Tagore on Nationalism: In Conversation with Prof. Ashis Nandy

in Interview
Published on: 07 December 2017

S. Gopalakrishnan

S. Gopalakrishnan is the author of 'Gandhi: Oru Artha-nagna Vayana' (a collection of essays on Gandhi in Malayalam), a music critic, and presently Programming Head, Radio Mango UAE operations, Dubai.

S. Gopalakrishnan interviews Prof. Ashis Nandy on Rabindranath Tagore in 2012


In  conversation with  Prof. Ashis Nandy


S.Gopalakrishnan: How do you address Tagore’s concept of nationalism which seems contradictory to many people?


Ashis Nandy: Well, a lot of people look very internally inconsistent. To a lot of people, it will seem an inner contradiction, as if Tagore did not know his mind because there are thousands of people who went to jail or marched in demonstrations singing Tagore songs. He has not only recently written our national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, he has also scored Vande Mataram. But I want to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism.


Tagore was a patriot. Patriotism means love for one’s country—a sense of territoriality. This is not only common to humankind. You see it in many species other than the Homo sapiens. You see it in dogs, cats .You even use it in birds to send messages. At one time, they used to do that. That is territoriality. Patriotism is a form of territoriality—a certain emotional attachment to place of one’s birth, the place where you have grown up, place which frames your earliest memories. Nationalism is different. Nationalism is not a sentiment. It is an ideology. It is based on the idea of that nation.


Tagore believed that India was a country of communities. It was not a country of a nation. So trying to build a nation in India was like an attempt to build a navy in Switzerland, that is what he wrote. Because nation and nationalism presumes that you homogenise the population. And give them a theory of love of the country which also specified enemies and friends, allies and detractors. It also presumes that you will give priority to the nation over everything else. You are first an Indian, then a Hindu. You are first an Indian, then a Muslim or a Sikh. But then the answer to that is what Khan Wali Khan, Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s son, said in a Pakistani court. He said, ‘My Lord, I am a Pakistani for 45 years, Muslim for 1400 years and a Pathan for 5000 years’. So he knew that he has multiple selves and some selves will often have priority over other selves.


Nation claims absolute priority, communities do not. The traditional identity of India does not. And to that extent, there is an intrinsic incompatibility between the idea of nation and the Indian concept of self. But then lot of Indians are now urban, westernised, middle class Indians. And to them, the nation seems an absolute must, a necessary ingredient of nationalism and nationality which defines a nation-state because what we are trying to run is a modern nation-state. That is the more modern concept of state that it must be built on nationality and nationalism and not a nation.


Sometimes states are multinational, in Indian case they don’t want to say that. They claim to be one nation. And if you object, they say what they say in the case of secularism. They say our concept of nation is different, our concept of secularism is different, but ultimately in practice it often boils down to the same thing. And my feeling is this that Tagore’s hostility to nationalism came from the awareness that the nation state system and the idea of nation and nationality and nationalism were totally incongruent with Indian self-definition and went against the basic principle on which the Indic civilization as well as Indian unity as such is organised. So that is the background of Tagore’s criticism of nationalism. That criticism was not lightweight. He believed in it strongly.


When he went to Japan, for example, he noticed the delirium of nationality from which they were suffering and delivered his famous series of lectures there. The result was this that when he landed in Japan, there were tens of thousands to welcome him. This was soon after he won the Nobel Prize. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel prize.


And the Japanese covered his visit, the newspapers covered his visit like royal visit. But as he went on giving his lectures, they were deeply disturbed and hostile. When he left Japan, there was only one person to see him off, his host. And roughly similar things happened in China too because these were countries which were like India, experiencing the might of Europe and they felt that their salvation lay in European style nation-states and that is what they must have.


But Tagore felt as he spelt out in all his three political novels (Gora [1909]; Ghare Baire [1916] and Char Adhyay [1934]), that that will be a poisoned victory because in the course of that victory against West, you have become like the West. You have lost your culture, you have become deracinated, you have lost yourself actually. And what you will live with is a pale version of European culture sold to you as a basic ingredient of modernity. That was his position. And he never deviated from it. All his three political novels in some way or other bring in the issue of nationalism and violence and in all of them, he is absolutely clear which side of the fence he stands. There is no way you can whitewash this and sell him as a nationalist.


And people unconsciously know this. They might not admit it but they know this. Tagore is the only person in the 350 years of the history of nation-states who has been associated with four national anthems. Nobody has written more than one national anthem. Tagore is associated with four. He wrote and scored Jana Gana Mana. He did not write but he scored Vande Mataram. He did not write but scored the national anthem of Sri Lanka. And he wrote and scored the national anthem of Bangladesh. This is a record I don’t think will be broken even in the future of nation states. This is a world record if I may put it that way. And I think we have reasons to be proud that somehow implicitly it is accepted that Tagore belongs to no nation. He was an Indian, he was a Bengali, he was a Hindu but he was also a Brahmo, a reformist sect which borrowed a lot from Islam and Christianity. And in some fundamental sense, he belongs to everybody. Somehow or other this is accepted in the case of Gandhi but this is not accepted in the case of Tagore.



