Critiquing nationalism

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Mahatma Gandhi with Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan in 1940. Many of Tagore's creative works can be read as envisioning the emergence of someone like Gandhi, whose vision of the nation was inclusive and not exclusionist or jingoistic. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Nations like India display a necrophilic euphoria over the obscene show of arms and ammunition during national day celebrations. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red colours of the West

and the whirlwind of hatred.

The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed

is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury

from its own shameless feeding

For it has made the world its food,

And licking it, crunching it and swallowing it in big morsels,

It swells and swells

Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden heaven

piercing its heart of grossness…

—Rabindranath Tagore

“The Sunset of the Century”, translated by the poet, from Naivedya; The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume II, Delhi, 1996, page 466)

WHEN Rabindranath Tagore was composing this poem on the last day of the 19th century and writing his essays on nationalism first put together in the second decade of the 20th ( Nationalism, New York, 1917), he might not have imagined that by the end of the 20th century several thinkers across the world were going to echo his critique of the nationalist ideology, mostly without ever having read him. Though one may find the rudiments of such a critique in thinkers and conscientious objectors like Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley or Jean-Paul Sartre, nationalism entered modern theoretical discourse in a major way only with Benedict Anderson’s acknowledged classic Imagined Communities (1983), which was soon followed by a series of treatises on the subject by Ernest Gellner ( Nations and Nationalism, 1983), Miroslav Hroch ( Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe, 1985), Anthony Smith ( The Ethnic Origins of Nations, 1986), Partha Chatterjee ( Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, 1986), Eric Hobsbawm ( Nations and Nationalism Since 1788, 1990) and Perry Anderson ( The Indian Ideology, 2011), not to mention innumerable articles in journals and writings in languages other than English.

Benedict Anderson’s book defined the nation as an imagined community that belonged more with “kinship” and “religion” than with “liberalism” or “fascism”. It is “imagined” because its members can, even without knowing most of their fellow members, conjure up the image of their communion. In Gellner’s words, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist”( Thought and Change, London, 1964, page 169). For him, nation is more a fabrication, as it was to Tagore, than something created or imagined into being. The nation, Anderson would say, is limited as it has finite boundaries demarcating them from other nations; it is sovereign as nations like to imagine themselves to be free, the sovereign state being the gage and emblem of this freedom, and it is a community as it glosses over its inequalities and is conceived as a deep and horizontal comradeship for which you can kill or die. The roots of the nation are cultural and the idea of the nation is close to the religious community and the dynastic realm as most of them have their own epics/sacred texts and whole “national” literatures, constitutions, hierarchised bureaucracies, anonymous linkages, national anthems that substitute prayers, national celebrations, parades and charades, martyrs, genealogies and selective chronicles that prescribe what to remember and what to forget, national newspapers and a whole print-capitalist system that helps propagate ideas across the nation, the census, defined borders that are less porous than those of kingdoms, maps considered sacred as any deviation is treated as treason, calendars, memorials and museums and a whole paraphernalia of national emblems like national flags, birds and animals, why even national zoos and gardens. Add to this a law against “sedition” that can be used at will by those who invoke it, and the picture is complete.

Tagore’s views on nationalism are summed up mainly in three essays, “Nationalism in the West”, “Nationalism in Japan” and “Nationalism in India”, originally three lectures delivered in Japan and the United States, published for the first time, along with translations of five of Tagore’s poems including the one quoted at the beginning of this paper, in the book Nationalism (Macmillan, New York, 1917). Europe was at war. E. Thompson points out that though “the world war is not a central theme of ‘Nationalism’, it is ever present in the background as proof of the self-destructive tendency of the organised modern nation” (E. Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, Calcutta, 1948, 1979 ed; page 8). The publication of Ghare Baire in 1916, followed by its English translation by Surendranath Tagore three years later, in some ways complemented these lectures as the novel was highly critical of the Swadeshi movement. One may also remember in this context Tagore’s disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi on the cult of the charkha in his article in Modern Review (September 1925, see The Mahatma and the Poet, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya ed. Delhi, 1997, pages 99-112) and on some questions about Swaraj ( ibid., pages 113-121) as also his essay “East and West” (Das, op. cit.; pp. 530-537) besides some of his essays on art and education.

