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Mainstream, VOL LX No 5, New Delhi, January 22, 2022

Tagore’s Version of Atmanirvar and Atmashakti | Sreedeep

Friday 21 January 2022


by Sreedeep *

“Nationalism is a great menace...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’s unrepentant disregard for nationalism was apparent, unambiguous, and against the grain of nineteenth-century nationalist thought. Tagore was not only dismissive of nationalism, but he also advocated a humanitarian cause. The rationale that drove his swadeshi thought was that of religious, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity and the plurality of India. He wrote:

“India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed into one geographical receptacle. For India has long been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, while fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences,”

That essential ‘spirit of tolerance’ upheld the plurality and diversity until emotive religious nationalism—which is inherently divisive and intolerant—has threatened its resilience. Advocates of Hindutva, who tried to misappropriate Tagore in the Bengal elections by placing Tagore next to the image of their leaders—unfortunately, have no familiarity with Tagore’s ideas and critique of nationalism. ‘Outsiders’ often need to deploy local icons for electoral benifits, but choosing Tagore was a big blunder. The homogenising ‘one nation, one language, one religion’ project is utterly antithetical to Tagore’s humanism and his celebration of tolerance and diversity.

Tagore was fundamentally against ‘othering’ dissenting voices. Consensus, not coercion, was the basis of his humanitarian outlook. Peaceful cohabitation, not forceful distancing, was the foundation for the India he had imagined. Assimilation of difference are the keywords in his inclusive societal scheme. Generosity makes it possible to embrace diversity—where ‘difference’ is not seen as an opposing force that needs to be destroyed. Or the ‘other’ is not treated as an enemy to be hated or insulted. India could accept diversities because it was not insecure about contradictory ideations. Its civilisational mission was never premised on its ability to accommodate.

Tagore’s take on nationalism actually stems from his critique of the nation-state itself. For him, the very idea of ‘nation’ is a foreign concept—germinated and brewed in the West—premised on selfish execution of selfish ‘national interests’. Before the imperial consolidation in the subcontinent, the idea of jatiyatavad has been typically provincial and linguistic—an organic mental construct (manas-padarth) based on shared living, shared memories, common heritage and cultural practices, sacrifices, and, most importantly: the willingness to cohabit. Western nation is an import born, grown and championed in a different continent with another socio-political context and trajectory. Any efforts to blindly imitate that model may go against our social fabric and social imagination of India.

Tagore also hails the society (samaj) over and above nation-state (sarkar)—which, according to him, is not sufficiently indigenous. In the sarkar-samaj binary that he develops in his essay, Swadesi Samaj, written in 1904, the colonial nation-state is seen as incapable and unequipped to deal with Indian social complexities—all the more because of its imperial ambitions; its racial and discriminatory practices; its divisive tactics; and due to the inherent inequal relation of domination and subordination between the ruler and the ruled.

Any hope, or prayer that expects welfare from the imperial master are futile and self-defeating, given the inequal power-relation. Such expectations, also reveals our lack of socio-political will (atma-shakti). That ‘will’ is at the heart of his swadeshi imagination, which is committed, responsible and accountable to act and work towards self-sufficiency. So, in his thoughts, we get a more refined idea of what it means to be atma-nirvar—and its honest and earnest social aims. To take a ride on someone’s shoulders could be a mere movement, but real progression lies in one’s ability to move on his own. The poised and self-respectful approach advocates dedicated social-action over restless hate-speeches that can only lead to futile excitement and unnecessary distractions.

Tagore trusts India’s organic and collective social will and its immense capacity to deliver social justice and welfare. It is the benevolent hitkari-samaj that has kept us afloat despite exploitation, decadence, misery, and colonisation over the centuries. It is a welfarist force that has successfully educated, mitigated, maintained order, and adjusted over time. A blind imitation or appropriation of the western model of nation-state style of governance lacks legitimacy in a society that has always had an intrinsic capacity to resolve micro-level issues without the interference of an authoritarian external force. So, for someone who rejects nation-state in the first place, the idea of aggressive nationalism is obviously quite far fledged.

A few months ago, an oxygen-craving nation has premised its pride on achieving immortality through constructing a new residence for the patriots. Nationalism now means demonizing and criminalizing the ‘other’. Meanwhile, being atmanirbhar has come to mean that we should expect nothing from the nation-state even when we collectively struggle to breathe. Atmashakti perhaps means: having the strength to bear the pain of living and dying in India— where life, death and livelihoods do not matter.

* (Author: Sreedeep is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Shiv Nadar University. He is the author ofConsumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images. Views are personal)

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