Through his writings and through the remarkable life he lived, Rabindranath Tagore defended his idea of intellectual freedom. A highly individualistic thinker, he never lacked the courage to challenge dominant ideas and opinions. Because of his refusal to conform, he had few ideological allies. In his memoir On the Edges of Time (1958) Tagore’s son Rathindranath writes that throughout his life his father “felt lonely”. He tells us that what Rabindranath experienced was an inescapable “intellectual loneliness”. Composed during the period when the Swadeshi movement was gathering momentum in Bengal, Tagore’s song Jodi tor daak shune keu na ashe tobe ekla cholo re (If they answer not to thy call, walk alone) effectively encapsulates his idea of the courage with which he struggled alone in order to defend his ideals. The life he lived can help us comprehend the meaning of this song.
His critiques of the social and political maladies of his milieu spared neither the colonial government nor his own people. Tagore’s renunciation of knighthood in May 1919 was an unusual act of defiance against the world’s largest empire. He was protesting against the brutal massacre that the Government troops had committed at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh. It turned out to be a solitary act of protest because at that moment the Indian political leadership was still not ready to react. Tagore’s biographer Krishna Kripalani points out that the historic significance of that gesture lies in “the courage with which he voiced his people’s anguish which fear had hushed”.
Even though he was a persistent critic of British rule in India, Tagore rejected the view that the problem of colonialism needed to be solved through the politics of anti-colonial nationalism. A fearless social and political commentator, he articulated his radical critique of nationalism during an era that saw the emergence of nationalistic chauvinism as a potent political force. It was after all the era that experienced the violence unleashed by two World Wars. In critiquing political nationalism he found himself pitted against the dominant public mood in India and in the West.
In “Nationalism in the West”, one of the lectures published in 1917 under the title “Nationalism”, Tagore defined the institution of the nation as “the organized self-interest of a whole people”. In that lecture he offered a critique of its politics ~ “The spirit of conflict and conquest is at the origin and in the centre of the Western nationalism”. Nations, Tagore believed, consolidated themselves through conflict and exclusion. Interestingly, for him, nationalism was a Western idea whose imperatives were fundamentally alien to India’s cultural syncretism. On 2 March 1921 in a letter to his friend C.F. Andrews he wrote: “We have no word for ‘Nation’ in our language. When we borrow this word from other people, it never fits us”. For him, India was not a geographical or political territory but a culturally pluralistic civilization that had always been capable of accommodating diverse races and religions. In India’s history he discovered an idea of unity in diversity. To Andrews he wrote: “I love India, but my India is an Idea and not a geographical expression…I shall ever seek my compatriots all over the world.” Through Visva-Bharati, his international university, Tagore tried to initiate a meaningful dialogue between India and the world.
The position he took vis-àvis aggressive nationalism was obviously unacceptable to those who belonged to nationalist circles. In India and in the other countries where he lectured on nationalism, he was regularly subjected to severe criticism by the press. According to his biographers, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, a group of radical Indians even conspired to assassinate him when, in 1916, he visited the USA.
Significantly, Tagore was deeply sceptical about the dominant political conception of swaraj as the creation of a politically free nation. He acknowledged the importance of India’s struggle for political and economic decolonization. But what he personally envisioned was nothing less than a radical transformation of the minds of the people. For him, swaraj, a word that was commonly translated as homerule, signified, above all, freedom of the mind and selfreliance. In his polemical essay The Call of Truth (1921) he wrote: “Only those will be able to get and keep Swaraj in the material world who have realized the dignity of self-reliance and self-mastery in the spiritual world, those whom no temptation, no delusion, can induce to surrender the dignity of intellect into the keeping of others”.
For Tagore, constructive activism in the domain of social relations was the key to achieving true swaraj. He believed that the struggle for swaraj needed to include a fight against the inequalities and hostilities created by caste, class and dogmatic religion. Moreover, he felt that it was necessary to liberate the people from the modern culture of greed. In City and Village (1924), he explained why this was necessary: “What in the West is called democracy can never be true in a society where greed grows, uncontrolled, encouraged, even admired by the populace. In such an atmosphere, a constant struggle goes on among individuals to capture public organizations for the satisfaction of their personal ambition, and democracy becomes like an elephant whose one purpose in life is to give joy rides to the clever and the rich. In this kind of body politic, the organs of information and expression, through which opinions are manufactured, together with the machinery of administration, are all openly or secretly manipulated by those prosperous few.” Both Tagore and Gandhi argued in favour of decentralization of power. They envisioned an India where each village community would reduce its dependence on the state by learning to cultivate self-reliance. It was this vision that prompted Tagore to establish his Institute of Rural Reconstruction in Sriniketan in 1922. It undertook the task of training the villages to become self-reliant.
Curiously, the affinities between Tagore and Gandhi were often less visible than the disagreements they had over a range of issues. Tagore was severely criticized by many Gandhian nationalists for being critical of certain aspects of Gandhi’s ideological outlook and politics. To him, for instance, the rationale behind Gandhi’s insistence on the use of charka (spinning wheel) appeared unrealistic. Tagore remained unconvinced that spinning could adequately address the problem of poverty and economic subjugation. Moreover, he saw spinning as a mechanical process that did not require reasoning.
Gandhi acknowledged the ethical significance of Tagore’s opinions when he called him “the Great Sentinel”. In an article published in Young India in 1921 he remarked: “I regard the Poet as a sentinel warning us against the approaching enemies called Bigotry, Lethargy, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other members of that brood.” Though their opinions differed, Gandhi was willing to respond to Tagore’s perspective respectfully. Within any democratic context, voices of dissent have a constructive role to play.
Democracies thrive by nurturing dialogues and debates. That is the reason why today’s India needs to remember Tagore as a bold voice of dissent that challenged dominant modes of thinking.