Rabindranath Tagore Didn’t Want Nationalism To Be Reduced To Flag Hoisting, And I Agree

Posted on March 1, 2016

By Piyush Sharma:

flagThe Ministry of Human Resource Development has issued guidelines to make it mandatory for all central universities to hoist a 200-feet high Indian national flag. The rationale behind it is that it will instil a sense of ‘unity and integrity’ and would signify a ‘strong India’.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it and no harm can come with flags flying high in every university. The argument that our universities with dilapidated walls and infrastructure should not make extravagant spending on flags is utterly farcical. We do not live in a nation so abjectly poor that we cannot afford a piece of cloth per college.

But what is being missed in all this noise in the media and news are the deeper philosophical debates related with the use and role of idols and symbols of nations such as the flag. Flags in modern times are not very different from totemic animals/symbols used by tribes around which they gathered to perform their rituals and express solidarity. Similar to this is our flag around which we gather every year on our days of national importance and express our solidarity and patriotism. Gandhiji strongly believed in the power of the flag to unite us. For it brings to our minds images of the sacrifices of the freedom struggle, of our soldiers who laid their lives for us, and various successes that we have so far achieved as a nation. It swells our chests with pride on seeing the fluttering flag of our nation in the open blue sky.

Rabindranath Tagore, on the other hand, was greatly critical of this belief of Gandhi. He believed that by introducing the flag as the symbol of ideals such as unity, fraternity, nationhood, peace etc. we are not trusting in the wisdom of the masses to comprehend these abstract ideals and, instead, are having to provide them with a flag. Thus, a flag can be thought of as a symbol on the electronic voting machine to assist people who cannot read simple letters like BJP/BSP/Congress. Not trusting in the wisdom of the people is actually antithetical to the idea of democracy itself.

Thus, what we have missed is the fact that flag is only a means and not the end in itself. Any self-proclaimed patriot who resorts to violence to avenge any disrespect to the flag is, thus, doing a disservice to the very flag he fights to defend. The concept should not be dogmatic, like religion, and any unintended discourteous act to it like Sachin putting it on his helmet or a model draping herself in tricolor should not be treated as acts of blasphemy. We must take a cue from British people who do not mind three-fourths of the Lords’ crowd who carry a British passport but wave Indian flags. They have matured, both as a nation and as a democracy, and their nationalism does not require the symbolism of a flag but is an economic nationalism respecting merit and the enterprising spirit which creates for them jobs, brings people out of poverty and creates products which earn them respect around the globe.

We have to remember that we had been a strong ‘nation’ for thousands of years before we became a ‘nation-state’ and adopted this flag in 1947. It is important here to be clear that we were not a ‘nation’ because we shared a common religion, language, ethnicity, creed, thought, culture, customs, cuisine, costume or were ever united under a common ruler. These are the various different characteristics that many political theorists and sociologists have used to define their conception of nationhood and state without coming to an agreement. In the words of Winston Churchill, India was no more a nation than equator was. It was a mere geographical expression.

But what Churchill could not comprehend was that India was a ‘nation’ because its people respected and shared the ideals of democracy, liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, debate, discussion, dissent all across its geography and throughout its history. For it did not matter whether people lived under Zain-ul-Abidin (in what is now Kashmir) or Akbar or the Buddhist sanghas or Ashoka because they all enjoyed the liberties that make up the ‘democratic system’. Ideas, thoughts, views were allowed to be freely shared. Scientific enquiry was promoted under royal patronage. Religious discussions took place with mutual respect of each others’ sentiments based not just on tolerance but acceptance (or swikriti as Amartya sen calls it) of one another.

Thus, instead of identifying epochs of Indian history in terms of ‘Hindu rashtra’, ‘Buddhist rashtra’, ‘Muslim rashtra’ etc. we should take notice of our heritage of democratic ideals that make us a nation. Far from the widely held belief, our democracy is not a gift of the ‘West’ to us but, instead, we have been a democracy even before this very word came into existence. And we stood and stand united not around the idol of nationhood but the ideals of it.

It still may be argued even after the masses have proven their wisdom for thousands of years that these abstract ideas still are very difficult to be understood by a large section of society which is uneducated. But surely we must expect this wisdom from students in our institutions of higher learning. What we need today is Plato’s philosopher king in our union’s HRD ministry to understand the real meaning of the flag.

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