Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2022 > Rabindranath Tagore, Rural Crisis and Recovering Community: Relevance of a (...)

Mainstream, VOL LX No 15, New Delhi, April 2, 2022

Rabindranath Tagore, Rural Crisis and Recovering Community: Relevance of a Legacy for Neo-Liberal India | Karli Srinivasulu

Friday 1 April 2022, by Karli Srinivasulu

by Karli Srinivasulu *

There are striking similarities between the rural life in the late colonial India that is in the inter-war period and today’s liberalising India. Rabindranath Tagore living in close contact with the rural Bengal and intellectually reflecting on the socio-economic life displayed an unusual sensitivity to the rural crisis that engulfed the agrarian and rural artisan communities. This led to certain concrete initiatives like Sriniketan with the aim of educating the villagers in self-reliance and to bring ‘life in its completeness’ by improving the material and spiritual conditions of rural life. This innovative attempt at rural reconstruction aimed at community empowerment through mutual cooperation and collective participation of the productive agrarian and occupational communities in rural Bengal.

In the context of neo-liberal economic reforms in India, pursued since 1990s, the countryside has witnessed a deeper socio-economic transformation. These changes in fact in significant ways echo the crisis of inter-War period: the two facets being the agrarian and handloom crises manifest in the unparalleled occurrence of suicides and starvation deaths among the small and medium farmers and traditional weavers in large parts of rural India.

This paper argues for the relevance of the legacy of Tagore which constitutes an important dimension of our anti-colonial struggle. Tagore emphasised constructive swadeshi and self-help in the context of colonialism against the hostile colonial state and its policies, which not only impacted on the Indian economy, especially the agrarian system and rural industry adversely but also led to the emergence of new social relations of production. The ideas of rural reconstruction and self-help assume significance in the context of globalisation and unrestrained entry of global products into the local markets and mobilisation of grassroot community support in favour of the local producers when the state support in the form of policy and implementation has declined.

For these reasons, it is important to recollect and reconnect to this legacy, which would provide important critical pointers to reflect on and also intervene into the present situation.

The presentation is made as follows. In the first part, we discuss Tagore’s analysis and reflections on the socio-economic crisis in rural Bengal/ India and his experimental intervention towards rural reconstruction on the basis of the ideas of cooperation, self-help and education through the institution of Sriniketan; the second section deals with the crisis of the agrarian and traditional artisan production in India after Independence in general and in the context of liberalisation in particular and discusses the relevance of Tagore’s reflections to the neo-liberal India.

I

Tagore’s essay entitled ‘Swadeshi Samaj’ published in 1904 [1] is an important text for it attempts a basic diagnosis of the destruction caused to the Indian village in the context of colonialism and how to reconstruct the rural society devastated by the colonial plunder. It analyses the causes of the disintegration of village life and makes concrete suggestions for its reconstruction.

It also provides a perspective on Indian village seen in relation to Indian history and as part of the nation-building process in India. One may have reservations on Tagore’s perspective and the details in his analysis but his effort, seen as a theoretical attempt to build an ideal type, could be seen as reflecting the India that he desired and envisioned. This is not a result of a simple call to go back to the past but an attempt to provide a reasoned argument and vision that is appropriate to the historical specificity and necessities of contemporary evolving India.

Tagore makes a radical conceptual distinction between the West and India. The distinction is made in terms of different organising principles and two different logics of social organisation and articulation. While in the West, the central agency in terms of development and social welfare has been the state, in contrast in India this role has been played by society. This is the reason why while the social/cultural has been of principal significance in understanding the Indian reality, the primacy of the political has determined the developmental trajectory in the West.

The colonial state and the modernity project initiated by it in India have brought about a radical shift in the relationship between the political and the social. What distinguishes the European colonialism and the earlier external political regimes in India is that while the latter, despite the plunder and violence, have largely left the Indian rural society unimpaired, the former, on the contrary, has altered the fundamental organising principles which have been sustained over centuries and embedded in the social structure through an elaborate transformation of the institutional map, value and belief systems.

