ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore's best known work, Nationalism (1917), is often mistaken for the sum and substance of his thoughts on nationalism. However, a look at the evolution of his idea over different stages suggests that his thoughts on nationalism cannot be accommodated within the stereotypes of "internationalism" or "anti-nationalism" in which commentators cast him. To focus only on that is a reductionist over-simplification of Tagore's evolving approach to the antinomies of nationalism as he perceived them.

This essay is the revised version of the keynote address delivered by the author at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla, at the opening session of the International Conference on “Tagore and Nationalism” on 6 November 2015.Sabyasachi Bhattacharya ( is a historian of modern India and a former vice chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan.

In our endeavour to understand Rabindranath Tagore’s approach to nationalism we have to recognise three problems which probably hamper the current discourse on the subject. To begin with, a good deal of these commentaries on Tagore are often unhistorical in assuming a homogeneity in Tagore’s thoughts on nationalism; from the 1890s to 1941 they evolved and changed considerably. Unless we follow this evolution and identify the different stages, his denunciation of self-aggrandising nationalism of the West European model in his best known work, Nationalism (1917), is likely to be mistaken for the sum and substance of his thoughts on the subject. Arguably, a balanced estimation of Tagore’s outlook must include, inter alia, another aspect: his engagement in the critique of naked obscurantism, backward-looking and inimical to the inclusiveness of Indian civilisation—the obscurantism which sometimes dresses itself out of the wardrobe of nationalist rhetoric in India.

The second problem is that many commentators, as we shall see later, have cast Tagore’s ideas about nationalism into a stereotype of “internationalism.” When he wrote his major work on Nationalism in 1917 (commonly used by scholars since that is the one easily accessible in English) there were various concepts of internationalism (for example, President Wilson’s version, the creed of the incipient League of Nations, internationalism of the British Pacifists, and even Japan’s own version of internationalism which was actually a rationalisation of Japanese imperialism). Tagore has been interpreted in terms of these stereotypes current in the world of politics. We need to examine whether this stereotype, or that of “anti-nationalism,” appropriately accommodates the individuality of Tagore’s concept of nationalism. The same caveat applies to the efforts of recent scholars who try to assimilate Tagore’s thoughts into their own version of “post-coloniality” (Collins 2013) or “anti-modernism” (Nandy 1994).

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