In India, the nationalist leaders considered Tagore’s ideas as too idealistic and philosophical and which could not be implemented.
Similar views were also expressed by many of Tagore’s critics in the West as well as in China and Japan, who criticised him as being too spiritual, if not somewhat vague.
Perhaps there was some truth in the criticism that Tagore’s views on nationalism lacked clarity and precision for which he resorted to rhetoric.
Even Tagore himself admitted in a letter to his US publisher, before the publication in the US of his lectures on nationalism , that the text needed some revisions although he did not get this opportunity.
But the use of rhetoric was not unnatural for him as through his lectures he was trying to reach out to an audience attuned to a different notion of nationalism based on the concept of territoriality and power.
From that perspective, Tagore’s views were certainly against the concept of what we may call territorial “nationalism”, based on the idea of national solidarity, as it developed in the West, and he was trying to challenge that concept.
However, one is not sure whether he could properly articulate an alternate view, especially with reference to the nation-building process.
What were Tagore’s ideas which provoked criticism? He certainly was an anti-imperialist who made no bones about it. In India he was one of the leaders of the protest movement that was launched against the British government’s decision to partition Bengal in 1905, and he had no qualms about denouncing the Jalianwallabagh massacre of 1919 that prompted him to give up his knighthood.
His love for India and Indians was no less, although he refused to consider himself a “patriot”, as patriotism, narrowly defined, could lead to xenophobia.
He was, by no means, an opponent of all aspects of the West, and always advocated greater interaction between the East and the West for a better understanding of the finer aspects of western culture without, however, losing one’s own cultural moorings.
He wanted to reform Indian society by getting rid of the age-old divisions based on caste and religious considerations and worked for communal harmony and unity among people based on a genuine understanding of the principles of harmony ~ harmony with one’s own culture and traditions.
He placed loyalty to humanity and human values above the idea of nationalism borrowed from the West, based as it was on the concept of power and aggression.
He believed that this idea of nationalism would damage the human spirit and, peace and harmony among people and communities. It redounds to his credit that till the last days of his life he tried to uphold his views even though he had to face severe criticism for this in his own country.
Tagore failed to convince his fellow countrymen of the need for taking a broader view of nationalism that might have avoided the fratricidal wars preceding India’s independence, and thereafter.
Commenting on the differences between Gandhi and Tagore, Ramachandra Guha wrote that the Tagore-Gandhi debate “still makes compelling reading.
The Mahatma insisted that the colonised nation had first to discover itself before discovering the world. The poet replied that there was a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia ~ besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into hatred of Indians different from oneself".
The poet was prophetic.. However, these differences did not affect their personal equation or mutual regard for each other. In contemporary India, nationalism is gradually being identified with Hindutva, as propagated by the Sangh Parivar.
It has become the rallying point for winning votes, as demonstrated by the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
The viral spread of this brand of nationalism over vast swathes of northern India, notably Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, is exemplified by the hostility towards Dalits, and the atrocities being perpetrated by the cow vigilantes on members of the minority community.
These are symptoms of a majoritarian view of nationalism that is destroying the fundamental principles of a secular Constitution.
Our western neighbour should be grateful to these ultra-nationalists who are preparing the ground for the development of genuine India-baiters, within the State that we proudly call our own.
Tagore was sceptical of Gandhi’s claim that the non-cooperation movement that he had launched would necessarily lead to the growth of Hindu-Muslim amity; perhaps he had realised that these differences had deeper socio-economic roots and therefore sought to give a broader dimension to the meaning of nationalism.
The scenario in Pakistan is still more distressing as thousands of innocent people have lost their lives over the last ten years as radical Sunnis confront the Shias and other minorities, with the government still trying to distinguish between the “good” Taliban and such other militant religious organisations that may be used to destabilise the neighbouring countries.
The “bad” Taliban are turning against the government.
The situation in Bangladesh is no better. The setting up of territorial nation-states in South Asia on the basis of religious or ethnic identities have not brought about any improvement in the lives of people. These countries have failed, in varying degrees, to instill among them the sense of being members of a community based on harmony and understanding.
The time has come to seriously ponder over this and try to emphasise the common cultural heritage of the region, and the similar problems of development they are facing, without necessarily ignoring the geo-political divisions. That may not solve all the problems of the region, but may lead to improvements in intra-state and interstate relations. Tagore’s ideas may be relevant in that context.
But the aggeressive stance of India’s neighbours ~ China and Pakistan ~ might militate against the acceptance of this perception. Tagore did not call for disarmament as such, but emphasised the need for reconcilation based on mutual understanding.
There are also signs of reevaluation of Tagore’s ideas both in Japan and China, in sync with the emergence of India as a vibrant economic power with considerable clout in the 21st century.
It is revealing that in a survey conducted in 2009, Nehru and Tagore feature in the list of 50 foreigners who are supposed to have contributed to modern China’s devlopment; and in 2015 columnist Raymond Zhou writing about Rabindranath Tagore in the state-run China Daily described him as “Asia’s foremost literary titan and very much beloved in China”.
A similar reassessment of Tagore’s ideas seems to have taken place in Japan as well. In 2003, when a Liberal Democratic Party member called for an amendment to the postWar pacifist Constitution of Japan, the Japan Times in an editorial “Rabindranath Tagore and Japan”, sounded a note of caution.
It noted that Rabindranath in a letter to Noguchi in 1938 had clearly warned that the Japanese would realise someday that “the aggressive war on China is insignificant as compared to the destruction of the inner spirit of chivalry of Japan, which is proceeding with a ferocious severity”.
But recent developments in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the policies of China and North Korea and the response of the US and Japan, may dash these hopes.
The writer is a Retired Professor of International Relations and a former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University.