Because of the colonial modernity, the process of altering and dislodging the social from its primacy is initiated. As Sudhir Sen argued, in Tagore’s view in Swadeshi Samaj, “The system of social duties, which was carefully built up through ages, is now breaking down. We are one by one transferring to the state those functions which distinctly fell within the purview of the society.” [2]

The consequences of this shift are quite far-reaching. Tagore argues that the social wealth in India was regarded as social trust; it has been customary and even obligatory on the part of the wealthy to share it with others. In return, the wealthy were reciprocated with the duly deserved recognition from the villagers. This social obligation and mutual reciprocation has depreciated and gradually got devalued leading to the shift of focus of the rich onto official recognition instead of popular acknowledgement.

The result of this is that the creation of wealth has lost its social purpose and become an end in itself. Wealth as a pursuit thus logically made one to look towards the town and away from the village. The growth of the urban centres in colonial India is a demonstration of the parasitical diversion of wealth generated in the agrarian and artisan sectors to the urban economic activity. Tagore thus becomes one of the early critics of the lopsided accumulation pattern and distorted town-country relationship evolving in colonial Bengal. He clearly recognises that some sections of Indian society have collaborated with the colonial state in this and without whose support it would not have been possible for the latter to accomplish it. The social and cultural consequences of this in his view were quite conspicuously disastrous.

With the social wealth moving out of the village to the town and the gentry no longer feeling any social obligation to renovate and maintain the village tanks and to take care of the welfare of the villagers by providing for education and health, the decline of the village was quite visible. With the wealth losing its social purpose and assuming private character, the sense of community in Indian village, which distinguished it from its Western counterpart, has also been negatively impacted.

The conspicuous deficit in the sense of community has led to the decline and impoverishment of the village in colonial India, which was once self-reliant if not self-sufficient. Tagore finds its evidence in the declining significance of village fairs and other community festivities. For Tagore, the fairs and tanks were great institutions of socialisation into community cooperation, collective spirit and sustenance through self-help. They also served as the means and occasions of social communication and cultural exchange.

At an individual level, the value attached to austerity as a social virtue in traditional India has lost its significance and conspicuous display of wealth has become prominent. This is a clear marker of the rise of greed and decline of collective social character and purpose and growing individualism and commercialisation of values. Thus, one could under the impact of colonial modernity clearly witness a growing gulf between the country and the city.

Interestingly, Tagore is equally critical of the nationalist movement and its leadership for both the lack of vigilance to the serious implications of the above process and deviation from the basic principle of organisation of Indian society that accords primacy to the social collectivity. In other words, Indian nationalism has also replicated the logic of the colonial state by imitating its modernity project: the primacy assigned to the political (a principal characteristic of the post-Enlightenment period) is a clear vindication of the imitation of colonial modernity and deviation from the Indian historical specificity.

It may be suggested that despite the appreciation for Gandhi and recognition of Gandhi’s differences with the dominant nationalism, Gandhi’s politics is also seen as a variation on the principle of the political. Tagore’s critique of swadeshi in Ghare Bhaire [3]  implicit in the two contrasting personalities of Nikhil and Sandeep — is essentially a critique of the primacy of the political. Swadeshi movement generated an outburst of patriotic feelings. It assumed a less desirable course because of the mismatch between the required constructive work and the patriotic excitement it aroused. Tagore was clearly disappointed with the simplistic binaries and narrow adventurism and of course detested the consequent scaling up of social tensions between communities. Tagore’s characterisation of Sandeep, who typifies the extremes of the political, demonstrates his disapproval of the political swadeshi.

Tagore’s critique could be seen extending to the overall mode, strategy and mobilisation patterns in the nationalist movement. The nationalist movement for Tagore both in its language of politics and rhetoric was elitist and it sought to bring both ideas and leaders ‘from outside’ and ‘from above.’ The modes of assembly and mobilisation have largely been imitative of the Western mode of politics of support mobilisation. The lack of attention and sensitivity to the collective modes of popular gathering like the community fairs and festivities, which involve and attract people irrespective of their caste, community and religion, has undermined the strength of historically inherited community resources. These sites and occasions which have and could continue to play a great role in the community education have been seen as narrow religious or superstitious practices thereby neglected. The disassociation of political activity from the existing community activities has not only robbed politics of the cultural richness when positive energies the proximity with the rich local traditions could have imparted but also made politics narrowly instrumentalist.

