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Tagore's Repudiation of British Knighthood After The Jallianwala Massacre





Letter from Rabindranath Tagore to Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India

Calcutta [India]
31 May 1919

Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers—possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons. This callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers, which have in some cases gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority—relentlessly careful in smothering every cry of pain and expression of judgement from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the nobler vision of statesmanship in our Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous as befitting its physical strength and moral tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.

These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.

Yours faithfully,
Rabindranath Tagore



[Source: Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds., "Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). The letter was first published in The Statesman (Calcutta) on June 3, 1919.]

May 6, 2012


Conversation about this article

1: Raj (Canada), May 06, 2012, 2:54 PM.

Interestingly, history repeated itself in 1984 only a few hundred yards from Jallianwala Bagh. The new rulers and their "communal" media portrayed us as a lawless bunch and turned a blind eye to the state's crimes. The meritorious medals were awarded to the murdering military, just like in 1919. The honorary titles were returned to the government by some deeply hurt souls. Others follow their heart and reacted like Udham Singh. No foreign government had ever ordered slaughter of thousands of innocent people in India, but our own did. And ... we learned they're not "aapnay" (ours) like we thought they were.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 06, 2012, 4:20 PM.

I wish President Zail Singh in 1984 had packed his little 'sundukri' and walked out of the golden cage. He would have had his name proudly carved in gold in history, but his fake glory took away that chance from him. He die unsung ... in a mysterious and unexplained car accident!

3: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), May 06, 2012, 6:07 PM.

This letter could easily have been sent about, and been applicable, verbatim, to the massacre in Amritsar in June 1984 by Indian troops, or the anti-Sikh pogroms across India a few months later. Sometimes I wonder why a nation rejects its very own thinkers like Tagore and the path defined by its Gurus and follows, blindly, unqualified and self-serving individuals like Indira Gandhi who was willing to go to any lengths to grab power and kill well meaning citizens by falsely labeling them separatists and pitting them against the majority to create an atmosphere of fear and animosity.

4: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), May 07, 2012, 12:01 PM.

History has neglected the significance of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and the role of Sikhs both in it and in its aftermath. Most of the victims of the massacre were Sikhs!

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