Two ideas of nationhood


Phat Cat
Super Mod
Feb 23, 2009
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Rabindranath Tagore’s conception of a nation was different from the Westphalian notion of sovereignty that sanctified borders

There were two teams on the ground. Young men in green and blue stood upright as their national anthems were played, their colours setting them apart, even as the incongruity of their separate identities became apparent. The two anthems were Amar Sonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana—representing two different ideas of nationhood.
The same man—Rabindranath Tagore—wrote them, and the idea of separate nations was never Tagore’s; he did not even see the two songs as anthems, but as songs of praise, for the land and its rivers, and its golden crop, in the case of Bengal; and for the eternity and continuity of the land mass of India. But the new countries made them anthems, giving them a distinct martial tone that Tagore had never intended.
Tagore’s conception of a nation was different from the Westphalian notion of sovereignty that sanctified borders. For Tagore, there were no boundaries—roads extended and became part of a village with a different name; the river meandered, acquiring a different persona.

Tagore was emphatic about universalism and he found Gandhi’s mass mobilization dangerous
Another man from Bengal, this time a film director, Ritwik Ghatak, also hated boundaries. In his film Komal Gandhar (E Flat, 1961), the camera zooms towards the horizon, and suddenly stops as it reaches the end of the track—a different nation begins. Tagore’s borders were cultural; formed by the field or a pond, not fences with watchtowers, checkpoints, and sentries.
Tagore was emphatic about universalism and he found Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s mass mobilization dangerous. In Satyajit Ray’s film of Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and The World, 1984), Nikhil finds his old friend Sandip’s nationalism distasteful. Nikhil, a landlord with capital to invest, had once established a soap factory. But it failed; he could not match the price of imported soap. He does not enjoy economies of scale. Tagore was not an economist, but he understood David Ricardo’s model of comparative advantage; Nikhil stopped making soaps, since someone else did it better. Sandip, determined to get people to boycott foreign-made products, roused masses, who attacked poor Muslim traders dependent on trade for livelihood. Nikhil tried to calm passions; he got consumed in the violence. Few novels have been so prescient about this trajectory of Indian history.
Gandhi was an activist, and it is tempting to see Tagore as Nikhil, and Gandhi as Sandip. But Gandhi never advocated violence. In fact, the one time satyagraha spun out of control, in Chauri Chaura in 1922, when people burned a police station, killing the policemen cowering inside, Gandhi suspended the civil disobedience movement as penance, so that his followers could overcome their inflamed instincts.
And that’s why when Subhas Chandra Bose wanted the Congress to take a more aggressive approach with the British, and defeated Gandhi’s preferred candidate, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Gandhi withdrew from the party, forcing Bose to leave. In 1942, Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement, when Bose was meeting Adolf Hitler and later Hideki Tojo, reaching Singapore in 1943 to lead the dormant Azad Hind Fauj, made up from Indian prisoners of war of the British Army which had surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942. Gandhi knew where violence would lead—an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind—and his parting words to Bose were that they must go different ways, because their paths only appeared to be the same. Means mattered.
For Gandhi, nationalism was important because a humiliated nation had to celebrate itself and assert its identity, which inevitably meant opposing the foreigner. Tagore, ever the poet, agreed with the celebration but feared the xenophobia that accompanied nationalism. Wouldn’t nationalism lead us to divide ourselves later? Tagore was at home in the world.
We were a world away from our homes, at Trent Bridge that afternoon, in the shadows of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, where thousands of Indians had turned up, backing India; there were perhaps two dozen Bangladeshi fans. Each Bangladeshi wicket was greeted with a deafening roar. Intoxicated by Indian successes, a group of fans behind me started shouting Pakistan murdabad, unable to shake off the nemesis in their mind. War minus the shooting. Those not cheering India were scolded: Are you a Paki in disguise? British passports, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani (yet their hearts are Indian).
Norman Tebbit would have been appalled. The Thatcherite former Conservative minister had coined the famous “cricket test”, which required, Bal Thackeray-like, that British Asians and British West Indians ought to support England. Nasser Hussain, who has led England with honour, agreed. Maybe the immigrant’s clinging to the culture of the past, an extraterritorial loyalty, is what made some insecure British voters support the British National Party last week, as it does with insecure Indian voters, who turn to the Shiv Sena and its clones.
Tagore feared that sort of divisive nationalism. His universe was inclusive, with a common identity, irrespective of faith. The Indian team showed that later that night, when that idea won.

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