Tagore’s effort was not a mere theoretical exercise. Within the context of colonialism, Tagore sought to experiment with an alternative model of social, cultural and economic reconstruction to rejuvenate the rural society by promoting self-help and cooperation. His direct involvement in his zamindari which necessitated wide travel in rural Bengal gave him a first-hand experience of the conditions of tenants, farmers and other occupational communities in the context of colonial rule as expressed eloquently by him in the following passage.

I endeavoured all the time I was in the country to get to know it down to the smallest detail. The needs of my work took me on long distances from village to village, from Shelidah to Patisar, by rivers, large and small, and across beels and in this way I saw all sides of village life. I was filled with eagerness to understand the villagers’ daily routine and the varied pageant of their lives. I, the town-bred, had been received into the lap of rural loveliness and I began joyfully to satisfy my curiosity. Gradually the sorrow and poverty of the villagers became clear to me, and I began to grow restless to do something about it. [4]

Tagore’s diagnosis of the devastation of Indian village in the context of colonialism led him to focus on two major issues: One, the atmashakti (self-empowerment) and self-reliance as a mode different from and an alternative to dependence on government. This made Tagore to emphasise the agency of rural reconstruction to be the villagers themselves not the government which is seen as an agency external to village and community life. Two, Tagore sought to view village and rural life in its completeness and as an inter-connected social totality.

In this respect, Tagore differed from the contemporary nationalist thinking, including that of Gandhi, on the question of rural transformation. While the Congress leadership emphasised the mass political agitational means like demonstrations, marches, hartals (strikes), boycotts, jail bharos, to pressurise the colonial government to bring about necessary political changes and policy corrections and Gandhi in his political imagination sought to combine social work with the political work, Tagore differed in terms of primacy and emphasis by highlighting the importance of social movement based on community work and cooperation as means of self-empowerment. In contrast to Gandhian view of Indian village as a simple society, bereft of selfishness, greed and competition idealised in his writings including Hind Swaraj (1909) [5] Tagore had a much more complex view of rural India and the emergent rural-urban interface especially under the conditions created by colonial state to be detrimental to social harmony and solidarity in village India. Further, unlike Gandhi, Tagore had a critical and yet a balanced view of science and technology. This was amply evident in his positive reception of advancements in agricultural and medical sciences in his programme of rural reconstruction.

The Sriniketan experiment was an interesting initiative to translate Tagore’s vision of rural reconstruction into practice [6]. Sriniketan, located 2 kilometers away from Shantiniketan, was started as an institute of rural reconstruction in 1922. The framework that informed this experiment is that since the colonial state and the notion of the political implied in state action are the causes of the decline of the village, therefore reliance on the state (in this instance, the colonial state) for support by the peasantry and artisans would be illogical, harmful and therefore inappropriate. It could also prove to be counter-productive as the crass commercial logic of colonial modernity was contradictory to the spirit of community implicit in the rural society in India. Training in self-reliance based on self-respect and community spirit, for Tagore, was imperative to improve the material and spiritual conditions of rural life.

In contrast to the political swadeshi movement that followed the Bengal Partition (1905), Tagore advocated ‘constructive swadeshi’ which would be based on self-help and rely on the local resources and knowledge. This would be consciously ‘non-political’ work, the political here understood in the dominant instrumentalist sense. It is instructive to note that Tagore used the term reconstruction instead of the popular term ‘development’ — which is indicative of the village being subjected to external forces that often proved to be destructive.

The Sriniketan experiment identified the lack of self-confidence, ignorance and fatalism among the rural people as the principal challenges. Therefore it sought to work at educating the villagers in self-reliance, infuse self-respect and work for total reform of the village society in all its dimensions. It is claimed that regeneration would not be possible unless it is comprehensive and all-encompassing.

