Nationalism, an important book by poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was first published one hundred years ago in 1917 from Macmillan in United States' New York. After hundred years of its publication, the book has become all the more contemporary in the Indian context. Nationalism was translated into English from the Bengali by Tagore himself - and the first volume included three lectures delivered in Japan, in 1916.
The editor of the 2017 volume, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya mentions in his introduction that, in 1992, a new edition of the book from Rupa Delhi, edited by EP Thompson, had five poems of the Tagore collection Naivedya - which were deleted without explanation.
Sisir Kumar Das, in his edited 1996 Sahitya Akademi edition, restored one poem, which is reproduced in the latest version of the book. However, Bhattacharya does not tell us about the four other poems and why they were not restored.
Tagore wanted to dedicate the 1917 edition to then US President Woodro Wilson, but was not allowed to, as he was then thought of "being involved in anti-British plots hatched by Indian revolutionaries (Ghadrites) in America".
Tagore is very clear that a naturally-built human society is much more humane in essence than the so-called artificially created nationhood.
As per Bhattacharya, Tagore rejected the term "nationalism" as understood in the western sense. The book compiled here includes three lectures by Tagore - "Nationalism in the West", "Nationalism in Japan" and the third and final - "Nationalism in India".
The volume concludes with the Tagore poem - "The Sunset of the Century" - written on the last day of last century, meaning the eve of 1900 or 1899 evening. However, the volume leaves out the dates and venues of lectures delivered, though the year 1916 - from May to September is mentioned.
The lectures - ahead of their time
Tagore boldly declares in his first lecture that "We are no nation ourselves!"
He questions the western concept of the nation, which holds, "A nation, in the sense of political and economic union of the people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose. Society as such has no ulterior purpose. It is an end in itself. It is a spontaneous expression of man as a social being. It is a natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideas of life in cooperation with one another. It has also political side, but this is only for a special purpose. It is for self-preservation."
Tagore is very clear that a naturally-built human society is much more humane in essence than the so-called artificially created nationhood.
'All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a cause.'
The present-day nationhood would have been considered "evil" by Tagore, who wrote: "When this organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity."
Tagore found Indian nationhood to be abstract in 1916 - which has only worsened in 2017.
In this nation, "Punishments are meted out leaving a trail of miseries across a large bleeding tract of the human heart."
Taking the example of the British nation whose government as a nation, he rues that it is "organised self-interest of a whole people, where it is least human and least spiritual".
He asserts that "this nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality".
During the time these lectures were delivered, the World War I was on and World War II was to follow, in 1939-45, bringing into focus the extreme nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini - which caused, perhaps, more than 10 million deaths.
That is why Tagore warned of nationalism as an "evil epidemic"! In the same breath, the social thinker-poet continues to warn against this evil: "The nation is the greatest evil for the Nation, that all its precautions are against it, and any new birth of its fellow in the world is always followed in its mind by the dread of a new peril!"
Tagore did not see the birth of Pakistan in 1947 and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, but he foresaw their consequences, which, unfortunately, proved him right as all his fears about nationhood came true.
In prescient words written more than hundred years ago, Tagore depicts the reality of the politicians of the "nation" of 2017: "And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion - in fact, feeling most dangerously resentful if it is pointed out."
In the present Indian state, this aptly applies to the conduct of the cow vigilantes and "Bharat Mata ki Jai" brigades. Tagore could see it hundred years before - and that is what you call the foresight of great poets!
Tagore questions the idea of political nation, if it does not bring freedom of mind, he says: 'Political freedom does not give us freedom, when our mind is not free.'
Tagore had raised a fundamental question: Does world humanity need "Nationalism or Humanism"? While there has been no concept of "Nationalism" in civilisational history as such, humanity has crossed various stages of life from barbarism to cultural living values, from no ownership to common natural property of our entire humanity, to the highly corporatised one per cent property holders against 99 per cent who are deprived of minimum property at the global stage.
In the name of nationalism and racial purity, humanity has suffered two world wars and South Asia has suffered one million killings in 1947 with the Partition and the creation of the new nation state of Pakistan - with 10 million people suffering untold miseries of displacement.
In his second essay, "Nationalism in Japan", Tagore emphasises the ancient culture of Japan, more than its nationhood.