Organisation for a mechanical purpose

In “Nationalism in the West”, the first in the series of lectures, Tagore states his position without much ambiguity: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship is the goal of human history” (Das, page 419). And he asserts: “I am not against this nation or that nation, but against the idea of the nation itself” ( ibid., page 430). He also defines nation in doubtless terms: “A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of the people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose” ( ibid., page 421). Tagore recognises the problem of races as the most menacing of the issues faced by India, making our history a continual social adjustment rather than one of organised power for defence or aggression or the rise and fall of dynasties as in the case of most other countries. Social regulation of differences with a spiritual recognition of unity has been the twin strategy for her to cope with her ethnic multiplicity. Tagore is sharply critical of the rigidity of social stratification in India and the resulting crippling of her people’s minds, the insularity of world views and the perpetuation of hierarchies. But he is even more critical of the West where “the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision”. He warns India not to imitate the Western national ideal whose characteristics he sums up in the paragraphs that follow. He makes an important distinction between society and nation: while society does not have an ulterior purpose and is a natural regulation of relationships and the spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being, the nation is an organisation of people with a mechanical purpose, founded on greed, jealousy, suspicion and the desire for power. It replaces the living bonds of society with mere mechanical organisation. This also leads to patriarchal power as man, driven to professionalism, turns the wheels of power for his own sake and for the sake of universal officialdom, leaving woman to fight her battles alone. Cooperation gives way to competition; having replaces being; power becomes abstract as a “scientific product made in the political laboratory of the Nation, through the dissolution of the personal humanity”. The integrated human being gets compartmentalised and crushed under the weight of an ever-growing wealth-producing mechanism; interminable economic war is waged between capital and labour since the greed of wealth and power is limitless; the jealousy and suspicion they breed end in the catastrophe of war. “The suspicion of man for man stings all the limbs of this civilisation like the hairs of the nettle” (Das, page 432).

Person or phantom?

The nation is an outcome of a long history of progressive privileging and fetishisation of competitive accumulation. Tagore makes a distinction between social accumulation as against competitive accumulation: while power had been subsumed under the overall framework of social relations in the early days and considered purely a functional activity over nature and over the distribution of goods, the growth of accumulation led to greed and fear. He clearly sees the choice as one between competition and cooperation and conceives modernity as a moment of brittleness that could take either of the turns. The nation threatens to destroy the global through the enactment of the principle of competition. The nation also transforms the personal man into a phantom. Here we are reminded of W.H. Auden’s famous poem “The Unknown Citizen” who is just a name in the census, a taxpayer, a ration-card holder about whose real happiness and freedom no one seems to bother. After using many metaphors for the nation like the soulless machine, the loveless man, the gambling father and the stinging nettle, he compares it to the unkind mother. “While the small feeding bottle of our education is nearly dry, and sanitation sucks its own thumb in despair, the military organisation, the magisterial offices, the police, the Criminal Investigation Department, the secret spy system, attain to an abnormal girth in their waists, occupying every inch of our country” (Das, page 426).

Nation promotes pace at the expense of life and liberty and regulates our steps with a closed-up system turning the individuals entirely powerless. Before the arrival of the Nation, India made people feel that their destiny was in their hands; the hope of the unexpected was always there and there was scope for a free play of the imagination by the governors and the governed; the future was no opaque granite wall. Now, at the pressing of a button the monster of the organisation becomes all eyes; no one can escape the suffocation of its tightening grip. We are reminded here of Bentham’s idea of panopticon, elaborated by Michel Foucault in his Discipline and Punish: the observing eye from the watch tower (Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, too, has it) ever hidden from the observed and hence supposed to be present even when it is not there. People live in a perpetual distrust of its back where it has no eyes. Each footstep and each rustle of movement send a chill through the spine and this terror fathers all that is base in man’s nature and makes man unashamed of inhumanity. It petrifies their moral nature. Nation represents the dead pressure off the un-human upon the living human.

