April 13, 1919: It was Baisakhi day, a festival when people celebrate the beginning of the harvesting season. As every year, people were congregating in community fairs in the city of Amritsar, Panjab. A large unarmed crowd of ordinary people had gathered near a public square called Jalianwallah Bagh. They did not know that a political meeting was being held there. General Dyer, a powerful Commander in the British army, wanted to break up the meeting by force and ordered the battalion at his disposal to fire. The square was bounded on all sides, with a very narrow entrance and pathway, so that people could not escape from the firing. Official estimates reported 379 deaths but unofficial estimates were much higher. Below is the letter Tagore wrote to the Viceroy asking that his knighthood be revoked:
- A portrait created by Shubnam Gill, inspired by Tagore’s famous song “Let the Fire Purify My Soul”. Published here with permission of the artist
Click here for more art by Shubnam Gill.
‘Crisis of Civilization’ – was last public speech which Tagore gave on the occassion of his eightieth birthday in April 1941.
“One day I had to leave the exotic world of literary enchantment. That day the extreme poverty of the Indian masses revealed itself to me: it was heartwrenching. Food, clothing, water, education, health – such gross depravation of each and every fundamental need of the human mind and body has perhaps not occurred in any other modern state. … As long I was immersed in the pursuing the glory of the ‘civilised world’, I could not imagine such a brutal distortion of the human ideal that calls itself ‘civilisation’. ..and yet it is this country that has supplied the British with their wealth for a very long time. Finally, I have come to see through this perversion – and through it – the limitless arrogance and indifference of the ‘civilised’ towards the several crores of people”
In the same essay, he says
As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises
Read the full text here (reproduced from The Great Speeches of Modern India, edited by noted historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee).