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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Sketching Tagore as a Social Activist and Social Reformer

Sunday 13 May 2012, by Arup Maharatna


In celebrating the 150th birth anniversary year of the giant poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, it would be no small a tribute if we recall, recognise, and evaluate him more adequately and comprehensively than ever before as an activist who had remained in his entire creative life immensely concerned, tirelessly active, and deeply thoughtful about rural material poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, superstitions, and such other social evils in our country, and also about the ideals and notions of development and their environmental ramifications and remedies. As would be argued here, it is important not to get Tagore’s ideas, thoughts, visions, and actions in various spheres of socio-economic transformation (especially among the poor insecure rural masses) overshadowed by our overwhelming appreciation and recognition of his colossal literary and philosophical contributions and creations in the forms of poetry, songs, novels, stories, drama, and art.1

It is not only a pity, but somewhat strange too, that a large part of Tagore’s thinking, entrepre-neurships, and activism towards socio-economic transformation of Bengal and our country at large has still remained relatively unheeded and perhaps unknown in wider academic and official circles (for example, they were confined to relatively small pockets in rural Bengal, and many of his speeches and essays on these issues are yet to be translated from the original Bengali into other languages including English). Ironically, the potential—hitherto almost entirely untapped —social benefits derivable from our more adequate attention and appreciation of Tagore as a socio-economic and educational reformist and social activist would arguably not compare unfavourably with the actual social gains that we have reaped so far from our overwhelming affinity towards him merely as a cultural, literary, and spiritual grandee. Compared to the mammoth magnitude of tributes, celebrations, admirations, enthusiasms on Tagore’s poetry, songs, drama, and stories, there has always been a relative ambivalence towards Tagore’s down-to-earth practical and activist persona and his concrete efforts and ideas in the spheres of socio-economic development, educational expansion, health and environmental improvements. This is not only partly prejudicial, but it is partly costly too to the society and country at large. It is doubtful as to whether Tagore’s grassroots level experiments (for example, at Santiniketan and Sriniketan), his considerable amount of writings and speeches, his visions and ideas pertaining to quality and expansion of education, rural development and reconstruction have ever been involved and considered seriously in our post-independence endeavours, aspirations, initiatives, policy formu-lation, and various programmes for socio-economic development of the country. Many of Mahatma Gandhi’s views and ideas have been discussed and evaluated in wider and more specialist circles alike and then perhaps in some cases been found impracticable towards the formulation and implementation of strategy and policy for the modernisation and socio-economic development of our country. In contrast, Rabin-dranath Tagore’s thoughts, energy, and efforts in understanding and addressing major socio-economic problems have hardly been ever mentioned, let alone recognised, examined, accepted or disapproved in India’s post-colonial social science discourses and public policy initiatives.

But Tagore was so intensely concerned and committed to serving the helpless, illiterate, ignorant people of village India that he did not hesitate even for a moment to take to an activist’s role in reaching out to the rural common masses through many innovative schemes and experi-ments in rural development and educational improvements. Tagore once wrote plainly enough that ‘[m]y thoughts on motherland which permeated my mind ever since my boyhood days have not been expressed merely in the rhythm of metres. I always tried to translate them into practice. And for this I staked everything. Not that I owned much, but whatever I possessed was devoted to this cause.’ (Quoted in Sen 1943: 91) Unlike his numerous peers globally, Tagore, while functioning in his role of a zamindar of his large family estates in parts of East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) during some spells of his youth, was so shaken by witnessing ‘the sorrow and poverty of the villages’ that he, in his own words, ‘became restless to do something about it’, instead of spending his days ‘as a landlord, concerned only with money-making’ and with his ‘own profit and loss’. (Quoted in Das Gupta 1978: 354) Besides, Tagore continued writing essays and commentaries almost persistently on various social, economic, and political problems and their possible remedies. There would regrettably be not many who are aware that Tagore in his numerous writings, speeches, and lectures, published mostly in Bengali (many of which are yet to be translated into English and other languages), already touched upon several of our contemporary (and widely publicised) concerns and prominent perceptions about the major socio-economic and environmental problems and pre-dicaments. (See, for example, Rabindra Rachanabali, vol. 13) In our present essay, we attempt at illustrating some of such major areas and issues where Tagore’s concerns, visions, and thinking, though they have hitherto remained lamentably unutilised or perhaps even unheeded to, do still appear almost as a precursor to many of our contemporary thoughts and policy initiatives. This reflects not only how keenly practical Tagore’s ideas and activisms pertaining to the means and experiments for our rural socio-economic uplift have had been, but it also points to how costly might have been our persistent ambivalence and indifference towards the former.

