(Note: The Modern Review archives run from 1907, when it was founded by Ramananda Babu, to the 1960s. Since this volume was intended to commemorate Ramananda Chatterjee, we looked only at volumes published between 1907 to 1943, the year of his death, and included a few articles from the August 1947 issue as well. Patriots, Poets & Prisoners was published in 2016 and edited by two of Ramananda Chatterjee’s descendants, Devangshu Datta and Anikendra Sen, and me.
By bringing out this volume and sharing excerpts from Patriots, Poets & Prisoners on this blog, we hope to draw attention to the fact that much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn-of-the-century journals. These periodicals, if curated and reissued, allow readers today to listen in to history as it was being made, with few filters between them and the leaders or brightest minds from the past. It is a heritage that belongs, properly, to the next generation of Indians, but it cannot be so easily claimed until it is brought out of our archives and libraries.)
[This essay is a continuation of the thoughts and concerns Tagore expressed in The Cult of the Charkha. He contrasts his vision of a self-actualised, creatively powerful version of swaraj with the “mechanised revolution of the charkha” — perhaps, too, a vision of an unthinking, mechanical nationalism where patriots go through the motions, machine-like, isolated, companionless.)
Striving For Swaraj
By Rabindranath Tagore
Our wise men have warned us, in solemn accents of Sanskrit, to talk away as much as we like, but never to write it down. There are proofs,–many of them,–that I have habitually disregarded this sage advice, following it only when called upon to reply. I have never hesitated to write, whenever I had anything to say, be it in prose or in verse, controversy alone excepted,–for on that my pen has long ceased to function.
Such of our beliefs as become obsessions are hardly ever made up of pure reason,–our temperament, or moods of the moment, mainly go to their fashioning. It is but rarely that we believe, because we have found a good reason. We most often seek reasons because we believe. Only in Science do our conclusions follow upon strict proofs; while the rest of them, under the influence of our attractions and repulsions, keep circling round the centre of our personal predilections. This is all the more true when our belief is the outcome of a desire for some particular result especially when that desire is shared by a large number of our fellow men. In such case no reason needs to be adduced in order to persuade people into a common course, it being sufficient if such course is fairly easy, and, above all, if the hope is roused of speedy success.
It is some time since the minds of our countrymen have been kept in a state of agitation by the idea that swaraj may be easily and speedily attained, in this unsettled atmosphere of popular excitement any attempt at a discussion of pros and cons does but bring down a cyclonic storm, in which it becomes almost hopeless to expect the vessel of reason to make sail for any part of destination. Hitherto, we had always thought that the achievement of swaraj was a difficult matter. So, when it came to our ears that, on the contrary, it was extremely easy, and by no means impossible to reach in a very short time, who could have the heart to raise questions or obtrude arguments? Those who were enthusiastic over the prospect of a faqir turning a copper coin into a gold mohur, are able to do so, not because they are lacking in intellect, but because their avidity restrains them from exercising their intelligence.
Anyhow, it was only the other day that our people were beside themselves at the message that Swaraj was at our very door. Then when the appointed time for its advent had slipped by, it was given out that the disappointment was due to our non-fulfillment of the conditions. But few thereupon paused to consider that it was just in
the fulfillment of these conditions that the difficulty lay. Is it not a self-evident truth that we do not have Swaraj simply because we do not fulfil its conditions? It goes without saying that if Hindu and Moslem should come together in amity and good fellowship, that would be a great step towards its realisation. But the trouble always is, the Hindu and Moslem do not come together. Had their union been real, all the 365 days * in the calendar would have been auspicious days for making the venture. True, the announcement of a definite date for the start has an intoxicating effect. But I cannot admit that an intoxicating state makes the journey any easier.
The appointed time has not long gone by, yet the intoxication lingers, — the intoxication which consists in a confusion of haste with speed, in a befogged reliance on one or two narrow paths as the sole means of gaining a vast realisation. Amongst those paths prominently looms the charkha.
And so the question has to be raised: What is this swaraj?
Our political leaders have refrained from giving us any dear explanation of it.
As a matter of feet we have the freedom to spin our own thread on our own charkha. If we have omitted to avail ourselves of it, that is because the thread so spun cannot compete with the product of the power mill. No doubt it might have been otherwise if the millions of India had devoted their leisure to the charkha, thereby reducing the exchange value of homespun thread. But nothing proves the hopelessness of such an expectation more than the fact that those very persons who are wielding their pens in its support are not wielding the charkha itself.
