Rabindranath Tagore’s Letter to Lord Chelmsford, repudiating his Knighthood.

If you have read the blog (Leopold’s ghost and other crimes against humanity), this letter written by the great Indian Philosopher, Nobel Laureate and Poet Rabindranath Tagore, serves to underscore the stark brutality of some of crimes that did not get the due public attention they deserved (as usual, as the perpetrators were the ‘occupying’ force at the time). The incident in question was the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of unarmed Indian civilians by British troops under General Dyer. Sadly (and not surprisingly) there were no real consequences meted out to General Dyer and his peers.

This is brilliant prose employed to delivere Tagore’s ultimate rebuke to British Authority – repudiating his Order of Knighthood…

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 imparting 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 something every cry of pain of judgment from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is building the noble vision of statesmanship in out Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous, as befitting its physical strength and normal 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. And these are the reasons which have 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.

6, Dwarakanath Tagore Lane,
May 30, 1919

Note: The Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre (alternately referred to as the Amristar Massacre) occurred on April 13, 1919 at Jallianwalla Bagh (Garden) in the North Indian City of Amristar. A troop of British Indian Army soldiers under Brigadier – General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a gathering of unarmed men, women and children. The firing continued for 10 to 15 minutes, lasting until the soldiers ran out of ammunition.Official British sources at the time placed the fatalities at 379 with 1100 wounded. The Civil Surgeon (Dr. Smith) reported that there were 1,526 casualties (Source: Wikip

King Leopold’s Ghost and other crimes against humanity…

I have always been fascinated with our natural tendency to parcel out justice as we see fit – and mostly to those of our own ilk. If you were to catalogue the occasions when wrong has been perpetuated against people of (mostly) non-caucasian backgrounds, and then attempt to understand what (if any) formal undertakings were initiated to ensure proper restoration and/or reparation to their original circumstances (the only way proper restoration can be said to have occurred), you will find that sadly we have seldom done enough!
King Leopold of Belgium is a good case in point. He did not much care for his native land or his subjects, only considering them in terms of “small country, small people.” So he immersed himself in the pursuit of establishing a colony for Belgium, (anxious that the other European powers vying for overseas dominions in Africa and Asia would leave nothing for himself or his people). He finally set sights on what would become the Belgian Congo, later known as Zaire (or simply as Congo). Leopold immediately established a rule of terror that would culminate in the deaths of 4 to 8 million indigenous people. The survivors were forced to work in mining ore or harvesting rubber, all of which ensured Leo’s coffers were kept full to the brim at all times (Billions of dollars of this ‘loot’ was tucked away in hidden bank accounts throughout the world).
Surely this was one of the greatest, most horrifying (and often most overlooked) crimes of the century, lasting from 1885 until 1909 (24 years). Mercenaries were deployed to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, raze villages to the ground and commit the most horrific of crimes including, rape, executions, dismemberments (particluarly the chopping off of hands to prove that the specific number of people had been dealt with as ordered).
The subsequent international Congo reform movement that was launched was supported by icons of the time such as Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Arthur Conan Doyle. In his bestselling book ‘Heart of Darkness’, Joseph Conrad evoked his own disgust and disenchantment with Leopold’s rape of the Congo in the poor guise of a civilizing mission to tame the savage.
I am not aware to this date, of any recompense that was awarded to the peoples of the Congo – either in whole or in part. I do know however, based on the book by Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost – the source of this article) that leopold was able to actually ‘sell’ the Congo back to his own country Belgium, at a great personal profit, barely one year before he died. The Belgium government retained their colony in the Congo for the next 50 years or so till 1960.
Now if you were to extrapolate the same kind of scrutiny towards the taking over of the Native Indian lands in the Americas, the slave trade initiated by the European nations, the British colonization of Saudi Arabia and India, the Dutch colonization of the Transvaal (South Africa) etc., you are more than likely to discover an equally stupefying history of crimes against humanity, most of which remain yet to be properly addressed , or where proper compensation and/or restoration is yet to occur.
Interestingly enough, I do not believe I have ever read the word ‘Holocaust’ utilized in the same context as leopold’s exploits in the Congo, nor in the context of the White settlers and their taking over of the Native Indian lands in the America’s.