Nation and Civil Society as Spheres of ‘Enlightenment’: The Dialogue of Gandhi and Tagore, and an Ambedkarite Inflection

  • Sukumar Muralidharan


Tagore and Gandhi had engaged in a lively debate on a national question that revealed several complexities in their perceptions of the future polity. A fresh perspective was added to the debate in this period by B.R. Ambedkar, the symbol of social rebellion against oppressive tradition. This paper argues that in the dialogue between Tagore and Gandhi and in the confrontation between the latter and Ambedkar, there are conflicting propositions on how the balance between state and civil society is to be enshrined in the Indian political order.


Social harmony Citizenship Civic state Varnashram Social inequality 

The Swadeshi Movement of 1905 was when Tagore first signalled a break with newly emerging nationalist doctrines. In 1907, a novel of his began appearing in serial form in a Bengali journal, portraying some of the existential anxieties and ironies of the awakening nationalist life. The novel, titled Gora after its main protagonist, was published in full in 1909, the same year that Gandhi during a voyage from London to South Africa, allowed himself the indulgence of engaging with the political life of India, a country he had visited only sporadically over twenty years. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is where he reflected on self-rule for India, in strange and paradoxical terms, as an imagined conversation with an interlocutor passionately committed to nationalism. Despite being in agreement about the need to bring the Indian nation into existence, Gandhi was right through the dialogue quite unable to conceal his disdain at his interlocutor’s eagerness for a state of liberation that would only mimic the political model of those who had colonized India.

Tagore was immersed at the same time in a quest for human essences which could be transformed into a sense of nation. This was a quest that led him into a cul de sac of scepticism, when he seemed to find not a harmony, but a basic opposition between the humanistic striving and the nationalist aspiration. Though without the subtlety of his later work, the novel dismantles the brand of fiery nationalism encountered during the Swadeshi Movement. Its eponymous protagonist seemingly convinced of the received circumstances of his birth is oblivious to experience and to the bonds of emotion and kinship. His obsessive faith in the primordial Hindu identity that is his supposed inheritance inspires his nationalist commitment. But all this is overturned in a final moment of revelation about the circumstances of his birth and adoption into a tolerant and liberal Bengali family. But even as his sense of identity collapses, Gora finds redemption. From being victim of an ascriptive state, he is now aware of the cultural splendours of his true patrimony, at liberty to seek his being in the richness of everyday experience.

A few years on came Tagore’s Ghare Baire, a novel far more complex and subtle which might in its time actually have elicited a degree of hostility. Later years have invested the work with a certain interest though there was for long a curious reticence in frontally facing its interrogation of deeply held nationalist faith. In the contention between the novel’s main characters—Sandip and Nikhil—Tagore articulated a number of the unresolved ethical tensions of the nationalist project, known then by its most visible manifestation in the Swadeshi Movement. Nikhil is obviously Tagore’s alter ego, the man who responds to his wife’s complaints about his lack of sympathy for the Swadeshi spirit, with a gentle admonition: ‘I am willing to serve my country, but my worship I reserve for Right, which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a God is to bring a curse upon it’ (Tagore 2005, p. 221).

To place this in the context of evolving nationalist doctrines, it is worthwhile winding back from this locution by about a century to look at a particular mode in which the relationship between the nation, the state and the notion of ‘right’ was theorized. The reference is to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where the law that lays down rights and wrongs is conceived as a part of the revelation of a divine ‘Idea’, manifest in the dialectic of society. There is one passage in particular which is quite eloquent: ‘The state is the march of God in the world; its ground or cause is the power of reason realising itself as will. When thinking of the idea of the state, we must not have in our mind any particular state, or particular institution, but must rather contemplate the idea, this actual God, by itself. Though a state may be declared to violate right principles and to be defective in various ways, it always contains the essential moments of its existence, if, that is to say, it belongs to the full formed states of our own time’ (Hegel 1942, p. 136).

Evidently, the Prussian state was for Hegel, a point of arrival and closure in the striving for a just and stable human society. Earlier thinkers—who saw themselves as part of the European Enlightenment—had grappled with the conditions under which laws made by particular individuals could be generally applied. How is the particular transformed into the universal? There was no easy answer here, and the best the enlightenment could devise was a principle of unfettered conflict, of free individuals engaged in fierce promotion of self-interest and creating over time, a perfect civil constitution reflecting the general interest.

Hegel was deeply averse to this manner of philosophizing, common among preceding thinkers and contemporaries, of ascribing a higher purpose to the continuing social contention between empirical individuals. The notion that social harmony, underpinned by an agreed framework of law, would evolve out of this clash of individual egotisms, was, he said, the ‘last degree of shallowness’.

Obviously, this disdain is directed at thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, who saw the daily lives of individuals and their naturally acquisitive competitive selves, as the basis of social solidarity. To take one among these thinkers, Immanuel Kant conceived of the State as embodying the rights of its citizens, but was averse to a state apparatus that would assume powers over the nation. His perceptions of human nature, however, involved a logical conundrum. How does harmony emerge by some miracle, from the collisions of infinitesimal individuals who share nothing except the instinct for acquisition and a tendency to allow their egos to take over their existence? Kant was to devote considerable attention to this issue in his Critique of Practical Reason. Among his most crucial propositions was one requiring a ‘free’ submission of the human will to the law. In this sense of ‘free’ submission lay the preservation of individual liberty. This also meant that each individual would act with a sound and well-formed judgment of the principles of ‘universal legislation’.