ALTHOUGH Tagore was educated and brought up in an urban aristocratic and elite family environ-ment in Kolkata, the moment he happened to come—even though as a zamindar (landlord)—into close contact with the fragments of Bengal’s material village economy, society, and life, he got immediately struck and shocked by discovering the gulf of difference between these two segments of our society. Just a few months before his death in 1941, he mentioned lamentingly that our villages were left living still in the medieval age, while the towns have already reached the twen-tieth century. (RR, vol.13: 791-1) This difference obviously does not refer only to the material levels of living, but also to the spheres of perceptions, consciousness, worldview, education, and attitudes.

He remained, indeed, rather disturbed by the relative neglect and disrespect generally shown to the villages by the urbanite powerful and influential sections—an ugly fact which, he argued, can disappear only through introduction and expansion of enlightening education in villages just at par, in terms of standard and quality, with those in towns and cities. It is not that Tagore was not aware of the substantial financial burden involved in spreading good quality education in all villages, but unlike many of his times he consistently appeared un compromising, emphatic, and resolute about its absolute urgency. (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol.13: 792) This probably distinguishes Tagore not only from many other nationalist thinkers and leaders of his times, who appeared relatively ready to make compromises on the programme for universal basic education on the grounds of financial burden and others, but also from the actual educational policy and programmes that have been pursued by majority governments in India till perhaps very recently. (Weiner 1991)2 It is ironic to note in this context that much of what Tagore wrote, tried, spoke in his own life on several major socio-economic evils of our country sounds like a distant—albeit distinct—echo of the dominant contemporary ideas, research, and remedies, most of which happen to call for a clear recognition of the agency role of basic education especially in rural India. (See, for example, Drèze and Sen 1995, 2002) Arguably thus, we must have missed somewhat (at least) ideationally to the extent to which we have failed to recognise and appropriately pay heed to Tagore’s thoughts, insights, ideas, and understanding for material and social uplift of our country’s vastly backward rural tracts. For example, Tagore appeared vehemently opposed to the then official and dominant argument that the villagers did not feel the need for educating their children, and that the money spent for primary education would be mostly wasted.3
Tagore’s conviction in the importance of revi-ving and reconstructing rural Bengal (and rural India at large) was amply matched by his intense urge to act and do something for the villagers, which eventually led him to set up two major experiments in rural transformation and education, namely, Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Unfortunately, these two experiments in Tagore’s social activism neither received the appropriate amount of state support, patronage, and formal recognition by the time he died in 1941, nor did they receive serious academic, scholarly, and bureaucratic attention, appreciation, and recognition (except very few historical narratives and accounts).4 Ironically, while Tagore’s social activism and experiments at Santiniketan and Sriniketan have hardly ever been evaluated seriously in academic and bureaucratic circles for deeper insights and policy guidance, it has recently been somewhat popular (and perhaps rather fashionable) among the social science community across the globe to examine select successful (or otherwise) local level economic and social experiments undertaken usually by NGOs or trusts, with a view to discovering insights, lessons, principles and policies of more general nature and applicability in the largerscale development and policies. But these two major rural experiments of Tagore—and their underlying ideas, practicalities, programmes—have hardly ever been taken into account by social scientists in their research and output both before and after his death. No less lamentably, Tagore’s one extremely useful and practical insight, namely, that mere securing independence (swaraj) from the British colonial rule would not automatically bring about the necessary correctives to our nearly inherent and dangerous attitudes of neglect and bias against villages and people of the lowest socio-economic stratum, has hardly been taken into consideration in academic or official circles both before and after independence. For instance, in his famous Letters from Russia Tagore once wrote about the deformity of thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions of our own political leadership:

‘At the end of the Pabna conference I told some influential political leader that if we were really earnest about our political progress, then we must, first of all, develop the manhood of those who now live in the lowest layers of the society. He laughed away this idea so easily that I could not help feeling that our leaders had their conception of the country borrowed from some foreign school. At heart they did not feel for the poor. The advantage of such a mentality is that you can indulge in excitement and yet continue to shirk responsibility.’ (Quoted in Sen 1943: 91-92)

