'Nationalism Is A Great Menace': Reading Tagore To Understand Kashmir

The old clichés no longer do justice to the situation in Kashmir

15/08/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/08/2016 12:03 PM IST
AFP/Getty Images
Indian paramilitary troopers patrol during a curfew in Lal Chowk in Srinagar on August 14, 2016

In Srinagar, every August 15 and January 26 is a curfew. Mobile services are suspended and bomb blasts are feared. The state government celebrates India's national days, the separatists declare them black days, and the people stay indoors.

This time, India's independence day will come during the sixth week of a lockdown. Since the killing of a popular militant in July, Kashmir has been a prison for Kashmiris. Seven million people have not been allowed to step out of their houses for most days and Internet access has been severely restricted.

Between India and Kashmir, the chasm only ever widens. For India, it is easy to say it's all Pakistan's doing. For Kashmiris, they eagerly wait to see what Pakistan will do to help them. In this intractable quagmire, there is only one thing that unites a stubborn India, a rebellious Kashmir and an opportunist Pakistan. There is one word that explains this near-death situation. It's the scourge of nationalism.

While Kashmiris write the continuing curfew as one more episode in the struggle for "Azadi," BJP president Amit Shah went to Kakori near Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh elections in mind, to pay respects to the martyrs of the Indian freedom movement. It was part of a two weeks-long BJP push called "Azadi 70 - Yaad Karo Kurbani".

The old clichés no longer do justice to the situation in Kashmir. The reason why India can't simply lift the curfew in Kahsmir is not because the protests are violent, but to prevent what the protestors have to say – they scream the word Azadi in the hope the world will hear them. It is because Kahsmiris are not allowed to scream Azadi on the streets that there is need to ask them to stay indoors. When they defy the diktat and throw stones at the Central Reserve Police Force that they have to be deterred by tear gas, pellets, bullets, and whatever new form of "crowd control" you need. That this curfew extends to internet services too, is the best proof that the problem is not Crowd Control but Azadi Control.

What is the problem with Kashmiris, we ask. What is the problem with Indians, Kashmiris ask. How is it Pakistan's business, we say with hand-wringing. There is only one problem with all of us: nationalism.

The Modi government's hyper-nationalism is all the more reason to remember that a leading thinker of the Indian freedom movement, Rabindranath Tagore, had warned against its ills.

European nationalism was the reason why different European countries competed to have their own colonies. That London came to rule India was a victory of British nationalism. "Nationalism," Tagore said in the lecture, "is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India's troubles."

Our real problem in India is not political. It is social"

"Our real problem in India is not political. It is social," he said, adding "this is a condition not only prevailing in India, but among all nations."

Nationalism for Tagore was a manifestation of the greed of individuals and the nation-state in his view should merely be an organising, administrative principle.

Nationalism, in Tagore's words, makes man feel "relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine [nationalism], which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality."

"India has never had a real sense of nationalism," he wrote about the colonial import. "It is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity."

Tagore's opposition to nationalism drew greatly from the First World War, as also from the inherent dangers he saw in the Indian freedom movement. India's limited achievement, but also its big challenge, he said, was to keep "different races" together.

Tagore warned Indian nationalists that 'mere political freedom' would not make India free: "When our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice." He clarified, "I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations."

All of these are words as relevant for us as they ever were for the world. All those who have allowed themselves to be possessed by nationalism – the Indians who love the territory of Kashmir but not its people, the Kashmiris who are willing to die for nationalism, the Pakistanis who think their nationalism is incomplete without the Pakistani flag in Srinagar – all of us need to read Tagore.

Tagore, author of the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, wrote a poem in Bengali on 31 December 1899, the last day of the century. He later translated it into English as The Sunset of the Century. Here are some lines form the poem:

The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is

dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.


Keep watch, India.


Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.

Build God's throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty

And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

More On This Topic