Tagore Returned Knighthood, Not Nobel

The British were never the Nobel Prize conferring authority; Tagore never returned the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1913, to the Swedish authority for any reason whatsoever; he did repudiate the 1915 knighthood following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919


Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb has got his facts terribly wrong once again. Adding to his unenviable list of bloopers, the new chief minister has made a statement that “Rabindranath Tagore returned his Nobel Prize in protest against the British.”

Deb made the remark at a function in Udaipur to mark the birth anniversary of Tagore. The fact is that it was the knighthood that Tagore had returned to the British Empire to mark his protest against the massacre. [an editorial on gaffes by BJP leaders]

In any case, the British were never the Nobel Prize conferring authority. The Nobel Prize comprises five annual international awards, with a clear separation between the prizes for science disciplines and those for the humanities. The Nobel Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee; the rest of the ‘Nobels’ come from Swedish authorities. The first awards followed the will of Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel who began the process in 1895. In 1901, the first set of prizes under the disciplines of chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology or medicine were first announced. Sixty-seven years later, Sweden’s central bank instituted the Sveriges Riksbank Prize for economics.

What Tagore had received was the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1913. The citation said he was awarded “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”. The poet never returned that award for any reason whatsoever.

It was after the massacre of 13 April 1919, where British troops under Colonel Reginald Dyer shot at a crowd of peaceful Indian demonstrators after shutting down all exit routes of the park, killing 379 innocent people, that Tagore had returned the knighthood — the title of “Sir” — conferred upon him by the British Empire.

King George V had awarded the knighthood to Tagore in the 1915 Birthday Honours.

Following is the letter the famous internationalist and humanist poet wrote on the occasion to Lord Chelmsford, the then Viceroy of India.

Calcutta [India]
31 May 1919

Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which 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. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers—possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons. This callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers, which have in some cases gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority—relentlessly careful in smothering every cry of pain and expression of judgement from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the nobler vision of statesmanship in our Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous as befitting its physical strength and moral tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and 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 degradation not fit for human beings.

These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.

Yours faithfully,
Rabindranath Tagore

[Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds., Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Letter published in Modern Review (Calcutta monthly), July 1919]

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