30/11/2016 8:52 PM IST | Updated 01/12/2016 9:20 AM IST

India Doesn't Need Nationalism, Said The Man Who Wrote India's National Anthem

A country is not greater than the ideals of humanity, Tagore said in his message to Indians.

Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters

The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to play the national anthem before every film screening in cinema halls across India. Doing so, the judges have argued, "would instill the feeling within one, a sense committed patriotism and nationalism.

Ironically, the writer of India's national anthem felt India didn't need nationalism. Nationalism for him was an evil that Asian countries were importing from the West. It was an evil because it came in the way of the ideals of humanity.

Written in 1911, Jana Gana Mana was adopted as India's national anthem on 24 January 1950, nine years after the death of its writer, Rabindranath Tagore, to date India's only literature Nobel laureate. In 1917, Tagore expressed his views on nationalism in a series of essays on nationalism in India, Japan and the West.

Nationalism versus Humanity

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. It was nationalism behind the West's rapacious greed and exploitation of colonies.

It is not about the British Government, but the government by the Nation - the Nation which is the organised self-interest of a whole people, where it is the least human and the least spiritual," he wrote in the essay in the West.

Where the spirit of the Western nationalism prevails," he wrote, "the whole people is being taught from boyhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means, - by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, by setting up memorials of events, very often false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace towards neighbours and nations other than their own. This is poisoning the very fountainhead of humanity.

He described nationalism as something far more dangerous than the world had previously seen. "Before this political civilisation [Western nationalism] came to its power and opened its hungry jaws wide enough to gulp down great continents of the earth, we had wars, pillages, changes of monarchy and consequent miseries, but never such a sight of fearful and hopeless voracity, such wholesale feeding of nation upon nation, such huge machines for turning great portions of the earth into mincemeat, never such terrible jealousies with all their ugly teeth and claws ready for tearing open each other's vitals. This political civilisation is scientific, not human. It is powerful because it concentrates all its forces upon one purpose, like a millionaire acquiring money at the cost of his soul. It betrays its trust, it weaves its meshes of lies without shame, it enshrines gigantic idols of greed in its temples, taking great pride in the costly ceremonials of its worship, calling this patriotism.

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

"Nationalism," Tagore said in the essay on India, "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," 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. 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."

Keep watch, India

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.

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