Did Rabindranath Tagore make a mistake by meeting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome and seeking financial help for starting Italian studies department in Visva Bharati?
Was Tagore well-versed with the prevailing situations in the countries he had visited between 1978 and 1932? And is Tagore's rejection of aggressive nationalism within confines of geography and ideals of internationalism and humanism, which had inspired India's foreign policy for a long time after independence still relevant and not out of sync with hard realities of international politics? These and many other searching questions came up for a threadbare debate at a two-day international conference organised by premiere think-tank Indian Council for World Affairs here recently for a relatively less explored area of Tagore's life — his contribution to relevance to India's foreign policy.
ICWA Director General Rajiv K Bhatia pointed out that Tagore's vision of global and Asian unity contributed to shaping the tenets and ethos of the foreign policy of independent India and ignited the debate regarding their relevance in the contemporary world.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Secretary (Economic Relations) in the External Affairs Ministry, said, "We have much to learn from his powerful message of having a world without barriers. In many ways, Tagore foresaw many facets of a globalising world that we inhabit today".
Discussants at the conference said it was the visionary in Tagore that had predicted the emergence of a resurgent Asia, particularly China (the world's second largest economy at present after the United States), nearly a century ago and warned of the threat of Japan's nationalism turning into imperialism.
The Nobel Laureate believed such a vast mass of people, especially the youth, in Asia could not be kept subjugated in poverty for long and it was only a matter of time when the continent would develop and claim its rightful place in the comity of nations, given the development of education.
"There is a need, therefore, to analyse Tagore's ideas on how India should engage with the world and the degree to which these influenced the makers of India's foreign policy from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi and later and how they were translated into foreign policy initiatives by India."
Tagore believed lasting global peace cannot be secured without a meeting between the East and the West despite the differences.
Prof Radha Chakravarty, a Tagore scholar of Delhi University told the conference, "The poet consciously saw himself as a representative of the East in dealing with the West."
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, said "starting from a position of believing in the dichotomy between the East and the West, with East being defined as spiritual and the West as materialistic, there was a remarkable evolution in his thought process and ultimately he came up with the ideal of spiritual unity of man".
He said Tagore's philosophy of bringing about greater harmony and moderation in world affairs found an echo in Jawaharlal Nehru's ideas.
Nehru's pan-Asianism articulated four months before India's independence in August, 1947, and subsequent setting up Non Aligned Movement through the Bandung Conference in Indonesia bear the imprint of Tagore whose desire for India-China cooperation, particularly the five-principles of peaceful co-existence between the two countries, had greatly inspired India's first Prime Minister.
"It was Tagore again who had used the soft power of India's mystic and spiritual values as a diplomatic tool to reach out to the world," the discussants said.
Former career diplomat Amitava Tripathi said Tagore had no alternative to use of soft power to reach out to the world because India was at that time a colonised country with low level of development and little scope for exercising hard power.
At a session on "Tagore's Influence on the Ethos of Indian Foreign Policy", Tripathi stressed the need for culling out lessons emanating from Tagore's message of peace, internationalism, brotherhood and humanism.
Tripathi said, "For conventional diplomats like us versed in Kautilya and Machiavelli, sometimes it is difficult to appreciate Tagore's supra-nationalism because we are confined to working within the nation-state framework in diplomacy whereas he is looking at the universe".
"Essentially, it was a choice between Tagore the foreign policy philosopher and the foreign policy practitioners," said Tripathi.
Foreign Secretary M K Rasgotra said Tagore's influence on India's foreign policy had both positive and negative sides.
Tagore's universalism and humanism and ideals of goodwill "led to misjudgement of other countries' policy and actions, like China. However, the upside of Tagore's influence was the idea of soft power which much later became a tool of India's diplomacy," he said.
According to Suryakanthi Tripathi, Tagore was "more of an intuitive philosopher rather than an analytical and methodical thinker" and therefore "one should not expect clear-cut foreign policy prescriptions from him".
She thinks it is "took simplistic" to believe that "the answer to more peaceful and productive international relations" lies in "the perceptive wisdom and humanism of Tagore".
Suryakanthi said while Tagore was opposed to "unbridled and militaristic nationalism and political aggressiveness", it is not always easy to choose between patriotism and humanism, between one’s country and what is morally right".
She said the poet's "pan-Asian approach, his views on contact and conflict between the East and the West, particularly in the context of India's own freedom struggle, presented difficult philosophical contradictions".
Rajiv Bhatia said "Tagore was looking at the world different from diplomats."
Some discussants felt that Tagore was probably not well versed with the political situations in some of the countries prevailing there at the time he had visited them, like in Italy when Mussolini was in power or in China where his first visit had been marred by controversy as some of his views were not liked by activists of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 for national independence who were protesting handing over of German concessions in Shandong province to Japan under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War 1.
The discussants noted those were not the days of the Internet or easy circulation of the news media across the world.
According to Dr Kalyan Kundu of the Tagore Centre in the UK, for Mussolini, the number one priority was to use Tagore's visit to earn international legitimacy and he sanctioned funds for starting Italian language and literature studies in Visva Bharati. Tagore was "overwhelmed" with Mussolini's gesture.
"Tagore's friend and author Romain Rolland as also the left-wing media in Europe disapproved of Tagore's meeting with Mussolini, so much so that the Nobel Laureate had to write a letter to Charles Andrews explaining in detail the background of his invitation from Mussolini," said Kundu. Dr Sergei Serebriany, Director of E M Meletinsky Institute for Advance Studies in Humanities said, "Tagore's knowledge about Russia was quite limited. His judgements are mostly misguided" but this in no way took away from "our respect for him as a poet".
According to Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, "Tagore did not always get the kind of welcome he expected when he travelled abroad and many of his visits were controversial, including his famous visit to Europe in 1920 when he was shunned by those idolized him in 1913. Similarly, his visit to Beijing in 1924 was very controversial and he was misunderstood by those who were his greatest followers earlier".