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Home / Lounge / Features /  Tagore and Gandhi: Lessons in political dialogue

In the leafy and expansive IIT Kharagpur campus, stands an old colonial style building with sloping roofs known as Shaheed Bhawan. Built in the early 20th century, this was originally established as a detention camp called the Hijli Detention Camp to house revolutionaries and participants of the non- cooperation movement. In September 1931, in a firing incident, two inmates, Santosh Mitra and Tarakeshwar Sengupta, were shot dead by the British police guards. Netaji Subhash Bose came to personally collect the bodies of these martyrs. Rabindranath Tagore called out the "homicidal callousness" of the guards. Jawaharlal Nehru read Tagore's speech and wrote to Gandhi calling it a "terrible affair". The Hijli Firing incident led to a massive outcry and while an inquiry did take place, its difficult to say exactly what had happened given the severe biases of those investigating the incident.

However, one of the unintended benefits of the Hijli Firing was that it brought together four men who, otherwise, had a strange and complex relationship of disagreement as well as mutual respect and in some cases, personal friendship, reverence and even love and affection—Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Bose. Probably the most significant benefit was the thawing of the decade long estranged relationship between Tagore and Gandhi. Tagore, long had doubts and fears of the xenophobia that was being stoked by Gandhi's narrow nationalism. But now for the first time, in over twenty five years, Tagore came out and attended large public rallies that were reminiscent of his role in the Swadeshi movement in the early 1900s.

For his 70th birthday, Gandhi wrote about Tagore in an anthology—the Golden Book of Tagore—"In common with thousands of his countrymen I owe much to one who by his poetic genius and singular purity of life has raised India in the estimation of the world." Of course, twelve years ago, in April of 1919, Tagore had for the first time addressed Gandhiji as "Mahatma", even though it wasn't Tagore who was the first to use the honorific. And much prior to that, it was his elder brother, Dwijendranath, who was the first to recognise the leadership of Gandhi and even side with Gandhi on the support to the non-cooperation movement. Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, called Tagore, the "Great Sentinel" and said, "I regard the Poet as a sentinel warning us against the approach of enemies called Bigotry, Lethargy, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other members of that brood."

But Gandhi wrote this at a time when Tagore had stood up against the non- cooperation movement. The relationship between these two giants of India had been both rocky and extremely complex. The many subjects of disagreement and instances of mutual respect and admiration, as well similarities and stark differences in their personalities, weave together into an intricate fabric.

While today, we see Mahatma Gandhi as the champion of rural development in India and hold dearly Gandhi's talisman—"Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]," it's important to remember that, long before Gandhi, Tagore firmly believed in his experiments in rural development in the very early part of the last century and later translated that into the establishment of his "institute of rural reconstruction" next to Shantiniketan in 1921.

Gandhi and Tagore came together when Gandhi's students came to settle in Shantiniketan after they left South Africa in 1914. Gandhi came to Shantiniketan in 1915 but the two men didn't meet at the time since Tagore was away. Strangely, in My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi makes no mention of the development in the arts and the cultural significance of the educational experiments at Shantiniketan, even though it was well ahead of its times. And yet, Tagore requested Gandhi to nurture Shantiniketan after his death. Gandhi in fact even arranged for a generous contribution to Shantiniketan from GD Birla. Gandhi would regularly insist that foreigners to pay a visit to Shantiniketan, including EM Forster who visited the place four years after Tagore's death.

On one hand, while Gandhi criticised Rammohan Roy and Tilak, for expressing themselves in English, Tagore said, "I do not think it is in the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, reject any culture." He indeed wanted this country to awaken to a place "Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls." When Gandhi refused to attend the Round Table Conference, Tagore saw this as a lost opportunity. But at the very same occasion, Tagore supported Gandhi and wrote, in a remarkable example of humility, "Let me believe in his [Gandhi's] firmness of attitude, and not in my doubts."

Gandhi used symbolism to great impact because he believed that "Indians by nature have always been worshipers of symbols, of images". One such symbol was the charkha. However, Tagore had his serious doubts with such manipulation of the people with symbols, having seen the adverse impact of the Swadeshi movement and boycott of foreign goods on the poorest of the poor. He called it the "Cult of the Charkha". In fact, he directly hit out and wrote, "There are many who assert and some who believe that Swaraj can be attained by the Charkha; but I have yet to meet a person who has a clear idea of the process. That is why there is no discussion, but only quarrelling over the question."

