Lessons on nationalism by two seers from the East

  • Makhdoom Mohi-Ud-Din
  • Publish Date: Jan 8 2018 2:18AM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Jan 8 2018 2:18AM
Lessons on nationalism by two seers from the East

What Muhammad Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore made of the idea of nationalism



“Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.

But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.

Yes, says Bloom.

What is it? says John Wyse.

A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.

Or also living in different places.

That covers my case, says Joe.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses


When and where nation becomes mother, it reincarnates as its worst avatar, it revives its “motherliness” thorough militarism, it becomes Friedrich Nietzsche’s coldest of cold monsters, the vicious hostility of the neighbour. The ruling clique takes over the rights of a nation. Poets and historians vie to jump onto the nationalist juggernaut. Gabriele d’Annunzio celebrates the Italian massacre of Libyans, Algeria becomes the extension of French nationalism for Alexis de Tocqueville. Vinayak Savarker felicitates a massacre by Indian soldiers in World War I, “throwing off millennial diffidence and timidity”; Narendra Modi pays tribute to these soldiers in France and Palestine. Palestine becomes Greater Israel. Yonegiro Noguchi, poet friend of Rabindranath Tagore from Japan, asks him to endorse the Japanese aggression in Manchuria and mainland China. Xenophobia and supremacism sprout and thrive. Majoritarian prejudices and preference are systemised and institutionalised. A shared history is spilt, its warp and woof tugged at and snapped. “Militant Muslim” replaces “rootless cosmopolitan Jew”. A diverse and differentiated community is treated as a monolith and made suspect. Albert Dreyfus is accused of treason. Nationalism renders itself to different pathologies. The myths of Akhands, Reichs, Romes and Republics are revived. Demagogues tap into the simmering reservoirs of discontent, cynicism and boredom. Russian kleptocrat sees himself as a messiah, makes references to Peter The Great. The designation of the “other” is naturalised and hate-mongering towards minorities is mainstreamed. The Rohingya are tortured en mass and expelled beyond their frontiers. Jingoism assumes quasi-religious rhetoric. Nationalism becomes the “negative solidarity” of Hannah Arendth. The negative solidarity is described thus by the Nazi ideologue Himmler: “For the SS man one principle must apply absolutely, we must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to members of our blood and no one else. What happens to the Russian, the Czech is indifferent to me.” 

Nationalism assumes the cultural idiom of a specific community; minorities and migrants are segregated and ghettoised. The nationalist ego is pampered with the “national idea”. The elucidation bears quotation of two examples:

• “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan has proved weaker than the Pakistani.” – M J Akbar, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan

• “The rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions.” – Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World


Heavy contingencies are made out to be “nationalist realities”. Such nationalist hubris needs to be seriously contested. The march of nationalism is fraught with civil wars, and ethnic cleansing is in its trail. It is millenarianism, beset with contradictions, still triumphalist, triggering a million mutinies. It suffers from the serious malady, as it depend upon the “enemy” for self-definition. “Nothing makes the self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with the non-self,” wrote Savarker. “Nothing can weld people in nation and nations into state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.”

In times of ultra-nationalism, we the people of the subcontinent, confounded, should look to two seers from the East: Tagore and Iqbal. We have to retrieve them from the parochial grip of the elites of communities, nationalities and nation states, breaking cordons where they are sealed from the hoi polloi. Both the poet philosophers were prescient of excesses of nationalist spirit, celebrated patriotic sentiment. Both made impassioned criticism of nationalism as Sugata Bose puts it; Iqbal did not revoke publicly the hymn for India because of its genuineness and intensity, notes Tariq Ali; Tagore was a patriot who loved his country without being nationalist, argues Ramchandra Guha.

In “Rumuz-i-Bekhudi”, writes Rafique Zakaria “Iqbal gave the clarion call against nationalism, which he said was a western concept...aiming at the creation of same tribal mentality, dividing peolple on geographical lines”.

In Muhammad Iqbal: Islam, Aesthetics and Postcolonialism, Javed Majeed writes:

“That the country (watan) is not the foundation of Islamic community (milet)

Now the brotherhood (akhvat) has been cut

The country is now the candle in the gathering

Humankind has been fashioned into tribes.”

Tagore, Pankaj Mishra, felicitating the spirit of the East, writes, “saw no reason for the Asian to believe that building of a nation on European pattern is the only goal of man.”

Iqbal’s interpretation of Islam is rebirth of the “international ideal” – the creation of a wider community, multinational, deracialising, humanising, transcending nationalist ideologies.

Eloquent were also the exponents of the notion of race and region and “White Man’s Burden”:

“East is East and West is West

And ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Tagore was equal to the task, responding to Rudyard Kipling with scorn:

“Awakening fear, the poet mobs howl around

A chant of quarrelling curs on the burning ground.”

The poet philosophers crossed swords with the nationalist leadership, mincing no words while cautioning against nationalist enormities. Replying to Jawaharlal Nehru, Iqbal wrote in 1936: “Lying between Asia and Europe and being a synthesis of Eastern and Western outlooks on life, Islam ought to act as a kind of intermediary between East and West, but if the follies of Europe create an irreconcilable Islam?”.

Tagore chided Gandhi about his Non Cooperation Movement: “The whole world is suffering today from the cult of selfish and short-sighted nationalism. India has all down her history offered hospitality to the invader of whatever nation, creed or colour.”

For Tagore, civilizations are not concrete blocks clashing with each other, they have enough of porosity to interact creatively, without losing authenticity. He believed in the spirit of the East, “We of the East have never reverenced death-dealing generals nor lie-telling diplomats, but spiritual leaders.”

Tagore and Iqbal believed in the “traffic of ideas”. Vehement denunciation of racism and dog-eat-dog competition, a function of nationalism was a lived and nuanced experience. As Iqbal warned:

“O dwellers of cities of the West

This habitation of God is not a shop

And that which you regard a true coin

Will prove to be only a counterfeit

Your civilization will commit suicide

With its own sword.”

Tagore was equally vitriolic about the predatory culture of western nationalism; calling it a “gambling den of commerce and politics to furious competition of suicide in area of military lunacy”. Ali Shariati, the Iranian thinker assessed the geniuses of the two seers in his book, We and Iqbal: “He [Iqbal] fights with colonialism for the liberation of  Muslim nations as Sayyid Jamal has done. He endeavours to save the civilization as Tagore has tried to do from tragedy of calculating reason and the pest of ambition.”