Tagore’s Nationalism for Our Times

Ray Chaudhury

Nationalism and the notion
of nation state has always been a matter of
contestation and debate among the historians and
public intellectuals in India. Ironic at the outset, in post-globalisation
years (where nations and history were supposed to have met their end), the
concept and meaning of nationalism has come to dominate the public discourse
and has generated a novel ‘political’ around it with much vigour and force. The
issue of ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ which assumed serious proportions,
depth, meanings as a mobilising point of cultural, political forces and ideas
in 2015, was sought to be brandished as ‘anti-national’. The mockery of
intolerance became the latest feed or a trending
in our social media. Nationalism
was now equated with faith in
our ancient ‘advanced’
‘inherently tolerant’ ‘Vedic’ culture, and patriotism. The naysayers, doubters,
agnostics were retroactively committing heresy, blasphemy and treason by
uttering  the mere innocuous liberal term
‘intolerance’. This identification of nation with culture and tradition has led
to what many fear as a threat to the ‘idea of India’. Thus it becomes important
to visit and revisit questions such as ‘what does it mean to be an Indian?
Whether there are some essential characteristics, a particular faith is
required to be practiced in order to be called as an Indian? And what are the
markers of being a nationalist?’ It is in this context the need to re-engage
with the concept of Nationalism arises.

Historians of different
schools of thought (Nationalist, Cambridge, Marxist, Subaltern) have given the
contours of the concept of nationalism and also their respective arguments
about the formation of Indian nation-state. Among all the disagreements there
is one aspect about which all these schools agree is the heterogeneity and
pluralism of the Indian society. However if one looks at the current
socio-political atmosphere in the country one cannot ignore the fact that, it
is the very plurality and heterogeneity of Indian society which is being
challenged and undermined in the name of nationalism.

My aim in this article is
not to go back and revisit these debates among the different schools of
thoughts regarding Indian nationalism. Rather I have taken up the exercise of
revisiting one classic text written on Nationalism – Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘essays
on Nationalism’.
It was one of his most political and controversial text
written at the height of the national movement and First World War. I have not
only tried to engage with the text critically but also tried to read it in the
current context. Thus the title of my article is Tagore’s Nationalism for
Our Times.


Rabindranath  Tagore’s essays on Nationalism is a compilation
of his lectures that he delivered in Japan and United States of America in
1916. It was first published by Macmillan, New York in 1917. The text contains
three essays Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan & Nationalism
in India.

Tagore was a poet first. Hence he follows
the maxim as E.P.Thompson noted in the introduction of 1991 edition of Nationalism
“never opt for a straight forward definition when a simile would suffice.” However,
in case of nation Tagore actually gives us a very clear definition of what he
meant by nation and from that his subsequent argument about nationalism that
(nationalism is a great menace)[1]
follows. Therefore discussion about Tagore’s view on nationalism should begin
with the question ‘what is Tagore
s concept of  nation?

In the essay ‘nationalism in the West’ he
says that a nation is ‘that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised
for a mechanical purpose
[2]. It immediately looks like a distinctively
modern and exclusively western concept. Its mechanical purpose implicates an
instrumental rationality in its political organisational form. Therefore it
seems that for Tagore the nation is always the nation-state.

However what is interesting to note is
that this view of nation was markedly different from Tagore
s earlier view on the same. In two essays Nation ki?
(what is nation?) and Bharatbarshiya 
Samaj (Indian Society), published in 1901 he seems to
hold up the nation as an ideal which is worth striving for; in a nation the
selfish interest of the individual must give way to the welfare of the
inhabitants of the nation as a whole. A Nation, he says-“is a vital spirit, a
living entity” and he goes to the extent of saying that-“everyone in a nation
sacrifices his interest to protect the national interest.”

Tagore was heavily influenced at that
time by the writings of French Philosopher Ernest Renan. Shortly after this he
himself got involve with the Swadeshi movement in the aftermath of Partition of
Bengal in 1905. He was writing songs, giving speeches, taking part in mass
rallies. He also set up a match factory, a local bank, and a weaving centre as
his way of giving leadership to the movement. He was the one who set Bankim
s ‘वनदे मातरम’ (‘Vande Mataram’) as the movements theme song.

