Tagore’s idea of nationalism was alien to the Indian psyche

This government has been able to find anti-nationals or Naxalites whenever it wanted to. Recently, an entire course in Nalanda university was unceremoniously scrapped and the professor asked to apologize - based on a tweet by a politician from the ruling party.

Written by Rohan D'Souza | Updated: November 22, 2017 3:54 pm
Tagore’s idea of nationalism was alien to the Indian psyche Poet Rabindranath Tagore. (Express archive photo)

Once again, students in India have been found wanting in patriotism. The state government of Rajasthan has recently directed all state Universities to install statues of Swami Vivekananda on their campuses. And since such ‘Make in India’ initiatives do not come cheap, student unions and an assortment of patriotic individuals have been urged to step forward and foot the bill.

Earlier, the then Human Resources Minister (HRD) Smriti Irani had directed all Central Universities to ‘proudly’ fly the national flag at a height of 207 feet. This was followed by the ‘Wall of Heroes’ campaign. Also titled as the ‘martyr wall’ which required portraits of soldiers – who bravely fell in battle and were awarded the Param Vir Chakra – to adorn corridors in universities and thereby instill (not simply inspire) nationalism and sacrifice. The campaign was soon followed by another call for students and academics to carry out ‘tiranga rallies’. Which, we also learn, so inspired the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University that he along with a band of enthusiasts marched with a 2200 foot long Indian flag for almost a mile. At the end of which, the said VC proceeded to support a ‘request’ for parking a retired army battle tank in the university campus, to further stoke the fever and fervor for patriotism and nationalism.

It is quite probable that the next logical step would be to actually get the Indian army to carry out regular flag marches within University campuses and perhaps even get a fully battle kitted soldier from, say the infantry division in the western command, to pace back and forth in a classroom before teaching can begin. The question, nonetheless, remains over whether an upwelling of patriotism can be actually generated by a show of such ‘nationalist’ objects and symbols? Put differently, is there any verifiable metric that can help us meaningfully measure the ‘ease of doing patriotism and nationalism’ in India?

The above question, however, cannot be answered because patriotism or nationalism are not real emotions, sentiments or feelings. They are, in essence, political constructs and political concepts and their effects are made real only through political action. Nationalism or patriotism, in other words, cannot be meaningfully felt or evoked as acts of faith. Rather, these terms require us to constantly redefine, debate and reinterpret ourselves as a political community.

One should not be terribly surprised, therefore, that the great poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – whose song Jana Gana Mana we know to be the national anthem of India – had many anxieties and worries about the very idea of nationalism itself. Between 1916 and 1917, Tagore travelled to Japan and the United States of America. In lectures at the Imperial University (now Tokyo University), Keio University and in several places in the United States, he put forward several stunning and soul-searching reflections. With thoughtful and poetically infused metaphors, Tagore urged those gathered to aspire for the ‘higher ideals of humanity’ rather than accept what he called as the ‘organized selfishness of Nationalism’. He also added the equally severe admonishment that one should never “gloat upon the feebleness of its neighbours.” For Tagore, importantly enough, the idea of India was a moral project that needed to engage with its own deep and troubled history of “social adjustment.” In other words, for Tagore, the idea of India was to realize its civilizational possibilities and potential rather than to allow it to inhale the “fumes” of “patriotic bragging.”

Tagore thus considered the idea of nationalism as being profoundly alien to the Indian psyche and the subcontinent’s many pasts. These insights or claims of his, in fact, find strong resonances with a great deal of contemporary scholarship on the subject. In particular, the writings of the celebrated British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1925-95), who was able to convincingly trace the emergence of nationalism to the oftentimes violent social, economic and political processes of the industrial revolution and modernity itself.

Clearly and understandably so, India’s tryst with nationalism as a by-product of British colonialism remains cluttered by unresolved tensions, disagreements, disputes, discussions and varying ideologies. Consequently, if one is to take on the task of meaningfully being a nationalist or patriot in India today, it requires a repeated and constantly evolving engagement with some of the founding imaginations that made possible modern India as a democratic republic. In other words, nationalism and patriotism are not frozen or dead concepts but ideas that require constant nourishment through critical reflection.

Here is where the Indian university system, especially its social science and humanities departments, are particularly significant. Alongside the noise on the street and debates in Parliament, universities can help us open up, examine and deepen the content of nationalism and patriotism. For which, of course, freedom of thought and speech and space for political activism within campuses are vital. It is the argumentative citizen who makes democracy possible and stronger.

Sadly, by design or otherwise, the Modi led government in the past three years has spent too much time and effort in curtailing a range of freedoms within Indian universities. This government, almost at will, has been able to find anti-nationals or Naxalites whenever it wanted to. Recently, an entire course in Nalanda university was unceremoniously scrapped and the professor asked to apologize – based on a tweet by a politician from the ruling party. A wrong impression is also being created that studies in higher education amount to receiving one-way instruction rather than being the context for debate and disagreement. In other words, the universities seem to be hurtling towards the RSS shaka model of calisthenics, obedience and faith.

Similarly, while the army is intended to be a professional fighting force and correctly based on command, control and strict hierarchy, ideas about nationalism and patriotism actually thrive mostly in the messiness of democracy and within the social and political world of the citizen.

While the Indian citizen has many miles to go for further deepening democracy through gender equality, social justice and economic empowerment, none of these onerous challenges actually require a single bullet. All they need are good winning arguments and lots of people to talk and disagree.

Rohan D’Souza is Associate Professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.

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