The debate between Gandhi and Tagore, men of hugely different temperaments and world views, on nationalism still makes for absorbing reading.
In the issue of his journal Young India dated April 27, 1921, Mahatma Gandhi published an article titled “Evil Wrought by the English Medium”. This argued that “Rammohun Roy would have been a greater reformer, and Lokmanya Tilak would have been a greater scholar, if they had not to start with the handicap of having to think in English and transmit their thoughts chiefly in English”. Gandhi claimed that “of all the superstitions that affect India, none is so great as that a knowledge of the English language is necessary for imbibing ideas of liberty, and developing accuracy of thought”.
When this article appeared, Rabindranath Tagore was travelling in the West. Posted a copy, he was dismayed by its general tenor, and by the chastisement of Rammohan Roy in particular. On May 10, 1921, he wrote to C.F. Andrews from Zurich saying, “I strongly protest against Mahatma Gandhi’s trying to cut down such great personalities of Modern India as Rammohan Roy in his blind zeal for crying down our modern education”. These criticisms, added Tagore tellingly, showed that Gandhi “is growing enamoured of his own doctrines — a dangerous form of egotism, that even great people suffer from at times”.
The Mahatma believed Rammohan Roy was limited by his excessive familiarity with English. To the contrary, Tagore argued that through his engagement with other languages, the reformer “had the comprehensiveness of mind to be able to realise the fundamental unity of spirit in the Hindu, Muhammadan and Christian cultures. Therefore he represented India in the fullness of truth, and this truth is based, not upon rejection, but on perfect comprehension. Rammohan Roy could be perfectly natural in his acceptance of the West, not only because his education had been perfectly Eastern — he had the full inheritance of the Indian wisdom. He was never a school boy of the West, and therefore he had the dignity to be the friend of the West”.Oft-quoted response
C.F. Andrews shared the letter with the press. The criticisms stung Gandhi, who immediately published a clarification in Young India. He pointed to his own friendship with white men (Andrews among them), and the hospitality granted to Englishmen by many non-co-operators. Neither he nor his flock were guilty of chauvinism or xenophobia. His defence was then summed up in these words: “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”.
No modern man provided posterity as many quotable lines or phrases as Gandhi. Even so, the sentences cited above must be among the most regularly quoted of the millions of words the Mahatma wrote or spoke. They are to be found in classrooms, in museums, in auditoria, and on banners, as the most succinct statement of Gandhi’s rooted cosmopolitanism, his openness to other cultures while remaining loyal to his own. However, while I have quoted four sentences, these other invocations choose only to use the last three. Omitted always is the crucial opening caveat: “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet”. In July 1921, Tagore returned home from Europe. He was alarmed to find that many members of the staff at Santiniketan had enthusiastically embraced the non-co-operation movement, thus giving themselves up to “narrow nationalist ideas that were already out of date”. In the first week of September, Gandhi met Tagore at his family home in Calcutta. They had a long and argumentative conversation about non-co-operation. C.F. Andrews, who was present, recalled that they had “a difference of temperament so wide that it was extremely difficult to arrive at a common intellectual standing, though the moral ties of friendship remained entirely unbroken…”A different take
Shortly afterwards, Tagore chose to write about these differences in the influential Calcutta journal, Modern Review. In his recent travels in the West, said the poet, he had met many people who sought “to achieve the unity of man, by destroying the bondage of nationalism”. He had “watched the faces of European students all aglow with the hope of a united mankind…” Then he returned home, to be confronted with a political movement suffused with negativity. Are “we alone to be content with telling the beads of negation”, asked Tagore, “harping on other’s faults and proceeding with the erection of Swaraj on a foundation of quarrelsomeness?”
Gandhi responded immediately, defending the non-co-operation movement as “a refusal to co-operate with the English administrators on their own terms. We say to them, ‘Come and co-operate with us on our terms, and it will be well for us, for you and the world’. … A drowning man cannot save others. In order to be fit to save others, we must try to save ourselves. Indian nationalism is not exclusive, nor aggressive, nor destructive. It is health-giving, religious and therefore humanitarian. India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity. The mice which helplessly find themselves between the cat’s teeth acquire no merit from their enforced sacrifice”.
Eighty years on, the Tagore-Gandhi debate still makes for compelling reading. The Mahatma insisted that a colonised nation had first to discover itself before discovering the world. The poet answered that there was a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia —besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into a hatred of Indians different from oneself (he was particularly sceptical of the claim that non-co-operation had or would dissolve Hindu-Muslim differences). Both men come out well; Tagore slightly better perhaps. He stood his ground, whereas Gandhi shifted his, somewhat. Pressed and challenged by Tagore, he broadened his nationalism to allow in winds from all parts of the world.
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