Nationalism in India: Not The Western Beast?

My lovely and very gifted friend Ruma — who runs the bilingual blog Animikha — has posted the text of Rabindranath Tagore’s speech ‘Nationalism in India‘, made while on tour at the United States.

Tagore, unlike most thinkers, activists and public intellectuals in British India, disapproved of the nationalist ideal. Nationalism, he felt, was an irrational and incendiary ideology, unfit for a globalised, dialogic world based on liberty, equality, peace, and a scientific temper. For this, he was clawed at and much reviled. Freedom fighters, in particular, saw his belief as a traitorous abdication of the independence movement, which had taken as its rallying point an almost deified representation of the motherland, Bharat Mata (Mother India). But what was then the future and is now history would prove him right. Repeatedly.

To everybody ill at ease with the current economic inequity, sociopolitical institutions and narratives of violent othering, I would recommend this speech by a poet (and a colonial subject). His audience, I’m told, was irked by this politely incisive political commentary when what they expected was a delicious taste of exotic Eastern mysticism.

Here are a few extracts from the speech, but if you can make time for it, please read the full text (linked above).

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility […] The most important fact of the present age is that all the different races of men have come close together. And again we are confronted with two alternatives: interminable competition or cooperation.

I have no hesitation in saying that those… who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us. The gigantic organizations for hurting others and warding off their blows, for making money by dragging others back, will not help us. On the contrary, by their crushing weight, their enormous cost and their deadening effect upon the living humanity they will seriously impede our freedom.

Sounds familiar? Prophetic, even?

The pride of [Europe’s] traditions has sent its roots deep into her heart. I do not wish to contend that it is unreasonable. But pride in every form breeds blindness.

An excellent maxim for an age which thinks the professing ‘pride’ in perfectly accidental attributes (race, class, complexion, religion of birth) is a panacea for discrimination based on them.

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power.

The maintenance of this organization… is mechanical. Yet in this [man] feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine.

This insight is particularly valuable in a political environment where laws and the ‘morality’ behind them are openly motivated by financial incentives, or by  sectarian ideologies that share roots with such incentives. Public health and women’s reproductive rights in the US, and land acquisition in India springs to mind.

To live a law-abiding life is difficult when democratic institutions that promise us an equitable rule of law are are frequently — and brazenly — readjusted to fit corporate and corporate-influenced vote bank interests.

Beauty is the signature which the Creator stamps upon his works when he is satisfied with them… So far as your commerce lacks the dignity of grace, it is untrue […] Let our civilization take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict.

As long as the genesis [of the spirit of conflict and competition] is the greed of wealth and power it can never come to any other end but a violent death.

An unusual take on economics, certainly. It would perhaps help to realise that Tagore’s idea of beauty here is a philosophical and moral one, and not, for instance, the one produced and perpetrated by gendered and racially prejudiced corporate interest in beauty and personal grooming.

And then, a word to those Calibans who insisted that ‘defeating’ India’s colonial overlords was only possible via appropriating their ideology of violent and repressive nationalist pride. This advice about developing organic ideologies instead of borrowing them, is as applicable today as it was back then:

When we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes.

Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free… must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics. […] The narrowness of sympathy which makes it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating tyranny of injustice.

We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free, they are merely powerful […] In the so-called free countries the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them.

To round off, another prophetic comment, given the current state of electoral politics in, for example, Tagore’s host nation, the United States. And yet, he remains hopeful:

From the above you will know that I am not an economist. I am willing to acknowledge that there is a law of demand and supply and an infatuation of man for more things than are good for him. And yet I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity… and in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph.

These extracts leave out Tagore’s very interesting views of the caste system, of racism in the settler colonies of England, and of the United States’ role in the world-order. For those, head to the original 🙂



  1. ‘In the so-called free countries the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them.’

    • So true, isn’t it? I’m called cynical frequently, and it’s not meant as a compliment, but I’d prefer to be cynically accurate, than a hopeful gullible.

  2. bah. bhalo likhechis. in fact there are three essays penned by him – nationalism in the west, nationalism in japan and nationalism in india. ki coincidental byapar, ami search korchilam to get some material on tagore’s ‘crisis of civilzation’ (sabhyatar sankat). civil services syllabus’e include koreche 😦

      • state civil services result berolo kal. qualify korechi. mains er date deini. running helter-skelter boi jogar kora’r jonno. kobe ingreji porechi! abar sob notun kore porte hobe.
        ‘nationalism’ boi ta ache. amar boi ta tey there are three essays. 4th one tar byapare jantum na. thanks.

  3. Poranoi uchit. Shobai mile ‘mainstreaming’ korle ki chole? Congratulations re. qualifying! Kintu aekhon aar beshi kichu bolbo na. Bhaloi bhaloi mains ta de 🙂

  4. Perhaps if he only was an economist. The communists are international, the muslims supranational (if one were to swallow the Khilafat claptrap),the socialists never know where they belong.That leaves only the Hindus as nationalists?

  5. Thanks for firstly being such a generous person, such a change from the person who recently borrowed a quote of mine and turned it on its head to mean something completely opposite to what I had said. I was amazed to find the essay, I had never read it in full before and was struck by the wisdom of that man nearly a hundred years ago. Contrary to what a lot of ‘intellectuals’ are saying, he was not just some bearded angsty poet who had an alleged thing for his sister in law, but also many other things, including an astute and intelligent observer of people. His views on casteism, America’s future success and nationalism are still totally relevant.