Kant was not of course a theorist of ‘civil society’ in any sense of its usage in the literature since, but the term ‘civic state’ recurs in his work. And his notion of a settled and agreed pattern of social practice that would be in conformity with norms of civilized reason, independent of the State and the coercive power it holds in reserve, is as clear a construct of ‘civil society’ as can be found in the thicket of confusion that has sprouted around the term over the years. Three principles are essential to the constitution of the ‘civic state’ in Kant’s judgment: ‘1. The freedom of each member of society as a man; 2. The equality of each member with every other as a subject; 3. The autonomy of each member of a commonwealth as a citizen’ (Kant 2001, p. 420). If the State were organized rightly—a task well within ‘the ability of man’—it would be in a position to direct ‘forces (of selfishness) against each other in such wise that one balances the other in its devastating effect, or even suspends it’. And then, every individual in the human species, ‘although not a morally good man’, would be ‘compelled to be a good citizen’ (Kant 2001, pp. 454–455).

The contradictions are evident. Kant begins with a notion of ‘free’ submission of all mankind to the universal laws—whatever be his moral attributes—and ends with a certain force of ‘compulsion’ that makes him a good citizen. Even if rather obliquely, enlightenment philosophy recognized certain divisions within bourgeois society, but refused to actively reckon with the possibility that these could militate against social cohesion. Kant, for instance, saw private individuals as meriting the status of citizenship only if they were free, i.e. unconstrained by the need to dispose of their labour power merely for sustenance. These lines from Kant encapsulate the central dilemma of the bourgeois nationalist doctrine so well and that they need quotation at some length: ‘The requisite quality for (citizenship), apart from the natural one that the person not be a child or a woman (sic), is only this: that such a person be his own master and hence that he have some property (under which we may include any art, craft, or science) that would provide him with sustenance. To put this another way, he must be a man who, when he must earn a livelihood from others, acquires property only by selling what is his own and not by conceding to others the right to make use of his strength’ (Kant 2001, p. 424).

Later critics pointed out that enlightenment philosophy was unable to reconcile the proffered assurance of equality under law with the reality of substantive inequality under the market. This was one among many loose ends in the enlightenment doctrine that philosophical thought tied up (or at least attempted to) as it progressed through the nineteenth century.

Hegel dissolved this contradiction by positing a mystical union, achieved in the process of the substantiation of the idea in the material world, between civil society and the state. Marx offered a radically different resolution, which will not be considered in great detail here since Marxism never was the basis for nationalist doctrine, and would not be till well after the Russian Revolution when the contested principle of ‘socialism in one country’ became reigning orthodoxy in the Soviet Union.

Late in the nineteenth century, there was within the milieu of European philosophy a reaction against rationalism and other elements of the enlightenment philosophy, which fused the elements of romanticism and idealism. Friedrich Nietzsche offers a clear example, drawing upon the concepts of being and becoming from Hegel’s contemporary, Arthur Schopenhauer and numerous other threads too complex to unravel. Against Hegel’s sacralization of the state as the march of a divine purpose on earth, Nietzche attacked it as a ‘terrible tyranny’, a ‘repressive and ruthless machinery’. Here was a lament written for the extinction of the human will in the collective mediocrity of bourgeois Christendom, with the state acting as its instrument, that worked and ‘continued working until the raw material of people and semi-animals had been finally not just kneaded and made compliant but shaped’.

The nation-state for Nietzsche was a fetter upon the individual’s will to freedom. In its natural state, humanity is free to express itself and seek full expression of all faculties. But as humanity enters into a settled state of society, the individual is increasingly required to tame these proclivities. This spirit of conformity is instilled through what Nietzsche called ‘bad conscience’. It was by ‘a breach, a leap, a compulsion, an inescapable fate that nothing could ward off’, that the alteration from a natural state to settled society is effected. It ‘occasioned no struggle’, but the ‘shaping of a population, which had up till now been unrestrained and shapeless, into a fixed form’. It happened ‘with an act of violence (and) could only be concluded with acts of violence’. The term that Nietzsche used merely because it was standard reference was ‘state’. But he was clear who he meant by the term: ‘some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race, which, organised on a war footing, and with the power to organise, unscrupulously lays its dreadful paws on a populace which, though it might be vastly greater in number, is still shapeless and shifting’ (Nietzsche 2006, p. 58).

This was how Nietzsche saw the beginning of the ‘state’ on earth. There was a theory originating in the enlightenment, about a social contract being the origin of the state. And in the hands of his contemporaries like John Stuart Mill, the reform of the terms of the contract was regarded as a possibility with endless frontiers, with justice and equity being a shared goal. But Nietzsche was convinced that he had ‘dispensed with the fantasy which has it (the state) begin with a “contract”’. What need was there for a contract, for ‘whoever can command, whoever is a ‘master’ by nature, whoever appears violent in deed and gesture’ (Nietzsche 2006, p. 58).

