To read Rabindranath Tagore's lectures on Nationalism delivered in 1916 in Japan and in America is to feel that he positively detested it. And yet he himself was, in his own characteristic way, an eminent nationalist. He believed in his Indian identity and, next only to M. K. Gandhi, was the most well-known and effective promoter of the unity of India. When he spoke to the West, in the three lectures and also in other writings, his voice was that of an Indian taking pride in his eastern background. The fact is that the two positions he takes with regard to nationalism are not paradoxical; they don't contradict each other. For while denouncing nationalism he was not speaking of nationalism per se, but of it written with a capital N, and also of the Nation, spelt likewise. The target of his attack was the political nationalism of the West, by which he really meant Capitalist Imperialism. For him it is both an abnormality and an abstraction. Although he does not differentiate between the western and Indian dispensations of nationalism clearly in his lectures, a distinction is certainly implied, particularly when he suggests that the problem in India is social and not political. The implication is that India does not believe in Capitalist-Imperialist control over people anywhere in the world.
That Rabindranath believed in Indian national identity is clear. Early in his career in 1901, he wrote an essay in Bengali on 'nation' in which he said that Indian nationhood is founded on the collective memory of the past and the desire to build on that memory. In a 1905 essay, 'Abastha o Babastha' (the situation and the measures), he permits himself the use of the mixed metaphor of a male and a female figure in suggesting that there is a deity that invites all Hindus, Muslims, Christians in India, irrespective of their separate identities, to a grand festival. She makes them sit together and serves them food with her own hand. In a more well-known essay called 'Swadeshi Samaj'(the society of our own country), which he wrote in 1904, Rabindranath hopes that in India, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians won't kill one another; instead, they will work for unity, albeit one Hindu in character. What is notable is that the spiritual unity of India that Rabindranath has spoken of in this, and in some of his other essays, takes on a religious character. Writing in a very different vein, and on a different subject, he, however, said in 1938, that we, Bengalis, are Bengalis because of our language. ('Bangalvasha Parichay,' Introduction to the Bengali language).
His objection to the European nationalism of politics and commerce was clear and well-founded. He found that kind of nationalism to be characterized by plunder, loss of sympathy for human beings, arrogance and dehumanization through organized selfishness. He felt it turned human souls into commodities, divided them into compartments, and empowered scientific organizations at the expense of humanity itself. The evils of political nationalism he speaks of and the images of its operation he draws suggest that what he has in view is the phenomenon of Imperialism and Capitalism, working together.
In the lectures Rabindranath's farsightedness and insight are, not surprisingly, remarkable. He notes, “Whenever power removes all checks from its power to make its career easy, it triumphantly rides into ultimate crash to death.” While it is certain that he was not thinking of the world-shaking, emancipatory Russian Revolution of 1917 which was imminent, his sensitive mind seems to have been apprehensive of another great world war, that of 1939.
One of the limitations of these lectures is that they do not give proper attention to the anti-imperialist struggle in India and in other countries. Just as there is a capitalist-imperialism kind of nationalism, there is also the defensive nationalism of the people ruled by the Imperialists. Rabindranath was fully aware of the anti-imperialist struggle. Why is it then that he did not give that struggle the importance that it deserved? Three answers to the puzzle suggest themselves. The first is that he was addressing an audience who were engaged in the advancement of the aggressive kind of nationalism, and therefore needed to be criticized on that score. The second answer is of a negative character. Perhaps he did not like India to be completely separated from the British empire. In a manner rather unexpected from the spokesman of a subjugated country fighting for freedom and putting up with the repression of all kinds perpetrated by the British, Rabindranath says in one of his three lectures, “ we [the Indians] neither have the right nor the power to exclude this people (the British) from the building of the destiny of India.”(Nationalism, 49-50). He thinks that the coming of the British was 'providential' for the Indians to achieve progress and national unity.
The third answer to this question lies perhaps in the very nature of his idealism. He was a liberal, and liberalism decries Commercialism, but falls short of identifying it as Capitalism. This happens precisely because of the inability of the liberals to disaffiliate themselves from trust in private property, despite their full awareness that private property creates inequality and allows the rich to oppress the poor. Rabindranath has spoken of the immorality of the possession of private property, but was unable to visualize a social system without it. More importantly, to have identified Capitalism as the villain would have made it imperative for him to recommend a cure, a task he was not ready to take upon himself.
One recalls that in his play Rakta Karabi (Red Oleanders, 1922), Rabindranath offers a very realistic picture of the devastation Capitalism is capable of causing, but stops short of calling it by that name. Instead he suggests that the play is centered on a conflict between two contrary civilizations, one of agriculture and the other of industrialization. In the play, the king, who is the victimizer as well as a victim, is rescued from his confinement in the industrial–capitalist system by a girl, called Nandini, who represents the spirit of both freedom and open-space in the agricultural fields. The entire system would have broken down had there been an uprising which was, indeed, brewing among the deracinated and oppressed workers in the kingdom.
In a beautiful and very appropriate simile used in one of the lectures, Rabindranath likens the modern state to the railway heading towards a terminal station and society to the tree with no definite movement. But to speak in terms of the reality obtaining in modern times, society is more like a collection a of trees than a single tree, and these social trees are isolated from one another and are obliged to fend for themselves, individually and not collectively. As for collective welfare the need is not for alienated trees but for a river connecting the people. What would obstruct the flow of that river is the unevenness of the ground produced by inequality. What is required, therefore, is the dismantling of the capitalist system itself with a view to bringing people into a unity, ending both alienation and profiteering. The moral man we need is really the democratic man, who does not usurp power and believes in cooperation with fellow human beings. When Rabindranath recommends, as remedy for social evils, the promotion of virtues like cooperation among individuals, regulated passions and appetites in the interest of harmonious development of man, cultivation of disinterested love for fellow creatures and solution of problems through regulation of difference, and spiritual recognition of unity, he is not, it seems to us, speaking of a mythical past, but of a possible future to be founded on the democratic ideology of equality of rights and opportunities.
Rabindranath's political ideas are of a noble mind that wanted man to be free – morally, economically and intellectually. His views deserve to be considered with care, not only for understanding him but also for knowing the historical and ideological context to which they belong. His insight, foresight and poetic power of expression may remain unattainable for others, but his sympathy for the misery of the people of his own country and of the world at large, his courage of conviction and his refusal to compromise is exemplary and can guide future generations.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of the University of Dhaka.