Tagore & Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together review: A vision of an inclusive India free from hatred and bigotry

Gandhi and Tagore had differences, says a historian, but they believed in and worked for the same goal, uniting a diverse country

March 26, 2022 04:21 pm | Updated 04:21 pm IST

Eminent historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee delves into the deep bond between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in Tagore and Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together. Tagore and Gandhi were born in the same decade of the 19th century eight years apart and established themselves as principal builders of modern Indian thinking. Their personal friendship was robust enough to withstand the disagreements they had on many public issues.

Mukherjee has briefly, but without missing any important detail, written on the trajectory of their lives, contrasting status in society and upbringing and their divergent approach towards a common goal. Both were giants in their chosen fields — Tagore was the foremost literary figure in Bengal, while Gandhi emerged as a prime campaigner against injustice, “the apostle of ahimsa and the champion of non violence.”

Partition influence

Tagore’s vision was expressed in an essay he wrote in 1902, ‘Bharatvarsher Itihas’, in which he wrote that “Bharatvarsha has always tried to do one thing: to set up harmony and unity within differences”, while Gandhi explained his ideas in Hind Swaraj. If South Africa brought about changes in Gandhi’s thinking, for Tagore, a definitive moment was Curzon’s partition of Bengal. In the development of their ideas, writes Mukherjee, it is possible to trace areas of convergence. Both arrived at the conclusion that the building of a new India would have to begin at the village level and that “swaraj would be vacuous unless people had the power to rule their own lives.”

Both drew strength from the enduring qualities of Indian culture; both were influenced by western and eastern thinkers; Gandhi was greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin and the Jain mystic Raychandbhai.

Mukherjee emphasises that both of them thought India was a kind of civilisational sponge where many cultures and people met and fused. Mukherjee writes that Tagore was deeply appreciative of Gandhi’s emphasis on “moral power against the evil that British rule represented in India,” but he warned Gandhi that the “violence that British rule had unleashed could produce its own cycle of vengeance.”

Politically, Tagore and Gandhi differed on the response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Tagore also disagreed with Gandhi on the imposition of discipline as he believed that it was most effective when not forced from outside.

Mutual respect

Both wrote to each other in the most “elegant and lapidary prose,” writes Mukherjee. But more than the literary quality, he notes that their sharp differences notwithstanding, there was not a hint of acrimony. “They wrote with respect for each other and seriously engaged with the arguments the other person had put forward.” Mukherjee highlights an exchange between the two at a critical juncture of the Indian national movement as one of the most powerful debates in the history of modern Indian politics. To Gandhi’s call to “spin and weave,” Tagore said the mind of the country must be extended in all directions, not only a “narrow field alone.” Gandhi disagreed, calling the “plea for the spinning wheel” a plea for recognising the dignity of labour. But despite each standing their ground, the common meeting place was the goal of swaraj. More importantly, their idea of India was “inclusive and assimilative.” Tagore’s regard for Gandhi is evident in what he wrote in 1939, “…though I have the imagination to conceive, I have not the power to carry out. Only a few men in the world have this power. And since our country has had the good fortune of giving birth to such a man, the way should be kept clear for his [Gandhi’s] progress – I certainly would never think of impeding it.” Several writers have spoken about the relationship of Tagore and Gandhi from various angles, but this is the first time a dedicated work presents it in a well-structured narrative, holding a pertinent lesson from history.

Tagore & Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph Book Company, ₹699. 

The reviewer is a history and heritage enthusiast and writes both in English and Tamil.

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