What does Tagore wish to tell the readers in his essay, "Nationalism in India"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Like much of Tagore's ideas, he wishes to challenge the fundamental beliefs of the reader in "Nationalism in India."  Tagore begins from the position that nationalism is a Western construct.  He suggests that the understanding of nationalism might not necessarily apply to India because its particular situation is vastly different from the West, where nationalism had taken its hold:

When our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes.

It is here where Tagore's other primary pint is evident.  Part of the reason why nationalism, in the form being advocated at the time, is not going to be as successful is because of the presence of the caste system.  This element is not as present in the West.  Tagore makes it clear that a failure to account for this is problematic for those who advocate for nationalism.  For Tagore, the ability to remove the caste system is where any discussion of national identity must lie:  "Then again we must give full recognition to this fact that our social restrictions are still tyrannical, so much so as to make men cowards."  Tagore's essay on nationalism makes it clear that if individuals wish to challenge the division present in India, national identification must become secondary or aligned with the discussion of the caste system  Tagore's point is that this is the differentiation point of Indian consciousness.  Where one lives in the caste system remarkably changes their perception of what India is.  If individuals seek national unification, the primary focus has to lie in the caste system and what needs to be done with it.