Tagore’s Nationalism

Ramneet Singh Kumar

There have been some pretty interesting pieces recently about how Tagore should be put behind bars posthumously for being “anti-national”, arguing that if someone can be given a Bharat Ratna posthumously, why can’t he be put in jail? But, to some Indians, it may be hard to find someone more national than him. One might wonder, then, what is the answer? Is Tagore a “national” or an “anti-national”? Herein lies one of the characteristic qualities of Tagore. It is very difficult to put him in dockets because of a certain ambivalence of his that comes across while reading his works. He was not a political person, per se, but he was, nonetheless, very aware of what was going on around him, and not just in India, but in the whole world. He was a sharp critic of Nationalism, but participated actively in the Mass Movement in Bengal (1905-1910) and in the Indian Freedom Movement. This was a man who declined his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre because he felt that the British were unfair, and also said that he didn’t care about the Nobel Prize. So he did love his nation, there’s no doubt about that. If Nationalism was to be understood as a concept providing dignity and freedom to the Indian people oppressed under British rule, then he was, without doubt, a “national”, but, if it was to be understood as a catalyst of the feeling of pride and used to create and then castigate a devilish other, then he would strongly oppose it. Remarkably, he has also, without even subscribing to Nationalism, composed the national anthems of two sovereign states, and inspired that of a third.

I have serious doubts as to whether he would even approve of his songs being turned into national anthems. For example, once, at a session of the Indian National Congress, someone asked him if one of his songs, could be song as an anthem at the sessions of the INC. Tagore firmly replied that the song invoked a particular image of devi worship, therefore, it could not be accepted by, or could hurt the feelings of certain religious groups, and refused to let it be sung as a national anthem. From this, we can infer that he was firmly against the sectarian aspect of nationalism. It is worthwhile to note that in all his references to the nation, he thinks of it not as a “rashtra” (nation)or “jaati” (caste, race, species) which is used to justify the current interpretation of nationalism, but as “Swadesh” (homeland). This concept of homeland can be extended from that of your house, to your state, to a certain region, then to a country, and then, perhaps, even going beyond the country, completely negating the artificial boundaries created by nation-states, under the clutches of the colonial empire. Tagore was distrustful about the idea of a nation-state as early as the nineteenth century. In a poem called “The Sunset of the Century” written on the evening of the 31st of December, 1899, Tagore writes,:-

“ The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is
dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food,
And licking it, crunching it, and swallowing it in big morsels,
It swells and swells
Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden heaven piercing its
heart of grossness.
The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace,
my Motherland.
It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh, – the self-love of the Nation, – dead under its own excess.”

Tagore was continuously warning people about the perils of nationalism, and in his visits to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, to gather funds for his university, ‘Vishvabharati’, he advises the US not to follow the footsteps of European nation states, who had placed the nation on the pedestal of divinity and ultimate being. In an essay written in 1914, just after news of World War I had reached him, he categorically states that that was not World War, it was European War, driven mainly by the greed of two nations, Britain and France, and Germany’s want to get its share, which had been imposed on the rest of the world. This shows Tagore’s understanding of humanism, far beyond the narrow barriers of nationalism and political parochialism. He believed not just in political freedom, but in freedom of mind, and imagined a commonwealth of nations, in which no nation(or race) would deprive another “of its rightful place in the world festival” and every nation would “keep alight its own lamp of mind as its part of the illumination of the world”. In Tagore’s words, “I will never buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow Patriotism to triumph over Humanity.”

Ramneet a student of class 9th in Cambridge International School, Amritsar.

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