The intellectual roots of India’s freedom, and Rabindranath Tagore’s work in particular, offer great clues for an exhausted, inward-looking Europe.

In June this year, a report on protectionism found a “staggering” rise in restrictive trade practices across the world, with 123 new trade restrictions introduced over the previous eight months, bringing the total number to 534. The European Commission, author of the report, pointed a stern finger at the G-20 countries in particular for failing to reduce trade barriers.

The G-20, it solemnly intoned, must do more to prevent protectionism that, in the words of EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, “benefits none. It sends the wrong signal to global trading partners, it sends the wrong signal to investors, and it sends the wrong signal to the business community which relies on a predictable business climate.”

The EU is a fine one to pontificate about restrictive trade practices, considering one of its founding members, France has, despite the attempts of its former President Nicholas Sarkozy, remained stubbornly protectionist even in good times. With record unemployment spreading across the EU, is it any wonder that even the EU Commission should have said just a few months before that admonition to the G-20, that it was in favour of discriminating against firms based in countries that exclude European companies from public procurement markets?

“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue” and the French should know best — duc de la Rochefoucauld, the 18th century social reformer, said that. It is difficult in trying and stressful times to practice what you once preached.

Practice and preach

Protectionism is reflecting itself in xenophobia all across Europe. The world watches with some nervousness as right-wing extremism spills onto the streets. From Greece where the Golden Dawn Party is attracting disaffected youth, to the Netherlands and Belgium, not to mention France, perverted nationalism rears its ugly head, not just through trade barriers, but through racism as well. The EU’s foundational principle is meant to prevent exactly the worst consequences of that petty nationalism, but if it is aimed at countries outside the EU, history may not help much.

It is in times such as these that the idea of nationalism makes us nervous for what it does to the idea of a world “order” as the metonym for both orderliness and a new system of behaviour among nations. It’s at times such as the present, when colour becomes the name of the victims, that one reads Ananya Vajpeyi’s narrative of Rabindranath Tagore’s search for selfhood and sovereignty, the meaning of swaraj and, most significantly, his severe critique of nationalism as the wellspring of the nation-state, with profound awe at its passion and prescience.

Tagore’s prophetic voice

Tagore did not just look for the raw or bloodied edges of nationalism to decry it: He condemned it outright. What is truly astonishing is the timing and the circumstances in which he adumbrated his views: Between 1916 and 17, in the midst of the bloodiest World War instigated by “nationalist” interests aimed at decrepit monarchies, when it was becoming clear that both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires were going to give way to desired nation-states; and just before, in India, Gandhiji launched his first non-cooperation and satyagraha, heralding the first mass ‘national’ movement.

As the author of Righteous Republic reminds us: “For the greatest literary voice of a nation to speak against nationalism, whether desired or achieved when his country was still colonised, and when European imperialism had produced the most catastrophic global war ever seen, was completely unprecedented.”

Tagore’s lectures and monograph on nationalism have a dramatic tension because their attack on established nation-states is predicated on a fierce condemnation of slavery and the extermination of Native Americans, in countries that were then redefining the terms of modern hegemonic power as worse forms of social oppression than India’s caste inequalities.

Nationalism and freedom

Vajpeyi thinks the world was ready to listen to Tagore as a “prophetic voice” and she may have a point, given the tragedy of the war and that it had so many dissenters.

In The Argumentative Indian Amartya Sen feels Tagore’s audience wishing to hear “other-worldly lectures” would have been disappointed with what E. P. Thompson called Tagore’s political criticism at ‘$700 a scold.’

But in war-torn and devastated Europe, riven by desperate monarchs and hungry nationalists, Tagore’s views as his poetry would have found deep resonance, particularly in Vienna, among those searching for a new language and world view to counter the Enlightenment’s materialism.

In their seminal book, Wittgentein’s Vienna for instance, Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin show how Ludwig Wittgenstein felt a deep empathy for Tagore’s poems and how after the success of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, when fellow Viennese would ask him what it was all about, would shrug and simply ask them to read Tagore.

Those European critics of materialism between the two World Wars would have found his idea of the need to separate true freedom from political power immensely relevant. Vajpeyi draws our attention to this distinction that Tagore made: “Moral and spiritual freedom in his view, are incommensurable with political freedom that is built on social slavery.”

Tagore today

Tagore’s world views are of great value today both for India to locate a new discourse on what could be a more civilising “world order” than the bird-brained banter of BRICS in its present form or the expedient and effete G-20; so too for an exhausted Europe, whose foundational principles of a Union could have been the first step towards a “nation-less” community — and that are now under threat of implosion.

(This article was published on November 27, 2012)
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