Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary

Tagore’s renunciation of OBE in 1919

David Olusoga has attempted to justify his honour. But surely black and Asian Britons should try to undo imperial delusions.

Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation.’ Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

A century ago the eminent Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the viceroy of India, which was awarded in 1915. The “time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation”, Tagore wrote in outrage as scores of peaceful protesters were massacred in Jallianwala Bagh. He would now “stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen”.

In accepting the knighthood, Tagore had been unfairly accused of being a colonial flunkey, partly because he had expressed justifiable reservations about aspects of Indian nationalism. The 1919 atrocities in Amritsar jolted the Nobel laureate into accepting that his Knight Commander of the British Empire (the CBE still in use today) could not be treated as unconnected to the bloodied realities of that empire’s operations.

The belief that titles such as Officer, Dame Commander or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire can be treated as purely symbolic, untainted by the gross brutalities of the imperial project, appear more plausible today, with historical distance. Accepting his Order of the British Empire, the public historian David Olusoga, who has a Nigerian father, has insisted defensively that while “the empire was an extractive, exploitative, racist and violent institution”, the fact that “there isn’t an empire any more” changes things completely.

The E-word is now a slightly retro empty term – a little bit distasteful, for sure, but happily emancipated from any historical reference. However, Olusoga’s comforting thought runs counter to the British establishment’s own adamantine but honest refusal, despite official criticism of the word as “anachronistic” and “insensitive”, to substitute “empire” in these titles with something less divisive and racially charged. It also ignores the extent to which aspirations to a resurgent imperial global grandeur have resurfaced, so explicitly and harmfully in the case for Brexit. Is the empire really over, or has it remained a virus-like sleeper cell in the British political imagination?Ms Dynamite

Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

The black scholar Paul Gilroy suggests that Britain’s refusal to accept the loss of empire has produced “deluded patterns of historical reflection and self‑understanding”. Surely it is the task of black and Asian Britons to undo, not pander to, these delusions.

The most eloquent case for descendants of the enslaved, the indentured and the colonised to refuse honours that exalt the British empire was made by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in this paper. He linked his own rejection of an OBE in 2003 not just to past atrocities or a “betrayal” of enslaved ancestors but to the very real afterlife of empire: racism, police brutality, privatisation, militarism, ongoing economic dispossession and the retention of the spoils of empire. One is either “profoundly anti-empire” or one accepts its many self-serving fictions along with the honour, including the notion that despite a few mishaps, it was a largely benevolent enterprise.

Zephaniah’s choice was based on clear principles, from a long and often forgotten tradition of black and Asian resistance to the global harm inflicted by empire, and the understanding that imperial and domestic rule were maintained by paternalism, buying loyalties heading off dissenters at the pass and ensuring that criticism was toned down. In the 1930s, the fiercely anti-colonial black British newspaper International African Opinion identified “the judicious management of the black intelligentsia, giving them jobs, OBEs and even knighthoods” as a key tactic for diffusing confrontation.

Bestowing knighthoods on African chiefs (indirect rule) and Indian princes elicited their assistance in controlling the colonised masses, though this was not always possible given widespread resistance. A select class of non-white leaders could be upheld as exemplars of a just system even as the large majority continued to face widespread discrimination and inequality.

Olusoga suggests that, by acknowledging the “incredible achievements of black and Asian Britons”, OBEs can be seen as a defeat of racism. Apart from the ways in which tokenism usually enables hierarchical and exclusionary systems to continue business as usual, the more vital question is whether OBEs actually facilitate what Olusoga correctly describes as the “need to confront” not celebrate the history of empire. The role of an officer of the empire is hardly calculated to induce that much-needed confrontation.

The British establishment, utterly reliant on fictions of imperial glory and benevolence, is not so naive as to facilitate its own undoing. Olusoga and others are fully entitled to their personal choices and private compromises. What is more questionable is the presentation of these personal decisions as politically sound choices made selflessly in the name of all black Britons.

Does having a few black names with OBE after them really signify that the British establishment acknowledges the profound historical contributions of black and Asian people to this nation, not least through producing much of its wealth? Beyond exceptional individual achievement, non-white Britons have also collectively organised for rights, fought racism challenged the empire, lobbied for legislation, run for political office, led demonstrations, produced community newspapers, and engaged in radical political education. So no: the “only options on the table” are not “to accept or decline” a seat at it. The real task is to bring this country to an understanding of what empire was, did and continues to do – and to question how a genuinely democratic decolonisation can be achieved in future.

• Priyamvada Gopal is a lecturer at Cambridge University

4 thoughts on “Tagore’s renunciation of OBE in 1919”

  1. These honors do not carry that much weight in present days unless you get a hefty check with it. People who do not need any extra feathers on their hats might not even care. But some might need this little help to bolster their positions. So, let them have their little fun. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. We are not talking about ‘now’. When Tagore renounced his OBE 100 year ago, the title did carry a lot of weight. Not getting the title was one thing, but having got it and then rejecting it out of protest and anger was another thing. Tagore required a lot of guts to reject it while he was living in the colony itself! Those people who say that Tagore was a sycophant of the British Empire or he was a chauvinist anti-Muslim or anti-Hindu etc are downright wrong.

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      1. Whether it was then or now, I do not see that much difference. Some people have refused many other prizes for many different reasons. No doubt Tagore had the courage to refuse but he had also a Nobel prize in his back pocket, which carried more weight than an English Knight title. With Tagore’s grand stature and personality, he got nothing to loose with losing that knighthood title. The timing of his rejection was also interesting because it was obvious that India was about to become a free entity. So, even it looked little suspicious, he could not have renounced the title in any better time.
        Was he an English Poodle? No and never! He was free spirit with a very sovereign mind. Was he an anti-Muslim persona with Lalon’s Baul spirit? I do not know. He preferred not to write about Islam because he was a very intelligent man. What do you really achieve by criticizing a religion, which was practiced by a great number of Indian people. We would never know what was being said or discussed within the four walls of his house? Nobody has said or leaked anything about it. He had profound love for Nazrul and other Muslim luminaries of that time. In addition, he wanted to reform Hinduism with his one supreme God idea So, I think, he should be given a pass there unlike what some religious zealots portraying him to boycott this great poet, lyricist,musician and philosopher. Thank you.

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  2. The British ruled much of the world – that is history. In order for them to do that they used their intellectual as well as military power. The intellectual part obviously included playing tricks like helping and glorifying the petty rulers and the so-called upperclassmen that were loyal to them in the lands that they ruled. The survival and prosperity of the ruled largely depended on their intellectual interests and activities. Some of the recipients of knighthood were genuinely great in what they pursued, and it was probably OK for them to accept it. But as for how the British treated the colonial subjects, that was a complex problem involving a more uncivilized world than what we have now and wish to have in the future. Now all people need to think rationally and gain knowledge and intellect in order for all humans to live with dignity and rights. Individuals and communities that fail to think rationally and to gain knowledge and intellect would continue to be in the underclass, in spite of the improving human minds that do not fail to do those.

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