A prominent Indian intellectual, whose name I desist from mentioning since his identity is not germane to what this post is about , had come to Stonybrook for an invited lecture many years ago. In the course of his talk, he contended that in the nineteenth/twentieth century there were far greater intellectual figures than Rabindranath Tagore (he took one name) but none of them gained world acclaim since they did not possess the marketing savvy of Tagore and were not as willing as him to kowtow to the British.
Aghast at this accusation aimed at Tagore’s patriotism,coming from someone who should definitely know better, I was about to raise that point when the floor was thrown open for audience questions. But then I stepped back, reminded of one of my father’s maxims “You can only argue with someone who is half-right. If someone is fully wrong, it’s simply not worth your time.”
Coming back home, I continued the discussion with a friend who said that he agreed with this prominent intellectual. It seemed he had grown up hearing this. After all was not Jana Gana Mana composed for King George by Tagore? Was he not an admirer of the British throughout his life? Was he not opposed to the Indian national movement of Mahatma Gandhi?
No this post is not about the Jana Gana Mana controversy. For those who still want to believe that rubbish, regardless of Tagore’s own clarification in his letter to Pulin Behari Sen [Link] and refuse to consider the small matter of his returning his Knighthood (which presumably would have been a big deal for someone supposedly enamored of the British) in protest against the Jalianwalah Massacre as proof enough of his anti-imperialism then it is beyond me or, for that matter, any kind of rational discourse to convince them otherwise.
What this post is about is Tagore’s idea of patriotism and a clarification of what is perceived to be his opposition to the freedom struggle.
The foundation of Tagore’s world-view was education. He firmly believed that independence from the British, in itself, would be meaningless and merely lead to replacing a foreign oppressor with home-grown ones as long as Indians stayed mired in superstition, ritualism and were closed to new ideas. Given this, he was strongly opposed to Gandhi’s philosophy of “Education can wait, Swaraj cannot” because he believed that the ends (independence) did not justify means (mass boycott of education).
He was also disturbed by Gandhi’s use of religion and his invocation of India’s past glories as a means to galvanize the masses. This stemmed from Tagore’s opposition to the concept of nationalism as defined by “pride” and cultural chauvinism, having seen how it had led to untold suffering in the first half of the twentieth century both in Asia and in Europe, most egregiously from “nationalist” movements in Japan and Germany.
In addition, Gandhi’s use of religion and his call to revive a simpler pastoral lifestyle were to Tagore retrograde steps. Rabindranath favored a more open, international and ultimately secular outlook (There is a lot of literature on Tagore’s idea of God, which can be simplified grossly as something akin to the Bhakti movement’s tenets—a strong personal relationship of love with a Supreme Being ) for the next generation of Indians and was worried about the direction Gandhian philosophy, if followed to the letter, would take India.
Tenets of Gandhism related to suppression of sexual desire and Gandhi’s strong strictures on “proper Indian life” and propensity for moralizing were to Tagore unreasonable restrictions on personal freedom, a concept as near to him as education.
Tagore’s criticism of Gandhian struggle was not just motivated by ideology but also by pragmatics. In Bengal, the cloth trade had a strong Muslim presence and when Congress leaders exhorted people to burn clothes produced by British mills, many of the Muslim merchants refused on economic grounds—-they had inventory of Manchester products and local Indian cloth being more expensive and of bad quality was not commercially viable. Tagore was of the opinion that unless Indian industry had products that could compete in the market on their quality alone, it was unreasonable to expect people who had invested in the cloth trade to reject British-made goods just out of patriotism. Tagore felt that we first needed to make Indian industry competitive rather than take the easy way out and just burn foreign products , something which he felt, given the delicate communal fabric of Bengal and given the way the cloth trade worked, would wreak havoc.
He was right. Gandhian politicians appealing to emotion and rhetoric moved through the countryside. Muslims who refused to play along and burn their stock were branded as anti-nationals. In many places, shopkeepers and merchants, most of them who happened to be Muslims, were forced to burn British cloth through community pressure. Muslim leaders then dove in inflaming communal feeling, which was never far from the surface, with the message— “This is the way it is going to be for Muslims in independent India”. Things went south pretty soon, something that was doubly painful for Tagore because he was personally at the forefront of the 1905 struggle against the partition of Bengal, a time when Hindus and Muslims had risen as one against the British, possibly for the last time.
It was Tagore’s opposition to Gandhian struggle and his aversion for “nationalism” as “chest-thumping war-mongering” that has led to the popular impression that he was not a patriot, something that he was well aware of. As an artistic riposte, he wrote a novel “Ghare Baire” (The Home And The World) which had as its “villain” a seductive rabble-rousing Gandhian politician (Sandip) whose appeal is based on populist oratory but who remains inherently self-centered and had as its hero an old-world, staid, rather dull zamindar (Nikhlilesh) whose opposition to the coercive methods of Sandeep is seen by his wife as “unpatriotic” and his ideal of constructive patriotism misunderstood as weakness. Despite their ideological tension however, neither Gandhi nor Tagore doubted the other’s patriotism and the immense love and respect they had for each other is well documented. It was however lesser minds, many with an agenda of their own, who have kept persisting with this take down of Tagore.
As the final testament of Tagore’s patriotism, it is worth noting that he was, unlike many of his critics, no latte-drinking “intellectual” blowing hot air in a coffee house. In 1905, he was involved, hands-on, in a different kind of Swadeshi—- the promotion of local industry and local education as an alternative to the British. As part of his belief that Indians need to be educated not as clerks of the British but as technically competent individuals capable of building the nation on their own through entrepreneurship , he became one of the leading lights behind the National Council of Education, responsible for the foundation of Jadavpur University as an alternative to the more British Calcutta University.
While his experiments with alternative models of education, based on his concept of the freedom of the mind, in Santiniketan are well-documented what is however less universally known is his ceaseless work for tribal uplift in the area around Santiniketan, especially his initiatives for cooperative banks. Since there was no government help (Mahatma Gandhi arranged for some donors), he would himself raise money, performing his dance dramas, even when his health was poor. This may come as a shock to people who think of a mystic of a rich family who wrote romantic poetry and theorized about politics, science and art, but there were few intellectuals, then and now, who have done as much constructive and positive work for the promotion of education among tribals as him without of course the shameless publicity and political ambition that characterizes much of social work today.
Whether there were may have been greater talents than Tagore in India, I cannot say since I myself had not read the person the “literary figure” mentioned and talent is in any ways a very subjective concept. However I am fairly confident that it would be difficult to find someone who was as visionary and as genuinely patriotic as Kobiguru Rabindranath Tagore.
[Those interested in reading a scholarly analysis of the Gandhi-Tagore schism are encouraged to read Dr. Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian”]