Imtiaz Ahmed: Modernity and the Limits of Civilization States: Can Tagorean Discourse Make a Difference

Modernity, while referring to „linearity,“ a move from ancient, medieval to the modern, cannot help glorifying the „centre,“ the „arch,“ the latter attracting like a magnet whatever goes by it. Nation, nationalism and nation-state, as product of modernity and the modern West, too went on attracting and sucking in the rest of the world. In the South Asian context the colonial power became the pacesetter, politically, economically, at times even culturally. As Nirad C. Chaudhuri pointed out: “….the real cultural role of the Bengalis…is to assimilate, by slow degrees, the ways of Europe, till at last, civilisation in India becomes the provincial edition of the civilisation of Europe, palely reflecting like the moon, its borrowed light from the great sun beyond.”

It is not difficult to see here that modernity and the modern nation-state have put a limit to the reproduction of civilization state. But if one could follow Tagore further, particularly his immense faith in human beings – “Manusher proti biswas harano paap, shey biswas shesh porjonto rakkha korbo (I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in humans),” then one could be reassured that all is not lost. Probably the answer lies in harnessing the multiversed human in every sphere of life and living. My presentation will take this up in some details.

But civilization state, in contrast to the nation-state, is altogether a different matter. “Civilization“ here must be understood not in the sense of „progress“ or „a magnifying glass,“ making „the most ordinary things hugely big,“ but rather, as Tagore pointed out, in the sense of dharma, the principle which “gives individuals the best facility to deal with the greatest number of human beings in the noblest spirit of truth.” “Dharma“ incidentally has now wrongly come to be translated as „religion.“ In fact, dharma is markedly different from the occidental word „religion.“ The latter is derived from the Latin re-ligio, which means „to link back or bind.“ The Sanskrit word dharma, on the other hand, derives from the root dhr, which means to uphold, support, carry, sustain, or nourish, just as the mother does to her children. In fact, in a lecture titled “Civilization and Progress“ and delivered in China in April-May 1924, Tagore noted: “The Sanskrit word dharma is the nearest synonym in our own language, that occurs to me, for the word civilization. In fact, we have no other word except perhaps some newly-coined one, lifeless and devoid of atmosphere. The specific meaning of dharma is that principle which holds us firm together and leads us to our best welfare.” Later in 1941 at the fag-end of his life Tagore in a lecture titled “Civilization in Crisis” returned to the problem of defining civilization and said: “It is difficult to find a suitable Bengali equivalent for the English word „civilization.“ That phase of civilization with which we were familiar in this country has been called by Manu „Sadachar“ (lit. proper conduct), that is, the conduct prescribed by the tradition of the race.”

Imtiaz Ahmed is Professor of International Relations and Director, Centre for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka. Professor Ahmed was educated at the University of Dhaka, Carlton University, Ottawa, and the Australian National University, Canberra. He is also currently Visiting Professor at the Sagesse University, Beirut. Professor Ahmed is the recipient of various awards and honours. He has authored, co-authored, or edited 16 books and 6 monographs. More than 100 research papers and scholarly articles have been published in leading journals and chapters in edited volumes. His recent publication are Historicizing 1971 Genocide: State versus Person (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2009) and a co-edited volume titled: Contemporarising Tagore and the World (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2013). His forthcoming publication is an edited volume titled: Human Rights in Bangladesh: Past, Present & Futures (Dhaka: University Press Limited, i.p).