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What the Tagore-Gandhi Debates Teach India in the Modern Era

Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore enjoyed lively debates about nationalism, cultural identity and much more. Their debates have lessons for India on policy and governance, but they also show that if leaders can disagree with mutual respect, they can broaden and enlighten public discourse.

The recent tumult, caused by COVID-19, had me — like many others in India — trapped in my home. My board exams got cancelled, news bulletins became amateur zombie movies, and the morbidity was contagious. Hence, I found solace in books.

Ramachandra Guha’s Democrats and Dissenters made me explore one of the best debates I have ever read — between the Mahatma and the Poet (Gandhiji and Tagore). The first thing which really befuddles one, upon reading their exchange, is the difficulty of tracing the contours of their relationship. Were they friends, adversaries, intellectual rivals, or an amalgamation?

That is also where I got my first lesson. Their engagement shows that they do not have to be any of the aforementioned to have a spirited discourse; while Tagore bore immense respect for Gandhiji as a political leader, he did not hesitate in disagreeing with many of his ideas and strategies. Equally, Gandhiji respected Gurudev for his intellectual merit, while at the same time engaging with him in debates which can only qualify as par excellence.

How Should Nationalism Be Defined?

Upon reading their correspondence, I realised that their dialectical duel is one which is strikingly contemporaneous: the age-old ‘look inward versus look outward’ debate regarding nationalism which continues to be relevant — more so when we are confronted by a regime that tries to morally coerce us to have blind faith in our civilisation or be labelled a traitor.

Both men seem to endorse a universal humanism, which is as diverse as it is profound. Tagore’s notion of the broad underpinnings of the Indian nation is one where he doesn’t want to let parochial self-interest and self-absorption overpower the merits of certain aspects of Western thought.

He famously said: “If India had been deprived of the touch of the West, she would have lacked an element essential for her attainment of perfection. Europe now has her lamp ablaze. We must light our torches at its wick and make a fresh start on the highway of time. That our forefathers, 3,000 years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, isn’t a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.”

Gandhiji, too, didn’t have a narrow notion of the nation, but being the skilled pragmatist that he was, he understood that India’s civilisational ethos too carried within it the nascent threads of the vision of a unified India. Gandhiji’s beautiful riposte to Gurudev is well known: “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great poet. I don’t want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off by any.”

Guha points out in his essay that, while Gurudev wanted a reconciliation of the East and West, he knew that no culture or civilisation was infallible. So did Gandhiji; the Mahatma insisted that a colonised nation must first discover itself before discovering the world.

In this context, Gandhiji said some of his most beautiful lines, which spell a very different meaning for us living in 2021: “A drowning man can’t save others. In order to be fit to save others, we must try to save ourselves… India must learn to live before she can aspire to die for humanity. The mice who helplessly find themselves between the cat’s teeth acquire no merit from their enforced sacrifice.”

Ah, how woefully true the Mahatma’s warning came to be! These lines were modelled on Indian nationalism but seem to be one of those eternally prescient, broad-based statements which act as the instruments of the unsparingly repetitive hand of history.

When we were the mice caught in the trap of the vicious second wave of COVID-19, we too acquired no merit from our Vaccine Maitri, when we had no vaccines for our own population. Gurudev would have perhaps appreciated the thought behind our vaccine diplomacy; but then he would have firmly reprimanded us for not planning as well as we should have.

At another point in their correspondence, the Poet insightfully pointed out that there was a thin line between nationalism and xenophobia. Besides, hatred of the foreigner could later turn into a hatred of Indians different from oneself; the ethereal threat of “other types of othering”, as Shashi Tharoor pointed out in a session on Tagore recently.

It is unfortunate that we have failed to heed his call. Even beyond reports of minority violence, it isn’t hard to miss our almost tribalist instinct to create ‘the other’. When students and intellectuals protest against a law, they are termed ‘urban naxals’. When farmers protest against a law, they are called Khalistanis. When people question a government that they have elected, they are termed ‘anti-national’. Why, we have even been vain enough to communalise a pandemic!

How to Tolerate Disagreements

What is also awe-inspiring is that confronted by Tagore and others, Gandhiji found no shame in expanding his nationalism to accommodate gusty waves from near and far. This particular dialectic of their correspondence also shows us how debate and deliberation can indeed lead to fruitful results.

In the recent past, with the global rise of the ‘strongman leader’ who prides himself on his invincibility — from Trump in the U.S. to Netanyahu in Israel and Bolsonaro in Brazil — Gandhiji shows us how a true strongman, spiritually and intellectually, finds no shame in ceding to intellectual merit where he sees it. It is lamentable that leaders today have found it bashful to accept their mistakes. Perhaps it is the “inertia of age” as Nehru put it, which leads to this recalcitrance against the acceptance of errors; perhaps it is plain human tendency.

Most importantly, what Tagore and Gandhiji show us is the art of having a conversation. Neither of these men can be catalogued into conventional niches and put away — which makes us not only constantly discover and rediscover their legacy but also engage with it. By extension, they exemplify everything which isn’t jingoistic — everything which defined the idea of India. By protecting against the proclivity of plunging inward and shunning the winds of change, they shame every politician who dares to keep realpolitik above humanistic principles.

When Nehru, in The Discovery of India, described Tagore as the “man of thought” and Gandhiji as the “man of ceaseless activity”, he wasn’t too far off. But rediscovering their debates made me realise something more transcendent: Nehru himself comes off as the epitome of their intellectual struggle!

Thought and activity need certain coordination when we function as a nation — something both Gandhiji and Tagore were quick to realise. Their notion of this activity, of course, was very different. When Tagore accused Gandhiji, in Modern Review, of starting the “cult of the charkha”, Gandhiji responded by saying that “the poet lives in a magnificent world of his own — the world of ideas”. One was invoking people to spiritual greatness; the other was training people for self-rule.

Today, we yearn to be a vishwaguru (or global leader), but we haven’t learnt how to agree on the most fundamental thing – how to disagree. We are uncomfortable with those who can’t be categorised into neat slots and put away. Maybe we can learn from the nuance of two of the most unconventionally wise people in history, who even contemporary historians find hard to slot. One has only to look at the mutual respect underlying the threads of their intellectual duel. In the age of Twitter, where factual argument finds it hard to sustain its politesse under the onslaught of abusive trolls, the dignity which such mutual respect used to proffer is lost.

This brings me to the broader malaise underlying the quality of discourse in our country. The reductionism of public discourse is the result of a disillusioning process of narrative building, exemplified by hate hashtags and denigrating labels. When there is dogma on both sides of the political spectrum, aren’t both sides enablers of a systematic deterioration of constitutional principles and the very foundational ideals of Indian democracy? How can we expand a canvas when we cannot agree on which paints to use?

Beyond that too, it is unfortunate that we don’t have leaders of such intellectual calibre today; I don’t think any modern correspondence, 100 years down the line, is going to be as erudite or intellectually stimulating to read as the ones our founders had and practised. Theirs will no doubt retain its charm. No wonder they laid such sturdy foundations for Indian democracy.

Ironically, when Gurudev’s much-feared xenophobia is being metastasised by the predominant narrative, we lack a modern Gurudev. Perhaps we will soon have one, beyond a petty electoral facade.

I keep faith. After all is said and done, that’s what keeps us afloat.

Armaan Mathur is a student of Birla Vidya Niketan in New Delhi. He has previously written for the Student Edition of the Hindustan Times, and is passionate about history, political science, literature and anthropology.