The World Comes First

Tagore and his Nationalism

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Nationalism, a collection of Rabindranath (1861-1941)'s lectures in English, appeared in 1917. The title is a misnomer inasmuch as he is speaking mostly of imperialism including colonialism in his speeches. It has been noted long ago that by jatiprem [love of (one's) nation] in his poems in Naibedya (particularly poem no. 64) he was condemning national chauvinism (Haldar 1961/2010 p. 121; Sehanabis 1972 pp.131-135, more elaborately in 1392 Bangla Sal (BS) [1985] pp.96-100). In this well-known poem Rabindranath denounced the imperialist powers of the West, not only because of their role in South Africa, but also in China (see Mukhopadhyay pp.18-19). At the same time he pilloried the English poets, who toed the line of their rulers, particularly against the Boers:

The poets are screaming, arousing terror|
Songs of grabbing of the dogs in the cremation ground|
Kabidal citkariche jagaiya bhiti|
smasana-kukkurder kadakadi giti|

Who were those poets? The name of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) first springs to mind. However, he was not alone in supporting the aggressing British army during the Boer War (1899-1902). Hemy Newbolt's Vitai Lampada (1898) was a typical example of jingoist verse. 'Kipling's children' often drew inspiration from Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)'s poems of the same nature. Although Vitai Lampada proved to be immensely popular both among combatants and civilians, another voice, pacifist and humanitarian in spirit, was also audible (The name, 'war poets', is a misnomer, for such poets as Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who died in the World War I, wrote anti-war poems, not war poems as Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) did). Kipling too was satirized by pro-Boer press. One issue of Justice mocked his fund-raising efforts:

O God of Battles, by whose fire
Thy Kipling warms his brain;
How blest are they who only pay
While other men are slain!

There were hundreds of poetasters who compose verses (of indifferent merit) to celebrate England, her Queen Empress Victoria, and the British Empire. Even A C Swinburne (1837-1909) joined this frenzy and contributed poems regularly to the jingoist journals. His Transvaal (which ended with the line, 'Strike, England, and strike home') was meant to foment the bellicose temper. Another of his poems, The Turning of the Tide ('Storm, strong with all the bitter heart of hate, Smote England,....', 1900) was another such piece. It is therefore no wonder that Alfred Austin (1835-1913) was appointed Poet Laureate, presumably for the popularity of his poem, Alfred's Song (available on the net). British Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury (Conservative), informed Queen Victoria, ''t is to the taste of the galleries in the lower class of theatres, and they sing it with vehemence'. (For further details, see Smith (1978) passim, available on the net. 'Drummer Hodge' is the title of a jingoist poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

However, the voice of sense and rationality was not absent. W.H. Colby wrote back in the Times:

Where are the dogs agape with
jaws afoam?
Where are the wolves?
Look, England, look at home.

Rabindranath too shared this anti-jingoist platform in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Two Concepts of Nationalism
At the outset a clear distinction is to be made between the concept of nationality and hence nationalism as it crystallised in the West right from the early nineteenth century and the concept of anti-colonial nationalism as it emerged in the colonised countries of the East in the late nineteenth century, first in Asia and then in Africa. Joseph Stalin defined 'nation' as follows:

A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of people, formed, on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture (1977 p.8).

It is often reproduced in school and college textbooks (without mentioning his name) but it concerns Europe alone. Stalin was not thinking of the territories that had been annexed by the Tsars, not even of his own people, the Georgians, not to speak of India or Congo.

On the other hand, when Aurobindo Ghose, Bipin Chandra Pal and other so-called Extremists in Bengal started referring to themselves as Nationalists (See Bande Mataram 3.7.1907, 6.11.1907, 18.4.1908, 22.4.1908, etc.), they were trying to distinguish themselves both from the Loyalists and the Moderates (branded as Conventionalists), whom they suspected to be pro-British for all intents and purposes. This nationalism again was different both from the Western concept and Rabindranath Tagore's idea of nationalism.