S.G.: How do you compare Tagore’s concept of nationalism and his sense of patriotism with that of Gandhi?


A.N.: Yes, but then Gandhi’s nationalism was not very strong either. In this 90-volume collected works, there are hardly a dozen or so references in the index to nationalism though it comes out indirectly in many places but I would suspect that most cases you can see that he is actually talking about patriotism, not about nationalism as an ideology.


Secondly, I suspect that the Tagore–Gandhi differences have been played up in the 70 years  because we want to play up Tagore as a modern Indian. Modern Indians have been desperately looking for a great hero and not finding anyone, Tagore probably serves that purpose for them to some extent. Actually, Tagore strange though it might seem to you was writing about Gandhi even before he had heard of Gandhi, even before Gandhi emerged in the Indian scene, when Gandhi was an incipient idea. In other sense, he was anticipating the emergence of somebody like Gandhi in Indian political scene and there is a lovely essay by the late Sisir Kumar Das, himself a writer and a historian of literature, where he shows that how Gandhi met this unfulfilled ambition of Tagore, to see in his lifetime, the emergence of somebody like Gandhi in the Indian public sphere. And Tagore was the one who called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’ for the first time. Gandhi called him ‘Gurudev’. And Tagore wanted to leave his alternative university Viswabharati at Santiniketan with Gandhi. He wanted him to take care of it after his death. Gandhi was younger than Tagore. And I don’t think that is an accident because even the vision of that alternative university is partly influenced by Gandhi. Gandhi was trying to practice, atleast play with the same ideas and there was a continuity between Gandhi’s Nai Talim and Tagore’s Visvabharati.



S.G.: You mentioned Tagore’s visits to Japan and the Far East. Can it be argued that Tagore was more Asian than Gandhi as the latter drew upon a lot of Western ( or, European) philosophy in his thought?


A.N: Yes, Tagore was probably, you are right, more consciously Asian. He was deeply perturbed that the pre-colonial ties with India’s neighbours that had existed for centuries had collapsed. That even if we have to dialogue with your neighbours, you have to go through the western university system, a western language and western mediation and that he considered a real loss. And in Santiniketan, he tried to take care of that and India’s first department of Chinese Studies was established there. It is true. His dance bears the imprint of Sri Lankan dances .


But the fact remains that Gandhi also was not entirely a product of India. He was a product of India and Africa. His most formative years, he spent in South Africa. Satyagraha emerged in a racist country. Many people believe that satyagraha could have only emerged under a liberal dispensation, only under British rule. That is not true. It was tried out in a country which was openly racist and was a police state in every sense. In that sense, Gandhi also had his exposure to different kinds of cultural plurality. And if you read accounts of Gandhi in South Africa, you have no reason to feel ashamed as an Indian because there is no touch of racism in him. Indeed, Nelson Mandela has said that you sent us a barrister, we sent back a saint to you. And it is also true that the three greatest Gandhians at this moment, none is an Indian. None is an Indian, no one is a Hindu either or a Jain. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. And I think it also talks of a different kind of cross cultural sensitivity. Both of them in some sense thought not of only of India but you might say that they tried to envision a world where India will have its rightful place but every society, every culture and every civilisation will also have its rightful place. There will be no hierarchy amongst civilisations and cultures. That was their attempt.


Within that, I think Tagore by his upbringing was perhaps more sanitised in the sense that he lived a sanitised life. That was his background and by his vocation too, (there was a) slight distance or isolation from the heat and dust of the Indian village. He talked of the village, he talked of rurality but his touch with the reality of Indian village, with the destitution and poverty that had begun to enter Indian villages was perhaps weaker than Gandhi’s.


Gandhi was after all a mass politician. Let us not forget that part of the story. Gandhi also came from a background in some ways similar to Tagore. If you look at his backgrounds, his education, he was not from village India. He encountered Indian village in his middle years. Tagore atleast had encountered the village early in his life through his zamindari in what is now Bangladesh.


Gandhi encountered it later because for his education he went to Indian cities and then to the West, went to London. But both retained the capacity to use the Indian village as a component of their utopias—as a corrective to the excesses of the Indian urban imagination which had no place any more for a village. Traditional Indian cities and villages were complementary to each other. The colonial city was in negation of the village. And the village to them seemed a negation of the colonial city, to these urbane Indians. Both fought against them, both knew that you have to build into, build the Indian village in your vision of a good society. Not to turn India into a village utopia but atleast as a living standing criticism of some elements of urban life and as a corrective to its excesses.