The second point is, even if every one of our countrymen should betake himself to spinning thread, that might somewhat mitigate their poverty, but it would not be Swaraj.
What of that? Is the increase of wealth a small thing for a poverty-stricken country? What a difference it would make if our cultivators, who improvidently waste their spare time, were to engage in such productive work! Let us concede for the moment that the profitable employment of the surplus time of the cultivator is of the first importance. But the thing is not so simple as it sounds. One who takes up the problem must be prepared to devote precise thinking and systematic endeavour to its solution. It is not enough to say:
Let them spin.
The cultivator has acquired a special skill with his hands, and a special bent of mind, by dint of consistent application to his own particular work. The work of cultivation is for him the line of least strain. So long as he is working, he is busy with one or other of the operations connected therewith: when he is not so busy, he is not at work. It
would be unfair to charge him with laziness on this account. Had the processes of cultivation lasted throughout the year, he also would have been at work from one end of it to the other. It is an inherent defect of all routine toil, such as is the work of cultivation, that it dulls the mind by disuse. In order to be able to go from one habitual round of daily work to a different one, an active mind is required. But this kind of manual labour, like a tram car, runs along a fixed track, and cannot take a different course with any ease, however dire the necessity. To ask the cultivator to spin, is to derail his mind. He may drag on with it for a while, but at the cost of disproportionate effort, and therefore waste of energy.
I have an intimate acquaintance with the cultivators of at least two districts of our province and I know from experience how rigorous for them are the bonds of habit.
One of these districts is mainly rice-producing and there the cultivators have to toil with might and main to grow their single crop of rice. Nevertheless in their spare time, they might have realised growing green vegetables round their homesteads. I tried to encourage them to do so, but failed. The very men who willingly sweated over their rice, refused to stir for the sake of vegetables. In the other district the cultivators are busy, all the year round with rice, jute and sugarcane, mustard and other spring crops. Such portions of their holdings as do not bear any of these, are left fallow, without any corresponding remissions of rent. To this same locality come peasants from the North-West, who take up, and pay a good rent for similar waste lands and, raising thereon different varieties of melon, return home with a substantial profit. The producer of jute can by no means be called lazy. I am told there are other places in the world quite as suitable for growing jute, where the fanners nevertheless refuse to undergo the hardships of its cultivation. It would seem, therefore, that if Bengal has a monopoly of jute, that is more due to the character of her peasants than of her soil.
And yet these hard-working jute cultivators, with the example before their very eyes of the profits made by those up-country melon growers, do not care to follow it in the case of their own fallow holdings by treading a path to which they are unaccustomed.
Therefore, when we are faced with any such problem, the difficulty we have to contend with is how to draw the mind of the people out of its path of habit into a new one. I cannot believe that it is enough to indicate some easy external method; the solution, as I say, is a question of change of mentality.
It is not difficult to issue from outside the mandates: Let Hindu and Moslem unite.
At this the obedient Hindus may flock to join the Khilafat movement, for such conjunction is easy enough. They may even yield some of their worldly advantages in favour of the Moslems, for though that be more difficult, it is still of the outside. But the real difficulty is for Hindus and Moslems to give up their respective prejudices which keep them apart. That is where the problem now rests. To the Hindu, the Mussalman is impure: for the Mussalman, the Hindu is a kafir.
In spite of their longing for swaraj neither can forget this inward obsession. I used to know an anglicised Hindu who had leanings towards European fare. Everything else he would heartily relish, but he drew the line at hotel-cooked rice, rice touched by Mussalman cooks, said he, refused to pass his lips. The same kind of prejudice which makes such rice taboo, stands in the way of cordial relationship. The habit of mind which religious injunctions have ingrained in us constitutes the age old fortress which holds our anti-Moslem feeling secure against penetration by outside ententes, whether on the basis of the khilafat movement or of pecuniary pacts.
Such like problems in our country become so difficult: because they are of the inside; the obstructions are all within our own mind, which is at once in revolt if there be any proposal for getting rid of them. That is why we feel so strongly attracted if some external solution be suggested. It is when his own character stands in the way of making a living along the beaten track, that a person becomes ready to court disaster in a desperate gamble for becoming suddenly rich. If our countrymen accept the proposition that the charkha is the principal means of attaining swaraj then it has to be admitted that in their opinion swaraj is an external achievement. And therein lies the reason why, when the defects of character and the perversions of social custom which obstruct its realisation are kept out of sight, and the whole attention is concentrated on home spun thread, no surprise is felt but rather relief.