Neither Tagore nor Gandhi was likely to have been directly influenced by Nietzsche. And this rather unique and unclassifiable philosopher of the late nineteenth century has acquired a reputation for being contemptuous of the ordinary in his eagerness to usher into the world the superior being, or ubermensch. More sympathetic readings have identified this as Nietzsche’s concern with the stultifying mediocrity of late nineteenth century bourgeois morality and his belief that culture, which gave expression to the most creative instincts of humanity, was in danger of extinction in the homogenization that the nation-state actively promoted.1

As Safranski puts it in a ‘philosophical biography’, Nietzsche saw that individuals who did not learn to determine themselves would be determined by the will of others, by the ‘voice of the herd’ or the ‘cultural philistines’. His works ‘as a whole are an extended chronicle of the complex events in an experiment to attain power over oneself’, so as to fashion ‘a whole person’ of oneself (Safranski 2002, p. 185). The manner in which Nietzsche spoke of the State, moreover, seemed to foreshadow Tagore’s own understanding of the ‘nation’ as a mechanical contrivance that kills human instincts. Certain resonances of this extreme scepticism about the State exist in Gandhi too, though once again, proximate sources of influence cannot be identified.

A plausible case could be made that Tolstoy was the conduit through which these themes came to be reflected in Gandhi’s thinking. Gandhi’s debt to Tolstoy is explicitly acknowledged, though Tagore’s can only be inferred. It is another matter entirely, to find the concordances between Nietzsche and Tolstoy, two thinkers so different in every sense that later generations have tended to view them as poles apart: one identified as the anti-Christian who detested the normalizing tendency impelling individuals of talent and culture to bow themselves in subjugation to the demands of society, the other seeking from a deep sense of piety, a harmony of the individual within society, stripped of all the artificial contrivances of a political order based on coercion and the artificial bonds of patriotism. There is perhaps a common source of inspiration for these two very diverse thinkers, explicitly acknowledged by both, in Schopenhauer, though these lines of convergence yet remain to be philosophically delineated.

From very early in his philosophical career, Tolstoy struggled with the question of how a spiritual being such as ‘love’ could be enclosed within the separateness of each individual existence. His inquiries went along many pathways, but he never ceased finding a touch of the ludicrous in the loud claims that the nation and the sentiment of patriotism made towards creating these wider bonds. In his later years, he focused on the overwrought public fervour over Russia’s political and military alliance with France, as a particularly gross illustration of how patriotism could unhinge the human understanding.

In 1894, Tolstoy wrote in bemused irony at the clownish displays he had witnessed up close the previous year, when French and Russian military delegations met amidst loud shouts of unending friendship from crowds hired for the purpose, to cement their alliance against a mutually perceived threat. Spectacles of forced bonhomie and jollity, he mused, must have seemed just as ridiculous to any ordinary observer. What Tolstoy saw was ‘some sort of love which also hates’. It was taken for granted that this form of love was ‘innate in every man’ and that indeed, it was a ‘lofty’ sentiment which should be ‘infused into those in whom it is absent’. Yet in all his encounters with ordinary people in Russia and elsewhere, Tolstoy confessed to have ‘never seen or heard a manifestation or expression of patriotism’, except for rote formulas ‘learnt in military schools, or repeated from books’ (Tolstoy 2001, pp. 439, 456).2

The doctrine of patriotism, Tolstoy saw, induced a ‘definite feeling of preference for one’s own people or State above all other peoples and States’. It drove those who believed in it to seek greater advantages, except that these were ‘obtainable only at the expense of…. other peoples and States’. An obvious inference then followed that ‘patriotism as a feeling is bad and harmful and as a doctrine is stupid’. If each people and each State ‘considers itself the best of peoples and States, they all live in a gross and harmful delusion’ (Tolstoy 2001, p. 503).3 There was something akin to the fallacy of composition operative in the doctrine of patriotism. Something true of a part could not possibly be true of the whole since that could only be a formula for endless chaos.

Humanity had ascended to a higher state of consciousness, Tolstoy observed, and men were ‘bound to one another’ by improvements in ‘means of communications…(and)… the unity of industry, of trade, of the arts and of science’. In the circumstances, there was strong reason for recognizing the ‘antiquated feeling of patriotism’ as ‘superfluous’. The growth of the possibilities of human solidarity had in fact created the very opposite in reality, since patriotism ‘not only continues to exist, but burns more and more fiercely’ (Tolstoy 2001, p. 507).4 The ‘servile submission’ of the people to the demands of patriotism had caused a ‘competition in the usurpation of other peoples’ lands in Asia, Africa and America’, accompanied by ‘ever greater and greater distrust and enmity between the governments’ (Tolstoy 2001, p. 510).5

At a moral level and without any needless distractions in political economy, Tolstoy here was identifying the forces driving the world towards the holocaust of the ‘Great War’, retrospectively called the First World War. The patriotic fealty and fervour that led millions to march unquestioningly into war for the national cause would have been incomprehensible without another stream within post-enlightenment thinking, which called into the active present, the supposed solidarities forged by a divine bond, of a nation’s primordial existence. In the idiom made popular by the Italian Guiseppe Mazzini, the nation-state was not the expression of the rights of its citizens, but an embodiment of a divine purpose of human betterment, to which all owed a duty.6 The scepticism of the enlightenment about a transcendental purpose that human society was expected to serve, and its efforts to find a manner of synthesizing the particular with the universal were forgotten in this call to obedience, this imposition of a duty on all humanity to act in obedience to the demands of a divine father.

