Gandhi, Tagore and two aspects of the truth by Lord Bruce

This is a year of important anniversaries in British history. It marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and the bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo. But it also marks an encounter of very special significance to the history of India in the 20th century.

Lord Bruce
Lord Bruce

On 8th January 1915 Mohandas K Gandhi returned to India from South Africa to participate in the struggle for freedom from British rule. Within two months of arriving in Bombay, he travelled to Santiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore.

This was the first meeting of the two towering figures who together would fashion the identity of India as an independent state. Yet it was also an unlikely pairing of two men of diverse backgrounds and temperament, whose views on the future of their country were shaped by very different perspectives. This paper will explore these twin aspects of truth, which emerged at a very critical moment in the independence movement, in the period following their meeting, and which came to define the paradigm of their relationship.

In their biography of Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson draw out the many differences that distinguish Tagore from Gandhi: “the cherisher of beauty versus the ascetic; the artist versus the utilitarian; the thinker versus the man of action; the individualist versus the politician; the elitist  versus the populist; the widely read, versus the narrowly-read; the modernist versus the reactionary; the believer in science versus the anti-scientist; the synthesiser of East and West versus the Indian chauvinist; the internationalist versus the nationalist; the traveller versus the stay-at-home; the Bengali versus the Gujarati; the scholarly Brahmin versus the merchant Vaishya . . . the fine flowing robes and beard versus the coarse loincloth and bald pate” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 237).

Some of these distinctions became immediately clear when the two met for the first time at Santiniketan. Kaka Kalelkar, a close associate of Gandhi, recorded the scene for posterity: “All the teachers, including me, were consumed with a great desire to see how these two sons of Bharat-Mata would conduct themselves at the first meeting.

So . . . we went into the drawing room with Bapu. Ravibabu rose from the sofa on which he had been sitting. His tall stately figure, his silvery hair, his long beard, his impressive choga (gown) all this went to make a magnificent picture. And there, in almost comical contrast, stood Gandhiji, in his skimpy dhoti, his simple kurta, and his Kashmiri cap. It was like a lion confronting a mouse…” (

By the time Tagore and Gandhi met in 1915, they had taken very different routes to defining the purpose and prospect of self-determination for India. For Gandhi, the experience of representing displaced indentured Indian labourers in the Transvaal had given him a critical understanding of how to challenge colonial authority. Between 1893 and 1914, he spent 21 years in South Africa.  Arguably the most formative moment of this period occurred on the evening of 7th June 1893 when, together  with his luggage, he was thrown from the Pretoria express onto the platform at Pietermaritzburg station for the impudence of possessing a first class ticket.

The significance of this event was memorably recounted by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in a speech he gave on India Day in Edinburgh in October last year. He explained that his grandfather “…fell with a railway ticket that was dishonoured (but) rose with a testament that symbolised honour; he fell a traveller but rose a turbine; fell a lawyer but rose a statesman; his legal brief became a political cause; his sense of human decency transformed itself into a passion for human justice. The personal died within him that moment and became public… Gandhi was not flung from a stationary train, he was launched from a moving vehicle of destiny” (Gandhi 2014: 3).

It is important to realise that many of the methods of confronting and resisting colonial oppression, which have become associated with Gandhi, had their origins in South Africa. His mastery of mass communication started in Johannesburg with his publication of the newspaper Indian Opinion in 1903. The idea of passive resistance emerged from a meeting of Indian businessmen at the English Theatre in Johannesburg in September 1906, at which he spoke against the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which required Indians to register with ten finger prints.

His supreme self-confidence to navigate imperial power structures to press his case brought him to London in 1906 where he was granted an interview with the Colonial Secretary – who happened to be my great grandfather – and his under-secretary Winston Churchill. His ultimate moment of disillusionment with the British Empire probably happened in 1908 when he was imprisoned and sentenced to two months hard labour for refusing to register under the recently passed Immigrants Restriction Act.

On a subsequent visit to London in 1909 he was to discover the hypocrisy of British values when he failed to convince the Liberal government to amend the racial terms of the Act. It was on his return voyage to South Africa in 1909 that he wrote Hind Swaraj, “the key document in Gandhi’s discovery of himself as an Indian nationalist” (Copley 1997: 25). But it was in the organisation of a wide-ranging civil rights movement in the Transvaal that he proved beyond doubt the effectiveness of satyagraha.