In this lecture, Tagore questions European values of science and modernity and expresses his own idea of modernity: "True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European school-masters. It is science, but not its wrong application in life."
In his third lecture, "Nationalism in India", Tagore opines that the real problem of India is not political, but social. Here he comes closer to Ambedkar's ideas on the Indian society.
Tagore rejects the idea of "national history" even: "There is only one history - the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a cause."
In the Indian context too, Tagore comes heavily on national jingoism: "Nationalism is a great menace, it is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India's troubles. And in as much as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.
Tagore questions the idea of political nation, if it does not bring freedom of mind, he says: "Political freedom does not give us freedom, when our mind is not free."
Tagore's book is a bold, rational and humane critique of the idea of "nationalism", which has caused so much misery in the world and continues to do so.
Presently, the United States under Donald Trump, Turkey under Recep Erdogan and India under Narendra Modi are making ordinary citizens suffer immensely in the name of the "evil epidemic" that Tagore's words warned us of!
As to when the people of these countries and the world will awaken from the slumber induced by the "most powerful anaesthetics" - again in the words of Tagore - is difficult to predict. But the poet's small book on "nationalism" is a powerful antidote to such "anaesthetics"!
Nationalism needs to be read and its readings must be held in mass gatherings.
Also read: Why Dina Nath Batra wants Tagore, Urdu, Mughals removed from school books
The Cult of the Nation is the professionalism of the people. This cult is becoming their greatest danger, because it is bringing them enormous success, making them impatient of the claims of higher ideals. The greater the amount of success, the stronger are the conflicts of interest and jealousy and hatred which are aroused in men’s minds, thereby making it more and more necessary for other peoples, who are still living, to stiffen into nations. With the growth of nationalism, man has become the greatest menace to man. Therefore the continual presence of panic goads that very nationalism into ever-increasing menace.
Crowd psychology is a blind force.
Like steam and other physical forces, it can be utilised for creating a tremendous amount of power. And therefore rulers of men, who, out of greed and fear, are bent upon turning their peoples into machines of power, try to train this crowd psychology for their special purposes. They hold it to be their duty to foster in the popular mind universal panic, unreasoning pride in their own race, and hatred of others.
Newspapers, school-books, and even religious services are made use of for this object; and those who have the courage to express their disapprobation of this blind and impious cult are either punished in the law-courts, or are socially ostracised. The individual thinks, even when he feels; but the same individual, when he feels with the crowd, does not reason at all. His moral sense becomes blurred. This suppression of higher humanity in crowd minds is productive of enormous strength. For the crowd mind is essentially primitive; its forces are elemental. Therefore the Nation is forever watching to take advantage of this enormous power of darkness.
The people’s instinct of self-preservation has been made dominant at particular times of crisis. Then, for the time being, the consciousness of its solidarity becomes aggressively wide-awake. But in the Nation this hyper-consciousness is kept alive for all time by artificial means. A man has to act the part of a policeman when he finds his house invaded by burglars. But if that remains his normal condition, then his consciousness of his household becomes acute and over-wrought, making him fly at every stranger passing near his house.
This intensity of self-consciousness is nothing of which a man should feel proud; certainly it is not healthful. In like manner, incessant self-consciousness in a nation is highly injurious for the people. It serves its immediate purpose, but at the cost of the eternal in man.
When a whole body of men train themselves for a particular narrow purpose, it becomes a common interest with them to keep up that purpose and preach absolute loyalty to it.
Nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; and when it gets hold of their minds it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness. We cannot but hold firm the faith that this Age of Nationalism, of gigantic vanity and selfishness, is only a passing phase in civilization, and those who are making permanent arrangements for accommodating this temporary mood of history will be unable to fit themselves for the coming age, when the true spirit of freedom will have sway.
With the unchecked growth of Nationalism the moral foundation of man’s civilisation is unconsciously undergoing a change. The ideal of the social man is unselfishness, but the ideal of the Nation, like that of the professional man, is selfishness. This is why selfishness in the individual is condemned, while in the nation it is extolled, which leads to hopeless moral blindness, confusing the religion of the people with the religion of the nation.
