World today is in the grip of COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed lakhs of lives, and number is still growing. According to IMF chief, Kristalina Georgieva, “the world might witness another big recession, which could be worse than the 2009 one”. Some global thinkers have even declared it to be worse than the two world wars in terms of its global spread and impact. Recently, I came across statuses like “Now more than ever think ‘We’ not ‘me’ ”, and jokes like “Coronavirus smiled and asked to the Nations: Where are your fighter jets, missiles and nuclear weapons” on social media. Also, Global leaders are urging not the single nation or a group of nations, but the global community at large to cooperate and practice social distancing to stop its spread. As the present pandemic is emphasizing or making us realize the greater need of thinking in terms of large ‘Human Community’ instead of ‘single or individual nations’; it is in this context, there is a need to re-visit Tagore’s concept of Nationalism.
Tagore’s views on ‘Nationalism’
Tagore emerged as a critique of nationalism and the modern nation-state following the publication of his work “Nationalism” in 1917. It includes three lectures, which he delivered in Japan in 1916, when the nations around the world were waging war against each other. His three novels- Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) and Gora (White) also depict his anguish towards nationalism and affinity towards higher non-sectarian humanist politics. Tagore was not opposed to the idea of nationalism as such, but was rather opposed to the idea of nationalism which builds around the idea of modern nation-state, rooted in the West. Tagore believes, that a nation is “a political and economic union of people organized for a mechanical purpose”. The sole purpose of this modern nation-state is to promote its political and economic interest at the cost of other nations. It works on the principle of vilifying the ‘other’ nation that often leads to culture of violence. One should not forget that Tagore was a patriot but was against a particular brand of nationalism which is rooted in the western notion of modern nation-state that promotes otherness and hatred towards other nations and communities. Patriotism means love towards your place of birth, a sense of territoriality, that is prevalent not only among human beings but also among other species like dogs, cats etc. The problem arises when it assumes a political and economic form and with time, this political and economic organization called nation“begins to grow and brings in harvest of wealth, then it crosses it’s boundaries with amazing rapidity. For then, it goads all its neighboring societies, with greed of material prosperity and consequent mutual jealousy”. Also, this abstract entity called nation’s sole purpose is to promote its own interest at any cost without thinking much about others and therefore, has the inherent tendency to generate hatred towards other nations and communities, which with time often takes the form of racism.
Racism in the times of Covid-19
Racism is not new to this world, but as Tagore believes, the concept of ‘Nationalism’ allied with ‘modern-nation state’, not only promotes but thrives on the concept of racial discrimination and violence. In fact, racism has been responsible for the worst forms of violence throughout the history. The world celebrates 21st of March every year as ‘International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’. Despite this, racism is still practiced in one or the other form. With the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, racist incidents have increased considerably in USA in recent past and few other European countries. Majority of these incidents are anti-Asian, especially anti-Chinese. For instance: Donald Trump, in a tweet, called this virus “a Chinese virus”. As a result, there is a rapid increase in anti-Asian sentiments and lots of cases of anti-Asian discrimination have been registered in New York. India is also not bereft of such cases despite the fact that India itself has been a victim of Colonial racism in the past People from the North-east have always been discriminated with remarks like ‘Chinese’, especially in the ‘Hindi Heartland’. Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, they risk facing racial and ethnic discrimination. Only few months back, a Manipuri woman was spat on and called ‘Corona’ by a Delhi man.
These cases represent hatred and contempt towards people from other communities and nations, and thus creates or reinforces a sense of ‘otherness’, which Tagore was totally opposed to. He believed that the biggest problem, the world is facing today is “the race problem”, which has its roots in the very idea of modern nation-state. He was more upset about the fact that India too had joined the bandwagon of Nationalism, a menace to humanity. Through his popular discourses and writings, he has repeatedly warned India, not to be lured by this “glittering institution of Nation”
Tagore’s Nationalism: A viable solution to deal with corona conundrum
Tagore was critical of ‘Western Nationalism’, as he believed it to be a threat to humanity and having tendency of upsetting man’s moral balance by subjugating his inherent goodness and divinity to a soul-less organization. Tagore found the fetish of nationalism as a source of war and mutual hatred between nations, as every nation becomes inward-looking and considers another a threat to its existence, while war is hailed a legitimate action. Tagore’s brand of Nationalism that is rooted in the humanitarian values like love, sympathy and cooperation instead of violence and hatred becomes more relevant today when the entire world is witnessing COVID-19 crisis. In an unprecedented crisis, more than 3 billion population had to be put under strict lockdown and the global leaders around the world including head of W.H.O, begging for global cooperation and coordination and also practicing social distancing to deal with the conundrum of COVID-19. Such circumstances demand a fresh thinking in terms of collective global efforts instead of individual national identities or communities. The concept of nationalism, as is being practiced by nation states today, is failing us to put a joint and cooperative global effort to tackle the COVID-19 challenge. Rather than putting up a joint fight with the virus, each nation is busy making its own individual strategy and attempting to overtake other countries in developing a cure against this disease, so that later on, maximum profits could be earned by selling it to other nations and communities.
In fact, multilateralism and the institutions which promote cooperation among large group of nations such as World Health Organization, UN, EU, SAARC, is what the world needs today. In a globalized world, where every region, big or small, is connected to every other place, it’s not possible to deal with any crisis alone-be it economic, health, political, security. This is evident through recent COVID- 19 pandemic that along with health crisis, perpetuated or has the potential to inflict crises at multiple levels. But there is a problem, which is that the multilateralism, which is required today more than ever before, is at its weakest point.
Although the process of weakening of multicultural institutions didn’t start with the pandemic, the pandemic has heightened the multilateralism crisis. For instance, China has already been showing aggression in the South-china sea by breaking the rules of United Nation Convention on Laws of Sea, and US has also been slowly withdrawing from its various commitments such as nuclear disarmament and climate change. However, with the pandemic, erosion of multilateral norms has increased tremendously. It is evident from the blame games regarding the origins and spread of the virus, cutting of funds to World Health Organization by US and imposition of trade restrictions around the world. This is not what we need today. There is a dire need to revive multilateralism and preserve it.
In short, as the virus doesn’t make any distinction between rich or poor, developed and developing nations and targets each one of us equally, there is a dire need to coordinate among ourselves; and Tagore’s idea of global solidarity has potential in creating a strong resistance against such epidemics and pandemics.
It can be ascertained that human kind is facing the global crises, perhaps one of the biggest crises in human history. The major concern is not the pandemic itself, but how we are dealing with the pandemic. Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and philosopher recently remarked, “I think the biggest danger is not the virus itself. Humanity has all the scientific knowledge and technological tools to overcome the virus. The real big problem is our own inner demons, our own hatred, greed and ignorance. I’m afraid that people are reacting to this crisis not with global solidarity, but with hatred, blaming other countries, blaming ethnic and religious minorities”. The storm of COVID-19 shall pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives forever and also the way we deal with more storms for years to come. In ‘The Home and the World’, we find one of the characters remarking, “It was Buddha who had conquered the world, not Alexander”. Behind the Tagore’s concept of nationalism are the ideas of oneness, peaceful co-existence and proactive cooperation. Such ideas if implemented and practiced in letter and spirit, will surely help us fight the menaces like COVID-19 as one global community as against individual entities or nation states.
Mehak Sharma, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University