The openness in Tagore’s approach is evident his invitation to the Cornell trained agricultural scientist Leonard Elmhirst whom he met in the USA to come to Shantiniketan and play a key role in setting up the Sriniketan [7] which was visualized as an institution that would strive for comprehensive rural reconstruction by focusing on economic improvement, health, education, social work seen in their organic interrelatedness. Of course, such a programme involved coordinated multi-skilled collective effort. Thus Sriniketan sought to bring agriculturists, social workers, economists, medical experts, small industry specialists and of course educationalists together to realize the comprehensiveness of the challenge before it. [8] To reduce external dependence and enhance self-help and self-reliance, cooperative bank was set up and the formation of weavers’ production cooperative was also an innovative attempt in this direction.

It may be instructive to go into the working of the Sriniketan experiment both in terms of the area under its influence and the range of activities envisaged and undertaken to appreciate the vision of rural reconstruction and spirit of community cooperation informing it. Spatially its activities were gradually spread to the villages in the vicinity. The activities that were seen intrinsic to reconstruction included agriculture, rural industry, education, health, co-operation, welfare which show the meticulous and careful attention to the idea of rural reconstruction and its translation into reality. [9]

Agricultural sphere included apart from farming sector, dairy, poultry and fisheries with a focus on developing improved varieties of seeds, on raising quality of livestock and to expand the access to these improved inputs and techniques for the advancement of these sectors in the villages. The industry sector focused on development of technology and imparting of training with respect to tailoring, embroidery, book-binding, carpentry, tannery, pottery, etc. These activities were shaped in such a way that they could also provide livelihoods to the farmers during lean seasons.

The idea of education has been central to Rabindranath Tagore’s vision and practice. Following Tagore’s Viswa Bharati which came to be renowned for its innovative efforts in the field of education, Sriniketan created the education department named Loka Siksha Parishad and sought to focus on the system of basic education and as part of it train teachers to advance adult education. Loka Siksha Parishad was actively engaged in conducting training the rural folk to equip them to play an active role in the reconstruction programme. Rural circulating library was an integral part of this endeavour.

Health was another chief concern of Sriniketan as there was huge prevalence of malaria and other communicable diseases. Following the motto, “prevention is better than cure” Sriniketan emphasized the preventive side of community health. Cooperative health societies were formed to educate the people and to motivate them to pay attention to the maintenance of cleanliness and hygiene.

Sriniketan experiment embodied and sought to strengthen the spirit of community by emphasizing and concentrating on efforts to enhance cooperation in the rural society. For this Sriniketan interestingly relied on and thereby revived the local social and cultural capital of native communities implied in the community practices like kirtans and bhajans, performances like drama or jatras were organized. These practices historically inherited and signifying of local cultural specificity could encourage people’s voluntary participation and enhance them spiritually. The creation of new and revival of old community festivals like Halakarshana (drawing the Plough), Vriksh ropana (tree planting festival), and renewal of traditional celebrations like Nawa Varsha (New Year Festival), Varsha Mangala (Rainy Season), Navanna (New Rice), Vasanta Utsav (Spring Festival), etc, were undertaken to serve the goal of rural reconstruction. [10] The message in the celebration of these festivals is loud and profound: on the one hand, they emphasized the rich cultural heritage of India that showed an organic relation between man, society and nature, on the other hand, denounced the mechanical separation of humans from nature and fellow beings by the process of alienation forged by the forces of destructive development and its market-profit logic.

Needless to say the philosophy of life and community underlying this experiment was quite distinct from and even distant to the political vision of the dominant nationalist thought and practice. Tagore’s critique of the dominant nationalist movement thus suggested that it paved the way for the carving of a real politik and to the body politic assuming a larger role and, in fact, the state assuming the role of an organising agency in the post-Independence India. For this reason, Tagore’s reflections would not only be relevant to reflect on colonial India’s modernity project but also on the post-colonial modernity and its devastating impact on rural India, its agrarian system and artisanal communities. This we will turn to in the next section.