In an essay published in 1912, titled ‘Race Conflict’, Tagore spoke hopefully of how the new age of ‘science and commerce’ had brought men ‘nearer.. than they ever were before’. This in turn compelled them to confront ‘the highest problem of human history, the problem of race conflict’. Humanity had till then at various junctures, adopted noble slogans about the fraternity of man, but had played with the sentiment ‘as a girl does with her doll’. ‘Playtime’, Tagore warned, had passed and the circumstances demanded a more serious engagement. India had a particularly challenging task on its hands in discovering the universal from this contention between particular interests. ‘When differences are too jarring, man cannot accept them as final; so … either he wipes them out with blood, or coerces them in some kind of superficial homogeneity, or he finds out a deeper unity which he knows is the highest truth’ (Das 1994, pp. 360–361).

Tagore ruled out any possibility that the ‘fetish of nationalism’ could bring ‘warring elements into harmony’. This was because nationalism in his view could not transcend the particular. A closer examination of the relevant texts suggests, though, that Tagore may be referring here to the virtual impossibility that an organized polity, or the State, could represent anything but a particular interest. ‘When organised national selfishness, racial antipathy and commercial self-seeking begin to display their ugly deformities in all their nakedness, then comes the time for man to know that his salvation is not in political organisations and extended trade relations, not in any mechanical rearrangement of social system, but in a deeper transformation of life, in the liberation of consciousness in love, in the realisation of God in man’ (Das 1994, p. 363).

Though a direct intellectual debt cannot be affirmed, there are several echoes of the late nineteenth-century European thinkers here. The 1912 essay offers clear foreshadowing of Tagore’s more explicit critique in the three essays on nationalism published in 1917, when he confidently swam against the dominant current, and critiqued the nation as the antithesis of all that the human spirit stood for, as an ‘aspect which a whole population assumes when organised for a mechanical purpose’ (Tagore 1991, pp. 51, 53).

Various streams of the European discussions on nationalism fed into the Indian political milieu through the late nineteenth century, nurturing a variety of perceptions. In a memoir written in his years of retirement from active politics, the early pioneer of Indian nationalism Surendranath Banerjea testified to Mazzini’s influence, while oscillating uneasily between a wider ‘Indian’ conception of a nation and a narrower one: ‘Mazzini had taught Italian unity. We wanted Indian unity. Mazzini had worked through the young. I wanted the young men of Bengal to realize their potentialities and to qualify themselves to work for the salvation of their country, but upon lines instinct with the spirit of constitutionalism’ (Banerjea 1925, p. 140).

For the Indian National Congress, nationalism in the initial years was about securing for the Westernized elite, the full charter of rights guaranteed under the British liberal order. In his address to the 1885 Congress, W.C. Bonnerjee spoke of the organization’s goal as the ‘eradication by directly friendly personal intercourse, of all possible race, creed or provincial prejudices among all lovers of (the) country’. Lord Ripon, who initiated limited self-government in India in 1882, was marked for special praise, for having fostered the possibility of such unity. And though there was no question of the Congress being anything but ‘thoroughly’ loyal to the British government, it would work towards securing for the ‘people’, their ‘proper and legitimate share’ in political power (Zaidi 1985, p. 20).

In his 1891 presidential address, P. Ananda Charlu frontally addressed the ‘desultory controversy’ that had arisen around the term nationality. At one time, ‘a common religion was put forward as the differentia’; at another, ‘a common language’; and at still another, ‘a proven or provable common extraction’. These were all ‘ill-considered and ill-intentioned hypothesis’ which had all deservedly ‘fallen to the ground’. The word nationality in a proper understanding had only one meaning, which was the equivalent of the Sanskrit prajah, a correlative of the rajah. By virtue of living under one political sovereign, all of India was a single nation in the sense that had been admirably captured by an unnamed political commentator of the time: ‘Citizens of one country, subordinate to one power, subject to one supreme legislature, taxed by one authority, influenced for weal or woe, by one system, of administration, urged by like impulses to secure like rights and to be relieved of like burdens’ (Zaidi 1985, p. 114).

