Tagore, China and the critique of nationalism
Rabindranath Tagore (1860-1941), poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, composer and painter, was a towering figure in modern India’s intellectual and cultural life. His was perhaps the single most influential contribution to the modern national literary and artistic culture of Bengal. Following the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, Tagore was, for some time, a noted presence in literary circles in Europe and the United States. His influence on the cultural life of Bengal and India has been far more enduring. For instance, the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, two of the most populous countries of the world, are both adapted from songs written and composed by Tagore.
Despite his own massive contribution to the construction of the modern national culture of his country, Rabindranath was a consistent critic of nationalism. In his earliest writings on the subject, he drew a sharp distinction between the conditions that produced nationalism in Europe and the absence of those conditions in India. India, he argued, was not, and did not need to become, a nation. The principal reason was that unlike Europe where there was homogeneity of race, culture and sentiment, Indian society was heterogeneous. The immense diversity made the mechanical arrangement of national political unity unsuitable for India. During World War I, when he wrote his lectures on Nationalism delivered in the United States and Japan, Tagore said repeatedly that the European nation represented a ‘homogeneous race’ (Tagore 1996a: 463). On the other hand, the greatest difficulty encountered by India was its 'race problem’: its society had made a place for many different ‘races’, and now the challenge was to respect the distinctness of each and find a way to maintain unity. ‘Races ethnologically different have in this country come into close contact. This fact has been and still continues to be the most important one in our history’ (Tagore 1996b: 419). India, he said, had tried ‘to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity’ (Tagore 1996a: 453). In these lectures delivered in 1917, Tagore expressed not even the slightest doubt that India’s path to salvation did not lie in trying to become a nation. ‘India has never had a real sense of nationalism. ...it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity’ (Tagore 1996a: 456).
Partha Chatterjee is Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, and Honorary Professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Among his many books are Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986), The Nation and Its Fragments (1993), The Politics of the Governed (2004) and Lineages of Political Society (2011).