Nation and Nationalism: Revisiting Gandhi and Tagore

- Saurav Kumar Rai


Indian public sphere, in the recent years, has become a potpourri of performative nationalism. Subject citizens are now supposed to prove their national loyalty and consciousness quite often publicly. Unfortunately, loyalty of the citizens is judged by their stance over such performances. In such an atmosphere it becomes significant to revisit the ideas of two major original thinkers of Indian politics - Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore as to how they viewed the idea of nation and nationalism. Certainly both these towering figures seldom favoured such performing aspect of nationalism and even less the judgmental value attached to such performances. In fact, as delineated by this article, the present times, in many ways, resembles the context in which Gandhi and Tagore developed their critique of the aggressive version of nation and nationalism which had been gaining popularity during early twentieth century. Hence, the present frenzied situation provides the appropriate context to return to some of their ideas.


While TRACING THE evolution of the ideas of patriotism and nationalism through the ages Johan Huizinga in his lesser known but excellent work Men and Ideas (1984) argued that by late nineteenth and early twentieth century the idea of nationalism became the powerful drive to dominate, the urge to have one's own nation, one's own state and to assert itself over and above, at the cost of others.1 Such an aggressive complexion of nationalism could be seen in India as well by late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the form of rise and growth of the trends of extremism and revolutionary terrorism represented by people like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh respectively at pan-Indian level. This aggressiveness of the idea of nationalism disturbed many of the contemporaneous thinkers throughout the globe. In the Indian context, it was Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore who systematically developed a critique of contemporary nationalism.

Both Gandhi and Tagore were quite novel and contrasting in their respective approaches towards the critique of contemporary nationalism. While Tagore considering imperialism as an external expression of nationalism cherished the idea of 'internationalism' by moving above the narrowness of the idea of nationalism; Gandhi, on the other hand, brought the idea of internationalism within the fold of nationalism thereby broadening its horizon and making it more assimilative and tolerant.

Mahatma Gandhi and his idea of accommodative nation

To begin with the ideas of Gandhi on nationalism, one of the statements by him is self-evident that how he established the essential harmony between the seemingly contradictory concepts/ideas of individualism, kinship ties, regionalism, nationalism and internationalism:

The individual has to die for the family, the family has to die for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, and the province for the country, even so a country has to die, if necessary, for the benefit of the world.2

Thus, for Gandhi, 'it is not the nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil.'3

Gandhi's seminal work Hind Swaraj (1909) also reflects the above mentioned notion of nationalism. In fact, when one looks at the very title of the booklet Hind Swaraj, it is not just about swaraj or self-rule, rather it is also about 'Hind' or 'India' which is a 'nation.' At the time of writing of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi was fully aware of those who had been celebrating violence and aggression in the name of nation and Gandhi wanted to address them particularly. Gandhi, in fact, as pointed out by Anthony J. Parel, has addressed four basic questions regarding Indian nation and nationalism which is scattered throughout his Hind Swaraj. The first address is against those who assert that India is not a nation. Secondly, Gandhi, in Hind Swaraj, deals with the relationship of religion and language to the concept of nation. Thirdly, the booklet assesses the contributions that the Indian National Congress made to the evolution of Indian nationalism up to 1909 and evaluates the merits and demerits of its extremist and moderate factions. Finally, Hind Swaraj focuses its special attention on so-called nationalist elites of the time viz. the lawyers, the doctors, and the rest of newly educated Indian intelligentsia.4 While addressing all these questions Gandhi continuously recapitulates his ideas on nation and nationalism.

Beginning with the first question, Gandhi criticizes all those who believe that India, prior to British rule, was not a nation. Such people believe that it were the British who for the first time brought together the scattered and relatively hostile regions and communities of the subcontinent by conquering it thoroughly and establishing what has been referred to as 'Pax Britannica' or 'peace of the British Empire.' At the same time they also believe that modern technologies such as railways, telegraph, etc. were crucial in development of India as a nation. Now, Gandhi in his Hind Swaraj offers a systematic critique of all the above assumptions. According to Gandhi, India has been a nation right from pre-British time which is evident from two inherent attributes of Indian civilisation - one is its accommodating capacity and the other is existence of certain places of pilgrimage scattered throughout India.