There was another construct of the Indian nation at the same time being articulated within an emerging political current that later came to be associated with the ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ faction of the Congress. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was representative of this trend, and his belief was simply that India was a nation bonded in solidarity by ancient ties of culture. Others among his contemporaries such as Bepin Chandra Pal believed likewise in the original Hindu provenance of the Indian nation, but were willing to credit the cultural influences of Buddhism and Islam with a positive contribution, with having instilled a notion of equality and justice into a rigidly hierarchical social organism. Lala Lajpat Rai similarly saw the original founts of the Indian nation in the Vedas, but confessed to a profound lack of knowledge of the full significance of those texts. Tilak was, of course, undisturbed by any such limitations on knowledge and pressed ahead with his programme of creating a cycle of cultural observances that would affirm an essentially Hindu identity for the Indian nation.7

Within the Western philosophical milieu, the themes of nationality and belonging were going through subtle change. ‘Civil society’ and the principle of the mutual dependence of citizens as the bond of nationhood began to be subjects of inquiry. As a principle, the ‘division of labour’ is taken so much for granted that its foundations, its origins and broader implications in the mediation of the relations between society, economy and polity are seldom explored. Division of labour is among the fundamentals of modern industrial society, which Adam Smith identified as the key to economic progress. Smith also saw individuals in society—despite the mutual interdependence of the division of labour—as being deeply divided by mutual competition, verging on envy and animosity. Yet by some miracle, he saw a social harmony emerging from this bitter contest.

Late in the nineteenth century, the French theorist Emile Durkheim identified the division of labour as the basis of an ‘organic solidarity’ within society. This was a solidarity based on difference, on the complementarity of individuals in their social roles, as opposed to the ‘mechanical solidarity’ based on likeness (most commonly associated with kinship ties, as with clan or tribal solidarity) that traditional societies rested on. It was a paradox that he did not see till later in his life as a social theorist and that organic solidarity for some reason became a stronger element within society at just the time that the cult of individuality was becoming ever more firmly entrenched. This seeming paradox impelled Durkheim at a later stage in his work, to abandon ‘organic solidarity’ as a sociological category.8

Durkheim failed to see the subtle element of coercion in the perpetuation of the division of labour. Though done ostensibly as part of a free labour contract, this relationship was based on economic necessity, since the alternative would be penury. This element of necessity made the notion of freedom in the wage contract a fiction, since in the background, there always was the state which enforced it.

Durkheim’s contemporary Max Weber recognized this role of the state and went further in developing a sociology of the state as ‘a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be’. Yet with all that, politics had to hold in reserve the possibility of violence as ‘the decisive means’. Territory was one of the characteristics of the state, which was indeed a ‘human community’ that could credibly claim ‘the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. And a nation, in turn, was a ‘community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own; hence, a nation is a community which normally tends to produce a state of its own’ (Weber: 75, 174).

For long years, political theory took the nation-state so much for granted that its relatively recent origin—in the eighteenth century—as a mode of political organization was considered irrelevant. Recognized today as the basic unit of sovereign economic decisions, the nation-state evolves its own internal pattern of the division of labour, with labour exchanges determined by contract and in turn enforced through the state’s monopoly of legitimate coercion.

Weber wrote these justly famous lines in 1919, a time when interestingly, the choices between coercion and consent in the maintenance of the state, and the ultimate sanction of legitimate violence were all becoming active areas of inquiry for India’s political thinkers. Gandhi had returned to India and taken leadership of the Congress then still torn between the moderate and radical factions. He stood poised at the time to launch the first of his many country-wide movements, each a crucial step in cementing the sense of nationalist solidarity among the emerging Indian social elite. Both he and Tagore had seen the brutality of the empire up close in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Tagore would signal his parting of ways by returning his knighthood and Gandhi after waiting and failing to find some sign of repentance would issue his famous edict that any form of cooperation with the Satanic regime of colonialism was a sin. The great force of civil disobedience, which would challenge the colonial state by withdrawing the subject population’s consent, was being readied for deployment.

Gandhi was not lightly calling up the moral authority of civil disobedience, which when viewed from the opposite side seemed frighteningly to verge on an incitement to mass insurrection. He came from a background of struggle against colonial oppression in South Africa, and his pathway to leadership in India was paved by a Congress that was torn between conflicting tendencies, in terms of both strategic perceptions and constructs of nationhood. His own record in South Africa was mixed, between loyalty to the British empire during its struggles with the Boer rebellion, indifference to the native African people, and a largely forlorn hope that Indian settlers would gain privileges he felt their due, as loyal subjects of the benevolent British empire. That entire campaign failed to bring any kind of reward and as he set sail from London in 1909, consumed by a sense of failure, he put pen to paper and produced a manifesto that he would insist to his last days, was the best summation of his political philosophy.

As a recent, very challenging work on Gandhi in South Africa argues, it was during an interlude of bitter disappointment that he wrote his great anti-modernist manifesto, Hind Swaraj (Desai and Vahed 2015). Written in the frustration of defeat, Gandhi was to insist to his last days that Hind Swaraj was his most complete political testament. With all that, a positive vision of a nation struggling to come into existence was very much a part of Hind Swaraj, though its nature remained undefined. In particular, Gandhi’s scepticism about the organized polity of the ‘state’ was very plainly expressed. To his imagined interlocutor’s intent to secure India’s freedom and equip it with all the military grandeur that the colonial state displayed with unseemly conceit, Gandhi rejoined that he seemed to merely want ‘English rule without the Englishman’. It was like seeking to retain the ‘tiger’s nature, but not the tiger’. India, in other words, was to be made English. That was most definitely, not the swaraj that Gandhi sought, since the challenge he was taking on, was ‘to learn, and to teach others, that we do not want the tyranny of either English rule or Indian rule’ (Gandhi, vol. X, p. 15).

