Freedom Lab Event Report on “The Utopianism called Decolonization: Thinking with Tagore”

By Yue Qiu

Class of 2022

On June 11, 2020, The Freedom Lab invited Professor Sandeep Banerjee from McGill University to lead a discussion on “The Utopianism called Decolonization: Thinking with Tagore“. The Freedom Lab co-directors, Professors Jesse Olsavsky and Selina Lai-Henderson hosted the lecture. Professor Titas Chakraborty and around 20 students attended the conference.

Professor Chakraborty introduced the guest speaker. Professor Banerjee is a literary theorist, cultural critic, and historian who studies the literatures and histories of decolonization, particularly in India. Besides writing on colonialism and liberation, he also writes on a wide range of topics such as travel narrative and photography. He published the book Utopia and Indian Decolonization: Literary Pre-figurations of the Postcolony last year.

In this lecture, Professor Banerjee mainly focused on decolonization as a “utopian space” in Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s theorization of the nation. Professor Banerjee first defined decolonization as “utopian special desire for a better locus of being and living”. In other words, the colonized conceptualized an equal autonomous state with the colonizer through the negation of the spaces of the colonial present. He used colonial administrator John Strachey’s perception that “no Indian nation” exists to illustrate the colonizers’ idea of India as an “empty space” that is justified for the British rule. In opposition, Tagore’s poems manifested a utopian desire for decolonization through reimagining the geographies of India. India thus became defined by cultural elements. However, the spatial imagination of India did not equate to nationalism. For Tagore, nationalism makes the globe fragmented into discrete parts, impeding the collaboration of different races. Moreover, according to Professor Banerjee’s interpretation, Tagore perceived the modern (western) nation as a “mechanical and forced organization of people for a specific economic and political purpose”. Professor Banerjee further elaborated that in many post-colonial countries, political power merely transferred from the colonizers to the colonized. Yet without the transfer of economic power, those newly independent nations became subjugated into a continuing neo-colonial ethic, ensuring marginalization of certain groups like the working class, minorities, and women. Thus, it was crucial to resist imitation of the west in constructing the nation and conserve the complete humanity of India itself. Professor Banerjee closed the lecture reflecting on the murder of George Floyd, and concluded that the spatial decolonization struggle worldwide was still a “not yet failed utopia”.

Then the discussion jumped into the Q&A session. Professor Lai-Henderson asked how caste, gender, and class fitted into the whole picture of utopian imagination. Professor Banerjee gave an example of Tagore’s thoughts both on caste and Buddhism to show the fluidity of the boundaries of the utopian vision. Tagore and other thinkers drew a parallel between the caste system in India and the situation of African American people and First Nations peoples, who conceptualized the caste struggle as similar to the racial problem. And later in Tagore’s life, Tagore’s utopian vision touched upon other parts of Asia, in which he perceived Buddhism as a form of “liberation theology”. Professor Chakraborty pointed out the blurred nature of Tagore’s thinking of spatial decolonization, between a utopian ideal and political project. In response, Professor Banerjee used the word “generalized institution” to characterize spatial decolonization as a political project dedicated to the future after liberation. He illustrated this point by referring to the enduring influence of Viswa-Bharati, a university supported by Tagore, to the massive translation of Tagore’s works, as well as his pan-Asian ideology. Other faculty and students also discussed with Professor Banerjee around questions of the difference between Tagore and other decolonial thinkers and the impact of the Soviet Union on Tagore.

The 1.5-hour-long discussion was very inspiring, especially during the unsettlement between races, classes, and countries in the COVID 19 world.  Professor Banerjee introduced the utopianism of decolonization by extensively drawing thoughts from Tagore and other decolonization thinkers, which triggered the audiences to continue on this “not yet” journey.