One thing to be noted here is the absence
of mechanical, coercive notion of the nation that we found in his later
writings. The first indication of his disillusionment with the idea of nation
can be found in his essay ‘Sadupay’ (The Right Means) published in 1908
where he clearly stated his reasons for rejecting the swadeshi militant
nationalism. Citing the examples of poor Muslims and low caste Hindu peasants;
he criticised the way in which elite leaders of the movement forced the boycott
of British-made goods to the downtrodden. Tagore vehemently criticised the use
of force by the elites to get the poor peasants for their agenda. In the essay
Sadupay we can see Tagore inching towards his later opinion about the
nation as a terrible absurdity organised for a mechanical purpose. Historian
Sumit Sarkar has noted that “it is this notion of freedom, or individual human
rights, affirmed, if needed against community disciplines, that lay at the
heart of Tagore
s more general criticism of nationalism”[3]

A more subtle and nuanced analyses of
nationalism can be found in two of his most celebrated novels ‘Gora’ (written
in 1909) and ‘
Ghare Baire (1915) which needs a brief discussion.

The novel ‘Gora’ was one of the
first literary expression of new political turn which deepen over time. It was
one of the first novels that Tagore wrote on modern domestic, political and
social situations after ‘ChokherBali’ and ‘Noukadubi’.  Gora who knew himself as a Hindu Brahmin wants
to build a Hindu India. But later on he came to know that he was Christian and
Irish by birth and was brought by a Hindu family and faces an intense crisis of
identity. At the end of the novel he undergoes a spiritual transformation and realises
the need to transcend narrow religious identities. He tells Paresh Babu that
today give me the mantra of that Deity who belongs to all. Later he goes to his
foster mother Anandamayee and falls at her feet and tells her “mother, you are
that mother of mine, I searched for her everywhere and all the while she sat at
home, waiting for me…..you have no caste, no hatred, no laws, you are the image
of love. You are my Bharatvarsha.” These last few lines of the novel therefore
become extremely crucial to understand Tagore
s Idea of India.

Ghare Baire (1915) set
against the backdrop of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal was another novel where
Tagore has launched his fiercest attack against the ideology of communal notion
of nationalism. The novel deals with experiences of 3 characters Nikhil  a benevolent progressive zamindar, his
childhood friend charismatic nationalist leader Sandip and Nikhil
s wife Bimala. With the help of this three
characters Tagore wanted to portray the condition of Bengal tottering between
the two possibilities where Nikhil is 
for humanitarian global perspective based on true equality and harmony
between individuals and Sandip is for radical Hindu nationalism which threaten to replace moral sensibility
with national bigotry and blind fanaticism. The death of Nikhil in the end of
the novel when Bimala was returning to her senses after a prolonged infatuation
with Sandip and his views also signals Tagore
s note of caution about the future of Bengal.

These novels are extremely important in
another sense in their postulation of Hindu revivalism as a modern political
movement which deployed fantasy as core element, and its ideological defeat
only possible through certain ‘trauma’ where the subject held under bad faith
is finally able to see through the lie. 


These writings set the stage for his
views on nationalism. In the first essay Nationalism in the West, Tagore
begins his critique of nationalism by stating-“in the West the national
machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of
humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron
hoops, labeled and separated off with scientific care and precision
[4]. From here he goes on to ask the question ‘what
is this nation?
and as I mentioned earlier he gives the
following clear definition ‘a nation is that aspect of which a whole population
assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose
and a little later he states ‘nation is the
organisation of politics and commerce
[5]. He further goes on to explain why this western
concept of nation and nationalism  which
is not only mechanical but also not suitable for a country like India.

He says-“neither the vagueness of
colourless cosmopolitanism nor the force self idolatry of nation worship is the
goal of human history. India has been trying to accomplish her task  through social regulation of difference in
one hand and spiritual unity on the other. He compares India with the hostess
who is trying to give proper accommodation to her numerous guests whose habits
and requirements are different from each other. So the true realisation of the
unity of man can help in achieving this. The history of India was not just a
mere history of conquest for political supremacy and aggression on the other
hand; her thrones were not her concern, they passed over her head like clouds,
often they brought devastation but it was soon forgotten like a catastrophe of
nature.” However with the coming of imperial power it should be borne in mind
that this time the machinery of the West was digging deep into our soil. This
time it was not the human race of Mughals and Pathans it was the nation of
England that we had to encounter. Tagore looks the imperial invasion as a major
break in the history of India. History of India does not belong to any
particular race. India which is ‘devoid of all politics ,the India of no nations
[6], the nation of the West burst in with the rule
of the British.

This western concept of nation therefore
varies distinctly from what we had before the British came-“it is like the
difference between hand loom and power loom”. It is mechanical, monotonous
and devoid of human touch. Tagore however makes a clear distinction between the
spirit of the West and the nation of the West. He says that idea of universal
justice which represents the spirit of the West, which has free flowing ideas
of freedom, rationality has been guarded by or obstructed by the machinery of
nation which works as a Dam. This dehumanising tendency works like an apparatus
which has been christened as ‘Nation’ in the West. Thus this nation is a modern
western construct made up of power and greed and an imposition on us.