New Turkey, Iran and the USSR
It may be said without any fear of contradiction that, despite occasional backslidings, Rabindranath was firmly opposed to what Kipling had called 'The White Man's Burden'. Rabindranath looked forward to the day when the colonized peoples of Asia would throw away the yoke of imperial domination and become the master of their own destiny. He was full of admiration for new Turkey and Iran as they emerged in the 1920s. He commended Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah Pahlavi, the architects of these two new states, with unconcealed admiration in his travelogues of Iran (Japane Parasye 1936, originally written in 1932-33, translated into English as Journey to Persia and Iraq: 1932), They bear witness to his great admiration for Kemal Pasha (see, for example, Rabindra-rachanabali 12: 449-50, Journey to Persia and Iraq: 1932, p. 31). He also expressed it in an essay published in The Modern Review (October 1932). There are telling references to new Turkey elsewhere too. Classes and other activities at Santiniketan were suspended on November 18, 1938 following the death of the great Pasha (Bandyopadhyaya 3:143). In his address to the Progressive Writers' Conference, held in Kolkata on December 25, 1938, Rabindranath paid his homage to Kemal in glowing terms, a kind of homage he had never paid to any statesman of the East or the West before (Bandyopa-dhyaya 3:71-72).

Apart from the positive achievements in the fields of education and culture in the Soviet Russia (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), what impressed Rabindranath most was the emancipation of the peoples in Asiatic Russia, those living in Kazakhstan, Turkme-nistan, Uzbekistan and other such small nationalities that gained a new life, free from the dominance of the Mullahs, after the November Revolution of 1917. In his last lecture, 'Crisis in Civilization', he said:

While other imperialist powers sacrifice the welfare of the subject races to their own national greed, in the USSR I found a genuine attempt being made to harmonise the interests of the various nationalities that are scattered over its vast area. ...When I see elsewhere some two hundred nationalities-which only a few years ago were at vastly different stages of development-marching ahead in peaceful progress and amity, and when I looked about my own country and see a very highly evolved and intellectual people drifting into the disorder of barbarism, I cannot help contrasting the two systems of government, one based on co-operation, the other on exploitation, which has made such contrary conditions possible. (1966 3:724; Bangla original in 13:736. The two versions are not all alike; there are significant variations.).

From Revivalism to Universalism
At the same time, despite his pride in the tradition of India and the achievements of his ancestors, Rabindranath did not fail to set himself apart from the chauvinists in Bengal, who tried to promote hatred of everything foreign and endorse even the most objectionable customs and conventions of so-called Aryan origin. His satires against those revivalists, found in comic pieces, such as 'Arya o anarya' (1886), 'Gurubakya' (1887), 'Pratnatattva' (1891) and some of his poems, such as 'Patra' in Kadi o Komal, and 'Dharmaprachar' (1888) are still enjoyable, although, paradoxically enough, he himself underwent a chauvinistic phase in the late 1890s down to the early years of the twentieth century. Throughout the early phase (1886-1898) Rabindranath continued to be a staunch anti-revivalist. Things, however, began to change from 1899. In the words of Sushobhan Sarkar, the leitmotif of his articles published in 1901-02 was 'altogether (ekebare) Slavophil' (1961/2010 p.143. In the English version of this essay made by Sumit Sarkar, however, the sentence has turned out to be: 'The tone here is almost Slavophil.' 1970 p. 171. Emphasis added). Rabindranath went to the extent of glorifying the practice of widow burning (Sati): 'Today we pay obeisance to the grandmother of Bengal, intent on sacrificing her life' (bamlar sei pranbisarjan-paryana pitdmahike aj amrapranam kari', 'Mabhaih' (No Fear), Bichitra Prabandha, Rabindra Rachanabali 15:160). Sushobhan Sarkar has made a note of it (1961/2010 p. 144).