These are powerful formulations, yet strange and paradoxical. Gandhi titles a political tract written originally in Gujarati, after ‘Indian Home Rule’, but then proceeds to denounce ‘Indian rule’, as a form of tyranny very much akin to ‘English Rule’. These are almost identical, but for the idiom, with Tagore’s locutions from the time, when he was in the process of recoil from Swadeshi, and preparing an explicit critique of nationalism. P.C. Mahalanobis, a Tagore scholar and family intimate who later became the principal architect of economic planning in independent India, has put the facts on record. After his early, enthusiastic propaganda work for Swadeshi in Bengal, Tagore, in 1907, ‘resigned his membership of every committee, severed the connection with every organization—all in the course of a single day—and fled to (Shantiniketan) from where he could not be dragged out for several years’.9

There is a constant struggle within both Gandhi and Tagore to understand the character of the political forces emerging at the time, some dressed in the colours of a revival of mythical glory, some in the narrow contours of an invented social identity and still others in terms of universal truths that could not be denied. After a tour of Madras presidency and the southern areas in 1921, Gandhi gave expression to his political philosophy in a manner that sought to bring into the modern era, the imagined solidarities of a past when the competitive striving did not pit the individual against all of society, as bourgeois ideology did. And he found the magic formula to social harmony in the caste system, which he explained in the following terms: ‘Varnashram is inherent in human nature and Hinduism has simply reduced it to a science …’. One’s caste is ascribed at the moment of birth, and not to live by one’s caste is to ‘disregard the law of heredity’ (Gandhi, vol. 21, pp. 245–250). But then, he was also on record at the time as defining swaraj as ‘freedom for the meanest of our countrymen’, laying him open to certain searching questions (Gandhi, vol. 24, p. 227). Was it for instance, his conception of swaraj, that the ‘meanest’ among his countrymen should just get used to and possibly even revel in performing the task assigned in the division of labour envisaged under the varnashram dharm? Was there no higher status that they could aspire to?

Recent insights in political theory speak of how technologies of power—in which government is one—and the subjectivities of the governed are co-constituted. The relationship is one of continuous mutual reinforcement. With the beginning of the modern processes of governance under the colonial raj—such as the decennial census and local self-government—there was a proliferation of caste associations which were mobilized with specific intent to lobby for sectional advantage within the emerging political order.10 Though these caste identities were portrayed in emerging narratives as bonds of primordial belonging, the reality was that they were a compound of many elements, each a unique outcome of modernity. Distinct groups fused and conjured up myths of origin as identity markers and as their claim to a share in political power. As a practitioner rather than theorist, Gandhi waded into this complex terrain, eagerly engaging with these particular interests and trying to bring them into some form of harmony. He worked on the premise that the organization of society dictated by the varnashram dharm was a benign alternative to the corrosive forces of competition and mutual envy that Western civilization ranked as the highest principle of social progress.

Tagore remained sceptical, expressing in his 1912 essay the worry that the ‘caste feeling (was) running fearfully high’ and would impede any pacification of the conflict of races (Das 1994, p. 362). In 1918, he condemned with rare vigour an effort by reactionary forces to block legislation that would facilitate a degree of inter-caste mobility. It was shameful in his estimation to ‘appeal to a foreign government to stiffen by its sanction a social tyranny, to rob people of their right to the freedom of conscience’. It was in fact a betrayal of the cause of freedom itself, since the advocates of this form of social tyranny had little hesitation ‘the next moment to ask from the same government a wider political emancipation’ (Das 1994, p. 742).

Non-cooperation provided the context for a celebrated debate between Tagore and Gandhi. Tagore was both exhilarated and alarmed at the massive national upheaval of non-cooperation, unprecedented in his memory. The moment proved to him that ‘the frail man of spirit’ with none of the apparatuses of coercion would prove that ‘the meek would inherit the earth’. But then, he proceeded to ask the hard questions. ‘What is Swaraj?’ he asked, before deflating the concept itself with his answer: ‘It is maya, it is like a mist, that will vanish leaving no stain on the radiance of the Eternal. However we may delude ourselves with the phrases learnt from the West, Swaraj is not our objective’. There was indeed no word in any Indian language that could capture the sense of loyalty that the ‘nation’ demanded of its subjects. Swaraj was just too mundane as a goal of human endeavour, since the struggle was little less than ‘a spiritual fight’, to release ‘Man’ from the ‘National Egoism’ he was ‘enmeshed’ in (Bhattacharya 1997, p. 55).

As the decade wore on, the national movement went through a succession of crests and troughs, and the philosophical issues yielded space to practical questions. Gandhi showed as the years passed, a studied indifference towards negotiating the constitutional modalities of a regime of swaraj. The Motilal Nehru committee report completed in 1928, since recognized as the first effort to give independent India a constitution, attracted no more than his cursory interest. Gandhi remained focused on human essences, rather than the forms and outward trappings of political structures. Writing in Young India, Gandhi lauded the unanimity that had been displayed by all parties in the Nehru report, which he said, took the country one step closer to ‘constitutional Swaraj’. But he still sought to make a distinction between this political state and what he called ‘organic Swaraj’ (Bhattacharya 1997, p. 181).

