Talking with Tagore on ‘Nationalism’

It was mid-March 2022. The spring season was at its peak to start. And after 2 years of online education in the backdrop of Covid-19, we were in an offline education system. We knew that there would be no ‘Google Baba’ in final exams. All my classmates started worrying about it, so I’m I. And…


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It was mid-March 2022. The spring season was at its peak to start. And after 2 years of online education in the backdrop of Covid-19, we were in an offline education system. We knew that there would be no ‘Google Baba’ in final exams. All my classmates started worrying about it, so I’m I. And everyone started attending regular lectures. I and my friends from Niljyoti Society also started going to college regularly. 

It was 11:00 am on Thursday and we had a Political Science lecture. We all went to the PG6 classroom. Our faculty came to the class and wrote ‘Chapter 1: Nationalism’ on the blackboard. She gave the attendance sheet to Mukta, one of the regular students and told her to circulate it in the classroom. And then she started firing words like a Pub-G Warrior. I couldn’t catch a single word. 

Last night was a bit unusual for me. I went to bed at 11:15 pm but I couldn’t sleep till 4:00 am. Thus, no doubt that I was sleeping in the classroom, like a ‘Kumbhakarna‘. And I went into a deep sleep. A stage when you’re tired and you feel like you wanna sleep, you’re actually in heaven. 

In my dream, I felt like I was listening to a 40-45-year-old fellow, with a long white beard. Probably he was Tagore. A man who wrote the national anthem of two nations. And there were 6-7 gentlemen who were just sitting near him on a large podium. They looked like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Savarkar, Ambedkar and Bose.

Tagore was going to talk about nationalism to the people who died in World War II. The surrounding atmosphere was cool. The birds around were chirping. Children were playing in the open air. This was a replica of Santiniketan 2.0 in heaven. Before he started his talk, I googled its definition.

Google said, “an identification with one’s nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”

He started his talk; “I wrote an essay in 1917 titled ‘Nationalism in India,’ in which I consider the specific challenges faced by India in developing a national self-consciousness as well as the need for that consciousness to be grounded in Indian cultural sensibilities. And even today the real problem of India is not political, but it is social. It is a condition that prevails not only in India but among all nations. I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations.”

“What is the Nation?” He asked the audience. And then after a few seconds, he answered himself. 

“….the wisdom of the Nation is not in its faith in humanity but its complete distrust… Yes, this is the logic of the Nation. And it will never heed the voice of truth and goodness. I considered the ideals of nationalism inherently problematic because it leads to moral corruption, moral degeneration and mistreatment and are contrary to simple living or moral ideals of individuals. In my writing I have utterly said that nationalism was something that serves nations’ self-interest; it doesn’t serve the individual self-interest, which is not at all acceptable. It is a very jingoistic or xenophobic response to the explanation of the nationalism that perpetuates violence and stress between communities and the state or the nations.

Now he increased his pitch. I thought he was attacking the idea of nationalism itself. 

“According to me, nationalism by itself cannot act as a magic wand capable of conjuring away the numerous divisive forces. Nationalism is a great menace, if blown by force, would wreak havoc in India. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles. It is not ‘a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being, but rather a political and commercial union of a group of people, in which they congregate to maximise their profit, progress, and power; it is the organised self-interest of a people, where it is least human and least spiritual”. I see nationalism as a recurrent threat to humanity, because, with its propensity for the material and the rational, it trampled over the human spirit and human emotion; it upset man’s moral balance.

“By the way, Patriotism is a good substitute for nationalism,” said Netaji Bose.

“Apparently yes, but patriotism can’t be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live. 

“Do you know why I’m saying so?” He looked around the podium and started speaking again in a normal tone.

“Patriotism, whenever power is passed up, would unleash devastation in India. Patriotism isn’t an unconstrained self-articulation of man as a social being but instead a political or business association of a ground of individuals in which they gather to expand their benefit, progress and force. It is simply the sorted out enthusiasm of a people, where it is least human and least otherworldly. I regarded patriotism as  a repetitive danger to humankind because of its affinity for the material and the normal it stomped on the human soul and human feeling. It agitates man’s ethical parity.”

He asserted firmly, “India has never had a genuine feeling of patriotism and that patriotism has for quite a long time been at the base of India’s difficulties. My perception of nationalism has mainly relied on ancient Indian philosophy, ‘a Visva-Bodh’-a world-consciousness, in which every country would keep alight its lamp of mind as its share in the illumination of the whole world or humanity. A universal society, where the world was accepted as a single nest. In this way, I was striving to dissociate myself from the general belief of nationalism and trying to associate it with ideas such as peace, harmony and welfare in my essay nationalism. If anyway India decides to contribute to the world; it should be only in the form of humanity.  