II

Tagore’s critique and vision has deep significance to the post-Independence social reality in India. The post-Independent India has seen a state that assumed the developmentalist and welfarist role by becoming a central agency in the mobilisation, planning and distribution of resources.

Even in the areas, which are inspired by the nationalist legacy like, for instance, the cooperative sector the state assumed an interventionist role. An important aspect of the nationalist thinking on cooperation is that it has to be people-centric and grassroots-based and not to be intervened by external agencies. This has been forgotten or ignored after Independence apparently with the assumption that the Indian state is an embodiment of anti-colonial struggle and therefore seen as having a legitimate claim to a higher moral stature, which obviously was not the case with the colonial state. What is ignored is the need for a proper critique of modernity and critique of what state as an agency of modernity would in fact mean to the principles of self-reliance, cooperation, community knowledge and empowerment.

The state because of its dominant logic of centralisation of decision-making and presence of massive bureaucracy has failed to uphold the spirit of collective vis-a-vis the market forces and individual ambitions and strengthen the long-evolved local knowledge and provide for local initiative. This is also a reflection of the inbuilt arrogance of the modern forms of knowledge that came to be patronised by the Indian state. The general direction of the state’s developmentalist policy has systematically led to the prioritisation and enhancement of the social prestige of modern industry, urban economy and service sector and gradual and decisive marginalisation and devaluation of the rural economy.

The history of cooperatives in the post-Independence period is an evidence of the disastrous role of the state facilitating and leading to bureaucratisation, corruption and political abuse. This is best illustrated by the experience of the handloom cooperatives, which have a long and successful history in the post-Independence period. Now they are witness to the disastrous impact of state intervention and in context of the neoliberal economic reforms they have seen further worsening of their condition. [11].

The economic liberalisation of Indian economy pursued since the early 1990s, marks a more aggressive and formalised anti-rural thrust of the state policy. Perhaps the policy thinking on handloom sector represents the shift in the policy commitment much more clearly and rather unequivocally. For instance, the report of the Mira Seth Committee [12] of the Planning Commission could be seen as reflecting the official thinking on the future of the handlooms. The principal thrust of the report was on reorienting the handlooms to meet the challenges of the globalisation process, which are assumed to be inevitable and therefore need to be prepared for. In its view, the strength of the handloom sector lies in its “ability to commercially produce the goods in small volumes, quick switch over to new designs and creation of exquisite designs which cannot be made on the powerlooms.” For this the Committee recommended extension of governmental support to handlooms to “develop new designs, new fabrics and new products having market acceptance and commercial viability...which may not be easily replicated on powerlooms.” [13] On the basis of the above perception, Mira Seth Committee Report recommended an export-growth strategy as the most viable solution for survival of handlooms.

The anti-handloom dispensation in the official thinking in the context of economic liberalisation becomes clearer in the report of the Satyam Committee [14] on handlooms as evident from the following statement that “generally the handloom weavers remain tradition-bound and are averse to change... For more than five decades, the poor handloom weavers remained spoon-fed through government schemes and they continue to look up the government for anything and everything”. This is the premise, though it parades as a conclusion, which in fact served as the basis of the Satyam Committee Report’s recommendations.

What Tagore feared has become the reality of post-Independence India. For Tagore, as we have seen above, village reconstruction is foundational to the nation-building process in India. This can be accomplished by recognising the centrality of social with the political playing a catalytic role. The neglect of and deviation from this legacy is clearly evident in the state centric political economy of development in India. The process of industrialisation and modernisation of the economy pursued vigorously after Independence and more so in the post-liberalisation period can be described as leading to what could be called ‘technocide’ [15], that is acceleration of the process of ‘disappearance of village’ and related community support base, large-scale displacement, loss of employment, livelihood and dispossession induced by the expansion of technology. The process of exclusion has been rendered intense due to the penetration and centrality of technology in the process of economic development. This has led to the disintegration of the rural society and the depreciating definition of the rural, agrarian and artisanal society, culture, production and knowledge.