Tagore prophetically adds: “Not merely the subject races, but you who live under the delusion that you are free, are every day sacrificing your freedom and humanity to this fetish of nationalism, living in the dense poisonous atmosphere of worldwide suspicion and greed and panic” (Das, page 427). He points to Japan, where people voluntarily submit to the trimming of their minds and the clipping of their freedom by their government. Tagore certainly had not heard about Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “consent”, the voluntary-seeming agreement to schemes manufactured by the ideological machinery of the state such as education, the state-run press and the whole Goebbelsian state propaganda machine. Yet he understands this process of the legitimation of the Nation when he says that people are “hypnotized into believing that they are free” (Das, page 428) and they begin to think that bartering the higher aspirations of life for profit and power has been their free choice. The state perfects their instincts of self-aggrandisement and make them believe it is good. It is “organised gregariousness (of commercial and political) gluttony”(Das, page 430).

Tagore finds the idea of the Nation to be the “most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented” (Das, page 434). The main problem in India, he says in his talk in the U.S. (“Nationalism in India”), is the hierarchisation of her society on the basis of race/caste and a blind faith in the authority of traditions. But he is also happy that India has learnt to contain and tolerate difference rather than exterminate the different like Europe exterminating the original populations of the countries it came to occupy by force.

However, in an attempt to provide an order to the society denied to many the opportunity of movement and expansion. We are also trained to think this system of discrimination is eternal. Tagore points out that Indians cannot build a political miracle of freedom upon the quicksand of social slavery: a truth that B.R. Ambedkar, more than any other Indian leader, realised so well. Tagore wants Indians to realise that our social restrictions are tyrannical enough to turn men into cowards; men with heterodox ideas fear to speak out as they can be ostracised. In his discussions on the concept of “Indian Art”, too, he opposes the blind pursuit of dead habits and argues for a living and creative exchange among diverse aesthetic cultures. “I strongly urge our artists, vehemently to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled as Indian art according to some old-world mannerism. Let them proudly refuse to be herded into a pen like branded beasts that are treated as cattle and not as cows…. Art is not a gorgeous sepulchre immovably brooding over a lonely eternity of vanished years. It belongs to the procession of life, making constant adjustment with surprises, exploring unknown shrines of reality along its path of pilgrimage to a future which is as different from the past as the tree from the seed” (“The Meaning of Art”, Das, pages 586-587). Tagore questions conformity; art is no plant to be fixed in the narrow soil of tradition producing a monotonous type of leaves and flowers forever.

The state’s records of crimes against humanity

Though Tagore, with his loathing of jargons and fondness for metaphors, does not use terms like “capitalism” and the “state”, his descriptions make it amply clear that he has the capitalist nation state in mind —though when it comes to the behaviour of the state, the so-called socialist states have not fared any better. Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union are equally guilty of crimes against humanity, and so have been formal democracies like the U.S. (the World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria…) and the United Kingdom (Ireland). The Indian state has not been far behind, though its crimes are often more oblique than blatant, most often in the form of collaboration in or silence over crimes. (Look for example at its ambivalent attitudes to violence/suppression of human rights in Palestine, Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.) The mass slaughters and various kinds of bombings in the two World Wars, the holocausts, starting with the Armenian and the Jewish ones, followed by the Cambodian and the Rwandan. Whatever hopes of world peace, the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the rhetoric of globalisation had raised for the unthinking have been erased by the post-1980s genocides in Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Gujarat.

