In October 1916, Rabindranath Tagore reached San Francisco as part of his three-month long tour of the United States. This was his second visit to the country, his first since winning the Nobel for literature in 1913.

Tagore travelled as World War I raged in Europe, one the US would enter only in April 1917. He sailed from Japan, crossing the Pacific Ocean – as the Atlantic route was off bounds this time – to reach Portland, Oregon, on October 1, 1916. On October 4, he reached San Francisco, where, a few days later, as newspapers of the time report, there was an attempt on his life.

This little known story also relates to how Tagore was seen among the small South Asian community then in the US, as well as to two organisations: the Khalsa Diwan Society based in Stockton, and the Hindustan Ghadar party with its headquarters in San Francisco, born within months of each other.

The Khalsa Diwan Society, mainly a religious and socio-reform organisation, was set up in 1912, and established a permanent gurudwara, the first in the US, at Stockton in 1915. The Ghadar, meaning “revolution” in Urdu, founded in 1913, had political aims. It aimed to raise funds and volunteers from among the mostly Punjabi emigrants, numbering in the few thousands, in America, to foment revolt against British rule. In 1915, a year before Tagore’s visit, the Ghadar, in association with German agents had actively tried a gun-running campaign into India, one that failed spectacularly.

The Ghadar Party and Tagore

Tagore’s visit wasn’t political, and this drew the Ghadar’s ire. The Ghadar leader of the time, Ram Chandra Bhardwaj, who generally went by his first name, also edited the Hindustan Ghadar, published in Punjabi and Urdu and occasionally in English. Chandra was radically critical of British policies, and advocated violent resistance to British rule.

In his first editorials relating to Tagore, in early October, Ram Chandra’s vitriol was directed against the British, whom he accused of censoring and spying on Indian intellectuals including Jagdish Chandra Bose and Tagore. But things changed in early October, by which time Tagore was already in San Francisco, and staying at the Palace Hotel.

On October 5, 1916, Ram Chandra’s scathing criticism of Tagore appeared in a long letter to the San Francisco Examiner. “For all the appreciation directed towards Tagore, he now stands for Old India,” he wrote. Chandra condemned Tagore for accepting a knighthood from the British, and considering British rule as benign as Mughal rule. Under the Mughals, Chandra pointed out, Hindus had been appointed to high positions, whereas the proportion of Indians to British in the government (local and central) was abysmal; the drain of wealth to Britain remained in millions of dollars.

Fracas in San Francisco

Meanwhile, a San Francisco based detective William Mundell was already reporting on Indian rebel activity to British intelligence agents in the US. Mundell, in fact, was a double agent of sorts, for he had been engaged by one Ghadar faction to spy on Ram Chandra and his associates. The former believed, not without reasonable suspicion, that Ram Chandra was siphoning off German funds to buy real estate in a personal capacity. Mundell tipped the police off about a possible threat to Tagore.

On October 5, just outside the Palace Hotel, where Tagore was staying, two Khalsa Diwan members, Bishen Singh Mattu and Umrao Singh, were attacked by Hateshi Singh and Jiwan Singh, later established to be Ghadar party members. Mattu’s turban was torn off his head, the men came to fisticuffs before the police intervened. The Ghadar members soon found themselves in jail.

A shaken Mattu later gave his account. They had been on their way from Fresno, two hours south, to Stockton, by train when they had disclosed their plan, to invite Tagore for a lecture, to a fellow “Hindu”. The men parted at the Alameda terminal, where trains terminated for the rail ferry service to San Francisco. Mattu believed the “informant” had carried news of their plans to the Ghadar.

Though detectives said their real target was Tagore, he was unharmed. Tagore was protected by two overzealous detectives, who refused to let any “Hindu” (a popular misnomer for all South Asians in the US then) enter the audience at the Columbia Theater where he was speaking that very evening; the police guarded him for the rest of his stay at the Palace Hotel.