Looking closely at the period leading to their meeting in 1915, it is interesting to compare Gandhi’s record as a civil rights activist with Tagore. Gandhi’s reputation for persistent criticism of the treatment of Asiatic minority rights in Transvaal and Natal began steadily to accelerate from 1905. Tagore, in contrast, faced the impending partition of Bengal that year with the authority of a widely published poet and songwriter.

But by 1907 his burning indignation had turned to remorse in the wake of communalist riots which broke out in Calcutta. In their biography of Tagore, Dutta and Robinson claim that the “Swadeshi movement turned out to be the precursor of Gandhi’s movement (but) it failed to develop because in Bengal there was no one capable of wearing the mantle of leadership. Tagore was the only one who might have done; but when it lay within his grasp, he felt unable . . . and escaped to Santiniketan” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 143).

It is worth recalling exactly how Tagore emerged as a representative of anti-colonial agitation at this time and how he later reflected on this period of his life. He made rare appearances in Calcutta following the Proclamation of Partition in July 1905 but later that year in the run up to Partition Day he composed no fewer than 23 patriotic songs in one month. One song in particular, “Banglar Mati Banglar Jal” (“The Soil and Waters of Bengal”) was adopted spontaneously as an anthem of protest.

Many years later Nirad Chaudhuri reflected on the impact which the song had made on him as a boy in East Bengal: “Even now I cannot read the words of these songs…without instantly bringing back…all the sounds from the soft rumble of the rain on our corrugated-iron roofs…and all the sights of the boats on our great rivers to the spreading banian tree . . . the sights and sounds which embody for me the idea of Bengal” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 144).

For Tagore, possibly the most painful experience of this formative time was his brush with nationalist politics. In 1904 he wrote the essay “Swadeshi Samaj” (“Society and State”), which was published in the magazine Bangadarshan. For the first time, he took a swipe at the meetings of Congress which he had attended and the self-serving nature of political engagement. “The moment we come into contact with a person, we strike up a relationship with him,“ he wrote,  “we do not slip into the habit of looking on man as a machine or a tool for the furtherance of some interest” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 143).

For the remainder of his life Tagore never relinquished his antipathy to the political process. In a letter written in 1930 to the Scottish philanthropist Sir Daniel Hamilton, who had pioneered rural reconstruction in the Sunderbans, Tagore reflected on the shortcomings of Congress’s emerging leadership: “We . . . fondly cherish the pathetic faith that the deep-rooted welfare of a country can be grown chiefly on the surface soil of politics” (Dutta & Robinson 1997: 382).

Dismissing the machinations of politics, Tagore further refined his thesis in a lecture entitled Nationalism in India which he gave on his first American tour in 1917.  Characterising the evolution of the nation state as the machinery of commerce and politics, he promoted an alternative concept of society “which has no ulterior purpose but is an end in itself . . . a spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being.

It is a natural regulator of human relationships so that man can develop ideals of life in co-operation with one another” (Collins 2012: 51). Introducing the 1991 edition of Nationalism, Edward Palmer Thompson, one of the most influential political historians of the twentieth century, emphasised the profundity of Tagore’s theories: “More than any other thinker of his time, Tagore had a clear conception of civil society, as something distinct from and of stronger and more personal texture than political or economic structure.”

There is no doubt that Tagore’s conception of civil society was put severely to the test in the spring of 1919.  At the meeting on 21st March under the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi passed The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, thus extending the emergency measures indefinitely, which were brought in during the First World War to control public unrest and to root out conspiracy. During the months leading up to the enactment of the new laws, Gandhi busied himself organising his followers to defy the authorities. On April 6th he declared a nationwide hartal. The day before, he wrote to Tagore asking for a public declaration of support for satyagraha.

Tagore responded a week later on 12th April with a prophetic warning quite chilling in its prescience. He wrote: “I know your teaching is to fight against evil by the help of the good. But such a fight is for heroes and not for men led by impulses of the moment. Evil on one side naturally begets evil on the other, injustice leading to violence and insult to vengefulness. Unfortunately . . . either through panic or wrath our authorities have shown us their claws (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 215).

“Moreover,” he continued, “power in all its forms, is irrational – like the horse which drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented in the man who drives the horse. Passive resistance is a force which is not necessarily moral in itself; it can be used against truth as well as for it” (Collins 2012: 79).

Indeed, Michael Collins makes the important point that “Tagore refused to see the idea of non-co-operation in a positive light simply because it was non-violent. Instead he placed his emphasis on the subjective intentionality of those carrying out the act . . . Satyagraha was not an end in itself; its moral value depended on the ends to which it was directed, and crucially, the motivations for its invocation” (Ibid.).