IT seems amazing to see how keenly perceptive and practical a prolific poet like Tagore used to become when it came to the question of social, political, and economic uplift of our already hugely impoverished country. For example, one cannot but be struck by the fact that the ideas of agricultural extension services and sustained innovations for land productivity improvements that constituted the core of the Government of India’s new agricultural strategy launched in the early 1960s—the so-called ‘package programme’ or ‘Green Revolution’—were envisaged and sought to be implemented long ago—albeit on a much smaller scale—in Tagore’s Sriniketan project in the 1920s and 1930s. The latter included, inter alia, the introduction of chemical fertilisers, growing newer crops like fibre crops and fruits, trying out with new variety of seeds, emphasis on research and innovations for augmentation of land productivity, dairy and animal husbandry development and innovations, periodic socio-economic surveys of surrounding villages and dissemination of useful knowledge and innova-tions through, for example, publications/prints, seminars, village fairs etc., setting up of coope-rative credit societies, prevention of debilitation of the villagers’ health and physique by control-ling such endemic diseases as malaria and cholera through communication and village health clinics, apart from some attempt at land redistribution among Santals and others in conjunction with the Bengal Government. (Das Gupta 1978; Ray et al. 2005) It is perhaps not an exaggeration to find a close resemblance of the core ideas and programme elements of the lately launched National Rural Health Mission with several health and sanitation programmes and activities envisaged and undertaken—of course on a more rudimentary scale—in a number of villages under the vicinity of Tagore’s Sriniketan project.

Through his own personal-level efforts, Tagore had approached and brought many inspired and dedicated experts in various fields from within the country and abroad with a view to initiating rural transformation with new, scientific, and efficient methods in community health, agri-culture, rural non-farm activities (handicrafts and cottage industries) and spreading out their training, among others, along with cooperative credit. As one of the chief architects of Sriniketan during its formative period wrote, it had sought in a unique way to combine ‘Indian philosophy, British enterprise and American finance’. (Sen 1943: 109) In fact it is difficult not to find a close resemblance of Tagore’s such initiatives with what our contemporary governments have been doing much lately—albeit on a larger scale—under various cultural exchange programmes. In fact Tagore’s ideas and efforts towards eradication of malaria in the villages surrounding Sriniketan—chiefly through communication, information, diffusion, and distribution of preventive and curative medicines and other resources almost wholly on a charitable basis—did succeed in reducing the number of malarial deaths by 27 per cent between 1928 and 1948. (Das Gupta 1978: 377) It is doubtful as to how many among us are aware of this achievement and I am doubtless certain that this historical fact deserves a lot more trumpeting and publicity even today not only among those who are involved in social work, but also among the entire social science community and govern-ment official and administration circles alike. This is important because we should care to avoid courting ourselves to a self-defeating repetition of such lament as the one voiced by one eminent historian in the context of Tagore’s Sriniketan experiment: ‘His [Tagore’s] ideas of rural reconstruction never received a fair trial.’ (Das Gupta 1978: 377)5

Similarly practical and innovative had been Tagore’s ideas and emphasis on the spirit of self-help backed by the principles of cooperation among the poor peasants and artisans who were perennially shackled by poverty, poor health, and indebtedness. Unlike the typical notion of cooperative movement involving members of widely varying wealth and resources, Tagore’s ideas of cooperation resemble what has of late become prominent and popular in our country and some other parts of Asia in the genre of so-called ‘self-help groups’. In the words of Humayun Kabir, Tagore used to hold that ‘the individual villager may be poor, but if many villagers pool their resources, they can accomplish tasks which are individually beyond their competence’. (Kabir 1961: 16) Many weak individuals, if they pull together their small resources, can become strong and dynamic. Related to this was his distinct support for self-governance and decen-tralisation of authority amongst the local civil communities and organisations. As Tagore used to hold, ‘The State should deal only with those aspects of social life which cannot be administered by the individual or the group.’ (Kabir 1961: 19)

