Sabyasachi Bhattacharya: Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore

First posted on May 18, 2016

NB: The late and much revered Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation appeared in 2011. His most recent essay on Tagore deals with the much-discussed theme of nationalism. DS

Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore 

In our endeavour to understand Rabindranath Tagore’s approach to nationalism we have to recognize three problems which probably hamper the current discourse on the subject. To begin with, a good deal of these commentaries on Tagore are often unhistorical in assuming a homogeneity in Tagore’s thoughts on nationalism; from the 1890s to 1941 they evolved and changed considerably. Unless we follow this evolution and identify the different stages, his denunciation of self-aggrandizing nationalism of the West European model in his best known work, Nationalism (1917), is likely to be mistaken for the sum and substance of his thoughts on the subject. Arguably, a balanced estimation of Tagore’s outlook must include, inter alia, another aspect: his engagement in the critique of naked obscurantism, backward- looking and inimical to the inclusiveness of Indian civilisation – the obscurantism which sometimes dresses itself out of the wardrobe of nationalist rhetoric in India.

The second problem is that many commentators, as we shall see later, have cast Tagore’s ideas about nationalism into a stereotype of “internationalism.” When he wrote his major work on Nationalism in 1917 (commonly used by scholars since that is the one easily accessible in English) there were various concepts of internationalism (for example, President Wilson’s version, the creed of the incipient League of Nations, internationalism of the British Pacifi sts, and even Japan’s own version of internationalism which was actually a rationalization of Japanese imperialism). Tagore has been interpreted in terms of these stereotypes current in the world of politics. We need to examine whether this stereotype, or that of “anti-nationalism,” appropriately accommodates the individuality of Tagore’s concept of nationalism. The same caveat applies to the efforts of r ecent scholars who try to assimilate Tagore’s thoughts into their own version of “post-coloniality” (Collins 2013) or “anti-modernism” (Nandy 1994).

Third, the textual study of Tagore’s political writings proves to be insufficient without familiarity with the context in which he wrote, including obscure journalistic writings in those times. And textual study is hampered by the fact that not more than about one-tenth of his political writings are available in English. I will eschew in this essay long quotations from his political writings in Bengali, but I will be compelled briefly to cite some of those writings when empirical evidence seems necessary in support of my argument.

Text and Context

“The significance of a piece of writing cannot be understood if one views it in isolation, de-linked from the context in which it was written;” Tagore (1929) wrote thus in critical response to a book by Sachin Sen (1929), a prominent journalist of those times. Tagore (1929) went on to say,

It is appropriate to view in a historical way the evolution of the writings of a man who has been writing for a long time….It needs to be taken into account that a set of political ideas did not emerge from my mind at a particular time—they developed in response to life experience and evolved over the years.

It may be useful to bear in mind this caution from Tagore against generalising too far on the basis of one or two texts like Nationalism and making a reductionist representation of Tagore. One can broadly distinguish several distinct stages in the evolution of Tagore’s approach to nationalism… 

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see also

Rabindranath Tagore’s four-part essay on Nationalism (1917)

Mohammad Quayum – Imagining “One World”: Tagore’s Critique of Nationalism 

Sriparna Chatterjee – Nationalism and the Japanese connection: Tagore’s perspective

Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya