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Posted at: Apr 20, 2019, 7:37 AM; last updated: Apr 25, 2019, 12:05 PM (IST)

Tagore, Punjab & Jallianwala

Amiitabha Bhattacharya

Amiitabha Bhattacharya
The story behind his renunciation of Knighthood
Tagore, Punjab & Jallianwala
BIG ROLE: Tagore contributed to Jallianwala becoming a watershed event.

Amiitabha Bhattacharya
former IAS officer

THERE is a memorable sequence in Satyajit Ray's English documentary Rabindranath Tagore (1961), where Rabi is seen travelling with his father to north India. Outside their rest house on the Bakrota hills of Dalhousie, this boy of about 12 was singing a devotional number, sitting near the feet of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, surrounded by the majestic mountains. This was his first visit to Punjab, the impression of which would remain indelible all his life. In his reminiscences (My Reminiscences, 1911), Tagore records his wonderment on seeing the Golden Temple 'I remember the Gurudarbar at Amritsar like a dream…'

Scholars like Amiya Dev have shown that Sikhism and the teachings of Guru Nanak and others had deeply influenced Tagore and his oeuvre. While his reading of Punjab's history and its people and interpretation of the stories of heroism and sacrifice have been questioned in certain sections on the touchstone of historical accuracy, the intense love that permeated his creativity is palpable. His six poems, three on Guru Gobind Singh and one each on Banda Bahadur, Bhai Taru Singh and the boy Nehal Singh, as also three more essays bear eloquent testimony to this facet. Punjab had a special place in Tagore's heart. 

After the brutal carnage on April 13, 1919, that killed about 380 and wounded many more unarmed people (estimate by the Punjab Sub-committee of the Congress being several times higher), Gandhi soon emerged as the dominant national leader and his novel method of non-violent protest was accepted, except in pockets of  Punjab, Bengal and elsewhere, on a pan-India scale. The action of Tagore, also opposed to the violent path of the revolutionaries, simultaneously created an awakening and hardening of stand against colonial rule. While Tagore wrote a letter to 'Mahatmaji' on April 12, 1919, expressing apprehensions about his embarkment on passive resistance, and as it turned out, Gandhi had to temporarily suspend his initiative on April 18 as 'a blunder of Himalayan miscalculation', there is no doubt that, occasional differences notwithstanding, these two great men shaped the course of modern India as very few did. The multi-volume scholarly biography of Tagore in Bengali by Prasanta Kumar Pal sheds light on what led to Tagore's fiery decision (Rabijibani, Vol. 7, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1990, pp 410-425 and 476-479).

While the detailed information about the Amritsar tragedy took time to trickle 'through gagged silence' to other parts, Tagore's anguish had started manifesting itself in various ways. Terming the British rule 'one continued lie, one perpetual deceit', he wrote, 'And today in 1919 the last shred of pretence at equality is thrown away… in acts of flogging of Indians… in aeroplanes bombing helpless villagers and machine guns firing on crowds…'

CF Andrews, a missionary close to both Gandhi and Tagore, met Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and wrote to Tagore on May 14: 'Then the Viceroy saw me, and every hope I had was dashed to the ground on that day…' Andrews, like Gandhi and other leaders, was not allowed to enter Amritsar. He, however, met Gandhi and then returned to Santiniketan. On being updated by Andrews, Tagore was completely heartbroken. During this period, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis,  statistician and (later) founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, was in constant company of Tagore and wrote how an agonised Tagore had taken to bed. According to Mahalanobis, it was intolerable for the poet that none had been protesting. He then sent Andrews to Gandhi with a proposal that if 'Mahatmaji' was willing, he would go to Delhi to meet him and then the two of them will try to enter Punjab. Then both of them would be arrested, and that would be their protest.

With this proposal, Andrews left to meet Gandhi. On his return, Tagore impatiently asked for the details of Andrew's meeting with him. Andrews replied that 'Gandhiji' is not willing to enter Punjab — 'I do not want to embarrass the Government now.' Tagore fell completely silent. (pragmatist Gandhi might have feared that any visit without permission leading to his arrest would trigger further violence).

Disappointed, Tagore went to meet Chittaranjan Das, suggesting that a meeting of protest be convened which Tagore agreed to preside over. This also did not work out. Finding no major political leader by his side, Tagore decided his course of action to denounce the brutality.

When Andrews was shown by Tagore the letter he had drafted for the Viceroy, Andrews pleaded that it be somewhat softened and noted, 'Such a look as I had never seen in the eyes of Gurudev before or after.' Tagore's letter dated May 31 symbolised the national sentiment in clear terms. 

It read: '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… The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people, and the methods of carrying them out… are without parallel in history of civilised governments… The callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers… Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding… the very least 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… And these are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency… to relieve me of my title of Knighthood…'

Even a nationalist newspaper criticised him for taking such risks. Lord Chelmsford did not expect this. Tagore's 'insolence of resigning an honour conferred by the King…' was noted. And The Englishman mocked, '…As if it mattered to the reputation, the honour and the security of British rule and justice whether this Bengali poet remained a Knight or a plain Babu!' Some others criticised Tagore's action as hasty, dramatic or premature. However, the rulers, having known Tagore's near-cult status then in the West and his national standing as the Gurudev, could not ignore his action. 

Martial law was withdrawn from the Punjab on June 9. Kalinath Ray, Editor of The Tribune, who had been charged with sedition and imprisoned, was released on July 27. The Punjab situation started gradually improving. But India was no more the same. If the Jallianwala Bagh incident marks a watershed in our struggle for freedom, Tagore played no mean role in it.

(Acknowledgement: Rabijibani, Vol. 7 by Prasanta Kumar Pal, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1990).

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