On the 158th birth anniversary of one of the greatest Indian men of letters, “world poet” Rabindranath Tagore, it is but natural to remember his vision of India and nationalism, which often stood in contrast to the Congress-type nationalism shared by most his contemporaries.

Tagore’s differences with even Mahatma Gandhi in this respect are the centre of animated and celebrated scholarship.

Countered 'hyper-nationalism'

Tagore rejected what he thought was Congress's jingoistic nationalism. He emerged as a critique of the modern nation-state and nationalism for their associated hyper-masculinity and aggression.

He distanced himself from the Swadeshi Movement when it became aggressive. In this regard he told scientist JC Bose's wife Alba Bose: "Patriotism cannot be our final shelter. My refuge is humanity." 

Rejected Western model

Tagore underwent not just disillusionment with Gandhian politics, even as Gandhi was the one to call him ‘Gurudev’, but also with European Enlightenment. He maintained his faith in humanity, though, and this he traced to Indian culture. To bypass the debilitating effects of modernity, he established ‘Visva Bharati’.

He said he had the “good fortune to escape” the prevalent colonial education system but that he paid dearly for it. “My ignorance combined with my heresy turned me into a literary outlaw….I had neither the protective armour of mature age, nor that of a respectable English education.”

Opposed Mahatma’s ‘unreason’

While Tagore was the one to have given the name of “Mahatma” to Gandhi in 1915, he sharply differed with him in matters of reason and logic. While Mahatma Gandhi ascribed the terrible earthquake of Bihar and Nepal in 1934 to the practice of untouchability, Tagore refuted the view in Gandhi’s own journal ‘Harijan’. Tagore called this “unscientific” and “unreason which is a source of all blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect”.

Championed Indic rejuvenation

Gurudev stood for re-building India from ground above, from the grassroots to the top, a refurbishing from within. It included revitalising villages and the rural ethos based on cooperative enterprise. This was the real issue of anti-colonial movement.

He expounded his ideal of rural life and its reconstruction as the basis of Indian nationalism in his celebrated essay 'Swadeshi Samaj' which he wrote in 1904.

Knighthood and homegrown nationalism

His anti-colonial sentiment reached a crescendo with the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. Renouncing his Knighthood in a public letter to the then Viceroy of Indian Lord Chelmsford which was published in The Statesman of June 3, 1919, Tagore said, “The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”