Tagore could well be sitting with us today and watching the any number of television news debates and have been making the exact same statement!

Tagore could never support the non-cooperation movement. He saw it "to be the progeny of the union of rejection from one party and dejection from the other party." There was definitely a war of written words between the two over the subject. Finally, Gandhi came to Kolkata to convince Tagore to join the movement and lend his support and described it to Tagore as a "natural offspring of your own Swadeshi." Tagore remain concerned over the violent reactions and famously asked, "We Indians are, as you well know, a very emotional people. Do you think you can hold our violent emotions under firm control with your non-violent principles? No! You know you can't." The differences continued and yet, both had an equal aversion to violent methods of protest.

As early as 1908, Tagore had lashed out against some of the early terrorist attacks by young Bengalis. At the same time, he did admire the courage of the revolutionaries as somewhat heroically portrayed in his story, Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World). Long before his disagreement with Gandhi over the non cooperation movement, Tagore wrote "Some of us are reported to be of the opinion that it is mass animosity against the British that will unify India... So this anti-British animus, they say, must be our chief weapon... if that is true, then once the cause of the animosity is gone, in other words when the British leave the country, that artificial bond of unity will snap in a moment. Where, then, shall we find a second target of animosity? We shall not need to travel far. We shall find it here, in our country, where we shall mangle each other in mutual antagonism, a thirst for each other's blood."

Over a hundred years later, these words remain true.

In midst of the severe differences over the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi called to burn all foreign garments and in response, Tagore issued a public warning in February 1922 against the violence embedded in the movement. Two days later, a police station in Chauri Chaura went up in flames killing several policemen and Gandhi immediately suspended the movement in shock and Tagore cancelled all public performances of his latest play as a mark of respect for Gandhi's principles of non-violence.

It is extremely difficult to describe the Gandhi-Tagore relationship in simple terms and one is bound to make an error by taking sides. This becomes particularly challenging in current times, when disagreements on political ideology and methodologies are reduced to mud-slinging and quickly degenerates into hatred and violence.

A few years before Tagore's death, Nehru wrote, "No two persons could probably differ so much as Gandhi and Tagore. The surprising thing is that both of these men with so much in common and drawing inspiration from the same wells of wisdom and thought and culture, should differ from each other so greatly!... I think of the richness of India’s age-long cultural genius, which can throw up in the same generation two such master-types, typical of her in every way, yet representing different aspects of her many-sided personality."

In 1932, when the British announced the divisive Communal Award for separate electorates, Gandhi announced that he would fast unto death as a mark of protest in Pune. Tagore appealed to the British prime minister against the Award and despite his own weakening health, set off to be by the side of Gandhi on the other side of the country. Upon arrival, Tagore said, "I could hardly have fully realised how great is the strength of this frail man had I not come near to him like this." The same day, the British accepted some of the Indian demands and offered the Poona Pact.

Gandhi agreed to break his fast but only after Tagore sung one of his songs in Bangla from his Gitanjali. Tagore obliged with "When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy ..." This was followed by a Vaishnav bhajan and finally, Gandhiji took a sip of orange juice from Kasturba believed to be prepared by a young fifteen-year-old girl named Indira Nehru.

Over the last hundred years, when and why did we lose this tradition of debate and disagreement which is not quite the opposite of admiration and respect? Why has humility become such an underrated virtue? Why is it that agreeing or disagreeing with a point of view immediately divides our country between us and them? Why does being a liberal attract an equal amount of ire from all factions? In the rising din of trolls and slogans, we seem to have completely lost the art of listening even without the compulsion to agree. Considered responses have fallen prey to rapid dismissal. We have forgotten that none of us, alone, have all the solutions. If only, we had the patience to ask searching questions and keep our eyes and ears open, we may arrive at better answers.

Aditya Ghosh is the founder of Homage Ventures and board member of OYO, and former president and board member of IndiGo.

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