In these circumstances, if we take the view that the external poverty of our country claims our foremost attention–that one of the chief obstacles to swaraj will be removed if our cultivators employ their leisure in productive occupations, then it is for our leaders to think out the ways and means whereby such spare time may be utilised to the best advantage. And does it not then become obvious that such advantage is best to be secured in the line of cultivation itself?
Suppose that poverty should overtake me, then it would surely behove any adviser of mine, first of all to consider that literary work is the only one in which I can claim any length of practice. However great may be my mentor’s contempt for this profession, he cannot well ignore it in advising me on how to earn a living. He may be able to show by statistical calculations that a tea shop in the students quarters would yield 75% profit for accounts which neglect the human element easily run into large figures.
And if such tea shop enterprise should but assist in completing my ruin, that is not because my intellect is of a lower order than that of the successful tea vendor, but because my mind is differently constituted.
It is not feasible to make the cultivator either happier or richer by thrusting aside, all of a sudden, the habits of body and mind which have grown upon him through his life.
As I have indicated before, those who do not use their minds, get into fixed habits for which any the least novelty becomes an obstacle. If an undue love for a particular programme leads one to ignore this psychological truth, that makes no difference to psychology, it is the programme which suffers. In other agricultural countries the attempt is being successfully made to lead the cultivators towards a progressive improvement of production along the line of cultivation itself, and there agriculture has made long strides forward by an intelligent application of science, the yield per unit of land being many times larger than in our country. The path which is lit up by the intellect is not an easy, but a true path, the pursuit of which shows that manhood is at work. To tell the cultivator to turn the charkha instead of trying to get him to employ his whole energy in his own line of work is only a sign of weakness. We cast the blame for being lazy on the cultivator, but the advice we give him amounts rather to a confession of the laziness of our own mind.
The discussion, so far, has proceeded on the assumption that the large-scale production of homespun thread and cloth will result in the alleviation of the country’s poverty. But after all that is a gratuitous assumption. Those who ought to know, have expressed grave doubts on the point. It is however better for an ignoramus like myself to refrain from entering into this controversy. My complaint is, that by the promulgation of this confusion between swaraj and charkha, the mind of the country is being distracted from swaraj.
We must have a clear idea of the vast thing that the welfare of our country means. To confine our idea of it to the outsides, or to make it too narrow, diminishes our own power of achievement. The lower the claim made on our mind, the greater the resulting depression of its vitality, the more languid does it become. To give the charkha the first place in our striving for the country’s welfare is only a way to make our insulted intelligence recoil in despairing inaction. A great and vivid picture of the country’s well-being in its universal aspect, held before our eyes, can alone enable our countrymen to apply the best of head and heart to carve out the way along which their varied activities may progress towards that end. If we make the picture petty, our striving becomes petty likewise. The great ones of the world who have made stupendous sacrifices for the land of their birth, or for their fellow-men in general, have all had a supreme vision of the welfare of country and humanity before their mind’s eye. If we desire to evoke self-sacrifice, then we must assist the people to meditate thus on a grand vision. Heaps of thread and piles of cloth do not constitute the subject of a great picture of welfare. That is the vision of a calculating mind; it cannot arouse those incalculable forces which, in the joy of a supreme realisation, cannot only brave suffering and death, but reck nothing, either, of obloquy and failure.
The child joyfully learns to speak, because from the lips of father and mother it gets glimpses of language as a whole. Even while it understands but little, it is thereby continually stimulated and its joy is constantly at work in order to gain fullness of utterance. If, instead of having before it the exuberance of expression, the child had been hemmed in with grammar texts, it would have to be forced to learn its mother tongue at the point of the cane, and even then could not have done it so soon. It is for this reason I think that if we want the country to take up the striving for swaraj in earnest, then we must make an effort to hold vividly before it the complete image of that swaraj.
I do not say that the propositions of this image can become so immensely large in a short space of time; but we must claim that it be whole, that it be true. All living things are organic wholes at every stage of their growth. The infant does not begin life at the toe-end and get its human shape only after some years of growth.
That is why we can rejoice in it from the very first, and in that joy bear all the pains and sacrifices of helping it to grow. If Swaraj has to be viewed for any length of time, only as home-spun thread, that would be like having an infantile leg to nurse into maturity. A man like the Mahatma may succeed in getting some of our countrymen to take an interest in this kind of uninspiring nature for a time because of their faith in his personal greatness of soul. To obey him is for them an end in itself. To me it seems that such a state of mind is not helpful for the attainment of swaraj.
