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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

Rabindranath Tagore and the Freedom of India from British Rule

Saturday 26 December 2015

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

There is a prevailing misconception that Rabindranath Tagore was not robust enough in his opposition to British rule in India. It is even thought in some circles, that Tagore composed his ‘Janaganamana Adhinayaka’, which has been the national anthem of India for nearly 70 years, as an eulogy for King George V on the occasion of the King Emperor’s visit in 1911 even though history has well recorded and even Tagore also offered numerous clarifications to establish that he composed the song for an Indian National Congress session. Again some people still think, that Tagore won his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 due to his connections with the famous English poet of the time, W.B. Yeats, and the influence Yeats peddled in this regard to clinch the Prize for Tagore. A retired Supreme Court judge even recently called Tagore a “British puppet” ignoring the fact that Tagore renounced the Knighthood given to him by the British monarch in protest against the Jallianwalabagh massacre of April 1919. The letter, written by Tagore to the Viceroy returning the Knighthood, remains a legend in the annals of protest literature. However, semi-ignorant and motivated people continue to cast a slur on Tagore due to reasons best known to them.

Rabindranath Tagore was a philosopher of universal humanism. He found no contradiction between his deep love for India and his commitment to universal brotherhood. Though basically a poet and writer, he found it difficult to keep himself away from some of the great debates of his time. These concerned the boycott of Western goods and education, the pristine values of Indian culture, the follies of begging reforms of British rule, the romantic extremism of young Indian revolutionaries, the hollowness of Western materialism or the aggressive nationalism in all its manifestations. Although Tagore had the opportunity to come in close contact with the English at a very early age in his life—which made him an admirer of many of the virtues of the British such as a broadly liberal outlook, their cultural achievements, a scientific orientation and their technological innovations—he was soon disillusioned with the sheer brutality and rapacity of the Western imperialist powers, notably the British. Tagore was one of the finest minds of his time in India who was clearly able to diagnose the exploi-tative and brutal nature of British rule in India. He put it all down to the aggressive nationalism which European civilisation had spawned during Europe’s long transition from feudalism to a group of warring, marauding nation-states. The emergence of a mercantile class in Europe and their search for markets and raw materials culminated in the rapacious colonialist and imperialist depredations in the non European world,notably Africa and Asia.

So Tagore had no illusions about the character of British rule in India and the need to counter it. However, he was no political leader himself and therefore there was no question of his direct participation in politics with the exception of the period of the Partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon when he provided active leadership to the Swadeshi Movement advocating boycott of British goods and promotion of indigenous products. His sensitive mind was clearly able to decipher the ills that plagued the Indian society of his time and he wrote extensively on this social malaise and the ways it could be removed. So Tagore had a multi-pronged approach: on the one hand, he was convinced that unless the sickness that Indian society was suffering from could be overcome mere achievement of freedom would be meaningless. Constructive social work was the crying need of the hour. Reforming education therefore became a cornerstone of his mission for society and nation building.

On the other hand, Tagore became very actively focussed on the beginning of the national freedom movement after the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885. He watched with weariness the tussle between the Moderates and the Extremists during the period leading up to the advent of Gandhi on the national scene in 1919. He wrote in his book Nationalism (probably his most important work on political thinking): “....it (the Congress) had no real programme. They had a few grievances for redress by the authorities. They wanted larger representation in the Council House and more freedom in the municipal Government. They wanted scraps of things, but they had no constructive ideal.” While Tagore had greater sympathy with the Extremists led by Balgangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo Ghosh and others, he was looking for an alternative leadership under the younger generation. He, however, could not reconcile with terrorist extremism as in spite of all his trenchant criticism of imperialist rule he never approved of two things—namely, romantic adventurism and violence born of intolerance. While he was fully appreciative of the self-sacrifice and dedicated patriotism of the youth who had taken to the path of extremist violence, Tagore wanted them not to be trapped by the politics of stray violence totally dissociated from the real needs of the people.

Tagore wanted the struggle against British rule to be germinated from the grassroots of society rather than being confined to an elite section who were not always selfless and often had their own interests to safeguard. To quote Prof Radharaman Chakrabarti, a noted expert on Tagore, ”His (Tagore’s) mind revolted against the symbolic, sporadic and short-lived promise of self-sufficiency held out by the charkha movement. Neither could he appreciate the tendency of uncritical acquiescence demanded of the people in Gandhi’s programme of non-cooperation.” He was not convinced that mere weaving of their own cloth by the people and burning all imported textiles will pave the way for the regeneration of the Indian society facilitating the advent of freedom. Tagore found the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi in the 1920s as essentially negative which whipped up blind national pride. “His main apprehension was that the parochial anti-West tendencies within the national movement would augur ill for India’s cooperation with the international community.” (R. Chakrabarti: 1985:181)

Tagore’s opposition to the non-cooperation movement of Gandhi and his trenchant criticism of modern nationalism was misconstrued in some circles as not quite in tune with the aspirations for nationhood and freedom by the Indian people at the time. However, those familiar with the poet’s philosophy and world outlook knew quite well his championship of the political freedom of India and Asia. But he saw no contradiction between Britain and India in India’s emancipation though, as mentioned earlier, he was a severe critic of the exploitative nature of British rule in India. On the contrary, the poet felt India could learn lessons from the British experience in self-government and democracy-building. In a lecture at Tokyo University in 1916 he stressed the necessity of the freedom of China as well as India. While he believed in cooperation between India and Britain, this cooperation was to be based on friendship and trust which implied the recognition of the right of the Indian people to equality and self-determination.

The basic thrust of Tagore’s approach to India’s nationhood and freedom from British rule was his all-pervasive emphasis on root and branch social reform and removal of the gross inequities India’s society suffered from. While he had no clear-cut guidelines regarding the attainment of freedom he had placed a great deal of faith in the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s. Subsequently his disillusi-onment with Gandhi’s leadership—though not with the Mahatma’s qualities as a great human being—led him to repose his faith in Subhas Chandra Bose in the late 1930s; Tagore hailed Subhas as India’s national leader and future liberator. It was Tagore’s misfortune that he was not able to see the final liberation of his beloved India in 1947.

As mentioned earlier, Tagore was essentially a universal humanist who believed in the essence of human unity. He saw no contradiction between this universalism and India’s nation-hood and the fulfilment of its own destiny. Tagore’s Shantiniketan was an effort in bringing about a confluence of his universal dream. In the words of Prof Radharaman Chakrabarti, “Tagore was, perhaps, one of the very few among the modern thinkers of India who did not start and end by just assimilating Western ideas and moderating them to suit Indian conditions. His perceptions of what politics is and what it should be were inseparably linked with his reading of the social and political traditions of the country in particular, and the course of human civilisation in general.......the poet’s main concern lay not so much in an early end to alien rule as in an all-out programme to pave the way for social regeneration.” In this lay all the misconceptions and misgivings about Tagore’s approach to India’s freedom from British rule. Short-sighted and narrow-minded persons are unable or unwilling to read this mindset of Tagore and impose unfair and inappropriate labels on him which do him no harm but show these critics of Tagore themselves in a poor light. 


1. Radharaman Chakrabarti, “Tagore: Politics and Beyond” in Thomas Pantham and Kenneth L. Deutsch, (ed.), Political Thought in Modern India, Sage Publications, New Delhi/Beverly Hills/London, 1986.

2. V.P. Varma, Modern Indian Political Thought, Agra, 1961.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a Professor of International Relations, and former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He can be contacted at e-mail: purusottam.bhattacharya@gmail.com