  6. I have found it extremely difficult to get all this across to many of my my acquaintances on FB. Many of them follow a muscular aggressive form of nationalism where patriotism is equated with military prowess. Their sense of geography is limited to the Gangetic belt and their sense of history follows the popular Hinduized Amar Chitra Katha series. They read or claim to read but do not seem to internalize anything. Oi saath kando ramayan sita kar baap response. Its most frustrating but I realize it is a long and slow process. We can discuss all this among ourselves till the cows come home but it is they whom we must reach. Of course I am sure they too on their part think we are a group of left liberal loonies whose affiliations are suspect since we do not wear the flag on our sleeves at every given opportunity. But I have found that cartoons do sow seeds of doubt and uncertainty even in violently made up minds. That seems to be the only way to reach them.

  7. …and most of them will revere Tagore – even be willing to treat him like a holy cow since that is most convenient – but not imbibe his message. When it comes to that they rubberband back to the parrot knowledge their prejudiced parents have taught them.

  8. ‎#PSA: Rimi is not generous about her books.

    Corporate culture in terms of ‘sustainability’ is rapidly evolving too.Schumpeter’s storm makes most firms last on an average of 12 years, the ones that have lasted for a hundred have done things differently.

  9. Meanwhile the gujratis are happy with the sops that Narendra Modi is throwing them in the form of clean roads, Sabarmati walkways etc and holding these up as the virtues of a true leader of men. They forget that even Hitler created the autobahns, the Volkswagon people’s car and revived Germany’s economy, but he never meant for all that to be inclusive – and turned out to be one of the worst monsters of history. The gujaratis have sacrificed a larger national awareness for some prettified scraps.

  10. Gautam, the crux of our systemic social and political downfall has been precisely that we are now apparently a binary who cannot have a civil conversation with each other.

    I can imagine having a polite and mutually fruitful discussion with my grandfather — an old-school capitalist entrepreneur — and engage with the previous generation of Republican leaders, but can you imagine being able to have a quick chat with a Modiesque or a corporate leader and keep your temper? My former landlord often told the story of convincing Republican pundits in his time that weed was not a ‘gateway drug’ or a thing of darkness and evil, but today, to merely support more realistic drug policy would be to stand in the line of ignorant and fanatical line of fire, and have himself reviled in a plethora of prescribed ways.

  11. So true GB, I have had that moustachioed menace on my mind all day today, thanks to a friend who is a Lithuanian Jew visiting a former concentration camp today in Terezin in the old Czech Republic. Modi is no better..

  12. Well you are right Rimi, but I try because in my role as filmmaker, writer etc. they do form a large part of my constituency. I have to keep communicating to them even if they choose to reject me.

    • Gautam, in some ways I would argue Modi is worse, because he appears not to believe in his own fundamentalist party line, but cynically reap benefits thereof. So less like Hitler and more like his aristocratic colleagues, perhaps. Or, to take a better example, like a short-sighted Churchill.

  13. Pramurto, the Peter Principle in Manmohan Singh’s case is giving rise to the Godwin’s Law when we are discussing Modi. The idea of nation in crisis that the Sangh Parivar is bullishly espousing citing the case of a helpless administration led by an incompetent PM is one of the pillars of right reactionary philosophy that leads to the demand for “The man on the Horse” in other words – a dictator.

  14. Precisely. And the ‘law’, such as it is, was created in a social environment where “OMG are you like Hitler or something?” came up frequently, thanks to the ‘heroic’ WWII involvement of the US forces. As Tagore said a century back, Indians should stop aping the west blindly.

  15. In fact, the idea of Hitler is not exactly a terrifying one for many Indians – even the educated ones. They equate Hitler with Bose in a romantic sort of way. This romanticism opens up a lot of uneasy possibilities.

  16. Modi=corporate leader < Hitler=Bose apparently 🙂
    We don't expect the same sort of saintliness from our politicians as we expect from some of our corporate leaders though.And if a helpless administration is being led by an incompetent PM , they should be castigated left , right and center.At least the right is intermittently doing its job.
    Well as long as the social contract is kept, no reason to do anything.Besides, every policy is decided by 60 year olds with their own baggage.

  17. This is what he said once – “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. 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.” Also Nikhil in Gharey-Bairey says “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.”

  18. Gharey-Bairey is, I think most of us can agree, really a magnificent philosophical debate between these two ideals that Tagore thought were necessarily at odds with each other, and he crafts Nikhil’s victory very well indeed. I found the film versiom somewhat slow — but I did see it when I was a restless highschooler, so I could’ve been wrong — but I enjoyed the text immensely.

  19. Thanks, Priyanka. Perhaps it’s the circles I move in, or my own inherent blindness, but people around me are significantly less stridently nationalistic, and jingoistic-patriotic, I feel. But the increasing Modi worship I see even on the fringes of my circle is scary, to say the least. The man chills my blood. And leaders like Mamata, who are, apart from everything else, incompetent politicians, administrators and policy-makers, make the Modi brigade even more strident in their support: “dyakho! era toh kissu korte pare na! while Modi ji will take us into the new world as a glorious soooperpower with roads paved with GOLD” crap. He has a HUUUUGE NRI gujju base, and I fear it may just be spreading beyond only community-based support, on the basis of “an efficient government who can get Things Done and improve India’s image in the global community” — which I suppose are the only things that matter. What’s a little genocide here and there? Let them with no faults cast the first stone etc. And we’re all set.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s