A fortnight from now, on April 13, “Jallianwala Bagh” will reach its centenary. If the name of any physical spot, a precinct, has become a symbol of something that changed history, it is Jallianwala. Golgotha two millennia ago, Auschwitz seventy years ago, Sharpeville, South Africa, in 1960, Tiananmen Square, China, in 1989, are others in the same league of history-changers.

One hundred years are a long time in political history. Long enough for any event to be plastered over by subsequent happenings, later occurrences. Long enough for the event to turn from the vivid colours of felt experience into the sepia of fading memory. But not so, Jallianwala, Amritsar. On April 13, 1919, Amritsar became India. An India outraged, bloodied, but made amazingly and unprecedentedly resolute. Jallianwala Bagh was no site of an event or occurrence but of a trauma. A trauma so deep as to have altered the very composition of India’s political psyche, the chemistry of Indians as a people.

This column, Kitabistani, is about books. But today, not a new book but an act of writing that is one hundred years old, must occupy it. And one that is not in the form of a book either, but two letters.

Rabindranath Tagore was, at the time of the mowing down of men and women and children at the Bagh, “Sir” Rabindranath. And he had been a Nobel Laureate for Literature for six years. One day prior to the massacre, on April 12, 1919, he wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi from Santiniketan. In this most moving text he wrote about what he called “the great gift of freedom”:

“…India’s opportunity for winning it will come to her when she can prove that she is morally superior to the people who rule her by their right of conquest. She must willingly accept her penance of suffering, the suffering which is the crown of the great. Armed with her utter faith in goodness, she must stand unabashed before the arrogance that scoffs at the power of spirit.” 

Tagore ended the letter, as a poet would, with a verse. “Give me”, he said in it, “the faith of the life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailness of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt but disdains to return it”.

If the prescient brilliance of the letter is incredible, so is its sagacity. This letter from the Poet to the Mahatma must have been in the tracks of the Raj’s postal system when Jallianwala bled.

It reached its destination, fortunately uncensored, some days later, by which time Jallianwala had singed the nation’s soul. On May 30, 1919, after what must have been a period of intense agony and cogitation caused not just by the carnage of April 13, but the callousness of the Raj thereafter, in terms of insulting punishments and humiliations, Tagore picked up his pen, this time not just that of a Nobel Laureate but that of a Knight of the British Empire, to write a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford. It bears full and repeated reading. Readers of this column can access it in multiple ways. I will quote from it elliptically.

Telling His Excellency that Jallianwala had “revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India”, Tagore said what had occurred was “without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.” News of the sufferings , he wrote, had “trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India”.

The indignation caused to India had, he said, been ignored by its rulers who, he said, were “possibly congratulating themselves for imparting what they imagine as salutary lessons”. Some, he said with pain, had “gone to the brutal length of making fun of our suffering without receiving the least check from the same authority”.

The concluding part of the letter is pure redemption. “The time has come”, he wrote to the Viceroy, “when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation”. And in words that must have stung its reader, Tagore went on: “ I for my part, wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings”. In conclusion, he asked of the Viceroy “…relieve me of the title of knighthood”.

Tagore’s chastisement of the “arrogance that scoffs at the power of spirit” must sober any State anywhere. And his description of the power of “gagged speech” will empower those who value freedom everywhere. But beyond even those signal impacts, these two letters of his have to be reckoned, this centenary year, as paraphrasing his song, our nation’s anthem.

Tagore's letter was circulated as a pamphlet in London.
Tagore's letter was circulated as a pamphlet in London.