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Listening to Frost and Tagore in the Age of Walls

Samuel Missal ( is an associate professor in the Department of English at the National Defence Academy, Pune.

Their poems speak both to Donald Trump’s drive to build tangible and intangible barriers, and Gurmehar Kaur’s campaign to demolish them.

Even before protests against Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the United States (US) presidency had died down, his proclamations and policies within the 10 days of taking office, in January, sent shock waves across the globe. Foremost among them were orders 13767, 13768 and 13769, all available online on The first declared his government’s intent to build a wall across the Mexican border; the second, a complementary order, aimed to crack down on illegal immigrants and to stop funding “sanctuary cities;” and the third, the most controversial, wanted to restrict the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, to suspend the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and to ban the entry of refugees from Syria indefinitely, among other things. (Later, on 6 March, order 13780 reduced the number of countries under the travel ban from seven to six.) But more dangerous than the physical wall along the Mexican border is the intangible one that order 13769 envisages. Its stated aim is “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorists’ Entry into the US.” It gives immigration authorities a virtual free hand to engage in racial and religious profiling.

On the one hand, the order elicited widespread condemnation, including from US diplomats across the globe, 1,000 of whom signed a letter of protest, as reported by the New York Times. The order also evoked lawsuits, such as the case of the State of Washington v Trump, blocking the execution of many of its provisions, pending further hearing by the court. On the other hand, it resulted in an upsurge of walls. Officials arrested illegal immigrants, detained nationals from Muslim-majority countries at airports and refused entry to travellers, as widely reported in the US media. On 7 February, Muhammad Ali Jr, the son of the legendary Muhammad Ali, was among those detained, at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport. He was grilled for nearly two hours before being let go, the Los Angeles Times reported. He
escaped lightly compared with Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was the victim of a hate crime in Kansas City, and a Sikh man in Seattle who was shot at and injured. Jewish graves have also been desecrated.

A president of a nation of immigrants targeting immigrants appears to be an irony. It seems to go against the grain of American culture and to undermine the very definition of what it means to be American. As early as 1630, in a sermon later called “A Model of Christian Charity,” the Puritan leader John Winthrop visualised his new land as a model country, whose people had forged a covenant with god. Born in Suffolk, England, Winthrop was one of the main founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second settlement in New England, after the Plymouth Colony. He led the first wave of immigrants from England.

Then in 1782, a little more than a decade after the birth of the US, a French immigrant, J Hector St John de Crèvecœur, reflected on what it was to be American. In Letters from an American Farmer, a collection of his letters, he asked: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either a European or the descendant of a European … I could point out to you a family, whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have wives from four different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men … ”

In 1964, historian Philip Gleason argued that the US was founded as a melting pot or salad bowl, consisting of a group of people who formed a nation through gradual assimilation and acculturation. He expressed his ideas in the article “The Melting Pot: Symbol of Fusion or Confusion?” published in the journal American Quarterly. From Winthrop’s time to Gleason’s, people have hailed the US as the “promised land,” one flowing with milk and honey, a place of opportunity and plenty. The American Dream propelled many migrants, who believed that they could succeed through hard work regardless of their identity and circumstances of birth.

But we must remember that this is only a narrative. It has often diverged from reality. Immigrants from non-European nations have faced prejudice and discrimination. In 1790, the Naturalisation Act even gave white supremacy legal sanction, by legislating that only whites could be naturalised citizens, thereby excluding Native Americans, Blacks, Asians and other ethnic groups, as documented by Jodie M Lawston and Rueben R Murillo in the article “Policing Our Border, Policing Our Nation,” which appeared in the edited volume Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders and Global Crisis. Since then, border vigilantism against immigrants has been a recurring phenomenon. Even though undocumented migration comes under administrative law, not criminal law, the government machinery, including border patrols, courts and the penal system, has often treated migrants like criminals.

