Several people, far more articulate and experienced than me have contributed excellent pieces on the current madness gripping our country, wherein an elected government is authorizing sedition charges against its citizens, in a university setup. A thread of conversation I have witnessed over the past couple of days is that, “But X did not shout anything anti-national! He wasn’t being seditious.” or “This statement was not anti-national.” What this argument does is legitimise state action against what can be considered anti-national, which is a highly problematic stance to take when being anti-national is not a crime under any statute book in the land, and sedition itself is a crime mired in injustice and historic misappropriation. In such a scenario it is imperative to remember that questioning the nationalism and questioning the idea of a nation state, philosophically and politically is possible. Writing a history paper in my second year of law school, on Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism made me first consider these ideas and I was convinced by the end of the paper.
I reproduce some of those thoughts below, written by our Poet Laureate a hundred years ago, about the very same nation.
“The last Sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred. The naked passion of the self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and howling verses of vengeance. The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its shameless feeding. For it has made the world its food.” – Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Sunset of the Century’, Nationalism.
Nationalism as a political term, in which people sharing a common geographical boundary, with some sort of politico-cultural significance is a relatively modern idea, although basic nationalism from a cultural perspective has existed since the dawn of society. (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism). Nationalism could be identified as the feeling of a sense of belonging to a particular ‘nation’ which has a common origin, and the desire to keep that nation as pure as possible, and wanting to establish and/or maintain a separate, independent state. (Henk Dekker, Darina Malová, Sander Hoogendoorn, Nationalism and Its Explanations, 24(2) Political Psychology).
In Tagore’s vision, to move along the path to a real human goal, a new centre of unity was need, a shared heritage, the Family of Man. To achieve this, it was imperative to end national and ideological rivalries, and position universal ethics, to form a transcendental humanity.(Sisirkumar Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore, 1986).
According to him, fundamentalism was not limited to religious and communal discord. It spanned across, as an attitude of hate towards others, on the pretence that it upheld the sacred nature of some community. Also, brute physical strength seemed to be the determining factor in deciding who was superior. This sort of incompatibility, leading to hostility between the East and West, was obviously a kind of fundamentalism. (Swapan Majumdar, Fundamentalism Versus Tolerance: Tagore’s Stance on the Communal Question,2000). He referred to nationalism as a ‘bhougolik apadevata’ meaning a geographical demon.(Seema Bandhopadhyay, Rabindrasangite Swadeshchetna, 1986).
Tagore always advocated the ideals of humanism, holding them more sacred that any other doctrine. Hence, in ‘Desher Kotha’ (Of Country) he says, “Monushyotto ke nation alotter cheye boro boliya janite hoibe -Humanity must be privileged over nationality.” (Rabindranath Tagore, Desher Kotha, Rabindra Rachanaboli).
“The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation…” (Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism).