Samantak Das writes a column called Jabberwocky in The Statesman. A piece titled ‘Rethinking the nation’ was published yesterday. I reproduce his article below.
As we lurch towards the 60th anniversary of Independence, and the celebration of Asia’s latest unshackled economy takes on an increasingly frenzied and surreal air, I wonder what the man who won Asia’s first-ever Nobel Prize would have made of it all. My thoughts have partly to do with the fact that the 70 to 75 per cent of our people who have reaped little or none of the fruits of our new-found prosperity seem to have fallen off the radar entirely (notwithstanding the occasional clenched-fist-shaking gesture made by bleeding-heart-liberal-pinko-lefties like yours truly or fellow-travelling NGO-wallahs) and partly with the way in which a new surge of jingoistic nationalism seems woven into the very fabric of this celebration of India’s “inevitable” 21st-century superpowerdom.
One clue to Rabindranath Tagore’s response may be found in his Nationalism, a book published nearly 90 years ago, by Macmillan, in the USA, to near-universal cries of opprobrium. Based on lectures on diverse facets of nationalism that Rabindranath had delivered in Japan and the US in 1916, this is a book that can be read with considerable profit by those who are presently indulging in this orgy of unthinking patriotism.
For Rabindranath, nationalism and the nation are soulless mechanical entities that deprive human beings of their humanity, turning them into automata, driven for the benefit of commerce and politics. For him, “government by the Nation is… like a hydraulic press, whose pressure is impersonal and on that account completely effective.” “The idea of the Nation,” he wrote, “is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented.” And a little later, invoking the ongoing (First) World War, “This European war of Nations is the war of retribution… The time has come when, for the sake of the whole outraged world, Europe should fully know in her own person the terrible absurdity of the thing called the Nation.”
It is this “terrible absurdity” that seems to be dictating terms in our new century (as it seemed to have been in Rabindranath’s), whether as something to be denounced (George W’s “axis of evil”) or celebrated (the media’s “unleashed tiger” economies). For Rabindranath, one of the worst aspects of nationalism was the way it left out the poor, the subaltern, the marginal, the disempowered. In his chapter on India in Nationalism, he would draw repeated attention to this. He warned that “political freedom does not give us freedom when our mind is not free” and saw the pitfalls of trying to “build a political miracle of freedom upon the quicksand of social slavery”.
It is not, of course, only in Nationalism that we find such views expressed by Rabindranath. His 1908 essay “Sadupay” (The Right Means) is a masterful analysis of the way in which “brotherhood” was forced down the throats of the unwilling, resentful subalterns by the elite leaders of the Swadeshi movement in the elites’ desire to enforce the boycott of British-made goods. The “impatience” and “anger” of the elites, which led them to use force and fear to get the poor peasants to do their will, is castigated in no uncertain terms by Rabindranath. “Our misfortune is this,” he wrote, “that we want freedom, but we do not really trust freedom from our hearts. We do not have the patience to respect others’ opinions; we use threats to mould their intellects to our will.”
I’m not suggesting that we should all start speed-reading the Rabindra Rachanavali (Tagore’s complete works) – but, as we celebrate globalised India’s triumphs, there may be a few lessons we could learn from those largely-forgotten prophets from a time when India as we know it, was still a dream.