I got a little bored listening to an old man. There was nectar in a large pot, freely available for everyone. At that moment, I thought I should call them ‘Anti-National’. These people were having fun in heaven and we didn’t even have proper drinking water in our locality. While I  was about to create chaos, I looked around. But there was no one to pay attention to me. So with the greatest disappointment, I drank two glasses continuously. I was the best opportunistic person on the earth, to enjoy nectar and represent my countrymen. 

And again I started listening to him.

“My idea of humanism goes beyond any boundaries or barriers and seeks at large a common place where humanity comes before any other kind of identity. The saints such as Nanak, Kabir,and  Chaitanya ignited the flame of humanism in Indian minds. But unfortunately, it faded over time with an aggressive rise of racism and caste-based disintegration of our society.”

He got a little cough. Sarojini Naidu, looked like my grandma.  She brought a glass of water for Tagore. He sipped twice and again started talking. 

“Yesterday I was reading the ‘Glimpses of India by Nehru’ and today I certainly claim that India has never had a real sense of nationalism and that nationalism has for years been at the bottom of India’s troubles. I have gone through New Education Policy 2020. There was no mention of value education. Indians should fight against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity. I’m I right, Ambedkar?

Yes, man! Ambedkar answered softly. 

He added, “Nationalism was the breeding ground for imperialism. I also found the obsession with nationalism as a source of war, hatred and mutual suspicion between and among the nations. And I viewed nationalism as a danger to humanity. My animosity to nationalism is not that I was not patriotic or that I was anti-West. I believed in a symbiosis of the East and West, a ‘deep association’ or a living relationship between the two cultures; a creative unity that was possible only when the East had discovered its soul and its own identity.”

Gandhi raised his  hand. Tagore stopped for a moment. 

“Gurudev, can I clarify the misconception around Ramrajya?”

“Yes please…!” Tagore accepted it positively. 

“I was saying the same thing in my discourse of Ramrajya. I want everyone to preach and practise  the non-violence at the individual level. This is the  true decentralisation of humanity. “

While Gandhi was clarifying ‘Ramrajya’, Nehru raised his  hand.

“Can I add something to your discussion?” He asked gently. 

“Yes ,yes… Go ahead… ” Tagore responded positively. 

“We should follow our Upanishads and our saints who taught us the idea of fraternity, brotherhood and equality, which can make any country strong. It is really important for our divided society. Part of how weIndianss get intimidated by the idea of westernisation, forgetting our roots has become the major reason why we get confused with the true essence of national self-consciousness.”

Savarkar stopped Nehru in between and said;

“You don’t teach us about western culture. I have seen your photos with an English lady, you too had a cigar in your hand.”

“Where did you see them?” Patel asked.

“I received it on my WhatsApp Bruhh…!”

“People made me a PM candidate against Nehru…” Patel said. 

“Nehru Ji, you continue…” He added.

Nehrustatedd ,“There is a need to prove our humanity by solving the internal differences through mutual help and finding some true basis for reconciliation. The concepts and practices of civilization, nationalism, and community are directly concerned with the nature of modern political power and its underlying assumptions about human life.”

With a little pause in the air, Swami Vivekananda said, “When you borrow things that do not belong to your life then they only serve to crush your life. Therefore, India, in my opinion, should follow her destiny rather than merely imitate the west.”

For a moment, everyone went into silence.Dr. Ambedkar took an opportunity and added, “The ideas like purity and impurity of race have massacred millions over centuries. Even two World Wars and other racial conflicts were provoked based on the false notions of superiority. Nothing as such has existed in this world where men and women can be straightway divided and disintegrated.”

After listening to Ambedkar, Tagore looked at the mic and started speaking again. “I believe, only those peoples who have survived and achieved civilization who have this spirit of cooperation strong in them receive a cardinal significance. At large, human beings all over the world should glance only through the mirror of cooperation and humanity.   I do consider that apart from political freedom, freedom of mind is more important. The Euro-centric notions of freedom have forced us to consider political freedom as an ultimate destination in the journey of the freedom movement in our country. Blind faith in Europe will instead increase our greed for possession. Hence, we should give up this narrowness and be more comprehensive in our inward and outward expressions that extend freedom of mind. Ultimately, this freedom of mind finds harmony with the human soul and at large human life. Nations with spiritual integration, love, and sympathy for others may find a permanent place in any age. Thus, nationalism of any kind is nothing but a mixture of integrated ideals of humanity and human welfare. It should be a tenable progression that outsets within.”

While Tagore was speaking Jinnah joined us a bit late. He was holding the newspaper in his hand. He was standing near me. I could see the headline titled; “Pak PM resigned, an unending road ahead…”. 

Jinnah spoke to Tilak, “The world politics today indicates its growing narrowness in the form of mounting significance given to the politics of dominance and also to the theory of division…”. Before he spoke furthermore, Tilak stopped him. “Friends, we will discuss it in the evening.” 

Tagore continued speaking; “Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul. Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty, and know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting. My vision might seem idealistic but it is perhaps, not unattainable. It calls for humanitarian intervention into present self-seeking and belligerent nationalism, through the introduction of a moral and spiritual dimension in the institutions.”

Tagore ended his words with a poem;

“My brothers, when the red light of conflagration sends up its crackle of laughter to the stars, keep your faith upon those stars and not upon the fire of destruction…

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful

With your white robe of simpleness.

Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.

Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty

And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.”

In the end, Netaji came forward and gave orders for “Jan-Gan-Man…”. I asked Bose; Netaji, is it compulsory to recite the anthem? 

“We do not have any problem, but in case you wanna live in heaven, you need to stand and sing with us. Else you’ll be declared ‘Anti-National’ by the rest of Indians…” he replied calmly. 

At the same time, Patel questioned, “do we want national unity in its physical and outer oneness or by togetherness by the beauty of heart?” 

“Let people decide at their level. And by the way, contemporary India needs to understand it in the best of its interest.” Gandhi pointed out.

Lata didi, the nightingale of India started singing rastrageet. We too all sang in loud and clear voices. At the end of the national anthem, Bhagat Singh shouted; “Bharat Mata Ki,…” and I woke up responding “Jay…sss!” loudly. 

I saw everyone in the classroom looking at me. I felt like I’m an alien in the room. Oh my god! I was sleeping on a bench, and screamed like hulk.

I said, “I’m so sorry…!”

Rohit asked me, “What happened bro? Is it alright?”

“Yeah I’m fine,.” I replied. 

Shivraj offered me water. I drank nearly half a bottle and thanked him. I came to my normal senses.

Then my teacher announced, “You have to write an assignment on Nationalism, Liberalism or Marxism and it’s for 20 marks”

After 10-15 minutes the lecture came to an end. At the end of the  lecture, Prajwal came to me and asked me about notes. I nodded my head negatively and told him to look out for Pritish. He might have noted down everything. 

Everyone went to the main building.

I left with Aurobindo’s definition of nationalism, written on the blackboard. “The concept of humanity is much bigger than the narrower concept of nationalism, and in all of that, the individual role is really important is what Tagore tried to reflect.”


🎯 References:

  1. ‘Nationalism in India’ by Rabindranath Tagore, 1917.
  2. Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Essays’ published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
  3. Classroom Lecture: Notes on Nationalism given by Faculty 
  4. Online Resources:
    1. Video lecture on Rabindranath Tagore: Nationalism by Dr. Mithlesh Kumar Jha from Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati (This video is available on channel named NPTEL IIT Guwahati dated 05 August 2018) https://youtu.be/hdHfwCJ2xc8
  5. Interview:
    1. An interview titled “Tagore on Nationalism: In Conversation with Prof. Ashis Nandy” date 07 December 2017(Sahapedia) https://www.sahapedia.org/tagore-nationalism-conversation-prof-ashis-nandy
  6. Book Reviews:
    1. A book review on Nationalism by Jaya Pandey(Youth ki Awaaz) https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/11/book-review-nationalism-by-rabindranath-tagore/
    2. A Book Review on Nationalism by CHHAVI BAMBA(DU Beats) https://dubeat.com/2020/02/book-review-nationalism-by-rabindranath-tagore/
    3. A Book Review on Nationalism by Vidya(Bookish Santa) https://www.bookishsanta.com/blogs/lets-discuss-our-books/nationalism-by-rabindranath-tagore
  7. Online Articles:
    1. Article titled “What Kind of Nationalism Do We Need Today? Exploring Tagore on Nationalism” dated 3 June 2019(EPW Engage) https://www.epw.in/engage/article/what-kind-nationalism-do-we-need-today-exploring
    2. Article titled “Rabindranath Tagore — the poet who knew nationalism could not rise above humanity” dated 7 August 2019 (The Print), written by Simrin Sirur. https://theprint.in/theprint-profile/rabindranath-tagore-the-poet-who-knew-nationalism-could-not-rise-above-humanity/273558/
    3. Explained Section Article on Indian Express titled “Rabindranath Tagore in 1908: ‘I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live’” dated December 2, 2016, written by Aniruddha Ghosal https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/national-anthem-flag-in-theatre-rabindranath-tagore-supreme-court-4406145/
    4. An opinion section article on The Bridge Chronicles titled as “Rabindranath Tagore’s perception of Indian Nationalism” dated 15 August 2021 https://www.thebridgechronicle.com/opinion/rabindranath-tagore%E2%80%99s-perception-indian-nationalism-54228

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