The day before Tagore wrote his letter to Gandhi, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer arrived in Amritsar to take military control of the city. His response was prompted by unrest resulting from the deportation of two well-known civil rights agitators from the Punjab, who had both responded to Gandhi’s call.

Their arrest had sparked a riot which resulted in the burning of several public buildings, the death of three Europeans and the assault of an English school teacher. On 13th April at the head of three platoons of Gurkha and Pathan riflemen, Dyer marched to the Jallianwala Bagh, a public square in the midst of the city, where a crowd of 20,000 had gathered in contravention of public orders, posted and proclaimed throughout the city for two days proscribing assembly.

What followed, however, was later described by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons as “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire . . . an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” (Hansard 1920).

Invoking his authority as senior military officer, Dyer had ordered his men to fire into the crowd until they had expended all their ammunition. The carnage that resulted was caused partly by the lack of escape routes available to the crowd, caught in a cramped space. In the inquiry and parliamentary debates that followed, the general’s motivation was hotly debated.

Some argued that he had been panicked into ordering his men to fire, while others believed he had intended a deliberate act of deterrence to prevent the outbreak of an insurrection on the scale of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Hansard 1920).  But the firing lasted for ten minutes.  Over 1,600 rounds were fired, resulting in the death of 378 unarmed civilians with a further 1,137 injured.

It seems that Gandhi’s immediate reaction to the events in Amritsar was one of contrition. He made a public admission of guilt in Ahmedabad on the 14th April, the day after the massacre, saying that “a rapier run through my body could hardly have pained me more” (Collins 2012: 80). As Michael Collins infers, as the course of Satyagraha unfolded Gandhi quickly realised that the use of mass public protest and non-violent methods was potentially subject to aberrations on the one side, which in turn had the potential to, as Tagore put it, “beget evil on the other” (Ibid.).

In a letter written on 19th April, Gandhi could well have been referring to the warning he received from Tagore on the eve of the massacre: “I at least should have foreseen some of the consequences, specially in view of the gravest warnings that were given to me by friends whose advice I have always sought and valued” (Ibid.).

Tagore became aware of the events in the Punjab around a week later, but a full understanding of the situation was clouded by press censorship. Indeed his most reliable source of information was the Anglican cleric Charles Andrews, who had met the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and reported afterwards that his excellency had been “cold as ice and full of racial bitterness” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 216).

By the middle of May, a month after the massacre, Tagore felt compelled to act in the absence of any public statement from Gandhi or other Congress leaders. On 30th May he wrote to Lord Chelmsford asking to be relieved of the knighthood conferred on him by George V in 1915 to mark his receipt off the Nobel Prize in Literature. His letter will stand for all time as an incendiary denunciation of colonialism.

He wrote: “The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab . . . has with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India . . . Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power that 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 . . . 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 a degradation not fit for human beings” (Ibid.).

With these words, I suggest Tagore assumed the mantle of moral leadership of the freedom struggle which had eluded him during the 1907 Swadeshi movement. The aftermath of the Amritsar massacre clearly defined a point of difference with Gandhi which later would be reinforced by their dispute over the non-co-operation movement and the adoption of the Charka. As Dutta and Robinson conclude: “the two men grew nearer again, but only at the intuitive level, hardly at all intellectually. Respect there was on both sides – even love, but not much understanding” (Robinson & Dutta 2008: 237).

In 1961 Jawaharlal Nehru recalled the impact that both men had made on him 40 years before. Although he agreed with Gandhi in 1921, as he grew older and wiser, “the more I have read what Tagore wrote then, the more I have appreciated it and felt in tune with it” (Dutta & Robinson 2008: 240). Their  exchange, in Nehru’s view “represented two aspects of the truth, neither of which can be ignored” (Ibid.).



  • Collins, M, Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World, Routledge, London (2012).
  • Copley, A, Gandhi: Against the tide, Oxford Paperbacks; New Ed edition (1997).
  • Dutta, K, and Robinson, A, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, Cambridge, Delhi, (1997).
  • Dutta, K, and Robinson, A, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad Minded Man, Bloomsbury, London (2008).
  • Gandhi, G, Speech given at Edinburgh University, October 2014.
  • Hansard, ‘Army Council and General Dyer,’ House of Commons Debate, 08 July 1920, vol. 131 cc 1705-819 (1920).
  •, ‘Students’ Projects: Gandhi’s Inspiring Short Stories’, 2015 <> [accessed 2 May 2015].

Note: This article is based on a talk given at the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies Edinburgh Napier University on 12 May 2015.