Therefore, to take an example, we find men more and more convinced of the superior claims of Christianity, merely because Christian nations are in possession of the greater part of the world. It is like supporting a robber’s religion by quoting the amount of his stolen property. Nations celebrate their successful massacre of men in their churches. They forget that Thugs also ascribed their success in manslaughter to the favour of their goddess.
But in the case of the latter their goddess frankly represented the principle of destruction. It was the criminal tribe’s own murderous instinct deified – the instinct, not of one individual, but of the whole community, and therefore held sacred. In the same manner, in modern churches, selfishness, hatred and vanity in their collective aspect of national instincts do not scruple to share the homage paid to god.
Of course, pursuit of self-interest need not be wholly selfish; it can even be in harmony with the interest of all. Therefore, ideally speaking, the nationalism, which stands for the expression of the collective self-interest of a people, need not be ashamed of itself if it maintains its true limitations. But what we see in practice is, that every nation which has prospered has done so through its career of aggressive selfishness either in commercial adventures or in foreign possessions, or in both. And this material prosperity not only feeds continually the selfish instincts of the people, but impresses men’s minds with the lesson that, for a nation, selfishness is a necessity and therefore a virtue. It is the emphasis laid in Europe upon the idea of the Nation’s constant increase of power, which is becoming the greatest danger to man, both in its direct activity and its power of infection.
We must admit that evils there are in human nature, in spite of our faith in moral laws and our training in self-control.
But they carry on their foreheads their own brand of infamy, their very success adding to their monstrosity. All through man’s history there will be some who suffer, and others who cause suffering. The conquest of evil will never be a fully accomplished fact, but a continuous process like the process of burning in a flame.
In former ages, when some particular people became turbulent and tried to rob others of their human rights, they sometimes achieved success and sometimes failed. And it amounted to nothing more than that. But when this idea of the Nation, which has met with universal acceptance in the present day, tries to pass off the cult of collective selfishness as a moral duty, simply because that selfishness is gigantic in stature, it not only commits depredation, but attacks the very vitals of humanity.
It unconsciously generates in people’s minds an attitude of defiance against moral law. For men are taught by repeated devices the lesson that the Nation is greater than the people, while yet it scatters to the winds the moral law that the people have held sacred.
It has been said that a disease becomes most acutely critical when the brain is affected. For it is the brain that is constantly directing the siege against all disease forces. The spirit of national selfishness is that brain disease of a people which shows itself in red eyes and clenched fists, in violence of talk and movements, all the while shattering its natural restorative powers. But the power of self-sacrifice, together with the moral faculty of sympathy and co-operation, is the guiding spirit of social vitality. Its function is to maintain a beneficent relation of harmony with its surroundings. But when it begins to ignore the moral law which is universal and uses it only within the bounds of its own narrow sphere, then its strength becomes like the strength of madness which ends in self-destruction.
What is worse, this aberration of a people, decked with the showy title of “patriotism”, proudly walks abroad, passing itself off as a highly moral influence. Thus it has spread its inflammatory contagion all over the world, proclaiming its fever flush to be the best sign of health. It is causing in the hearts of peoples, naturally inoffensive, a feeling of envy at not having their temperature as high as that of their delirious neighbours and not being able to cause as much mischief, but merely having to suffer from it.
I have often been asked by my Western friends how to cope with this evil, which has attained such sinister strength and vast dimensions.
In fact, I have often been blamed for merely giving warning, and offering no alternative. When we suffer as a result of a particular system, we believe that some other system would bring us better luck. We are apt to forget that all systems produce evil sooner or later, when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong. The system which is national to-day may assume the shape of the international tomorrow; but so long as men have not forsaken their idolatry of primitive instincts and collective passions, the new system will only become a new instrument of suffering. And because we are trained to confound efficient system with moral goodness itself, every ruined system makes us more and more distrustful of moral law.
Therefore I do not put my faith in any new institution, but in the individuals all over the world who think clearly, feel nobly, and act rightly, thus becoming the channels of moral truth. Our moral ideals do not work with chisels and hammers. Like trees, they spread their roots in the soil and their branches in the sky, without consulting any architect for their plans.
Excerpted with permission from “The Nation” by Rabindranath Tagore, Patriots, Poets and Prisoners: Selections from Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review 1907-1947, edited by Anikendra Sen, Devangshu Dutta and Nilanjana Roy, introduced by Ramachandra Guha, HarperCollins India.