Despite this substantive depreciation, the rural society, because of the electorally significant arithmetic, remains an important constituency in the domain of practical politics to be electorally manipulated, mobilised and used. In the absence of a viable critique and challenge, the victims of the distorted modernity project have become amenable to manipulation, cooption, patronage, etc. In other words, people have become an object of manipulation by the structures of power.

In the context of neo-liberal globalisation, there is a wider recognition of the need for self-help based on trust and reciprocity as the basis of coping up with harsh realities resulting from the withdrawal of state support. The recognition of the importance of creating enabling institutional environments for the creation and sustenance of social capital — defined as the social relationships that facilitate collective action of the underprivileged social groups that hardly have any access to resources — is an important move in this direction. [16]

The concept of social capital echoes the ideas of community spirit and cooperation that emerged in the context of anti-colonial struggle. The idea of community spirit in the face of colonialism-induced rural disintegration — must be seen as an important intellectual legacy and assumes importance in the context of neo-liberalism and needs to be revived and furthered.

Tagore’s Sriniketan experiment and its idea and spirit of community cooperative efforts constitute an important legacy that can be learnt from to rejuvenate the rural India from its present crisis and disintegration in the context of neo-liberalisation.

* (Author: Karli Srinivasulu, Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi, Professor (Retd), Department of Political Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad)


[1Published in English translation entitled ‘Society and the State’, in Government of India (1962), Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction, Director, Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, Pp. 9-21.

[2Sen, Sudhir (1943), Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction, Viswa-Bharathi, Calcutta, P. 11.

[3Tagore, Rabindranath (2005), Home and the World (translated into English by Sreejata Guha), Penguin, New Delhi.

[4Dasgupta, Uma (2004), Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, New Delhi, OUP, P. 33.

[5Gandhi, M K (2010), Hind Swaraj: A Critical Edition (Translated and Edited by Suresh Sharma and Tridip Suhrud), Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi.

[6For an analysis of Sriniketan, see, Chittabrata Palit, Manimajari Mitra and Keya Banerjee (2009), Rural Reconstruction and Rabindranath, BR Publishing Corporation, Delhi.

Also, Chapter V in Dasgupta (2004).

[7As part of this Tagore sent his son Rathindranath to the US to study agricultural science. Later he and his brother-in-law Dr N N Ganguly played an active role in the Sriniketan work.

[8Dasgupta (2004), P. 37.

[9Makherjee, Usha (1952), ‘Sriniketan Experiment in Rural Reconstruction’, Economic Weekly, October 25.

[10Chittabrata Palit, Manimajari Mitra and Keya Banerjee (2009), P. 108. Also, Dasgupta (2004), P. 37.

[11Srinivasulu, K (1996), `1985 Textile Policy and Handloom Industry: Policy, Promises and Performance’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 7.
https://www.amazon.in/Kanakalatha-Mukund/e/B001ICL8SM/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1 Mukund, K and B Syama Sundari (2001), Traditional Industry in the New Market Economy: The Cotton Handlooms of Andhra Pradesh, Sage, New Delhi. 

[12Government of India (1996), ‘Report of the High Powered Committee on Handlooms’, Ministry of Textiles, Office of the Development Commissioner for Handlooms.
For analysis of this report, see, K Srinivasulu (1997), ‘High-Powered Committee, Low Voltage Report: Mira Seth Report on Handlooms’, Economic and Political Weekly, June 14.

[13Government of India (1996), P. 39.

[14The Government of India constituted Satyam committee in July 1998 to make suggestions based on which the 2000 textile policy was formulated. For a critique, K Srinivasulu (2000), ‘A death —blow to weavers?’, The Hindu, March 28.

[15For the concept of technocide, see Nagaraj, D R (2010), The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India Edited by Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, Pp. 179-181.

[16For a conceptual history of the idea of social capital, see, Farr, James (2004), ‘Social Capital: A Conceptual History’, Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 1, February.

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.