According to Gandhi, for any country to be designated as 'nation,' it must have the accommodating capacity or say the people calling themselves a nation should have the sense of being a community, despite having differences amongst them as individuals. Here, Gandhi seems to anticipate the essence of Benedict Anderson's celebrated theory of nation as an 'imagined community' - imagined as both inherently sovereign and limited.5 According to Gandhi, no other civilisation exhibited such a superb accommodating capacity as Indian civilisation. For centuries it kept absorbing foreign culture, religion, etc. thereby making them her own. In the similar context, Gandhi has used the term 'praja' (literally means 'subject'), instead of 'rashtra,' as the Gujarati/Hindi counterpart of the English term 'nation.' This is largely because while 'rashtra' underlines some idea of power, 'praja' implies the idea of people or community. Furthermore, Gandhi also used the concept of 'sama' (occasional gatherings) to emphasise the accommodative nature of Indian nation. According to Anthony J. Parel, when Gandhi was using this concept of 'sama,' he seems to be quite close to Renan's notion of 'fusion.' Ernest Renan had argued that 'fusion of people' was an essential condition for the formation of various nations in Europe.6

Gandhi, further, emphasises the important role played by its wandering 'acharyas' (ascetics) and scattered pilgrimage centres in developing the aforesaid accommodative character of Indian civilisation. According to Gandhi, these acharyas mostly used to travel the length and breadth of India, either on foot or on bullock carts, and this slowness of their journey used to provide them with ample opportunities to establish close contacts with the locals wherever they went, thereby developing or creating a common consciousness. These acharyas at the same time tactfully established important pilgrimage centres in almost every part of India - right from North to South, from East to West - everywhere. When the common people visited distant places of pilgrimage scattered throughout India they also developed common consciousness with different groups and people whom they met in their way to pilgrimage. Thus, distant places of pilgrimage and 'slowness' of journey, according to Gandhi, were the main factors in developing common consciousness amongst the people inhabiting such a diverse and stretched geography. It provided its inhabitants an opportunity to establish some sense of linkages and some sort of understanding of the people of different culture, geography, language, ethnic origin, so on and so forth. All this, as argued by Gandhi, was destroyed with the coming of railways as it reduced the pilgrimage to a mechanised action and the vast opportunity of accommodation generated by 'slowness of movement' was lost. Thus, Gandhi viewed modern technologies such as railways rather inhibiting the growth of accommodative character that every national community should have. With the coming of railways holy centres of distant places more or less became tourist centres and lost their real motives with which they were established as discussed by Gandhi.

Moving towards the second aspect, Gandhi, in Hind Swaraj, has also dealt with the crucial issue of relationship of religion and language to the concept of nation. Many people believed at that time that India would cease to be 'one' nation as soon as the British rule would vanish from Indian land. This was largely because of multi-religious groups that inhabit India. This is an argument essence of which can be seen even in contemporary times. However, Gandhi used to believe that India has a brilliant opportunity in this regard to put a novel example in front of the world. To quote Gandhi: 'India cannot cease to be one nation simply because people belonging to different religion live in it.'7 To understand this assumption of Gandhi, one has to firstly understand his meaning of religion. According to Gandhi, any religion has two parts - core/inner and periphery/outer. While periphery of any religion determines the social organisation of the people following it, the core is constituted by the ethical beliefs of that system. Now, according to Gandhi, various religions might differ in their outward appearance or the social organisation of respective followers, at the core all religions are same. Once people realise the core of their religion communal tensions will wither away, thereby creating the possibility of a nation having multi-religious inhabitants. In fact, Gandhi poses a counter assessment that 'in no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms.'8 Had it been the case, then entire Europe would have been 'one' nation, but this is not so.

