Within a few months of arriving in Iraq, Captain Kalyan Mukherji had arrived at a devastatingly clear summation of the war. On October 20, 1915, in al-Aziziya, he wrote a letter that is, in my view, one of the most remarkable of the 20th century.
As for the war, what is there to discuss? Unless something surprising happens suddenly – I don’t see why a war of this kind should not go on for 20 years. So long as Germany can keep itself supplied with provisions and weaponry I don’t think this side [i] will be able to advance. Nor does it seem possible for Germany to advance any further into France.
England is the teacher. The love of country that England has always taught, that same love of country whose virtues are sung by all civilized nations – that is what all this bloodshed is for. Grabbing someone else’s country – that’s ‘Patriotism’. Patriotism – that’s what builds kingdoms and empires. To display the love of country, love of race, by seizing a piece of territory, at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives, this is what the English have taught.
Now the youth of our country have started to emulate these vile ways of loving one’s nation. As a result all kinds of horrifying things have started to happen, people are dead and bombs have been thrown at a blameless Viceroy. I spit in the face of patriotism [ii]. As long as this narrow-mindedness is not wiped off the face of this earth there will be no end to bloodshed in the name of patriotism. Whether one man throws a bomb from a rooftop or 50 men hurl shells from a cannon – all this bloodshed, this madness springs from the same cause.
In this one year of war a crore [iii] of people (English, German, Russian, French, Indian, African together) have been killed or wounded. Another one crore families are heart-broken because of “Selfish nationalism: a most inhuman sentiment”. In other words this war is proof that this brutal and selfish love of country – that this awful, malign, sentiment is an obstacle for all humankind.
There’s nothing much to report from here. I am well.
Your Kalyan [iv]
It is profoundly humbling to read this letter, written almost a century ago, in the context of the many wars and conflicts that have riven the Indian subcontinent in the decades since Independence. Extreme circumstances often produce extraordinary perceptions. It is as if the battlegrounds of Iraq had granted Capt. Mukherji a Cassandra-like gift of prophecy.
Few indeed were the statesmen, intellectuals and politicians who had an equivalent depth of perception. One of those who did was Rabindranath Tagore. Like Capt. Mukherji, Tagore was both opposed to imperialism and wary of nationalism. In Tagore’s 1916 novel Ghare-Baire (‘The Home and the World’) the character Nikhilesh expresses views on nationalist terror that are similar to Capt. Mukherji’s; and in his 1916-17 lectures on the subject, Tagore is similarly impassioned in his critique of nationalism.
‘Does not the voice come to us, through the din of war, the shrieks of hatred, the wailings of despair, through the churning up of the unspeakable filth which has been accumulating for ages in the bottom of this nationalism – the voice which cries to our soul, that the tower of national selfishness, which goes by the name of patriotism, which has raised its banner of treason against heaven, must totter and fall with a crash, weighed down by its own bulk, its flag kissing the dust, its light extinguished?’ [v]
Considered in the context of the early days of the Indian freedom struggle, Tagore’s critiques of nationalism have often been regarded as anomalous. But Tagore was always closely attuned to the international situation and he would certainly have tracked the progress of the war, in Europe and in Mesopotamia, with great care. What is more, he may even have known – at least at second hand – about the reports that Capt. Mukherji and others were sending home from the battlefield. This is not unlikely for Capt. Mukherji, like Tagore, was from a family that belonged to the Brahmo Samaj which is, after all, a small community; and nor was Capt. Mukherji the only Brahmo to serve in Mesopotamia at that time, there were several others.
Capt. Mukherji and Rabindranath Tagore followed two different routes to arrive at the same conclusion: neither of them wanted to see Europe’s history of national conflict re-enacted on the Indian subcontinent. What that trajectory represented, for Tagore, was not freedom but a different kind of enslavement: ‘Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity.’[vi]
[i] [edik-kar dol – note, not ‘our side’]
[ii] Capt. Mukherji’s words are: ‘Swadesh-premer mukhe jhata’: lit. ‘a jharu in the face of loving your own country’; Kalyan-Pradeep, p. 334.
[iii] Ten million
[iv] Kalyan-Pradeep, pp. 333-335.
[v] From Nationalism in Japan, in Nationalism (San Francisco, 1917) pp. 111-112.
[vi] From Nationalism in India, in Nationalism (San Francisco, 1917) p. 147