Tagore, as newspapers report, was taken out of the stage door, and secreted in through the back entrance of the hotel; a similar ruse was used to get him out of the hotel to take the Lake Train to Santa Barbara, an hour or so away, for he was advised to cancel his other engagements and leave immediately. To the press, Tagore denied any knowledge about the attack on Bishen Singh Mattu, merely saying it appeared to be about some “political differences” in which he had no interest.

“The Cult of Tagore”

Despite the panic, the Examiner wrote that Tagore scored his greatest success in San Francisco. “The Cult of Tagore has Taken the World by Storm,” ran its headline. The scholar, Stephen Hay writing in the American Quarterly in 1962 writes that in Los Angeles where he came soon after, his lectures were equally well attended.

The Los Angeles Times wrote glowingly that “Tagore is 55, and looks like the pictures men paint of the Christ. He has been the inspiration for India’s new nationalism and cornerstone of its modern education.” Los Angeles, it declared, “buys more of his books than any other city of the country.”

Another California newspaper, the Hanford Kings County Sentinel, had a piece titled, “Why the World Loves Tagore.” The New York Times in end-October gave a detailed write-up of Tagore’s visit and his books. Tagore, who was in New York all of November that year, was described as a “tall, stately man”, his face suggesting “some portraits of (Walt) Whitman but with greater delicacy.”

According to Stephen Hay in his essay “Tagore in America” (American Quarterly, 1962), the “Cult of Nationalism” was the principal lecture in Tagore’s repertory. Soon to become a book, Tagore condemned the soul-stifling discipline and savage greed of the modern nation state. He warned his American audiences, “Not merely subject races but you who live under the delusion that you are free are every day sacrificing your freedom and humanity to the fetish of nationalism living in the dense poisonous atmosphere of worldwide suspicion and greed and panic.”

With the war in Europe, “the death throes of the nation have begun”. When it was all over, the West would have need of the simple virtues of India and the other “no-nations” of the world who would bring their “sacred water of worship to sweeten the history of man into purity.”

Tagore cut short his trip in Boston, already exhausted, feeling as he wrote in a letter, like a “bale of cotton transported from place to place.” In 1917, having completed his book, Nationalism, he wished to dedicate it to then American President Woodrow Wilson, but this ran into some roadblocks, chiefly on account of Tagore’s name appearing during the Hindu-German conspiracy trial of 1917-1918.

The “Hindu-German” conspiracy

The conspiracy led to the arrest of several Ghadar members on charges of conspiring with the Germans, something illegal as per America’s Neutrality Act. During the trial that began in November 1917 in San Francisco, Tagore’s name featured on two occasions. Heramba Lal Gupta, a Ghadar associate arrested in Chicago, had apparently telegrammed Rama Chandra asking for copies of Tagore’s ideas on national subjects to be used as “propaganda.”

Another letter from an Indian agent in Washington DC to a German counterpart in Amsterdam asserted that Tagore had come to the US at “our suggestion,” and implied that he had tried to “enlist support for the conspiracy from Count Okuma and others during his stay in Japan.” The defence attorney during the trial did ask the prosecuting lawyer, John Preston, why Tagore was not being tried, on which the latter replied, half facetiously that “he got away in the rush.”

The news reached Tagore only towards the end of the trial in April 1918. On April 23, Ram Chandra was shot dead by a rival Ghadar member in the courtroom. Tagore’s protests against his name being dragged in included a telegram sent on May 13, 1918 and a letter on July 31, railing against such lying calumnies and “audacious pieces of fabrication.” He had received hospitality in America and would never have accepted it while “wallowing in the subsoil sewerage of treason.”

The telegram was forwarded to the justice department but was soon lost in a mesh of bureaucratic exchanges as negotiations with Germany and Austria-Hungary to end World War I began. Tagore’s Nationalism was published in 1917 without the necessary dedication and it remains a much-read and often-cited work. In 1919, soon after the Jallianwala Bagh violence of April 13, Tagore went on to renounce his knighthood. He also visited the US on three more occasions, in 1920-21, 1928, and 1930.