Afterwards talking about the relationship between language and nation, Gandhi does agree that any nation should have a 'lingua franca' establishing communication between its multi-lingual or multi-dialect inhabitants. In the case of India, while Gandhi respects the role of English language in this regard, he refuses its continuation as, according to him, in due course of time English language has turned into hegemonising tool. English has no longer remained just a language as many people have started utilising their knowledge of English to gain administrative posts, favours, etc. That is why, Gandhi advocates the necessity of developing a new lingua franca of India free of hegemonising tendencies of English language. He also emphasises on the mutual exchange of each other's language by people speaking different languages. For example, a North Indian should study at least one South Indian language and vice versa, a Hindu should study Urdu/Arabic/Persian, a Muslim should try and learn Sanskrit, so on and so forth. However, in all these processes, as per Gandhi, one should never demean or underestimate his/her own mother tongue and he/she should always try to enrich his/her mother tongue.

Thirdly, Gandhi deals with the role of the Indian National Congress in developing India as a nation. According to Gandhi, the Indian National Congress is a pioneer association that brought together people from almost all parts of India and from all communities. In order to substantiate this argument, Gandhi, in Hind Swaraj, especially referred to three Congress nationalists by name Naoroji, Gokhale and Taiyebji - a Parsi, a Hindu and a Muslim, respectively. By highlighting this trio, Gandhi indirectly substantiated his claim of the accommodative character of Indian civilisation as well.

Gandhi, in Hind Swaraj, also deals with the heated debate of the age that was going between the Moderate and the Extremist factions of the Congress. Although Gandhi believed that the Moderates were too polite in demanding their just rights, however, at the same time Gandhi nowhere supported the Extremist tactics. This was largely because, according to Gandhi, if swaraj (or self-rule) would be attained through extremist ways then the 'English rule vanish but Englishness will prevail.' As expressed by Gandhi, it would lead us to some violent form of nationalism and nation-state of which India had been victim of for preceding two centuries (the hint here was towards the English nationalism). In fact, according to Gandhi, the Extremists wanted 'the tiger's nature, but not the tiger;' they wanted to make 'India like England.' He further adds: 'when it becomes England, it will be called not Hindustan, but Englistan. This is not the swaraj that I want.'9

In the above mentioned statement one can clearly see Gandhi's critique of western concept of nationalism and its aggressive tilt. In fact, Gandhi wished to develop an Indian kind of nationalism which would be far more accommodative and more rooted in Indian traditions and cultures rather than being influenced from the West. Gandhi, in this regard, openly condemned the Extremists who were impressed by the violent tactics of the Italian nationalists like Garibaldi and Cavour in their project of nation-building and attaining swaraj.

The last thing that Gandhi addressed in his critique of nation and nationalism in Hind Swaraj is the question of so-called national elites such as lawyers, doctors, and the modern professional class taken as a whole. Gandhi very clearly states that the interests of these national elites do not necessarily coincide with those of the praja (or people). He sees fair possibility of the national elites acting in their own interest, exploiting, deceiving and oppressing the people at large in the name of the nation; something which is going on in present times. Gandhi explains this thing in detail in two of his sections of Hind Swaraj entitled as 'The Condition of India: Lawyers' and 'The Condition of India: Doctors.' According to Gandhi, these modern professional classes of a nation whether they be doctors, lawyers, scientists, administrators, elected representatives, business executives, etc. who proclaim themselves as torch-bearers of nationalism are basically aimed at modern objectives i.e. accumulating more and more wealth and gaining status in society in the name of nation. For Gandhi, if a nation really wants to attain swaraj or self-rule then it has to get rid of the curse of these symbols of modern civilisation. Here comes the Gandhian concept of self-sufficiency at all levels as the most fundamental trait of a nation - a concept which he developed in his subsequent writings and programmes such as Key to Health (to get rid of modern kind of doctors), constructive village programmes, advocacy of Panchayat system (to get rid of lawyers and modern kind of professional politicians and administrators), so on and so forth.

Thus, Gandhi designed his own kind of nationalism and developed his own unique idea of a nation which was completely different from the prevalent ideas of nation and nationalism of early twentieth century. To sum up, it was a nation or 'India of his dreams.