As Ashis Nandy observes, “The ultimate symbols of the (twentieth) century are not space-probes and computers, but gas chambers and Hiroshima” (“Violence and Creativity in the Late twentieth Century”, Time Warps, Delhi, 2002). If we take into account the man-made famines in British India and Mao’s China besides more than 40 wars, more than 200 million people were killed in the last century in avoidable violence. Nations like India that are trying to mimic and replicate the material “success”—which has meant so far the accumulation of wealth and power in a minority within the country that masquerades as the “nation” with its high Gross National Products and per-capita incomes which conveniently and brutally conceal the real state of life for a majority—of the more wealthy and powerful societies have also recorded a spectacular increase in pathological violence of all sorts, including the necrophilic euphoria over the obscene show of arms and ammunition during the national day celebrations as well as the brutal ecstasy over nuclear tests. One may recall, as Hannah Arendt says, European fascism was an attempt to build a compensatory pseudo-community in place of ruined communities, cultures and world views. Modern nations also take up this mission and in fact Anderson’s “imagined community” is often imagined as a substitute for real community based on natural bonding.

Tagore’s refusal—this applies also to Tolstoy, Thoreau and Gandhi—to use rigid intellectual frames and theoretical jargons may be seen as a form of revolt against the violence they often imply. While Tagore upholds what in Benedict Anderson’s style may be called a “rooted cosmopolitanism”, his writings clearly indicate that he would not have accepted the jingoist, insular and violent Hindu nationalism modelled on Nazism and based on othering, hatred, racial pride, the manipulative employment of archetypes and myths and distortion of history on the one hand and the heartless globalisation that is a monologue of power based on an unequal exchange that promotes cultural amnesia in the Third World peoples, exports lifestyles, advocates the hegemony of the materialist aspect of Western culture, places competition above cooperation, destroys environment, turns culture into a tinsel collage and an ethnic branding and transforms the whole world into a market place instead of a creative space, on the other.

Remember none of the great figures of European Enlightenment from Vico to Voltaire, so eloquent about reason, seldom spoke of the need for non-violence as a guiding principle of social and intellectual life. To quote Nandy, “Rabindranath Tagore’s creative self was a magisterial protest against the dominant theories of violence and counter-violence. He was probably the first to identify the banal, sanitised machine-violence of our times and, much before Gandhi had entered the Indian political scene, Sisir Kumar Das shows that Tagore had anticipated and welcomed the emergence of figures like Gandhi” ( Time Warps, page 221.) Das points out how from the character of Dhananjay Bairagi in Prayaschitta (1909) and Muktadhara (1922) to the song “ oi mahamanava ashe” to the self-discovery of Gora in Gora (1910), many of Tagore’s creative works can be read as attempts to envision the emergence of someone like Gandhi (Introduction to The Mahatma and the Poet, page 30).

The watchful traveller

Tagore’s project can well be seen today as an ambitious attempt to construct a counter-global—something like the biopolitics of resistance against the global empire that Antonio Negri and Michel Hardt speak of—by conceptualising a process of identity formation that will be free from the form of the nation, as suggested by Pradip Kumar Datta (“Revisiting Rabindranath, Thinking Global”, Heterogeneities: Identity Formations in Modern India, Delhi, 2011, pages 214-258). Globalisation was yet to take the neoliberal and U.S.-centric form it has taken in the post-Soviet Union decades, but the process has been on for centuries, as illustrated by Amartya Sen ( Identity and Violence, London, 2006), who looks at the early commercial and cultural interactions between India and the rest of the world as the beginning of the globalising process. Tagore was well aware of this process and had deep apprehensions about global survival as a watchful traveller traversing all the continents of the world except Africa and Australia, as an anxious observer of the world before and after the First World War and as a pacifist linked to the European movement for world peace. The gap between the conceptualisation of the global as shared space and the institutional possibilities of describing it as an actually existing reality in his time also “allowed greater freedom to reconceive the global, deploying, as Rabindranath did, other historical modes of globalisation that he identified with the “east”. The gap allowed for radical suspension of necessitarian logic. The closing of the gap by the apocalyptic prospect of worldwide destruction also necessitated, at the same time, a fundamental critique of all the principles that propelled the world towards its commitment to destruction” (Datta, page 222).