SOMEWHAT relatedly, Tagore’s persistent emphasis on the importance of imparting the spirit of cooperation, self-confidence (atmashakti) and secular views about life among the weak and meek rural folks sounds fairly akin to what is of late being much discussed and thought of as a key socio-cultural feature, the so-called ‘social capital’, meaning collective mutual trust and a sense of social responsibility, which usually plays a highly catalytic and facilitating role in the process of sustained growth and development with persistent improvements in technology and productivity. This implies that our post-independence social and economic policy formulation would have benefited greatly if a much larger amount of attention and cognisance was given to Tagore’s such insightful ideas and socio-economic thoughts than have actually been so far. How costly has been our hitherto relative inattention to Tagore’s social thoughts and practical ideas (as they evolved through his role as a social activist) can be gauged from the fact that he was among the relatively few public intellectuals and visionaries of the pre-independence period who were persistently sceptical about the real gains and fruitful changes that could be made possible in our society and economy after the country’s independence by our nationalist leadership if the latter and also the larger society had remained unreformed and unenlightened as they were. For example, Tagore wrote that ‘[a]t heart they [our leaders] did not feel for the people. The advantage of such a mentality is that you can indulge in excitement and yet continue to shirk responsibility.’ (Quoted in Sen 1943: 92) It is amazing to see that such practical and incisive concerns and observations of Tagore can go quite a long way in explaining and understanding a large part of the socio-political malice including lack of social accountability and public corruption today.

In this connection it seems also important to stress that the contemporary concerns and clamour over the sustainability of modern economic growth with relentlessly rising levels of consumption, continuous technological innovations in face of increasingly degraded natural environment conform perfectly to what Tagore used to worry about from the beginning of his experiments at rural reconstruction and rejuvenation of the village economy and social life. In fact, ‘[c]onservation of the natural balance and preservation of nature lay at the root of his [Tagore’s] rural development programme.’ (Raha 2011: 13)

As already mentioned, Tagore had been one among rather few nationalist thinkers of the the pre-independence period who was not ready to get swayed by the euphoria of independence to the point of losing sight of the urgent and perhaps almost instantaneous needs for educational, social and cultural reforms and uplift of the people of our country. Many of the contemporary social evils and even aberrations (for example, communalism, honour killings, caste atrocities, and dowry deaths, inflation, tribal displacements etc.) that are currently inflicting our polity, its pace and pattern of progress, were apprehended long back by Tagore before our independence. That is because appropriate awakening of people’s minds to scientific secular views and ideas through education and village development was no less important in Tagore’s agenda than the achievement of swaraj itself. It is increasingly getting clear that so-called reforms of the political and economic regimes and structures cannot bring us the desired fruits so long as the grassroots level reforms in action and behaviour and mass level ideational transformation of Indian minds, as enunciated and sought to be inculcated so keenly by Tagore’s ideas and activism, remain unfinished.

In a way Tagore has come increasingly true and alive with his lifelong urges and activism towards reaping the mutual benefits—albeit on the limited scales of Santiniketan and Sriniketan —of increasing globalisation, international inter-mingling, and universal fraternity based on the principle of humanism. International cooperation and exchange of ideas, arts, and culture have always been a hallmark of Tagore’s philosophy and activism—a fact which brings him back amidst our present times as a key guiding force in our ongoing initiatives for expanding globa-lisation and internationalism. We should never lose sight of the fact it was perhaps Tagore alone who made an earnest attempt to the best of his individual capacity and initiatives to recreate and reinstate an atmosphere, ambience, and ideals in the new context of his Visva Bharati (consisting chiefly of Santiniketan and Sriniketan schools and colleges which in spirit resemble some of the glorious remnants and traditions of our ancient Nalanda, the illustrious Indian seat of learning). For example, the name Visva Bharati connotes the place where the whole world would come, meet, and interact with our Indian ideas and thoughts and in turn would produce finer gems of thoughts and knowledge of universal value and significance. Likewise Tagore’s notions and ideals of nationalism were never allowed to rest on the narrow or parochial patriotic sentiments devoid of the universal humanism and brotherhood founded firmly on the spirit of cooperation, rather than conflict and competition. There would be a great loss on our part if we fail, while shaping and managing the current euphoria over the so-called globalisation, to resurrect and consult Tagore’s practical insights, ideas, ideals, and visions on the goals and means of increasing global integration and fraternity. No less costly might turn out to be our relative inattention to the insights and intuitions of Tagore as a social activist relating to his awareness and actions about the conservation of the natural environment. In his numerous lectures and essays, he used to harp on the fact that for the continuity of human civilisation we must return (at least partially) to the nature in some form or other what we borrow and expend from nature for our current material production and gratification. (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol. 13) While it is only rather lately that we have woken up to the needs and acts of reforestation on a relatively large scale as a response to the environmental degradation, Tagore spearheaded the initiation of an annual tree-plantation ceremony in the sites of his two major experiments at Santiniketan and Sriniketan as far back as the early 1930s.

