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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 16 New Delhi, April 4, 2020

Gandhi - Tagore Debate

Saturday 4 April 2020, by Ashok Celly

Gandhi launched his Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921-22 when Tagore was touring the West pleading for cooperation between East and West so that peace and harmony may prevail in the world. When the news of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement reached him, he was greatly perturbed. He got the feeling that it was a negative force in Indian politics born of hatred of the West and was meant to cut off India from the West which would be a great cultural disaster. In Tagore’s words, "No in passive form is asceticism, in its active is violence". (Cited from The Mahatma And The Poet, compiled and edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya) Gandhi rebutted Tagore’s criticism politely but firmly saying Non-Cooperation was a positive movement, "....the only alternative to violence". (cited from The Mahatma & The Poet). It was a strategy, a weapon to liberate India from the clutches of the British. It was meant to mount pressure on the British Goverment and render its functioning ineffective which should lead to their quitting India. It seems Tagore’s criticism was based on general impressions and he was judging the entire movement, as Gandhi said, by its "excrescence".

As far as cooperation with the West was concerned, Gandhi was very clear in his mind that this was hardly the appropriate time for it. Gandhi believed there cannot be any cooperation between the colonised and the coloniser. Gandhi was not against cooperation with the West, but India could make its proper contribution to world peace only as a free nation. Gandhi observed, "An India prostrate at the feet of Europe can give no hope to humanity. An India awakened and free has a message of peace and goodwill to a groaning world." (The Mahatma & The Poet, p.68)

In fact, Gandhi sounds refreshingly radical when he rebuts Tagore’s charge of negativity. Taking a historical view, he observes : “We had lost the power of saying "No" (The Mahatma & The Poet, p.67) It is as well we are trying to recover it. We had become a country of "Yes man". "Jee Hujoorism" has been a national disease for God knows how long depriving us of our manhood making us docile and submissive in the process. Non-cooperation would help us to recover our pride and give us the strength to meet others on an equal footing.”

However, Gandhi’s defence of the boycott of schools and colleges was far from convincing. In fact, Tagore was a lot more pragmatic on this count. As he put it, "Our students are bringing their offering of sacrifice to what? Not to a fuller education but to non-education". (The Mahatma & The Poet, p.57) Gandhi’s cavalier dismissal of ’colonial education is not supported by objective evidence, for it produced not only "clerks and interpreters" as Gandhi alleged, but also excellent lawyers. Gandhi himself was a product of this system. It does not mean it had no shortcomings but a blanket dismissal was hardly justified. There was even an element of prejudice in Gandhi’s denunciation. Significantly enough he had deprived his son Hari Bhai of conventional education altogether & not only ruined his career but also hurt his self-esteem for which Hari Bhai never forgave him.

Well, one can hardly find fault with the boycott of foreign cloth inspired as it was by the desire to improve the lot of the farmers in general and the weavers in particular. The use of Swadeshi or homespun cloth by the ordinary Indians —would contribute to the income of indigenous farmers/weavers etc. However, burning foreign cloth which Gandhi glorified as "burning one’s shame" seemed to be somewhat melodramatic and could have even fuelled xenophobia to a certain extent among the Congress rank and file.

The clash between Gandhi and Tagore can be seen as the clash between national and international perspectives. Tagore was primarily concerned with international peace while Gandhi’s primary interest was India’s freedom from the British. It seems Tagore’s sensitive mind was greatly affected by the violence and destructiveness that World War I had brought in its wake. Another war on a global scale would be even more terrible, and could even wipe out humanity. So Tagore was doing his best to prevent another war. Hence world peace became the utmost priority for him and he went about pleading for peace and harmony in the world and another war/battle nearer home went into background and even seemed to acquire militant and xenophobic hues. In any case, there is no denying that Tagore was out of sync with the feelings and sentiments of his countrymen on this issue, and Gandhi’s hand was firmly on the pulse of the people.

However, the debate between the two was conducted with extraordinary civility and grace. Both Gandhi and Tagore displayed tremendous regard for each other. For Gandhi, Tagore was "the great poet of Asia" and for Tagore, Gandhi remained "the great leader of men". Even though Tagore’s criticism was pretty sharp, Gandhi’s refutation shows no signs of sarcasm or bitterness. On the contrary, he treats Tagore’s objections with utmost empathy. The Gandhi - Tagore debate serves as a refreshing contrast to what we see in contemporary India where political debates, if we can use the word, are full of personal attacks and vitriolic observations. I would urge the present-day political leaders to go through the exchange between Gandhi and Tagore to know what civilised debate is like. May be they would be embarrassed into a little decency and imbibe some of Gandhi’s humility & regard for the opponents. After all they all swear by the Mahatma.

Ashok Celly retired as Reader in English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is now a freelancer.

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