In early May this year, when the 152nd birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore was being celebrated across India and Bangladesh, he was remembered as a poet, educationist, economist, humanist, painter and novelist. And yet it was refreshing to find the Indian Council for World Affairs, a leading New Delhi-based think tank, focusing on a virtually unexplored area—diplomacy-- where the poet has left an indelible mark.
A brainchild of ICWA Deputy Director General Sarvajit Chakravarty, the conference on the theme Rabindranath Tagore—Envoy of India: His Vision of India and the World saw scholars and distinguished serving and former diplomats from a number of countries, including Bangladesh, engage in a lively debate on Tagore's visits abroad, his knowledge of the countries he toured and his contributions to the evolution of Indian foreign policy in the early years of Indian independence.
The conference was not just another occasion for idolizing Tagore or finding nothing wrong in everything he did in every field. There were questions and criticism of his actions and utterances as an 'envoy' of India. Observe the nature of the questions asked. Was Tagore right in going to Italy, meeting dictator Benito Mussolini and seeking his help for Italian studies at Visva Bharati? Was the European media at that time right in criticising a highly liberal Tagore for unwittingly legitimizing the fascist Mussolini and for lacking knowledge of the prevailing political situation in Italy?
Tagore undertook his first foreign trip—to England—at the age of seventeen when he was sent to that country for studies by his father Debendranath Tagore, who wanted his son to be either part of the Indian Civil Service or be a barrister on his return. Rabindranath became neither. But that did not prevent him from leaving a distinct imprint on the foreign policy of the government of independent India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Tagore's ideals of internationalism, humanism and global peace through a meeting between the East and the West had inspired Nehru's foreign policy vision.
Tagore firmly believed that lasting global peace could not be secured without a meeting between East and West despite their differences. As Prof Radha Chakravarty, a Tagore scholar at Delhi University, told the conference, the poet consciously saw himself as a representative of the East in dealing with the West.
Nehru's pan-Asianism articulated four months before India's independence in August 1947, and the subsequent setting up of the Non-Aligned Movement through the Bandung Conference bear the imprint of Tagore. The poet's desire for Indo-Chinese cooperation, particularly the five principles of peaceful co-existence between the two countries, had greatly inspired Nehru. It was Tagore again who had used the soft power of India's mystic and spiritual values as a diplomatic tool to reach out to the world.
Amitava Tripathi said Tagore felt there was no alternative to the use of soft power in order to reach out to the world because India was at that time a colonised country, with low level of development and little scope for exercising hard power.
It was the visionary in Tagore that had predicted the emergence of a resurgent Asia, particularly China (the world's second largest economy at present after the United States), nearly a century ago and warned of the threat of Japan's nationalism turning into imperialism. Tagore firmly believed that such a vast mass of people, especially the young, in Asia could not be kept subjugated in poverty for long and it was a matter of time when the continent would develop and claim its rightful place in the comity of nations. A background noted issued by ICWA for the conference sums it up best: 'the principles of Indian foreign policy and the approach of Indian diplomats to world affairs bear the deep and lasting imprint of Tagore's vision of India and her role and stature in the world'.
At a session on 'Tagore's Influence on the Ethos of Indian Foreign Policy', Amitava Tripathi stressed the need for culling out lessons emanating from Tagore's message of peace, internationalism, brotherhood and humanism. At the same time, Tripathi candidly said, 'For conventional diplomats like us versed in Kautilya's works and Machiavelli, sometimes it is difficult to appreciate Tagore's supra-nationalism because we are confined to working within the nation-state framework in diplomacy whereas he is looking at the universe.' Essentially, it was a choice between Tagore the foreign policy philosopher and the foreign policy practitioners, Tripathi said.
Former Indian Foreign Secretary M K Rasgotra provided a balanced assessment of Tagore's influence on India's foreign policy when he said that it had both positive and negative sides. Tagore's universalism and humanism and ideals of goodwill 'led to misjudgement' of other countries' policy, like China. The reference was clearly to China's declaration of war against India. However, the upside of Tagore's influence was the idea of soft power which much later became a tool of India's diplomacy.
According to Suryakanthi Tripathi, Tagore was 'more of an intuitive philosopher rather than an analytical and methodical thinker' and therefore 'one should not expect clear-cut foreign policy prescriptions from him'. She thinks it is 'took simplistic' to believe that 'the answer to more peaceful and productive international relations' lies in 'the perceptive wisdom and humanism of Tagore.'
In Tripathi's view, while Tagore was opposed to 'unbridled and militaristic nationalism and political aggressiveness', 'it is not always easy to choose between patriotism and humanism, between one's country and what is morally right.'
Making a perceptive analysis of Tagore, she said the poet's 'pan-Asian approach, his views on contact and conflict between the East and the West, particularly in the context of India's own freedom struggle, presented difficult philosophical contradictions.'
Some discussants felt that Tagore was probably not well versed with the political situation in some of the countries prevailing there at the time he visited them, as in Italy when Mussolini was in power or in China where his first visit had been marred by controversy. Some of his views were not appreciated by activists of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 for national independence. They were protesting the handing over of German concessions in Shandong province to Japan under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War 1. The discussants noted those were not the days of the Internet or easy circulation of the news media across the world.
Was Tagore aware of the political situation in Italy when he met Mussolini? According to Dr Kundu, for Mussolini, the number one priority was to use Tagore's visit to earn praise across the world. A result of the visit was that he sanctioned funds for Italian language and literature studies in Visva Bharati. Tagore was 'overwhelmed' with Mussolini's gesture. Tagore's friend and author Romain Rolland as also the left-wing media in Europe disapproved of Tagore's meeting with Mussolini, so much so that the Nobel Laureate had to write a letter to Charles Andrews explaining in detail the background of his invitation from Mussolini.
According to Dr Serebriany, 'Tagore's knowledge about Russia was quite limited. His judgements are mostly misguided' but this in no way took away from “our respect for him as a poet”.
Out of the polemics over Tagore's contribution to the making of India's foreign policy, one aspect on which there was hardly any divergence of opinion was his being the torch-bearer of globalization much before it became a worldwide 'mantra' in the present-day world. Tagore did not approve of a boycott and burning of foreign goods and forced use of 'desi' goods during the Swadeshi movement. This is best brought out by the war of words between Nikhilesh the Zamindar and the Swadeshi movement leader Sandip in the novel 'Gharey Bairey'. Tagore had favoured peaceful co-existence of both and competition between them.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi.