What Kind of Nationalism Do We Need Today? Exploring Tagore on Nationalism

Tagore's brand of nationalism is fundamentally rooted in the question of what it means to be human.

As politics takes a right-wing turn in several countries around the world, the idea of nationalism is being debated anew. From the traditional understanding of nationalism as being bounded by ideas like culture and territory, the discourse now needs to shift to more complex ideas and reflections of nationalism. Nationalism that is dependent on the identification and demonisation of an “other”, be it another country or another community, is obviously divisive and helps to foment a culture of violence.

There have been many scholars who have tried to define the term. Benedict Anderson for instance defines nationalism as a bond between people that comes to  exist when the members of a nation recognise themselves and their compatriots to be part of a nation. Earnest Geller believed that a nation is formed “if and when the members of a category firmly recognise certain mutual rights and duties to each other in virtue of their shared membership.”

Today, this membership is exclusive to the majority, while minorities are being excluded from this recognition of commonality.  

Indian nationalism grew in the wake of our struggle for independence against the British Raj. The tone of that sort of nationalism was naturally emancipatory since it would be the rhetoric upon which the Republic of India would be founded. Now, the rhetoric of  nationalism has taken a turn in an exclusionary direction. If we look back into our own history, there have been those who have provided us with alternative narratives that warn against an egregious understanding of nationalism. Such caution can be found in the works of Rabindranath Tagore, whose conceptualisation and understanding of nationalism is worth revisiting. This year marked his 158th birth anniversary.

In this reading list, we explore how scholars have understood Tagore’s idea of nationalism over the years and how it is more pertinent than ever today.  

1) Defining Nationalism

Tagore opined that the term nationalism was derived from the term nation-state which was nothing but the embodiment of Western ideas of capitalism and mechanisation. He believed that these ideals were intrinsically against the Indian tradition of self-autonomy, pluralism and religious tolerance which one would find in what he termed as the samaj. As Ashis Nandy writes:

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. In effect argues that the idea of nationalism is intrinsically non-Indian or anti-Indian, an 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. Similarly, Char Adhyay is an early, perhaps the first exploration of the roots of industrialised, assembly line violence as a specialisation of the modern times.

Mohinder Singh also contributed to this narrative, stating:

Tagore’s critique of modern civilisation finds clearest expression in his reflections on the concepts of nation and nationalism. 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. Commerce and science are used by nationalisms instrumentally to attain their ever-expanding power goals. Tagore traced all the deep flaws of modern Western ‘political civilisation’ back to the nexus of the political and the commercial in the apparatus of the modern state. In contrast, the defining feature of the Indian, as also of the Chinese, was for him the communities’ self regulation of their own affairs. In fact, if his essays on nationalism and on the theme of samaj (community) are read together, a clear distinction emerges in his works between the nature of the political in case of the nation state and the pre-national political formations. 

 

2) Tagore Is More Relevant than Ever Before

Tagore’s encompassing definition of patriotism is a solution to distortions of the term which was primarily the work of Hindu nationalists of the time. His  definition is embedded with values of cooperation and coexistence that transcends boundaries and is meant for humanity at large. This is comprehensively reflected in his work entitled Gora which Tanika Sarkar in her article brings out

The novel was written a 100 years ago. Many of the critical questions that it had asked at that time remain unresolved and contentious matters even today; caste, faith, freedom of country and of individual self-determination, socially forbidden love and patriotic love. It reproduces and then thoroughly problematises certain arguments of Hindu nationalism: first elaborated by late 19th century revivalists and then, in a different way, powerfully developed in Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya’s novel Anandamath, written three decades before Gora.  In a contrapuntal mode, Gora then offers a radically new way of being an Indian patriot.

 

3) Synecretism and Tagore’s Nationalism

Tagore was aware of the dangers of a nationalism that was rooted in the Western concept of a nation state. He had observed European forms of nationalism and concluded that the West had  turned chauvinistic. In Europe, nationalism was a sentiment that was being promoted in order for a nation to become more powerful, especially commercially. Tagore’s brand of nationalism sought to caution against this.  His thoughts on nationalism developed from his inquiry on what it meant to be human. It was rooted not in the power that commerce could bring to Western political civilisations but in human agency and its traditions that emphasised tolerance that Indian civilisations used to be characterised by. As  Rudolph C Heredia, pointed out in his article:

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. 

4) Tagore’s Critique of 20th Century Nationalism Through the Japanese Example

Tagore saw Japan as a symbol of hope as well as caution. Japan being an Asian nation  had reinvented itself to become a force to reckon with. It became an example for other Asian nations and broke the myth that only Western nations were capable of modernisation. However, Tagore also expressed a note of caution saying that the method by which Japan achieved this transformation was similar to that of other Western nations that followed a form of aggressive nationalism which he believed was corrosive and characteristic of nationalism in the 20th century. Amartya Sen in his article wrote:

Rabindranath Tagore appreciated and praised the importance of the Japanese experience in economic and social development as something that gave hope and some basis of self-confidance to countries outside the West. 

Sen goes onto talk about how Tagore was also cautious by the imperialistic tendencies of Japanese nationalism.

In 1916, Tagore went on to criticise sharply the emergence of aggressive nationalism in Japan and its new role as an imperialist. Tagore’s worries and concerns were already strong in 1916, the subsequent events, particularly the Japanese treatment of China, shocked him deeply.

5) Tagore’s  Nationalism Is Substantiated by Secular and not Canonical Texts

We can also derive clues on Tagore’s understanding of nationalism through his understanding of cultural unity. Unlike many 19th century thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and  Sri Aurobindo who rooted indian cultural unity in canonical texts, Tagore  believed that religious texts could be central to classical indian culture but not to Indian cultural unity which had to be rooted in temporal ideas.

Ashis Nandy brings this out eloquently when he says:

Unlike many others in his and our times, Tagore believes that the canonical texts of India – the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita might be at the centre of India’s classical culture but they do not constitute the heart of Indian unity or provide the basis of it. Here he differs radically from the likes of Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and an array of eminent 19th century thinkers who believed that the canonical texts of Hinduism defined the basis of Indianness. Indian unity, Tagore insists, is built on the thoughts and the practices of the medieval mystics, poets and religious and spiritual figures. In such a country, importing the Western concept of nationalism was like Switzerland trying to build a navy.

Read More:

Rabindranath Tagore’s Theology of Work I Pradip Kumar Datta, 2017

Rabindranath Tagore and the Democracy of Our Time I Asok Sen, 2017

Rabindranath Tagore and The Human Condition I Amiya Kumar Bagchi, 2014

 

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Tagore's brand of nationalism is fundamentally rooted in the question of what it means to be human.
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