The Santiniketan Brahmachary-asram, principally under the influence of Brahmabandhav Upadhyay (1861-1907), was founded on the basis of an imaginary model of caste division and the four stages of life (varna-asrama-dharma). However, Rabindranath came out of this spell soon. He participated actively in the anti-Partition and Swadeshi movement (1905-1908), composed patriotic songs (Rabindra Rachanabali 4:264-275 in particular) that are sung even today. Not only that, he also wrote an inspiring poem celebrating the Sivaji Festival which has a quite out-of-place reference to the arrival of foreign merchants, as a consequence of which the 'merchant's balance appeared as the sceptre overnight (Rabindra Rachanabali 2:709).The poem no. 106 in Gitanjali, 'hey mor chitta...' (O my mind...), testifies to his newly achieved vision of India. Gopal Haldar has specially mentioned Gora (written in 1909-10) through which Rabindranath went beyond his former 'Hinduhood', 'hindutva' (1961a p. 37). Gora is the most human document of his transition from the revivalist phase to a new understanding of India's self. There was no turning back after this. Even in the face of all opposition, he remained free from narrow nationalism and embraced universalism as the right attitude to adopt. His denunciation of imperialism (which he preferred to call 'Nationalism') is most apparent in his prose poem, 'Afrika' (1937). His last speech, 'Sabhyatar Samkat' (Crisis in Civilisation) may very well be taken as his last testament. At the end of the speech he says:

The wheels of Fate will someday compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries' administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them! I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether. (1966, p.726; Bangla original in 13:733)

In this speech he reaffirmed his faith in man, and in the Orient, the land of sunrise:

As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility and yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the catechism is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises. A day will come when unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage. (1966,3:726; Bangla original in 13:733).

This is not xenophobia, nor an uncritical belief in a vague mission of the East (Ex oriente lux, light comes from the East), but the expression of a deep-rooted conviction in the future of the Orient as a whole, not India alone. In spite of his pronouncement made on January 21, 1941, 'I am a poet of the world' ('ami prithibir kabi', Janmadine, poem no. 10), he was basically an Asiatic, as he himself admitted in his Persia travelogue 'Because we are Asiatics (amra esiyar lok) a protest against Europe seems to run in our blood' (2003, p. 27; Bangla original 12:447).This is in sharp contrast to the kind of patriotism of 'My country, right or wrong' (as averred by Carl Schurz in 1872, often found in the dictionaries of quotations). Rabindranath's emphasis on atmasakti (self-power), Constructive Swadeshi, his refusal to accept the mystique of the charkha, the spinning wheel, promoted by Gandhi-all this marks him apart from the national leaders of his times. Similarly, his insistence on rural reconstruction, slow but steady progress towards self-sufficiency of the villages and similar programmes single him out from all the nationalist leaders of Bengal of the Swadeshi Movement days and after.

Rabindranath's metamorphosis from a staunch Hindu revivalist in the late 1890s to a universalist in or around 1907 is best exemplified in the change of the name of his pedagogic experiment at Santiniketan. The asrama-vidyalaya (founded on Paush 7, 1308 BS = December 22, 1901) was originally called Brahmacharyasram, but gradually it underwent a sea change. Ultimately (Paush 8, 1328 BS = December 23, 1921) it came to be known as Visva-Bharati (Rabindra Rachanabali 16:1275-78): the world comes first, India second. Rabindranath had named it so on Paush 8, 1325 BS = December 23, 1918 (Pal 7:372-373). The speech delivered by Rabindranath on this occasion is reproduced in Rabindra Rachanabali 14:495-496. The motto adopted for his institution reflects his universalist idea: 'Where the world is/becomes one nest,' yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam. The White Yajurveda (Madhyandina Sakha) 32.8 and several other sources contain this sentence. It also occurs in the Atharvaveda 2.1.1 (however, instead of nidam, there is rupam. See Majumdar, pp. 27, 454, 518). But Rabindranath endowed the sentence with a signification that was beyond the comprehension of ancient Indian sages.

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[Acknowledgements Abhishek Sarkar, Amitava Bhattacharyya, Debapriya Pal, Sourav Basak, Sunish Kumar Deb, and, last but not least, Tarun Basu. The usual disclaimers apply]

Vol. 51, No. 45, May 12 - 18, 2019