13 April, 1919, Amritsar. The venue was Jallianwala Bagh, a park enclosed by walls on three sides, with just one exit point via an obscure, narrow lane. A shootout was ordered by Brigadier General Reginald E. H. Dyer, who later on faced a tribunal and was removed from service. He had emptied all the ammunition in ten minutes, firing 1,650 rounds (approximately), killing thousands who hardly figure in the 'official statistics' given out by the British Government or even the Indian National Congress.
It was a Sunday. Some 15,000 — 20,000 people assembled at Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Baisakhi Purnima. It's true that meetings had been banned in view of a probable insurgency, but a peaceful gathering (women, children and aged people included) couldn't have been a 'threat' for the well equipped Angrez Police.
Rabindranath Tagore got to know the details by 22 May, 1919. The mass media kept mum and whatever reportage was given out was heavily 'censored' or distorted. Tagore had a tough time figuring out what's what. None of his political acquaintances, seemed to be as bothered as him about the hapless lot facing the gun. There had been no word of caution or warning from General Dyre. The force positioned itself in practiced silence and opened fire gunning down even those who tried escaping by climbing the walls as the only available option.
Some of the people survived. They were instructed to walk on their knees and hands like four legged animals and paraded naked in broad day light. Men and women. Alike
In his agitated state of mind Rabindranath (an insomniac anyway) lost whatever little sleep he could catch up with.
After distraught attempts to get concrete news, arrange meetings and lead organized protests failed (his friend Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das was helpless too), Tagore dashed off an overnight letter to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford on May 30, 1919 requesting to be kindly relieved of the burden of his knighthood.
The Tagore family had been directly associated with the Indian National Congress and the freedom movement in general. Rabindranath used to be part of the annual sessions of Congress. But after Jallianwala Bagh, the senior Congress leadership refused to convene a protest session in Kolkata as they felt it would be too abrupt. This also helped them avoid issuing an 'official' statement of condemnation or formulate policies to act accordingly.
It's a new millennium altogether. An independent India, living through political criminalization, corporate scams, land grabbing and state sponsored terrorism appeals to reason in utter futility. Gunmen annihilating co-citizens at a single nod of affirmation, 'communists' killing communists, industry-wallahs banishing farmers, and netas combing out 'tribals' from their forest home lands… don't make for a good democracy. Something has severely gone wrong with us. Somewhere. With 'counter insurgency' being the order of the day, would Tagore's letter make any difference today, particularly when he has been repeatedly classified as 'BOORJOWA KOBI' (i.e. bourgeois poet) or the 'Queen's loyalist' ! May be his letter to Lord Chelmsford could help us think better.
The transcript of the original letter :-
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.
Calcutta, May 30, 1919