This notion of an inherent harmony in a traditional social order, which had been disrupted by modernity, remained a part of Gandhi’s thought for long. Tagore was sceptical and believed that Gandhi was wilfully and with potentially serious consequences, setting his face against the possibilities of an enrichment of Indian political life from a creative engagement with European and indeed other cultures.

There is evidence though, that as the 1930s dawned, Gandhi had begun shifting his model of pacifist anarchism towards the socialistic paradigm favoured by Nehru. Possibly he realized that this was, failing a miracle of collective revelation that all Indians would undergo, the next best way of reconciling the particular with the universal. The outcome was the resolution on ‘fundamental rights’ and the welfare state adopted at the Karachi Congress of 1931. Gandhi moved the resolution which was in all probability drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru, since without his moral authority, it may have been impossible to overcome the right-wing resistance within the Congress. Aside from the welfare component, which committed the State in independent India to economic equality and protection of  the working class and the poor from the predatory tendencies of unbridled capitalism, the resolution also set down a clear rule that the ‘State’ would maintain ‘neutrality between all religions’. For Gandhi who had for long insisted that his religion was his politics and his politics his religion, this was evidently a major shift.

Aside from the philosophical questions, the welfare state was conceived in a Western political paradigm as a means of reconciling the particular with the universal. Gandhi’s embrace of the notion, even if half-hearted, was a moment when the anarchist finally accepted the State as a necessary component of political life. As the 1930s wore on, both Gandhi and Tagore were subject to conflicting urges often verging on despair: Tagore at the accelerated plunge towards the renewed global holocaust of Second World War and Gandhi at the deepening estrangement within India on communal lines.11 Tagore dictated Crisis in Civilisation from his deathbed in 1940. The world was at war again, and this final creation of the master was a testament of despair which looked forward to a time when better wisdom would dawn and humanity would retrieve itself from the plunge into that abyss. The values of European civilization had inspired many, even in countries that they had conquered. But this had rapidly turned to disillusion, when it became increasingly clear ‘how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilisation disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved’ (Das 1994, p. 723).

Gandhi soldiered on. The great mission of Indian independence remained to be achieved, but when the goal was reached, he was sunk in a similar state of despair. He nonetheless found, even in that darkness, a few glimmers to keep hope alive. When the embitterment between the two main religious faiths of British India deepened so much that a parting of ways became inevitable, Gandhi spoke of how his ‘cries in the wilderness’ were of no avail in checking the drift towards catastrophe. Religion then became his only solace. At a prayer meeting in March 1947, he recalled his famous aphorism from the 1920s that his ‘politics was his religion and his religion his politics’. There was no way he said that a religious person could divide his life into compartments and it was in the nature of things that his religious congregations should become occasions to propagate a political message.

Gandhi had, of course, never abandoned his faith, perhaps going along with the Karachi Congress resolution on a ‘state’ committed to welfare, only as a measure of pragmatism. But as the holocaust of the partition loomed, he found that there was no recourse other than religion. The pretensions of the modern welfare state in his perception had proven hollow, and its call to the loyalty of the masses had gone unheeded. Just four months ahead of India’s much anticipated freedom, he seemed far from overwhelmed at the prospect, telling a group of women missionaries that ‘the foreign power (would) soon be withdrawn’, but real freedom would only come when India freed itself ‘of the dominance of Western education, Western culture and the Western way of living’ (Gandhi: Vol 87, 65 and 310).

Gandhi and Tagore remained till their last days, frustrated in their quests which were very different at one level, but shared many dimensions in seeking that state of harmony between the individual and his wider social and natural milieu. They were both sceptics about the function of the state in a modern polity and seemed to direct their energies towards finding a formula that would eliminate the need to call up any form of coercive power to resolve human issues. An Ambedkarite inflection could be imparted to the debate here, which would in fact open up a new perspective on the choices that India faced as it stood at the threshold of independence. B.R. Ambedkar was the symbol of social rebellion against oppressive tradition, and this alone gave his perceptions a distinctive touch. The programme of the mainstream nationalist current, he seemed to think, did not amount to very much, except to replicate the hierarchical organization of Indian tradition within the framework of a modern state. That state itself was conceptualized in minimal terms, since the old social hierarchy was assumed to have significant principles of internal cohesion and harmony, a premise that failed to stand scrutiny. The task of independence was not to recreate fictitious harmonies from an imagined past, but to bring into existence a political structure that would stand older hierarchical principles on its head.