Rabindranath Tagore and his perceived inhumanness of the idea of nation and nationalism

Moving towards Rabindranath Tagore, as has been argued, he considered imperialism as an external expression of nationalism and cherished the idea of 'internationalism' by moving above the narrowness of the idea of nationalism. However, Tagore was not antithetical to the idea of nation and nationalism from the beginning. In fact, Tagore had been a passionate supporter of nationalism during the first decade of the twentieth century and many people derived inspiration from him in this regard. However, his disillusionment with it started taking place towards the final phase of the Swadeshi Movement when the trends of political extremism and revolutionary terrorism developed in this entire movement. It was in this context that Tagore suddenly disappeared from the political scene at the high time of the Swadeshi Movement. In this regard, when Abla Bose (wife of the famous scientist J.C. Bose) in one of her correspondences with Tagore, in 1908, asked him that why he was getting upset when things were unfolding in a much aggressive manner against the oppressive colonial rule by deriving inspiration from his constructive programmes and Atmashakti, Tagore replied: 'Patriotism cannot be our final shelter, my refuge is humanity.'

Tagore's disillusionment with nationalism grew further in the second decade of the twentieth century when the ugly face of nationalism revealed in Japan's deadly war of aggression against China, in Europe's march towards the global conflict of 1914-18 and in outbursts of 'revolutionary terrorism' in India. From now on, Tagore turned into a fierce critic of nationalism. He argued that nationalism was just another name for appropriation, by brute force if necessary, of the wealth, and raw material of other countries, and that nationalism would ultimately breed isolationism and violate the highest ideals of humanity.

Referring to the aggressive tilt that nationalism had taken in most parts of the world including India in early twentieth century, Tagore argued that very soon it would destroy the civilisation. According to Tagore, the very idea of nationalism has now been stripped of its human element and it would ultimately precipitate a new form of bondage in the name of its pursuit of freedom and right to self- determination. However, this does not mean that Tagore had abandoned his anti-imperialist strand. In fact, as pointed out by Ashis Nandy, Tagore although rejected the idea of nationalism but professed anti-imperialist politics throughout his life. In fact, this kind of stand of Tagore, according to Nandy, created some sort of confusion among most of the Indian nationalists of the time for whom nationalism, patriotism and anti-imperialism were a single concept.10

Nevertheless, it was not just the violent aggressive form of nationalism which Tagore opposed; rather he was equally skeptical of non-violent nationalism represented by Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement. Tagore called non-violent form of nationalism as a 'parochial nationalism' threatening an isolated view of the country. In fact, on the issue of nationalism a very interesting debate took place between Tagore and Gandhi captured brilliantly by Romain Rolland in his work on Gandhi and in one of his diary account, where he has brought out the differences made by C.F. Andrews between Gandhi and Tagore.11 Actually, Tagore believed that in the contemporary atmosphere nationalism was bound to take a violent turn and hence it was better to abandon this idea altogether rather than trying and changing it. According to Tagore, there was no use of generating so much passion for a concept (i.e. nationalism) for which there was not even a parallel term in India's own languages. Here Tagore tries to hint towards the western-ness of the concept of nationalism. In fact, transformation of Japan into an imperialist country was very much alarming for Tagore and he found nationalism as the root cause of this evil transformation of Japan. Tagore, during his visit to Japan, openly condemned Japan for behaving like a 'western nation' and forgetting its traditional cultural heritage of non-aggression.

According to Tagore, since nation-state emerged in the post- religious laboratory of industrial capitalism, it is only an 'organisation of politics and commerce' that brings 'harvests of wealth' or 'carnivals of materialism' by spreading tentacles of greed, selfishness, power and prosperity. Hence, nation, as conceptualised by Tagore, is not 'a spontaneous self-expression of man as social being' as most of the people think; rather it is a 'political and commercial union of a group of people, in which they congregate to maximize their profit, progress and power.' In other words, it is an expression of 'the organised self- interest of a people where it is least human and least spiritual' (all these views have been taken from Rabindranath Tagore's Nationalism (1916) which is compilation of three of his lectures 'Nationalism in Japan,' 'Nationalism in West' and 'Nationalism in India').

