August 15, 2018

Where the Mind is Without Fear

On Independence Day, thinking of my mother's father who had been jailed during the Independence struggle and later became a civil servant. He died before I was born though he seems to have enjoyed poetry, and the first poem my mum ever paraphrased with me was one which her father had worked on with her: Where the Mind is Without Fear, by the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, still as relevant today as ever it was.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments;
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way;
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee;
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.
Tagore, of course, had returned his knighthood after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. He died just as the British were beginning to implement policies in the Bengal that would, by the end of WWII, contribute to the deaths of millions of Indians even as, in Europe, they did what in later decades they would come to ceaselessly advertise as a demonstration of their commitment to human rights and  justice which, it has to be said, many Indians saw no evidence of either then or earlier.

“In the case O’Dwyer vs Nair 1924 before the King’s Bench Division in London, the jury decided by a majority of 11 to 1 that General Dyer had not committed an atrocity at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, and Sankaran Nair, the defendant, was accordingly held guilty of libel,” Nandini Nair wrote in a profile of the man who had resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. “The sole dissenting juryman was none other than Harold Laski, the well-known political economist. Since the verdict of the jury was not unanimous, it was open to Nair not to accept it and seek a fresh trial. He chose not to do so, saying, “Who knows what another 12 English shopkeepers would think.” O’Dwyer offered to forgo the damages of £7,000 if Nair tendered an apology. He refused point-blank, even though it was a large sum.”

The Quit India movement began Around the time of Tagore’s death too; Naresh Fernandes describes how it was named in his book on Bombay: “In August 1942, as the Japanese seemed poised to invade India, Gandhi arrived in Bombay to address a meeting of the All India Congress Committee in Gowalia Maidan. The day before, he and his colleagues held a meeting to decide on an appropriate slogan to express their opposition to British rule. ‘Get out’, one suggested. Gandhi thought that too impolite. Another suggested ‘Retreat’ or ‘Withdraw’ but those didn’t find approval either. Finally, Yusuf Meherally turned to Gandhi with a bow and said, ‘Quit India’. Said Gandhi, ‘Amen’.”