to rise above the superficiality of nationalism, ”And are we alone to be content with proceeding with the erection of Swaraj on a foundation of telling the beads of negation, harping on others’ faults and quarrelsomeness?”Tagore’s foremost objection to nationalism lies in its very nature and purpose as an institution. The fact that it is a social construction, a mechanical organization, modeled with certain utilitarian objectives in mind, makes it unpalatable to Tagore, who was a champion of creation over construction, imagination over reason and the natural over the artificial and the man-made: ”Construction is for a purpose, it expresses our wants; but creation is for itself, it expresses our very beings”. As a formation, based on needs and wants rather than truth and love, it could not, Tagore suggests, contribute much to the moral/spiritual fulfillment of mankind. To him, race was a more natural, and therefore acceptable, social unit than the nation, and he envisioned a ”rainbow” world in which races would live together in amity, keeping their ”distinct characteristics but all attached to the stem of humanity by the bond of love.”He took the view that since nationalism emerged in the post-religious laboratory of industrial-capitalism, it was only an ”organization of politics and commerce” that brings ”harvests of wealth,” or ”a carnival of materialism,” by spreading tentacles of greed, selfishness, power and prosperity, or churning up the baser instincts of mankind, and sacrificing in the process ”the moral man, the complete man… to make room for the political and the commercial man, the man of limited purpose.”
Nationalism, according to Tagore, is not expressive of the living bonds in society; it is not a voluntary self-expression of individuals as social beings, where human relationships are naturally regulated, ”so that men can develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another,” but a political and commercial union of a group of people, in which they come together to maximize their profit, progress and power; it is ”the organized self-interest of a people, where it is least human and least spiritual.” Tagore deemed nationalism a recurrent threat to humanity, because with its propensity for the material and the rational, it trampled over the human spirit and human emotion; it upset man’s moral balance by subjugating his inherent goodness and divinity to a soul-less organization.
Tagore found the fetish of nationalism a source of war and mutual hatred between nations. The very deification of nation, where it is privileged over soul, god and conscience, cultivates absolutism, fanaticism, provincialism and paranoia. Thus every nation becomes inward-looking and considers another a threat to its existence, while war is hailed a legitimate, or even ”holy,” action for national self-aggrandizement or self-fulfillment. Both its existence and success, as an institution or a discourse, is grounded in the binary of self/other, us/them; every nation operates for itself, and the presence of the other is but a recurrent and looming peril to this self.Tagore maintained that British colonialism found its justification in the ideology of nationalism, as the colonizers came to India and other rich pastures of the world to plunder and so further the prosperity of their own nation. They were never sincere in developing colonized countries/nations, as to convert their ”hunting grounds” into ”cultivated fields” would have been contrary to their national interest. Like predators (and nationalism inherently cultivates a rapacious logic), they thrived by victimizing and violating other nations, and never felt deterred in their heinous actions by the principles of love, sympathy or fellowship. The logic is simple but cruel, and is sustained by a privileging norm, that in order to have rich and powerful nations, some nations ought to be left poor and pregnable: ”Because this civilization is the civilization of power, therefore it is exclusive, it is naturally unwilling to open its sources of power to those whom it has selected for its purposes of exploitation.” By its very nature as an organization, nationalism could ill afford any altruism in this regard.One might think that Tagore’s critique of nationalism is lofty and far-fetched, or ”too pious,” as Pound might have said; his arguments are layered in atavistic spiritualism and romantic idealism. But he was a practical-idealist, an inclusivist and a multilateral thinker.Much of what Tagore said is no doubt intellectually valid and some of it is borne out by contemporary post-colonial criticism. Critics concur that nation is a necessity, it has laboured on behalf of modernity, and it helps to bolster the present civilization; as a political organization it befits the social and intellectual milieu of present-day society. However, they hardly claim its moral authority, or its beneficial role in the reinforcement of human virtue.Critics also view the constructed aspect of nationalism as a weakness in the ideology. It is always vulnerable to regressing into more natural social units of clan, tribe and race, or language and religious groups. Though not anti-modern or anti-progressive, throughout his life Tagore aspired to redeem modern man from the tyranny of money, matter and machine. His vision of a free world, free from the fetters of materialism and nationalism, is most passionately expressed in the poem, ‘where the mind is without fear’. The world that the poet envisions in the above poem stands superior to the violent, war-ravaged world of ”getting and spending” (Wordsworth’s phrase), of jealousy, suspicion and mutual fear that we currently live in. It is a world of love, truth, harmony, creativity and conscience, with no artificial walls to separate its people or to keep their souls, or personal humanity, in bondage; in which, as Tagore puts it elsewhere, every country would ”keep alight its own lamp of mind as its part of the illumination of the world” and no country would deprive another ”of its rightful place in the world festival.”
Writer, Columnist & Researcher