Tagorean Swadeshi

There must be advantages to having had a very long and varied involvement in political activism – I sigh, hopefully.

Prior to the 1980s I was busy with career, husbands and children, and my politics was standard, off-the-shelf stuff: I put my faith in Clause Four, marched with CND, shook tins for Greenpeace, consumed ethically and organically. In the 1980s I was converted to Marxist revolutionary socialism, and believed that all issues and concerns would vanish into air when the workers took over the means of production from capitalist and state ownership and control. Part way through that decade I read Topsoil and Civilization, which started me researching land degradation. I also had a dip into personal growth and the spirituality thing, and emerged unconvinced. In the 1990s I discovered permaculture, an approach to designing alternative farming and horticulture, and also began to read Tagore. I spent the 2000s reading anything and everything that looked as if it might make sense of it all – and found that Tagore had done that too.

I think the main lesson from those thirty years is that activism gets you thinking in binaries, adopting a position for and against something-or-other, whereas the situation is fundamentally complex. Tagore found that out from experience, which is why his history of activism: trying an approach and discovering what was unworkable, then moving on to another approach, and so on, has been forgotten, whereas everyone knows about Gandhi.

I think the days of marching, sitting, reclaiming or occupying to change the world are over. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/25/shocking-truth-about-crackdown-occupy

We need a Tagorean Swadeshi, not a Gandhian one, such as described here: http://www.workingvillages.org/1c.html, which shows that the Swadeshi movement is now associated with Gandhi, despite the fact that he didn’t return to India until 1915.

Tagore tried Swadeshi in 1904, and realised it didn’t work as a national politics but had to be put into effect locally, starting with one or two villages, aiming for ‘life in its completeness’, with an emphasis on joy rather than frugality.

From ‘Our Swadeshi Samaj’

‘Our countrymen are mainly villagers, and whenever they have desired to feel in their own veins the throbbing life of the outside world, they have done so through the mela, an invitation from the village for the world to enter its cottage home. On such festive occasions the village forgets its narrowness by means of this hospitable expansion of heart. Just as in the rainy season when the water-courses are filled from the sky, so in mela time the village heart is filled with the spirit of the Universal.

‘These melas are a natural growth in our country. If you call people to a formal meeting they come with doubt and suspicion, and it takes time for their hearts to open; but those who come to a mela are already in the holiday mood, for they have left plows and hoes and all their cares behind. That is the place and the time to come and sit by the people and talk with them. There is not a district in Bengal where melas are not held at different times in the year. We should make a list of these times and places, and then take the trouble to make the acquaintance of our own people.

‘If the leaders of the country will abjure empty politics, and make it their business to give new life and objective to these melas, putting their own heart into the work and bringing together the hearts of Hindu and Muslim, and then confer about the real wants of the people—schools, roads, water reservoirs, grazing commons and the like—then the country will soon awaken. It is my belief that if a band of workers go from district to district, organizing these Bengal melas, and furnishing them with new compositions by way of jatras, kirtans, recitations, bioscope and lantern shows, gymnastics legerdemain, then the money question will solve itself. In fact, if they undertake to pay the zamindars their usual fees, on being allowed to make the collections, they will stand to make considerable profit, and if this profit be used for national work, it would result in uniting the organizers of the mela with the people, and would enable them to get acquainted with every detail of the country life. The valuable functions they could then perform in connection with national awakening would be too numerous to count.

‘Religious and literary education has always been imparted in our country in the midst of the joy of festivity. These days, for one reason or another, the zamindars have been drawn to the metropolis, and the festivities at the time of weddings are limited to the dinners and nautches given for their rich town-friends, the poor tenants often being called upon to pay extra impositions for the purpose. Thus, the villages are losing all their joy, and the religious and literary culture, which was a feature of all festivity, and used to be the solace of man, woman and child alike, is getting to be more and more beyond the means of ordinary people. If these organizers can return this current of festivity to the villages, they will reclaim the desert into which the heart of the nation is fast lapsing.’ (A Tagore Reader, ed. by Amiya Chakravarty, pp. 202-3.)

Wikipedia entry on the Swadeshi movement:

‘The Swadeshi movement, part of the Indian independence movement, was an economic strategy aimed at removing the British Empire from power and improving economic conditions in India by following the principles of swadeshi (self-sufficiency), which had some success. Strategies of the Swadeshi movement involved boycotting British products and the revival of domestic-made products and production techniques.

‘The Swadeshi Movement began with the partition of Bengal by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, 1905 and continued up to 1908. It was the most successful of the pre-Gandhian movements. Its chief architects were Aurobindo Ghosh, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. Swadeshi, as a strategy, was a key focus of Mahatma Gandhi, who described it as the soul of Swaraj (self rule). However, there is no corroborative evidence to support the idea that Swadeshi was successful at punishing the British.’

Wikipedia entry on Tagore’s Politics

‘Tagore’s politics exhibited a marked ambivalence — on the one hand, he denounced European imperialism, occasionally voicing full support for Indian nationalists; on the other hand, he also shunned the Swadeshi movement, denouncing it in his acrid September 1925 essay “The Cult of the Charka” (an allusion to elements of Gandhism and the Non-Cooperation Movement). For example, in reaction to a July 22, 1904 suggestion by the British that Bengal should be partitioned, an upset Tagore took to delivering a lecture — entitled “Swadeshi Samaj” (“The Union Of Our Homeland”) — that instead proposed an alternative solution: a self-help based comprehensive reorganization of rural Bengal. In addition, he viewed British control of India as a “political symptom of our social disease”, urging Indians to accept that “there can be no question of blind revolution, but of steady and purposeful education”.

‘In line with this, Tagore denounced nationalism, deeming it among humanity’s greatest problems. “A nation,” he wrote, “… is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose”, a purpose often associated with a “selfishness” that “can be a grandly magnified form” of personal selfishness. During his extensive travels, he formed a vision of East-West unity. Subsequently, he was shocked by the rising nationalism found in Germany and other nations prior to the World War II. Tagore thus delivered a series of lectures on nationalism; although well-received throughout much of Europe, they were mostly ignored or criticized in Japan and the United States.

‘Yet Tagore wrote songs lionizing the Indian independence movement. On 30 May 1919, he renounced the knighthood that had been conferred upon him by Lord Hardinge in 1915 in protest against the Amritsar massacre (Jallianwallah Bagh) , when British soldiers killed at least 1526 unarmed civilians. He was also instrumental in resolving a dispute between Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar; it involved Ambedkar’s insistence on separate electorates for untouchables and Gandhi’s announcement — in protest against the concession — of a fast “unto death” beginning on 20 September 1932.

‘Tagore also lashed out against the orthodox rote-oriented educational system introduced in India under the Raj. He lampooned it in his short story “The Parrot’s Training”, where a bird — which ultimately dies — is caged by tutors and force-fed pages torn from books. These views crystallised in his experimental school at Santiniketan, (“Abode of Peace”), founded in 1901 on the site of a West Bengal estate inherited from his father. Established in the traditional brahmacharya structure — whereby students live under a guru in a self-sustaining community — became a magnet for talented scholars, artists, linguists, and musicians from diverse backgrounds. Tagore spent prodigious amounts of energy fundraising for Santiniketan, even contributing all his Nobel Prize money. Today, Tagore’s school is a Central University under the Government of India.’

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