The US state of Arizona, which has a 626-km border with the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California, has launched operations to patrol the border, such as Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Desert Safeguard and Operation Streamline, in 1994, 1996 and 2008 respectively. As part of Operation Desert Safeguard, a series of metal sheet walls went up along the Arizona and Sonora border. By 2008, the US department of homeland security had spent more than $8 billion on employing 17,000 border patrol agents and on deploying high-tech surveillance and interdiction tools to implement its strategy of deterrence, according to the Borderlands Autonomist Collective’s 2012 article, “Resisting the Security-Industrialist Complex: Operation Streamline and the Militarization of the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands,” published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders and Global Crisis.

Trump has gone further, making a virtue of erecting walls of all kinds, giving a fillip to vigilante groups, border patrol agents and white supremacists. Through his rhetoric, Trump has overtly undermined the American narrative. But does Trump realise the consequences? At the turn of the 20th century, his compatriot, the poet Robert Frost, asked in his poem Mending Wall:

Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I would like to give offense.

To an “old-stone savage armed,” Frost then declared: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Placards and Poetry

In India, at the time Trump had taken charge in the US, walls of various kinds had firmly become part of public discourse, following the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general election. The binaries of tolerance and intolerance, nationalism and anti-nationalism took centre stage, after incidents such as the Dadri lynching, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, student protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and clashes between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing, and students of Ramjas College in New Delhi.

At the same time, a 20-year-old English literature student, Gurmehar Kaur, was urging the demolition of barriers. It all began with members of the ABVP protesting in February against the participation of two students from JNU in a seminar at Ramjas College, which, ironically, was titled, “Cultures of Protest.” Following this, Gurmehar joined a social media campaign against the BJP’s student wing and posted a photo of herself on Facebook holding a placard that said: “I am not afraid of ABVP.” In another photo, Gurmehar, whose father died fighting militants in Jammu and Kashmir during the Kargil War in 1999, held a placard saying, “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war did.”

A chorus of voices, including cricketer Virender Sehwag and Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda, branded her anti-national. That a woman in her 20s dared to express herself against the establishment brought immediate denunciation. Gurmehar’s questioning of war and violence, her absolving the Pakistani people of culpability for her father’s death and her calling for peace between the two countries represent a pacifist outlook that was not acceptable. She wanted to do away with walls of prejudice against an arch-enemy and was calling for universal brotherhood. So it is not surprising that her views struck a discordant note among those trying to create a Pakistan-centric nationalism, those who want to disregard the fact that our nation was founded on a non-violent struggle, through civil disobedience, led by a great pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi.

We have entered an era of muscular nationalism, which discourages the fearless expression of one’s thoughts. It is precisely this that Rabindranath Tagore decried in his famous poem, “Where the Mind is without Fear,” which appeared in Gitanjali, his collection of poems that received the Nobel Prize in 1913. Tagore deplored the deification of the nation at the cost of universal brotherhood. Some years later, in his 1917 essay “Nationalism in India,” Tagore wrote: “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.”

“I have no hesitation in saying that those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity, who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated,” he further wrote.

In Tagore’s view, freedom must be exercised within limits, but these limits cannot be decided by the majoritarian viewpoint. They must be set by an enlightened legislature and ­judiciary within the framework of the Constitution. In reality, a nationalism that stifles voices and dissent, and labels dissenters as anti-national is counterproductive to building a shared sense of nationhood.

But such sentiments will find few takers among the esta­blishment, whose idea of nationalism has departed from the fundamental values of the Indian Constitution and which is erecting walls that fragment Indians into tolerant and intolerant, national and anti-national. Just as Gandhi’s pacifism is being undermined, so is Tagore’s humanism. In a speech to the Lok Sabha, the historian and Trinamool Congress parliamentarian Sugata Bose remarked: “I sometimes fear that those who are defining nationalism so narrowly will end up one day describing Rabindranath Tagore as anti-national.” Like they have done with Gurmehar Kaur. Our hope, however, lies in the fact that the student of English literature has resisted, expressing in her placards what Frost did through poetry: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”


Updated On : 25th May, 2017


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