I think it to be primarily necessary that, in different places over the country small centers should be established in which expression is given to the responsibility of the country for achieving its own swaraj;–that is to say, its own welfare as a whole and not only in regard to its supply of homespun thread. The welfare of the people is a
synthesis comprised of many elements, all intimately interrelated. To take them in isolation can lead to no real result. Health and work, reason, wisdom and joy, must all be thrown into the crucible in order that the result may be fullness of welfare. We want to see a picture of such welfare before our eyes, for that will teach us ever so much more than any amount of exhortation. We must have, before us, in various centres of population examples of different types of revived life abounding in health and wisdom and prosperity. Otherwise we shall never be able to bring about the realisation of what swaraj means simply by dint of spinning threads, weaving khaddar, or holding discourses. That which we would achieve for the whole of India must be actually made true even in some small corner of it,–then only will a worshipful striving for it be born in our hearts. Then only shall we know the real value of self-determination, na medhaya, na bahudha srutena, not by reasoning nor by listening to lectures, but by direct experience. If even the people of one village of India, by the exercise of their own powers, make their village their very own, then and there will begin the work of realising our country as our own.
Fauna and flora take birth in their respective regions, but that does not make any such region belong to them. Man creates his own motherland. In the work of its creation as well as of its preservation, the people the country come into intimate relations with one another, and a country so created by them, they can love better than life itself.
In our country its people are only born therein: they are taking no hand in its creation; therefore between them there are no deep-seated ties of connexion, nor is any loss sustained by the whole country felt as a personal loss by the individual. We must re-awaken the faculty of gaining the motherland by creating it. The various processes of
creation need all the varied powers of man. In the exercise of these multifarious powers, along many and diverse roads, in order to reach one and the same goal, we may realise ourselves in our country. To be fruitful, such exercise of our powers must begin near home and gradually spread further and further outwards. If we are tempted to look down upon the initial stage of such activity as too small, let us remember the teaching of the Gita: Swalpamasaya dharmosya travate mahato bhayat, by the least bit of dharma (truth) are we saved from immense fear. Truth is powerful, not in its dimen sions, but in itself.
When acquaintance with, practice of, and pride in co-operative self-determination shall have spread in our land, then on such broad abiding foundation alone may swaraj become true. So long as we are wanting therein, both within and without and while such want is proving the root of all our other wants… want of food, of health, of wisdom,–it is past all belief that any programme of outward activity can rise superior to the poverty of spirit which has overcome our people. Success begets success; likewise swaraj alone can beget swaraj.
The right of God over the universe is His swaraj… the right to create it in that same privilege, I say consists our swaraj, namely our right to create our own country. The proof of such right, as well as its cultivation, lies in the exercise of the creative process. Only by living do we show that we have life.
It may be argued that spinning is also a creative act. But that is not so: for, by turning its wheel man merely becomes an appendage of the charkha, that is to say, he but does himself what a machine might have done: he converts his living energy into a dead turning movement. The machine is solitary, because being devoid of mind it is sufficient unto itself and knows nothing outside itself. Likewise alone is the man who confines himself to spinning, for the thread produced by his charkha is not for him a thread of necessary relationship with others. He has no need to think of his neighbour,–like the silkworm his activity is centred round himself. He becomes a machine, isolated, companionless. Members of Congress who spin may, while so engaged, dream of some economic paradise for their country, but the origin of their dream is elsewhere; the charkha has no spell from which such dreams may spring. But the man who is busy trying to drive out some epidemic from his village, even should he be unfortunate enough to be all alone in such endeavour, needs must concern himself with the interests of the whole village in the beginning, middle and end of his work, so that because of this very effort he cannot help realising within himself the village as a whole, and at every moment consciously rejoicing in its creation. In his work, therefore, does the striving for swaraj make a true beginning. When the others also come and join him, then alone can we say that the whole village is making progress towards the gain of itself which is the outcome of the creation of itself. Such gain may be called the gain of swaraj.
However small the size of it may be, it is immense in its truth.
The village of which the people come together to earn for themselves their food, their health, their education, to gain for themselves the joy of so doing, shall have lighted a lamp on the way to swaraj.
It will not be difficult therefrom to light others, one after another, and thus illuminate more and more of the path along which swaraj will advance, not propelled by the mechanical revolution of the charkha, but taken by the organic processes of its own living growth.
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