They were the first theorists. Both of them were the first theorists of the city as well as the city’s relationship with the village.



S.G.: How does one look at the inter-relationship of Tagore, Tolstoy and Gandhi? Can it be seen as a triangle constituting a universal point of view?


A.N.: It is not really a triangle. It is an attempt in both of them to keep in touch with the other self of Europe. Gandhi even more so than Tagore, because Gandhi was fighting Europe, Gandhi was fighting the West in the form of an imperial power on the ground. And he thought a necessary part of non-violent struggle was that he had to keep in touch with western dissenters who negated the stereotyped concept of the West in many Indians as an oppressive power only. Western civilisation also has its other self which it has abrogated and now claims to have superseded. Tolstoy represented that best. So did number of others. The west doesn’t end with the enlightenment and the positivist part of the Greek civilisation. It also had Pythagoras, starting from Pythagoras all the way down to people like Blake and others who took a position against urban industrial civilisation. A robust criticism of the kind which Gandhi was looking for and so was Tagore.


If you read his last book of Tagore, he clearly had travelled a long way towards the Gandhian critique of the West. He says in great sadness that one time I thought the new world civilisation will perhaps begin to take shape in the West. Now I believe that that is not possible. Just in the beginnings of the second World War II by that time. So I think instead of looking at this relationship between Gandhi and Tagore as the meeting point of two radically different kinds of public awareness I would say perhaps everything said, it is an attempt to displace Gandhi as a relevant public figure in globalising India and have relatively more apolitical, more manageable person in Tagore. Gandhi has already been shelfed and the technology has been to call him a saint and to put him on a pedestal claiming that this is a height of saintliness and ethics that we cannot approximate and which has no place in contemporary statecraft. That is why the great Gandhians are now outside India. They did not give up their faith in Gandhi.



S.G.:  How far was Tagore connected with the Muslim masses?


A.N.: His zamindari was East Bengal. So he must have been in touch with the Muslim masses but how deep was the touch I cannot say and I don’t believe that it was very deep. It was not perhaps as deep as many like to believe. But with the Muslim middle class yes, because he was a writer, everything said, and he was in touch with it and you cannot avoid, majority of Bengalis are Muslims.


And his family also were heavily exposed to Islam. It is not that, he had that kind of family background if you look at it.



S.G.: It is said that Gandhi claimed the Pathans were very brave persons. What is your comment on it?


A.N.: He has said this in many ways earlier that the Pathans were  the best satyagrahis in India too because the British particularly treated them very nastily because they had fought four Afghan wars. But not one Pathan picked up a stick.


Apart from that, the first announcement of militant non-violence, that is the way to translate satyagraha, I believe, in South Africa, was made by a Muslim friend of Gandhi. Then they were a triumvirate. It was first published by a Muslim editor. Of the triumvirate, two were Muslims, one was a Hindu.


So there was this linkage from the beginning and even in Tagore . I don’t think his experience did not encompass Islam. In a meaningful way, it did. It cannot. Otherwise nobody can claim like Tagore and Gandhi both did—that Indian unity is not built on the Vedas and the Upanishads. It is built on the medieval sants and their kind of spirituality because the medieval sants had ambiguous religious as well as sect identities and India has thrived on those ambiguities. That has been its traditional cultural strength.


In fact, I would say that this is the way it has been  in  a large part of Asia and Africa, from Japan all the way to the west coast of Africa, that you can have more than one religion, you can have porous boundaries of faiths, you can share places of worship, rituals and customs with other faiths, other sects and so on and so forth.



S.G.: How do you see the famous Tagore’s rejoinder  to Gandhi’s comment on the earthquake ? Gandhi attributed the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake to untouchability which led to a public debate with Tagore.


A.N.: Yes, many people asked me that question and I think no easy answer is possible. At one plane, both of them differed radically on that issue. At another plane, Tagore underestimated Gandhi’s philosophical position. Gandhi was looking most probably for something like a collective karma which he believed determined the faith of communities, cultures and civilisations. A bit like Simone Weil, as the late Ramchandra Gandhi pointed out to me. There are similarities in that search.


It was not a lightweight search and it cannot be dismissed by saying that he was trying to promote superstitions and supporting the caste system.


It will be a pity if we underestimate the nature of Gandhi’s quest. I think he was serious in his quest for a spiritual position as well as a political position which will be mutually potentiating and uphold the concept of ethics in politics which you would not find in contemporary cultures or politics. Certainly not within the enlightened vision of a good society. Because enlightened vision has no strong theory of non-violence. It has a theory of containment of violence but not non-violence.


So there is a vested interest both in nature and a non-Homocentric view of the universe. Because there is no guarantee that in next birth you will be born as a human being. You can be born as a lowly insect.




