Lessons In Nationalism That Would Make Tagore Anti-national

We all have been reading great things about Rabindranath Tagore in our school books. He was an Indian polymath who became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful work, Gitanjali, in 1913. What’s more, he wrote the National Anthems for both India and Bangladesh!

However, there is a strong possibility that in the coming future, you may find Tagore removed from our school textbooks. It is also likely that Bhakt Banerjee types declare him anti-national and send his likes to Pakistan. Why is that though? In this post, let us look at the 10 teachings in nationalism that would make Tagore an anti-national in 2020.

1. Nationalism is a virus

In a letter addressed to his friend A.M. Bose in 1908, Tagore wrote that he would never let patriotism triumph over humanity. In his seminal book, Nationalism, he had asserted: Nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil which is sweeping over the human world of present age and eating into its moral vitality.

tagore writing a letter

According to him, a nation is the sum total of people’s power. This power, he claimed, could be misused, such as, to divert men and women from their ultimate objective of happiness and creativity and rather have them focus more on sustaining the organization.

Tagore believed that people should work to become global citizens instead of being obsessed with a compulsory nationalism. He warned us that nationalism could lead eventually to oppression and denial of human rights. Clearly, from what is observed today, Tagore was far ahead of his time.

2. Nation need not be worshiped

The roaring chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Glory to Mother India) first became prominent during the independence movement. But Rabindranath Tagore took a strong objection to this glorification and once again, his objection, was based upon logic.

In his 1916 novel, Ghare Baire, the protagonist Nikhil says that he’s willing to serve his country as long as he’s alive, but, that being said, he will worship only what is right and just, which to him was much more greater than the country itself. Surely, this must have been Tagore’s belief as well since he’s the one who made that character up.

Because, according to Tagore, when love for one’s country is a sacred obligation, then to tell right from wrong becomes difficult; then social and political disaster are the inevitable outcomes; the whole country breaks apart, slowly but surely.

3. Dissent is a necessity

Tagore was one of those few people who dared to challenge all the accepted world-views. To him, debate or disagreement was the only way for the society to make progress.

Of course, the British did not mean well for our country, which was why, they decided to put all the thousand of Indians, that they judged disloyal or rogue or anti-national, behind the bars.

To do just that, the British government introduced the draconian sedition law which criminalized anyone who through words, either written or spoken, or by visual representation, or otherwise, attempted to excite disaffection towards the government. Despite the new law, Tagore did not stop questioning the Brits with his provocative writings.

4. Tagore vs Gandhi

In 1920, Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement with the aim of self-governance and obtaining economic independence from the British. The intent for this struggle and the result-expected both looked equally promising; but Tagore probably was one of the first people to predict its failure.

The Indian cloth was expensive, Tagore argued. The common Indian man could not afford to go through with this movement. Also, the attempt to ditch British goods slowly resorted to violence and looting. The poor traders who refused to comply with the Boycott received a warning, ignoring which, their stalls were put to fire.

Tagore pleaded Gandhi to call back his swadeshi movement, which he did. Tagore then described that the greatest curse upon the country was not foreign cloth but the quarrel within it. Nothing, he claimed, could be worse than one people simply enslaving the opinions of another people with brute force. Because to Tagore, the real freedom is freedom of the mind, or open-mindedness; meaning, a person who can think of his own is truly free, so he believed.

5. When the mind is free

Sadly, most people are incapable of formulating dissenting opinions. This, Tagore proposed, was the worst kind of slavery. As mentioned above, he advocated for freedom of the mind. But when is the mind free? The mind is free when thinking is independent of all the existing notions. An independent thinker sees the situation as it really is rather than being told what it is.

In other words, only a mind that is based in reality can truly understand the problems of the world, therefore, questions will be asked, so to make a wrong, right. According to Tagore, until we the people raise voice for our own sakes, we shall not be free whosoever is in power. Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul, Tagore said.

