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The Militant, 4 October 1941

Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore’s Last Article

(August 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 40, 4 October 1941, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is the last letter written by Rabindranath Tagore, the famous poet of India. On his deathbed, he received a copy of an Open Letter to Indians, written by a Miss Eleanor Rathbone, castigating the people of India as “ungrateful” in refusing to support Britain in the war. Tagore was not a revolutionist. But his letter is an eloquent indictment of British imperialism. No American organ has published Tagore’s letter. We reprint it from the British weekly, The Tribune, August 15, 1941 – THE EDITORS

* * *

I have been deeply pained at Miss Rathbone’s Open Letter to Indians. I do not know who Miss Rathbone is, but I take it that she represents the mentality of the average “well-intentioned” Britisher. Her letter is mainly addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru and I have no doubt that if that noble fighter of freedom’s battle had not been gagged behind prison-bars by Miss Rathbone’s countrymen, he would have made a fitting and spirited reply to her gratuitous sermon. His enforced silence makes it necessary for me to voice a protest even from my sick-bed.

* * *

The lady has ill-served the cause of her people by addressing so indiscreet, indeed impertinent, a challenge to our conscience. She is scandalised at our ingratitude – that having “drunk deeply at the wells of English thought,” we should still have some thought left for our poor country’s interests. English thought, insofar as it is representative of the best traditions of Western enlightenment, has indeed taught us much, but let me add that those of our countrymen who have profited by it have done so despite the official British attempts to ill-educate us.

We might have achieved introduction to Western learning through any other European language. Have all the other peoples in the world waited for the British to bring them enlightenment? It is sheer insolent self-complacence on the part of our so-called English friends to assume that had they not “taught” us, we would still have remained in the Dark Ages. Through the official British channels of education in India have flowed to our children in schools not the best of English thought but its refuse, which has only deprived them of a wholesome repast at the table of their own culture.

* * *

Assuming, however, that the English language is the only channel left to us for “enlightenment,” all that “drinking deeply at its wells” has come to is that in 1931, even after a couple of centuries of British administration, only about one per cent of the population was found to be literate in English – while in the USSR in 1932, after only fifteen years of Soviet administration, 98 per cent of the children were educated. (These figures are taken from The Statesman’s Year-Book, an English publication, not likely to err on the Russian side).

But even more necessary than the so-called culture are the bare elementary needs of existence, on which alone can any superstructure of enlightenment rest. And what have the British, who have held tight the purse-strings of our nation for more than two centuries and exploited its resources, done for our poor people ?

I look round and see famished bodies crying for bread. I have seen women in villages dig up mud for a few drops of drinking water, for wells are even more scarce in Indian villages than schools. I know that the population of England itself is today in danger of starvation and I sympathize with them, but when I see how the whole might of the British Navy is engaged in convoying food vessels to the English shores and when I recollect that I have seen our people perish of hunger and not even a cart-load of rice brought to their door from the neighboring district, I cannot help contrasting the British at home with the British in India.

* * *

Shall we then be grateful to the British, if not for keeping us fed, at least for preserving law and order? I look around and see riots raging all over the country. When scores of Indian lives are lost, our property looted, our women dishonoured, the mighty British arms stir in no action, only the British voice is raised from overseas to chide us for our unfitness to put our house in order.

Examples are not wanting in history when even fully armed warriors have shrunk before superior might and contingencies have arisen in the present war when even the bravest among the British, French and Greek soldiers have had to evacuate the battlefield in Europe because they were overwhelmed by superior armaments – but when our poor, unarmed and helpless peasants, encumbered with crying babes, flee from homes, unable to protect them from armed goondas, the British officials perhaps smile in contempt at our cowardice. Every British civilian in England is armed today for protecting his hearth and home against the enemy, but in India even lathi- training is forbidden by decree.

Our people have been deliberately disarmed and emasculated in order to keep them perpetually cowed and at the mercy of their armed masters. The British hate the Nazis for merely challenging their world-mastery and Miss Rathbone expects us to kiss the hand of her people in servility for having riveted chains on ours. A government must be judged not by the pretensions of its spokesmen but by its actual and effective contribution to the well being of the people.

* * *

It is not so much because the British are foreigners that they are unwelcome to us and have found no place in our hearts as because, while pretending to be trustees for our welfare, they have betrayed the great trust and have sacrificed the happiness of millions in India to bloat the pockets of a few capitalists at home. I should have thought that the decent Britisher would at least keep silent at these wrongs and be grateful to us for our inaction, but that he should add insult to injury, and pour salt over our wounds, passes all bounds of decency.

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