Tagore’s Last Curtain

 (Asim Rafiqui)

From the beginning of our days man has imagined the seat of divinity in the upper air from which comes light and blows the breath of life for all creatures on this earth. The peace of its dawn, the splendour of its sunset, the voice of eternity in its starry silence has inspired countless generations of men with an ineffable presence of the infinite urging their minds away from the sordid interests of daily life . . . If in an evil moment man’s cruel history should spread its black wings to invade that land of divine dreams with is cannibalistic greed and fratricidal ferocity then God’s curse will certainly descend upon us for that hideous desecration and the last curtain will be run down upon the world of Man for whom God feels ashamed.

Tagore, Rabindranath Parashye (In Persia) in Rabindra Rachanabadi, Vol 22

The wooden bridge over the Tigris – constructed by the British general Stanley Maude, was clearly visible to Rabindranath Tagore when he wrote these lines during a journey to Iraq in 1932. The British invaded and occupied Baghdad in 1917 after defeating the Ottomans with the help of thousands of Indian troops, including those of the 28th Punjabis, 53rd Sikhs, 67th Punjabis and the 2nd and 4th Gurkhas regiments (notice the segregated categories and names of the units).

It was during this visit that Tagore met with a chaplain associated with the British forces. The British airforce was carrying out relentless aerial bombardment of Arab Bedouin tribes and villages and let Tagore to contemplate the shift from land forces to air power.  When the chaplain asked him for a message, Tagore wrote the above lines. He foresaw the meaning of these changes, and feared for the worst.

The American drone war campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and soon elsewhere, carries with it legal and strategic justifications whose ground work was laid in our not-so-distant history. At this moment in our modern history when the drone campaigns face growing opposition in concert with a growing reliance on drone programs for both international and domestic use, we would do well to revisit how we arrived at this moment, and see the continuities of thought, prejudice and justifications that inform the aerial campaigns today.


Bose, Sugata A Hundred Horizons, The Indian Ocean In The Age Of Global Empire Permanent Black 2006

Lindqvist, Sven A History Of Bombing New Press 2003