Tagore Letter Renouncing Knighthood

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Today is the 94th anniversary of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre, when thousands of unarmed people were fired upon by British troops consisting of Gurkha and Baluchi soldiers. It was the Massacre that ended the Raj as its direct effect was to strengthen the infant Swadeshi Movement. Rabindranath Tagore heard of the massacre on the 22 May 1919. He tried to arrange a protest meeting in Calcutta and finally decided to renounce his knighthood as “a symbolic act of protest”. In the repudiation letter, dated 30 May 1919 and addressed to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, he wrote “I … 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”

Below is the entire letter.

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 deference 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

5 thoughts on “Tagore Letter Renouncing Knighthood

  1. There is a typographical mistake – in the closing sentence ‘due reference’ should be ‘due deference’.

  2. Why Tagore did not relinquish the Nobel prize which was instituted by an arms manufacturer? Did he not know that?
    Or, was he really ignorant about the Colonial oppression when he received Knighthood? Or, whether his request for relief from Knighthood needs to be understood as a ‘politics of convenience’?

    • I admit I fail to understand why Tagore alone should have refused the Prize as it was and still is a matter of great honour and a sizeable amount of cash. By that reasoning all Nobel Laureates are benefiting from the spoils of the arms trade. I doubt that the source of Nobel’s wealth would have been as widely known at the time as it is today. It is noteworthy that Nobel was distressed by a wrongly published obituary that described him as Doctor of Death and this made him leave the bulk of his estate to the cause of the prize, which was to be given with no distinction between nations, for achievements that are beyond the personal. But this might not have been known to Indians. I doubt Tagore was unaware of the oppression although news was not as readily available in those days as today. It was unheard of to refuse an honour of that calibre in those days. He did not benefit in any way from the giving back of the Knighthood in any way, it was not something fashionable to do in the style of adopting African babies these days in Hollywood etc. But it did have the effect of drawing attention to the plight of the nation of India and it achieved that successfully. He was no warrior, or he would have certainly joined the bands of young men and women who risked their lives in resisting the British; he did what he could by returning to them what they thought was an honour that was greater than the love of country.

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