To conclude somewhat rhetorically, our country (and for that matter the whole world) has so far not adequately accepted Tagore as a social activist and social reformer probably on account of the common conviction that Plato’s famous notion, namely, ‘philosopher-king’ cannot but remain a mere wishful dream in the real world. It is high time we begin to get ready to increasingly recognise to our own immeasurable benefit that Tagore really epitomises a gigantic persona typical of ‘the king’ who was a ‘philosopher’ too.

[Lecture delivered at the UGC-sponsored National Seminar held in celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, Derozio Memorial College, Rajarhat, Kolkata, December 7-8, 2011]


Bipasha Raha (2011), ‘Rabindranath Tagore and Sriniketan: Experiments with Village Welfare’, Muse India, Issue 39, September-October.
Das Gupta, Uma (1978), ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, The Indian Historical Review, 4(2): 354-378.
Drèze, J. and Sen, A. (1995), India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Drèze, J. and Sen, A. (2002), India: Development and Parti-cipation, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Gangulee, N. (1935), The Indian Peasant and His Environment, London: Oxford University Press.
Kabir, H. (1961), ‘Introduction’ in Rabindranath Tagore, Towards Universal Man, Bombay: Asia Publishing House.
PROBE Team (1999), Public Report on Basic Education in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ray, P., Biswas, B. and B.K. Sen (2005), ‘Knowledge Communication in Tagore’s Model of Rural Recons-truction: An Overview’, Annals Of Library and Information Studies, 52(3):94-102.
Rabindra Rachanabali, vol. 13
Sen, Sudhir (1943), Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan.
Weiner, M. (1991), The Child and the State in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.


1. Tagore perhaps has not been left similarly unheeded to in the academic discussions/discourses pertaining to the ideas, ideals, and principles of education and philosophy. In any case, we would not presently dwell on Tagore’s thoughts and actions in these two broad areas.

2. Even as late as the late 1980s the official and non-official circles alike appeared somewhat hesitant and unsure as to the priority and urgency of compulsory primary education and universal literacy. For instance, India’s former Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, when faced with a student’s somewhat awkward question over the possible contradiction and stigma attached to the persisting mass illiteracy in the context of India’s record of uninterrupted democracy, remarked during his speech at the Harvard University in 1987 thus: ‘I don’t think literacy is the key to democracy …Wisdom is much more important. We have seen—and I’m not now limiting myself to India, I’m going beyond to other countries—literacy sometimes narrows the vision, does not broaden it.’ (Quoted in Weiner 1991: 101)

3. Interestingly, as late as the 1990s this mythical view held for long by Indian officialdom and political leader-ship continued to prevail, despite scattered evidence and arguments to the contrary, perhaps until the former received a much hyped jolt from the key findings of a large-scale educational survey undertaken by the PROBE Team in 1999, which reported, inter alia, about an overwhelming majority of parents from the educationally backward pockets, who, even when they did not send their children to schools because of the latter’s poor quality and infrastructure, did not fail to attach a good deal of importance to the need and value of their children’s education. (PROBE Team 1999; see also Drèze and Sen 2002, chapter 5)

4. I have probably never come across any academic piece/writing wherein Tagore’s experiments in rural socio-economic transformation and their achievements or failures, his practical ideas and visions have been evaluated and assessed from the standpoint of mainstream economic and social theory and thinking.

5. To illustrate how meagre had been the state support and patronage for Tagore’s social initiatives and activism meant for rural reconstruction and village uplift including health and environment: while ‘Sriniketan was entirely dependent on donations’, the contributions from two Departments of the Bengal Government (for example, Health and Industry) did not constitute even 10 per cent of its total annual budget as per the estimates made as late as 1936-37. (Das Gupta 1978: 371, fn. 6).

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. He can be contacted at

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