Some knights are forever

Knight Bachelor got no insignia with the title

The most dramatic and immediate denunciation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre came from Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote to the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, on May 31, 1919, barely six weeks after the horrific massacre—renouncing the knighthood conferred on him in 1915. For good measure he simultaneously released the letter to the press and telegraphed it to Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India.

Tagore’s early reaction was proof, if proof were needed, that the poet’s prescience is sharper than the politician’s; not just the Indian nationalist leaders but even London was not fully aware of the extent of violence that had taken place in Punjab. Martial law was still in place with strict press censorship and travel restrictions. To be sure, in response to spreading demands, Montagu had just decided to set up an inquiry committee; the announcement of the Congress inquiry would come later. Tagore, however, quickly made his judgement based on the accounts that had “trickled through the gagged silence” and decided to give “voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror”.

The story does not quite end there. Tagore’s announcement, though barely noticed in the London press, sent Whitehall into a tizzy. The slim file in the India Office archives makes interesting reading.

First, of course, there are Knights and knights; Rabindranath Tagore was a Knight Bachelor, a category of knighthood that dates back to Henry III. Without going into its arcane and oh-so-British history, suffice it to say that Knight Bachelorhood, while being the most ancient, was also the lowest ranking; its members missed out on entering into any order of chivalry like the Thistle or Garter. More to the point, a Knight Bachelor got no insignia with the title (only in 1926 was a badge with swords, spurs, pommels and rowels approved for such knights).

Hence there was nothing that Tagore could physically return by way of definitive renunciation unlike the eminent jurist and leading member of the Theosophical Society, Sir Subramania Iyer who had renounced his 1900 honour of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire (KCIE) in 1917. Iyer had been rebuked by the British when he had written to the American president, Woodrow Wilson, excoriating British misrule in India; in response, he sent back his medals of KCIE and Dewan Bahadur.

A Knight Bachelorhood could only be revoked, or “degraded” by a letters patent issued by the king. This had been done in the case of the British diplomat Roger Casement, accused of treason during the 1916 Irish insurrection against British rule. Casement, mentioned earlier in these columns, was hanged in the same Pentonville prison as Udham Singh, and buried in the same patch. Much later, Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the Cambridge Five spies, was similarly degraded.

But in the case of Tagore, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, a degradation would have attracted too much publicity and been seen as an admission of a mistaken policy in Punjab. Chelmsford proposed, and Montagu agreed, that the Viceroy simply reply to Tagore saying that he was in no position to relieve him of his title and nor would he make any recommendation to the king. Nevertheless, it was still thought prudent to run the case by King George V. A reply from Lord Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary (and earlier private secretary to Queen Victoria), on Windsor Castle letterhead confirmed that His Majesty agreed with Whitehall’s suggestion to put the whole thing on ice. Thus, while Tagore gave up his title, the British didn’t quite know how to take it back!

Navtej Sarna is former high commissioner to the UK and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.