Rabindranath Tagore's views on Nationalism

Today, we find two contradictory trends at work. One is the erasing of national boundaries and greater trans-national cooperation. The other trend is the chest-thumping that happens in the name of the 'nation'. Anyone who does not participate in actively showering praises on the nation is labeled as an anti-nationalist. This article tries to discuss the views of Tagore on this contentious issue. No doubt, it may sound controversial, but please do read on.

"Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity."
-Rabindranath Tagore

Centuries ahead of the rest

On reading the book, 'Nationalism' by Tagore (which was actually a collection of various speeches he gave on his tours to Europe, Japan, and the US), I realized how far ahead of the age he was. What he spoke almost eight decades ago with so much confidence is still a risky topic to write on. In this day and age, when not standing up when the national anthem (ironically, the composition of none other than Tagore himself) is played can invite censure and even violence, Tagore's writings can make us realize the dangers of assertive nationalism, provided we have the patience to read his writings and the common sense to think about them. As I write this article while walking on a tightrope myself, I believe that the reader will have enough patience to at least read this short article.

Nationalism for Tagore was an evil that slowly gnawed away at the vitals of human civilization. According to him, nations are formed due to man's inherent need for collective organization, but ultimately nations become so powerful that man himself becomes only a tool serving the nation. Why did Tagore despise nationalism so much? The answer lies in the nature of aggressive nationalism that had begun to engulf the world during the first half of the twentieth century. Nations had begun suspecting nations. Violence on an unprecedented level occurred which was justified in the name of national interest. European powers had justified their selfish policies in Asia and Africa in the name of their national interest, while Japan had begun to justify its expansionist desires as well as the brutal suppression of its own people in the name of its own national interest. How could Tagore, a believer in humanity above any nation, support such an ideology? Tagore felt that nationalism had blunted humanity in an extremely harmful manner. In the name of the nation, cooperation between various peoples took second place to violent wars. The 'moral human' was replaced by a human that valued an imaginary political community more than anything else.

Nationalism and Patriotism

Here an important distinction needs to be made between nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism refers to the love which one has for his or her nation. It is an extremely natural instinct and it is practically impossible to shake off that attachment. We are bound to have feelings of love and admiration for the country in which we have lived since our childhood. On the other hand, nationalism refers to the feeling of belonging to a political community. This community is called the 'nation' which is bound together by a common history as well as a united government and all other distinctions of religion, race, caste, etc. are supposed to be secondary when compared to our national identity. While this is perfectly fine in most cases, an extreme amount of nationalism can lead to nations being organized as opposed to other nations. This is exactly what was happening when Tagore was giving those speeches.

Human beings normally never harm their neighbors. It is completely against their nature to do so. Yet what happens when a person's mind is infused with the spirit of aggressive nationalism – the latter type which was discussed in the previous paragraph? Aggressive nationalism dilutes the human element in a person's mind. Accordingly, he does not recognize if a person is a neighbor or not. If the nation to which that person belongs poses a threat to our national interest, we will go to any length to punish him. 'Wars', which are actually nothing but mass murders, are seen as necessary to achieve the good of our nation.

In the Indian context

Remember one thing. Tagore said these things when the freedom movement in India was at its full swing and any statement other than the dominant national voice was a taboo. Yet he had the courage to defy the possibility of censure and make his country aware of the dangers of excessive nationalism. He had the foresight to realize that if the problem of caste (he refers to castes as 'races') is not solved, then even political independence may not do our country a lot of good. This is expressed in the strongest possible words when he says that "In the so-called free countries majority of the people are led by a powerful minority to an unknown goal". Although he was known to have opposition to Gandhi's methods of the mass movement, he was not opposed to the idea of the freedom struggle as such. He simply wanted his country to escape the fate of other nations whose roots had been destroyed by the forces of excessive nationalism.

What if Japan had listened to Tagore?

When Tagore expressed these ideas on a tour to Japan, the majority of the newspapers mocked him. Japan, during that period, was drowned in the opium of excessive nationalism and the wisdom of his words was easily missed. Four years after Tagore's death, Japan suffered the worst of its disasters in recorded history. It's humiliating defeat and the occupation of the country by a foreign power which dictated its government and its constitution-making, what was responsible for all that? The USA after all was pursuing its own national interest, wasn't it?

The book 'Nationalism' is available for free on Project Gutenberg. Do read it. It is after all quite a short book. I sincerely believe that not just the subject matter of the book, but also the poetic language of Tagore's speeches will end up impressing you.

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Author: Venkiteswaran18 May 2020 Member Level: Diamond   Points : 4

I am reading about Tagore's view on Nationalism for the first time through this article only. On the suggestion in this article, I visited the project Gutenberg page and glanced through the pages of Book 'Nationalism' by Tagore.
I may have to go back later to read it in detail.

As Tagore himself has written in the book, Nationalism has its dimension in varied ways. While in some countries it is not complex due to their geography and history, it is complex in many other nations.

In the post colonisation/ post-war era, this has become more complex with sudden changes of loyalties to the border and political ideals.

However instead of growing broader, the human mind and human politic are becoming narrower and narrower. That is what Tagore finds and warns.

His book though written a century ago is actually more relevant today.

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