To Tagore, social freedom was of much more importance than political freedom. Even if we have democracy in our country today, are we all truly united on equal terms? Isn’t there racism against the north-eastern people? Don’t North Indians call Southerners names? Are inter-case or inter-religion marriages welcomed with joy? Our mind is not free yet, unfortunately.

6. What is History?

When we see the earth from space, we see it as a whole, without the divisions we marked on its land. Tagore, just the humanist as he was, wanted us all to ditch our pride in national history; he’d rather ask everyone to become global citizens; to become obsessed with human history; world history in fact!

He was interested in knowing how the people in various parts of the world evolved; what their thoughts and customs were; how they were similar to one another and how they changed and grew apart over time. According to Tagore, history is the most brilliant teacher if we be willing to learn. So instead of sulking over the past, or blaming the present upon it, our government should take a learning from it.

7. Silent Protest

After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Tagore wrote to the British relieving his knighthood honour he was awarded with. “Returning my award is a form of protest!” Tagore claimed. “This will give voice to those millions without it but those who want to rise against the colonial rule.”

Even though the English were largely unaffected by this Award Wapsi act, millions of Indians, on the other hand, who’d felt disheartened after the Amritsar incident, discovered a hope amidst the chaos. “I, for my part, wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, suffer degradation, not fit for a human being.”

8. Education has no meaning

According to Tagore, the people have always been brainwashed at early age into believing things which have absolutely no basis in reality, such as religion, casteism, and so on. This is probably why he was a drop out and why he grew up adopting the humanist values.

Education, for him, was not the learning of facts; it was rather the training of the mind to think. The British education system hardly let any Indian think outside the box; which slowly led the country toward a great unbalance between seekers and providers of jobs.

Therefore, with whatever little he’d saved all his life and by summing it up with the Nobel prize money, Tagore founded a new learning institution called Shantiniketan, where students were encouraged to build and work upon their own individual ideology, while also remaining open to others’. There were intellectual debates in place of exams; so, one can say, that in his own institution, Tagore helped to create India’s first freethinking warriors.

9. The spirit of Toleration

If there was any one definition of Nationalism which Tagore readily accepted, it was this: The promotion of unity and brotherhood among different communities and faiths in the country; this was his nationalism. A true nationalism shouldn’t have let the common people resort to name-calling, online bullying, or dissemination of false propaganda. Does it not make sense?

Our textbooks have always maintained that unity in diversity is the essential quality of India. Yet, it is unfortunate that despite a whole lot of diversity, the unity aspect is somewhat missing in the country. Why otherwise would we treat the easterners different from the rest? Why, then, would be consider one language or one religion superior over another?

If India has anything to learn from her ancient history, it is this: The spirit of toleration. What this means is, to have a welcoming heart to anyone and everyone; whether they speak this or that language; if they be of this or that religion; whatever it is. The spirit of toleration allows the individual to also keep his own identity, but at the same time, it objects strongly to imposition.

10. What is Citizenship?

Even though Tagore had little interest in national history, he was proud that he came from a tolerant country, which, for millennia, had welcomed migrants of all religions and languages. In one of his essays from 1903, Tagore has talked about this aspect of India in greater detail.

That, if we’re so proud of our diversity, we must ask ourselves this: How did it come to be in the first place? How, because India always laid the foundation for an inclusive civilization; the idea that whole world is a big family, was put to practice by our ancestors; India and Indians took in all, accepted in all!

According to Tagore, what shall be the basis for Indian citizenship? Language, color or religion? None of these, he said. Think about this: why is it that America became a world superpower? Because, when the country just had started, they welcomed everyone with open arms. But our own history of embracing those in need is even older. Tagore has pointed this bit out and opposed the idea of citizenship in doing so.

Summing up

Yes, we all know that he wrote the National Anthem for India. But hardly anyone cares anything about what the man himself was; more importantly, what his idea of a nation was. In the current situation, though, if his ideas re-surface on large scale, there is a strong chance that Tagore might be charged under the sedition law. His teachings derive inspiration from humanist values which unfortunately the New India has forsaken.

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