No country in today’s world can live in splendid isolation on their terms nor formulate a foreign policy which ignores the life force of the nation- its people and their values. Sometimes one needs to look beyond the present reality and rummage in the dusty archives of the past for clues to negotiate the morass of conflicting national interests as well as locate unfinished experiments in the past which could provide a blueprint for the future. The present century being designated as the Asian century not only bears a positive prognosis for the future of Asia in the world but also has a lineage of the past which needs to be remembered and reiterated in world affairs. It is true that particular memory evocation may herald new forms of aggressive or distorted nationalisms leading to dangerous pitfalls in formulating policies however it is the task of intellectuals to sift through the all the evidence and choose like the proverbial swan, the milk from the muddy waters of the past.
From the late nineteenth century, cosmopolitanism or the idea that all human beings belong to a single community captured the imagination of thinkers and ideologues in Bengal. This was not just a reaction of the newly educated Indians to western literature which brought them into close contact with the ideas floating in the contemporary world, but also a studied analysis of their present predicament under colonialism. It was an attempt to chart a course of thought and action by which the new ‘nation’ under the leadership of this educated elite could achieve its ideals located in a space away from the real territorial Bharat in an idealised imaginative incubation till the time when it could be established within the nation in the ideal present. It is my contention that these outstanding intellectuals of the 19th and 20th century and many more journalists and writers who were inspired by them found their source of inspiration in not only nationalism but also in cosmopolitism in the creation of a noble or nobler India, Mahattara Bharat ( a term invented by Ramananda Chatterjee to perhaps supplement the term Greater India with greater nuances) [i] which would provide leadership for troubled Asia. One of its leading lights Rabindranath Tagore, found this nobility in both ‘looking for the world within oneself’ as well as through a ‘stepping away from the familiar’.[ii] In Bengali literature and journalism, one can see consciousness of Indians being a part of a larger entity Asia from the middle of the 19th century before nationalistic fervour dimmed all other sensibilities and convictions in most individuals. Even when nationalism became the main mantra of all Indians from twentieth century onwards, the doubts about its excesses which arose in the brilliant minds of many Asian intellectuals remained as a silver lining of sanity through the freedom struggles of the long twentieth century and the nation-building projects in different parts of Asia and is today vitally important as the means to a better future.
The discovery of Indian political and cultural influence in South and South-East Asia through the archaeological and philological researches of the French and German scholars invoked a deep pride and nationalistic fervour in Indians. In the 1920s Greater India Society was established in Calcutta, where historians and philologists worked on and added to the writings of European academics. Their general view (with some exceptions) was that this colonisation in the past was a nobler one than by the western imperialists since it did not involve the territorial acquisition and was appreciative of cultural linkages. Doing away with excessive nationalism, a reflection of this intellectual movement in the pages of the literary journals took cognisance of pan Asian aspirations of intellectuals of many countries and reinforced them through education of local populations about the specialities and values of different countries of Asia and views of the intellectuals like Kakuzo Okakura (Ideals of the East in 1904) Rabindranath Tagore (Nationalism in 1918) and others.
The intellectuals of this period argued that the cultural pre-eminence that India had established in the other Asian countries in the past through religious, political and culture explorations could be replicated even in the present when the political element would be disregarded and cultural give and take would reinforce connectivity. Thus on this harmonious ground, a strong network of the countries of Asia would be created, connected by cultural ties and common historical past. This was a movement in which the cultural leaders of the time would take the lead, and a mass base would be created by uniting the common people of all the countries of Asia. This united front would be formidable and yet would be free from chauvinism that plagued nationalism. The ideological movement through the journals, to look beyond boundaries for friendship, was both, political and spiritual, nationalistic and universal.
This intellectual experiment which encouraged and led to movement of people to different parts of Asia and the world to understand, appreciate and assimilate differences as well as discuss them openly on relevant cultural aspects like music, cinema, theatre, art, transnational literature, and even non-confrontational universal socio-religious ideas and values as meeting point of populations of the world needs to be encouraged today. One of the most significant and successful examples in this regard is the history of establishment of Bodh Gaya as a centre of religious and cultural meeting point promoting heritage and tourism through movement of populations of the world- a pilgrimage in the true sense- a means to ‘understand the life force of a civilization’[iii], as Tagore put it- a rare sharing and exchange of knowledge and cultural values, highlighting the importance of value-based affect in shaping of national and foreign policies.
[i] A term invented by Ramananda Chatterjee, the Founder/Editor, The Modern Review and Prabashi; Ramananda Chattopadhyay, Mahattara Bharat, Prabashi, 25(1), 1925, p. 120-123.
[ii] Apon Hote bahir hoye baire daanra,
Buker majhe vishwaloker paabi shara,
Rabindra Nath Tagore, Gitabitan, Kolkata: Viswa Bharati, 1960, p. 148
[iii] Rabindra Nath Tagore, Chin O Japaner Bhraman Bibaran, Prabashi, 24(2) ( 1), 1924, pp. 89-90