In the second essay nationalism in Japan
s argument against nationalism becomes further
nuanced. He begins this essay by citing the larger picture of Asia which
according to the West lives in the past. We are made to believe that there is
something inherent in the soil and climate of Asia that produces mental
inactivity and atrophy. However Japan has proven the West wrong and she has not
done it by merely imitating the West. Tagore makes a distinction about what the
West has presented before us and what could be the offer from the East to that.
If the West has given us conflict between individual and the state, labour and
capital, man and woman, material gain and spiritual gain, organised selfishness
of the nation and higher levels of humanity then the eastern mind can offer
spiritual strength, love of simplicity, recognition of social obligation in
order to cut a new path for this great unwidely car of progress. If genius of
Europe has given her people power of organisation then genius of Japan here in
particular can give vision of beauty in nature and the power of realising it.
Because the ideal of ‘
maitri’ is the foundation of her culture-maitri
with men and with nature. Tagore firmly believes that Japan has so much to
offer as an alternative to the western nationalism therefore he warns Japan not
to accept the motive force of the western nationalism as her own and asks  the land of the rising sun to lead Asia and
to be missionary of the East to illuminate the whole world.

Finally when we come to the last and
final essay of the text Nationalism in India he begins by locating the
real problem of India in the social sphere and makes the point that India
s main problem is the problem of ‘race. Here Tagore has made some interesting remarks
about the caste system and its management in India as he thinks this
heterogeneity and diversity caused by the caste system actually is the outcome
of the ‘spirit of toleration
because ‘India tolerated difference of
races from the very beginning and that spirit of toleration has acted through
her history

However it will be a misconception to
think that Tagore supported the caste hierarchies because in this essay and in
various other writings he had vehemently criticised this as by saying ‘in her
caste regulation India has recognised differences but not the mutability which
is the law of life
[7]. And therefore he draws a parallel between
America and India as both are dealing with diversity of races and also tells
America to solve its race problem before pointing finger towards India. Here
Tagore comes back to his main argument of the text and says-“India never had a
homogeneity in terms of race. 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 country men will gain truly their
India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is
greater than the ideals of humanity,…I am not only against one nation in
particular but against the general idea of all nations
and ‘nationalism is a great menace; it is the
particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India
’s trouble’[8].


Communalism and political
Hindutva as the homogenising venture is as old as emergence of modern
anti-colonial Indian nationalism itself. They share a complex, problematic and
troubled history. The uneven nature of development of capitalism in India, its communal
foundations, and incomplete transformation of feudalism in economy and ideology
have shaped the contours of both anti-colonial nationalism as well as
communalism. Thus, it is critical to recognise and view the ‘modern’ basis and ‘modernising’
character of Hindutva as compared to traditional conservatism. Political
Hindutva’s primary aim remains capturing the state. It restructures the
conservative beliefs, fetishises them into symbols of mobilisation (from ‘Bharatmata’
to ‘Ram Mandir’),  and cleverly supplants
the popular mobilisations and sentiments of anti-colonialism with a communal
twist through the mythical narrative of ‘fall’ from ‘golden age’. It drives a
wedge through body politic where possibilities of class struggle are closed in
favour of what Zizek has called as ‘ultra-politics’ to safeguard the existing
property relations. This ultra-politics is ‘the attempt to depoliticise the
conflict by bringing it to an extreme via the direct militarisation of
politics-by reformulating it as the war between ‘us’ and ‘them’, our
Like many others of the
day, Rabindranath Tagore was also initially influenced by revivalist tendencies
sustaining a communal vocabulary popular during the times of partition of
Bengal. However, he was among the first to recognise this as a ‘modern’ development,
the dangers of communal project and what it would mean for the Indian
nationalism, Indian nation and its people. His is an interesting journey from
his praise of Bankim’s revivalism to later day internationalism & humanism
informed by modernist faith in science, and universalism, and offers valuable
insights into our own engagement with categories of nation and politics around
Let me conclude from where
we began – discussion on tolerance and what it means to nation. This is what
Tagore had to say about heterodoxy and its criticality to life, let alone
“If a man tells me he has
heterodox ideas, but that he cannot follow them because he would be socially
ostracised, I excuse him for having to live a life of untruth, in order to live
at all.
The social habit of mind
which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where
they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food is sure to
persist in our political organisation and result in creating engines of
coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life. And
tyranny will only add to the inevitable lies and hypocrisy in our political

Tagore, Nationalism.p.111.
Sumit sarkar, ‘Ghare Baire in its time’,p.149.
Tagore ,Nationalism,p.6
Ibid. p.12
Ibid. p.7
Zizek, Slavoj ‘The Ticklish Subject’ pg.190

The author is Research Scholar at JNU.