Tagore tapped into this space of opportunity. He tried to puncture the Eurocentrism that had so far characterised the narratives of globalisation. Such interrogation is generally done either by “pointing to the processes of alternative modernities, involving the identification of local particulars that come into different relationships of complementarity, rupture, hybridisation and so on, with the forces of capitalist modernity” thus revealing “the limits of universal principles that cannot exhaust the presence of local particularities” or by “a historical recuperation of forms of global interconnectedness that exist outside Europe. Tagore rearticulates the global first by using the old civilisational, spatio-temporal categories of “East” and “West” without privileging either or turning them into territorial or cultural stereotypes. He defines civilisation by the way it treats others. For him it is something ever in the making, not a finished enterprise. India did not “other” or exclude successive waves of migrants; it is “many countries packed into one geographical receptacle” (“Nationalism in India”) and thus equipped to confront the problem of diversity and difference the world confronts today.

Tagore circumvents the issue of civilisational hierarchy by contrasting civilisations through their respective capacities for handling difference and sees history proceeding through the effects of one civilisation on another, thus placing civilisations symmetrically rather than in a progressive hierarchy. Tagore provides an alternative to the narrative modes of his time by directly critiquing the basis of the global modern located in its homelands in the West through the counter-universal. He neither privileges the “difference” of the post-colonial world nor critiques universalism itself as an embodiment of Western culture; “instead he interrogates the basis of a universal, modern Western project of nation-making by posing a counter-universal derived from his location in the East”. He invokes the East as an ensemble of non-instrumentalist modes of social relationships which can supply the principles for an alternative to the “Nation”, a Western creation. Tagore does not reduce the East to certain fixed values and images as the Orientalists do. It is no unchanging monolith and this applies to the West, too. He is not condemning everything Western; there is no binary opposition here. On the other hand he thinks of a common platform where the East and the West interact critically neither compromising their dignity and critical wisdom.

A critique and an alternative

Tagore understands that the East has been following organisational principles different from the West so that it provides a perspective to critique the West and offer an alternative. It is possible that Tagore foresaw the rise of Hindu nationalism, though it gained momentum only with the economic liberalisation of the 1980s and reached its crescendo in 2014. The middle and elite classes that spearheaded the movement would support the dismantling of the welfare state as what stirred them was “not the defensive warmth of the community life but the nationalist pride that came with the word Hindu” (Datta, page 226). One may well distinguish the secular mainstream nationalism from the identitarianism of Hindutva; but it is dangerous to ignore their continuities, especially on the question of national identity, which also spills over to the Hindu diaspora desperately in search of a lost identity.

The fetishisation of the nation as a transcendental source of identity prepares the ground for turning nationalism into an identitarian ethic. Tagore’s critique refutes this insular logic. In Ghaire Baire ( Home and the World), Tagore critiques this politics by positioning Nikhilesh against Sandip, who mobilises people enshrining the country as a goddess. Tagore contends that there is little difference between the colonised subjects and those of a nation founded on hegemonies of various kinds. Nations create aliens and isolate them or turn them into slaves: he demonstrates this pointing to the fate of the native blacks in the U.S. and of Indians colonised by the British (“Nationalism in the West”) or of Muslims and the Dalits objectified and instrumentalised by the national goddess who revolt against her ( Ghare Baire).

Today this “Indian” identity has become a trademark and an advertising strategy in the global corporate market (remember slogans like “India Shining” or “Make in India”) or a synonym for an aggressive Hindu cultural nationalism where it denotes a distinctive ensemble of characteristics that hark back to the Western orientalist construct. Tagore’s arguments can form the basis of a critique of the idea of an over-centralised nation seeking cultural standardisation as also a plea for a more open, truly federal polity where people are free to imagine the nation in the way they want and relate to it on their own terms.

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