Rabindranath Tagore, Humanism and Nationalism


As Bengal elections are looming on the electoral horizons, BJP has intensified its attempts to appropriate the tall icons from Bengal. As for as ideology is concerned the only leader it should have been claiming is Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Bhartiya Janasangh, the previous avatar of BJP. As such the tall icons from Bengal who have contributed immensely to our thought and values include the likes of Swami Vivekanand, Rabindranth Tagore and Subhash Bose. Swami Vivekanand, was radically against caste system and was very passionate about eradicating poverty. He went to the extent of seeing God in the image of Daridranayan (Poor as God), serving poor being equal to serving the god.

Netaji Bose, who was a socialist and was totally opposed to Hindu nationalism is already being projected to be their hero! On similar lines Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore, the one standing for humanism and a society where fear does not exist is also being presented as a Hindutvavadi by this ideologically driven sectarian nationalist party.

Narendra Modi talked of Tagore being for Swaraj. RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat claimed that Tagore had conceptualized Hindu Rashtra. (Dainik Loksatta,Marathi, Nagpur, 20 01 2015). This political formation which contributed nothing to anti British struggle and the process of ‘India as a nation in the making’ is now talking of Swaraj. This is opposite of truth. Tagore had a deeply humanitarian vision of society. He was totally against sectarian thinking of any type. In his ideology Humanism is the central core of his thinking. As far as Indian history is concerned he points out the natives living here integrated with first the Aryans and later Muslims who came here. Hindu nationalists, contrary to truth stick to Aryans being natives of this land in order to make claims of ownership of this land for people of one religion. They also regard Muslims as being ‘foreigners’ and invaders.

In his Novel Gora Tagore is very critical of fanatical Hinduism.  Novel’s protagonist Gora’s Hinduism is akin to the Hindutva of present day BJP. Gora is shattered when he realizes that he is the son of a British couple killed in the war and brought up by a Hindu mother, Anandmoyi.

What we are witnessing today is the politics totally opposed to Tagore’s beautiful dream in his poem ‘where the mind is free and the head is held high’. With six years of rule of the present dispensation what we are witnessing that freedom of expression is under severe threat. Those working for the legal rights of Adivasis and marginalized are being labeled as Urban Naxals, those talking within the boundaries of Indian Constitution are being labeled as Tukde Tukde gang. The poem by Tagore talks of ‘clear stream of reason’ something unthinkable of in the present policies being pursued by the Government where every critique of its policies is labeled as anti National.

In contrast to aggressive nationalism of present Government, which believes in ‘Ghar mein Ghus ke marenge (we will enter their house and thrash them), in matters related to Pakistan, Tagore underlines the futility of war. He also was opposed to the type of nationalism, where powerful nations colonized the weaker nations and unleashed wars to expand the field of their political and economic control. When the threats of World War I were looming in the air, the spiritual humanism of his major work, Gitanjali impressed the British poets, Wilfred Own and others as this work seeped in spiritual humanism gives primacy to society and freedom in the society.

The current moves by the likes of Modi and Shah are totally motivated by electoral calculations as so far the RSS combine has been opposing all that Tagore stood for. The Shiksha Sanskriti Uthan Nyas, affiliated to RSS and headed by Dinanath Batra in its recommendations to NCERT text books asked for removal of Tagore from the Text books.

Lot of controversy has been created about our National Anthem ‘Jana Gana Man’. BJP associates have been presenting Vande Matram of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee as the main anthem. As per them Jana Gan man was written by Tagore in praise George V, who had visited India. Its leaders like Kalyan Singh have been saying the word Adhinayak in the song stand for George V. Tagore had clarified that the word Adhinayak used by him was for the power who has been shaping the destiny of our land for centuries and not for any George V or VI. Despite this angry retort from the Nobel Laureate those belonging to Hindu nationalist stream stick to this propaganda and undermine the beautiful contribution of Tagore. They assert that if you have to live in this land you will have to chant Vande Matram!

Our national anthem in an inclusive way shows the diversity of the country. This diversity and pluralism is something to which the present dispensation is totally opposed. They are for homogenization. The accusation against Jana Gan Man is that Nehru implemented this song as National anthem for vote bank politics, to appease Muslims. The song committee which chose this song as National anthem was of the opinion that this song represents the inclusive plural character of our country. This was also in tune with the understanding of history by Tagore and other national leaders who regarded pre Aryan, Aryans and Muslims contributing to the making of the nation.

BJP associates want to give primacy to Vande Matram as it is in the imagery of Hindu Goddess. Many Muslims argue that in their practices they bow only to Allah and not to any other power. Keeping this in mind ‘Jana Gana Man’ was kept as the National Anthem and first stanza of Vande Matram was designated as the national song.

Guru Rabindranath Tagore is a sage like figure who operated at the level of spiritual humanism, far away from the sectarian ideologies which have come in to oppose the libratory Indian Nationalism. This nationalism opposed the British authoritarianism and promoted the values of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Justice.



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Dr Ram Puniyani

Dr Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. Email: [email protected]

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