S.G.: How did Gandhi and Tagore engage with the question of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ ? Can it be argued that Gandhi’s relation with Tagore have been otherwise ignored due to the afore-mentioned public debate between them?


A.N.: Yes, that is my feeling, i.e., the real connect between the two have been missed because Gandhi was a celebration of an ordinary Indian living his ordinary life and trying to capture the magic of that ordinariness. That was his starting point. Tagore’s starting point was, I would say, the human potentialities inherent in this civilisation and how it could actualise it—try and win over its political plight as a colonial subject nation at that point of time. So I think the starting points are different but the deeper connection was much stronger than people believe. And I suspect this is because they were both open to the native genius of what you might call Indian interpreters of the world as it lived in the hearts of people. That is why both of them did not locate Indian unity in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Both of them located it in medieval India, which contrary to the European belief and contrary to the belief of modern Indians who used the term medieval glibly and indiscriminately, medieval India was the golden age of India. Our finest music, poetry and spiritual quests have their beginnings in medieval India. And there is nothing like the Dark Ages of Europe in medieval India. We have reasons to be proud of our medievalism.


S.G.: When it comes to the education and philosophy of Tagore, one may cite the example of how he sent one person to Kerala  to learn Kathakali and the way he took Kathakali to Santiniketan not as an art form but as a tool for education. Again, such an example demonstrates that he took the best from all over the continent—the art forms, the music—for educating the masses for the new generation as preparatory tools.


A.N.: I would avoid the expression ‘the best from everywhere’. That is what the politicians say when they introduce Tagore while inaugurating a seminar. We don’t have to go by that. Both Tagore and Gandhi has very—I won’t say clear-cut—but very well developed visions of what a good society should be like and whatever they thought was congruent with that vision, they took it, not the best. Tagore never tried to introduce the ballad into India or never tried to write an opera. And though he would have agreed probably that Shakespeare was a great poet,  I do not see much significance being given to the works of best in the world. I see more significance being given to bring in and deepen the knowledge of India’s neighbouring countries, deepen the knowledge of all kinds of art forms which are culturally very typical, which have the capacity of telling something to the audience without expenditure of too many words.


Amongst the dance forms, Kathakali’s richness perhaps lies in its capacity to be a narrative also. So he had readied for that kind of a thing because he wrote verse-plays himself and when he wrote his verse-plays, the idea was to carry his words forward. There is no reason why should he. I mean that was also what he thought about his music and I thought he was wrong there. He should have allowed more freedom to performers. That would have enriched music. He was afraid that they will not be able to convey the significance of the words if they were allowed to play with the composition. But I can see why he said that. I can understand why he was saying that. I may not agree with him. That is different.



S.G.: Is it because of Tagore’s contribution to Bengali literature that he is ‘owned’ by the Bengali community? Gandhi’s creative expression has been through political activism. Can this be a possible reason as to why Gandhi is not ‘owned’  by Gujaratis?


A.N.: I was not really talking of really ‘owning’ Tagore. I used probably the wrong word. I would like to say that Bengali possessiveness about Tagore which didn’t allow them to look at Tagore through the eyes of others.


I think Gujarati identity is less dependent on Gandhi than Bengali identity is dependent on Tagore and that is why they have to be possessive about him. That is the real answer.


The Bengali middle class is very heavily dependent on Bengali language itself. Gujarati language is not that central to Gujarati culture. There are other cultural pillars to strengthen this edifice called Gujarati culture—Gujarati public sphere. The Bengalis depend much more on language, language and what we will call high culture and hence the possessiveness about Tagore.


S.G.: Can the iconic image of Tagore be compared to the iconic image of Sree Narayana Guru of the Ezhavan community in Kerala?


A.N.: Yes, but that community needed him also. Don’t forget that. I mean this is not a possessiveness which you can control really speaking, the community needed the person in that particular. I am associated with some of these people who are keen to organise occasional festivals around Narayan Guru and so forth and I do read their writings also to the extent I can. That is a different kind of possessiveness. It is a bit like the Mahars feel possessive about Ambedkar because Ambedkar was a Mahar leader till quite recently. He has become a pan-Indian Dalit leader really speaking more recently than many people think.


I think there is something else in the Bengali possessiveness about Tagore which is, for example, obvious in the way his copyright was extended, the way you have to take clearance from Visvabharati for performing his music or using it in a film and so on and so forth. I found that after a point rather odious. I think in matters of creativity, bad interpretations, bad performances should be judged by the audience who buy tickets for the performances or buy the records and the CDs. That is the best way to decide these things and however much you might push your line, nobody is going to be bound by that. and that is what exactly has happened. Tagore himself gave permission to some selected people to sing his songs anywhere they liked, like Dilip Kumar Rai. He gave permission to Pankaj Mullick to score a poem of his. If he could do that in his lifetime, after his death I think you should give permission to a large number of people to do such experiments.