Ambedkar’s essential political beliefs were articulated in a 1943 homage he wrote for Mahadev Govind Ranade on the occasion of his 101-year anniversary. There is no evidence of any form of engagement between Ambedkar and Tagore. But on the Western seaboard of the raj, Ambedkar did engage with that whole spectrum of issues Tagore dealt with, including the choices India had to make between modernity and orthodoxy. And Ambedkar was fairly clear about which side he stood on. The orthodox school he said had adopted a policy of ‘realizing the ideal and idealizing the real’ in Hindu tradition. Tilak’s brand of activism, for instance, put political autonomy ahead of social reform, but showed little understanding of the ‘social’ and the ‘political’. Indeed, the orthodox had in their obduracy over social reform contributed significantly to the constitutional deadlock. Escapist minds were making out the alibi that the British were responsible, though it was evident to the plainest intelligence that the failure to obtain independence was a consequence of the ‘defects of (the) social system’ which in turn engendered ‘the communal problem’ (Ambedkar 1989, pp. 218–225).12

If Gandhi tended to view the coercive power of the State as an unhappy recourse under all circumstances, Ambedkar always thought it a lesser menace and, in certain circumstances, an essential instrument for enforcing the ends of justice and equity. As he put it during his address on Ranade: ‘Many people do not realise that society can practise tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a Government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are far more extensive than those that are open to Government, also they are far more effective’ (Ambedkar 1989, p. 217).13

In a 1946 work titled ‘States and Minorities’, written in anticipation of the emerging political order in independent India, Ambedkar proposed various modalities by which freedom and equality could be secured for the minorities. Democracy for Ambedkar did not mean the simple liberal formula of ‘one man, one vote’. Rather, he went by the more substantive measure of ‘one man, one value’. The year before his death, with public agitation and debate raging over redrawing the Indian political map in accordance with linguistic identities, Ambedkar intervened with a forceful plea that culture be recognized as the basis of political organization. States based on cultural uniformity, he argued, were the only assurance of stability. A ‘State is built on fellow-feeling’, he said, and this of course is a ‘double-edged’ sentiment in the sense that you also create a sense of the other. There was in Ambedkar’s assessment, no intrinsic propensity for enmity between two linguistic or cultural groups, except when they were compelled by circumstances to share among themselves the cycle of governmental activities. But even with every cultural particularity given due recognition, there was a possibility that those who had persistently been the victims of history could lose out (Ambedkar 1989, pp. 143–144).14

On 30 November 1949, when India’s Constituent Assembly rose after formally agreeing on the text of a republican constitution, Ambedkar spoke of the life of contradictions that the newly independent nation was embarking upon: ‘In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and, one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?’

So here was a clear statement of the contradiction that lies at the heart of the enlightenment doctrine of nationalism, between formal equality under the law and the substantive inequality a market society enforces. In the case of India, the processes of combined and uneven development ensured that the inherent biases of the market actually deepened existing structural foundations of social inequality. India’s republican constitution was an effort to resolve these contradictions, though the outcome after seven decades would challenge the most optimistic assessments. The sovereign nation with an enlightened civil society was regarded in early European thought, as sufficient guarantee of freedom for all. But this proved a hollow promise since the model of social competition that it enshrined also sanctioned conquest and oppression. In shaking off the bonds of oppression, Gandhi and Tagore both conceived of the enlightened individual as the cornerstone of a just and equitable social order. Ambedkar is an abiding reminder of how that remains an incomplete project.


  1. 1.

    See for instance, Safranski (2002). The worry over the triumph of mediocrity bearing the Victorian bourgeois stamp also worried liberals such as John Stuart Mill, except they saw no cure for it other than democratic reforms that would extend the frontiers of participation to all.

  2. 2.

    ‘Christianity and Patriotism’.

  3. 3.

    ‘Patriotism and Government’.

  4. 4.


  5. 5.


  6. 6.

    The following words are fairly illustrative: ‘God the Father and Teacher of Humanity reveals His law to Humanity in space and time. Interrogate the traditions of Humanity—which is the Council of your fellow-men—not in the confined circle of one century or of one school of thinkers, but in all the centuries and in the majority of men past and present. Whenever the voice of your conscience corresponds with that general voice of Humanity you are certain of the truth, certain of knowing one line of God’s law’ (Mazzini 1862, pp. 40–46).

  7. 7.

    These themes are addressed in an earlier paper by this writer, titled ‘Patriotism Without People: Milestones in the Evolution of the Hindu Nationalist Ideology’, Social Scientist, 22:5/6; May–June 1994, pp. 3–38.

  8. 8.

    See the evaluation of the work of Emil Durkheim by Giddens (1997).

  9. 9.

    This 1920 letter by Mahalanobis is quoted in E.P. Thompson’s introduction in Tagore (1991, p. 3).

  10. 10.

    The literature on this subject is not very ample, perhaps because historiography has been under compulsion to conform with the grand narrative of Indian nationalism. Carroll (1978, pp. 233–250), is an exception.

  11. 11.

    It is clear that Tagore remained an active political (or public) intellectual through the 1930s and retained his contacts with Gandhi and Nehru through the 1930s. He was invited to participate in the AICC session of 1937 and made some remarks there which are yet to be faithfully reported, if at all they have been recorded. There is evidence of a philosophical shift in Gandhi in the 1930s, but not so much in the case of Tagore. Tagore’s actions through the 1930s may have been born in pragmatism or a sense of duty. This needs to be qualified with the observation that unlike Gandhi, Tagore did not have views on issues such as caste and heredity that were so out of step with modernity that they needed to be wound back.

  12. 12.

    ‘Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah’.

  13. 13.


  14. 14.

    Thoughts on Linguistic States, 1955.


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© Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indian Institute of Advanced StudyShimlaIndia

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