Furthermore, Tagore points out that economic interests, geographical boundaries, a common territory and heredity generally bind people into a nation. However, once bound into a nation the spirit of conflict and conquest, and not cooperation, gains the upper hand, thereby turning nation into a 'geographical demon' which like a selfish individual pursues power, wealth and importance at the cost of others. While doing all these things, this 'demon,' according to Tagore, fosters in its own people both a false pride in their own race and nation and a hatred for others.

Commenting on the above mentioned critique of nation and nation-state by Tagore, Mohammad Qayum argues that 'the very fact that nation-state is a mechanical organisation, modelled on certain utilitarian objectives in mind, made it unpalatable to Tagore, who was a champion of creation over construction, imagination over reason and the natural over artificial.'12 In other words, Tagore's basic problem with nation was that it was artificial and lacked humanness. In fact, Tagore in his speeches has made a significant difference between the governments of earlier period and the government of nation i.e. nation- state. According to Tagore: 'the difference between the two is same as the difference between the handloom and the power loom. While in the products of handloom the magic of man's living fingers finds its expression, and its hum harmonizes with the music of life, the power loom is relentlessly lifeless and accurate and monotonous in its production.'13

The aforesaid views of Tagore on nation and nationalism also found their expression in various novels, poems and other literary works produced by him. Ashis Nandy in this regard has analysed three well known novels of Tagore - Gora (1908-09), Ghare-Baire (1916) and Char Adhyaya (1934). According to Nandy, the problems which Tagore found with the idea of nation and nationalism appeared in these three novels at politico-psychological level in Gora, politico- sociological level in Ghare-Baire, and at politico-ethical level in Char Adhyaya.

Thus, Tagore replaces the mechanical idea of nation and nationalism by his own idea of 'swadeshi samaj' which was an embodiment of social relations that were not mechanical and impersonal but based on love and cooperation, and of a society where everyone was in tune with everyone else in the world. Hence, the idea of internationalism which was so dear to Tagore was not the socialist or Marxist internationalism of the workers of the world uniting, but one of spiritual kind based on the harmony of different races and religion.


The very purpose of the above discussion is to show the futility and dangers of the aggressive tilt which the popular outlook on nation and nationalism have acquired in Indian public sphere. If this trend continues Indian nation and nationalism will be soon stripped of all its humanity and accommodative character, thereby generating jingoism. This danger was something which had alarmed Gandhi and Tagore way back in early twentieth century. In fact, there is a thin line which differentiates between love for the nation and jingoism. While love for the nation generates compassion, jingoism generates hatred. This hatred can be for other national communities or for specific communities residing within the same nation. Moreover, judgmental attitude based on public performance of nationalism would only lead towards an unusual situation where people will be forced to abide by the love for the nation just like any other law and would not necessarily feel it from within. There is need to restrict India from turning into a 'geographical demon' under the influence of the so-called 'torch-bearers of nation' devouring its own age long citizens and forcing them to abide by a specific brand of nationalism. Here it is significant to contemplate the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore on this very subject as no national figure of India can be greater 'nationalist' than these two personalities.


  1. Johan Huizinga, Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  2. M. H. Desai, Gandhiji in Indian Villages (Madras: S. Ganesan, 1927), p. 170.
  3. M. K. Gandhi, Young India, 18 June 1925.
  4. Anthony J. Parel, 'Gandhi's Idea of Nation in Hind Swaraj,' Gandhi Marg, 13, 1991, pp. 261-82.
  5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
  6. Ernest Renan, 'What is a Nation' (Lecture delivered at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882), In: Discourse et Conferences, Paris, Caiman-Levy, 1887, pp. 277-310.
  7. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1909, Seventeeth Reprint, September 2005), pp. 42-43.
  8. Ibid, p. 43.
  9. Ibid, p. 26.
  10. Ashis Nandy, The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  11. Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi: The Man who Became One with the Universal Being (New York: The Century Co., 1924).
  12. M. Qayum, 'Imagining 'One World': Rabindranath Tagore's Critique of Nationalism', 2006, accessed on 11 December 2016, pp. 4-5.
  13. Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism (New Delhi: Penguin India), 2009.

Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 39, Number 2&3, July-September & October-December 2017

SAURAV KUMAR RAI is Senior Research Assistant, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi-110011; Mobile: +919717659097 | Email: