In 1919, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) received a letter from Mahatma Gandhi, who, , disillusioned with the British wrote about the need to protest against the Rowlatt Bills. Tagore’s response was mixed. While agreeing with Gandhi that there was need to protest against the bills, he also feared that it could stoke hatred among races.
A new phase in the nationalist movement began after the passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919 and the Mahatma’s decision to launch a satyagraha movement for its repeal. As a strategist, he did not call for a movement against the Montford Reforms or in favour of Swaraj, i.e. self-government within the empire. His agitprop was focused on the Rowlatt Act. In Punjab and Delhi, the movement turned violent and Gandhi even thought of suspending it as “the occasion has arrived when I should offer satyagraha against ourselves for the violence that has occurred”.
He called it a ‘Himalayan blunder’. Tagore observed the events closely as he was concerned with its outcome. But when the movement deviated from the path that Gandhi laid down, he sent him an open letter on 12 April. It was published in the Indian Daily News on 16 April. The letter was an important document indicating the poet’s thought process and concerns.
He began the letter by addressing Gandhi as ‘Dear Mahatmaji’ and observed that “Power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfold. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it. The danger inherent in force grows stronger when it is likely to gain success, for then it becomes temptation.
I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of the good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice, leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately, such a force has already been started, and either through panic or through wrath, our authorities have shown us their claws whose sure effect is to drive some of us into the secret path of resentment and others into utter demoralisation”.
This was a serious indictment of a movement which was initiated without proper preparation. Tagore resurrected the irrationality of power itself which was a prime concern since the time of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He raised the questions regarding the use of passive resistance as a tool and the possibility of its degeneration. He could also envisage that there were two long-term negative effects of such a movement which failed to reach its desired end ~ (a) increased repression of the state which would give a fillip to terrorism and (b) lead to total demoralisation and hopelessness.
Despite this criticism, Tagore acknowledged the greatness of Gandhi as a leader. However, he cautioned the Mahatma “that the great gift of freedom can never come to a people through charity. We must win it before we can own it”. This can be achieved by demonstrating our moral superiority over the conquerors. By implication, he criticised the pre-Gandhian leaders for their ‘feebleness’ and praised the Mahatma for his courage and honesty. Gandhiji’s own admission that it was a “Himalayan blunder” gave credence to Tagore’s critique.
The massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh took place on 13 April 1919, the Hindu New Year. Gandhi blamed his countrymen rather than the British for the repression that was unleashed, one that peaked with the massacre. The Mahatma’s indictment of his own followers emboldened the British to be more openly defiant and repressive. He thanked Montague and welcomed the Crown Prince on his visit to India.
Tagore had no immediate knowledge of the Jallianwallah Bagh tragedy. Within a day or two, the news of Gandhi’s withdrawal of the movement appeared in newspapers. Gandhi’s indictment of the leadership rather than the people affirmed Tagore’s caveat. Tagore reaffirmed his faith in Gandhi’s leadership and his methods moved from Santiniketan to Kolkata. He tried to organise a protest meeting against the massacre but that did not receive any support from any leader, not even Chittaranjan Das (1870- 1925).
He sent Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940) to request Gandhi to organise some kind of protest against the massacre, but Gandhi replied that he did not want to embarrass the government. It was then that Tagore volunteered to renounce the title of Knighthood and sent a letter to the Viceroy stating that “the time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their 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 a degradation not fit for a human being”. It was the only voice of protest but it stirred the nation as well as the world.
The Daily Herald observed that the poet was neither pro-German nor anti British, but was a pointer that Indians would not renounce their rights for the sake of a title. The Manchester Guardian commented that “if we do not act now, then we are a disgraced people”. But the subsequent events proved that for Gandhi, Khilafat became more important than the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.
It is unfortunate that at the 1919 Amritsar Congress there was no mention of Tagore’s renunciation of Knighthood though the resignation of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair (1857- 1934) from the Viceroy’s council was applauded. Even in Sitaramayya’s The History of the Indian National Congress (1935), there was no mention of Tagore’s heroic and singular act.
(The writer is a retired Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)