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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 7

The New Spirit

“…This new spirit showed itself in the unprecedented agitation against the proposed Partition of Bengal. It expressed itself in the spontaneous outburst of indignation at the partition of the Province being perpetrated against the wishes of the people, and it seized that weapon of the weak, the boycott, which has now and then been so successfully wielded both in the West and the East. It manifested itself in the Swadeshi movement which is but another name for self-help, inasmuch as it wants the people to substitute preference on their part for protection on the part of the Government, and suffer, if necessary, for a time for the good that is sure to follow.

“It was this pew spirit which demonstrated at the Congress meeting held at the British Indian Association rooms that an influential section of the educated community would no longer tolerate autocracy in any shape, in any form.

“The working of this new spirit is apparent in the strikes, which prove a wonderful capacity for combination in people, who have never taken part in political agitations.

“This filtering down of the new spirit to the people is a significant sign of the times; and makes us exult, for the “Promised Land” is within sight now. Whatever the old leaders may do with their exploded notions of politics, they will be powerless against the rush of the new spirit, when it permeates the people, the source of energy in a nation. The new spirit demands new methods of agitation — the old order must change yielding place to new. And it behoves all well-wishers of the nation to foster the new spirit of nationalism, for in it alone there is salvation.”

Bande Mataram, 25th August 1906

The Bande Mataram, as we have already seen, achieved unprecedented success as the supreme voice of the awakened soul of the country. It unveiled boundless horizons, instilled an urgent spirit of courage and self-sacrifice, created an inextinguishable thirst for freedom, and roused the youth of the nation to the imperative cult of Mother-worship. “But after a time dissensions arose between Bepin Pal on one side and the other contributors and the directors of the Company because of temperamental incompatibility and differences of political view especially with regard to the secret revolutionary action with which others sympathised but to which Bepin Pal was opposed. This ended soon in Bepin Pal’s separation from the journal. Sri Aurobindo would not have consented to this departure, for he regarded the qualities of Pal as a great asset to the Bande Mataram, since Pal, though not a man of action or capable of political leadership, was perhaps the best and most original political thinker in the country, an excellent writer and a magnificent orator: but the separation was effected behind Sri Aurobindo’s back when he was convalescing from a dangerous attack of fever…. Sri Aurobindo’s first preoccupation was to declare openly for complete and absolute independence[1] as the aim of political action in India and to insist on this persistently in the pages of the journal; and he was immediately successful.”[2] Bande Mataram at once leapt into country-wide popularity and set the tone of progressive political thought in the country. Bepin Pal’s departure from its editorial board made little difference to its growing power and influence.

Sri Aurobindo was now saddled with a double responsibility — the editorship and general control of the Bande Mataram, and his work as the Principal of the National College. Both of these works entailed hard labour and drew heavily upon the reserve of his energies. But in both he achieved unexampled success. He endeared himself to his students at the National College, who loved and adored him with the same intensity of devotion as he had received from his students at the Baroda College. When he would lecture in the class, they would hang upon his lips — it is said even many professors came in to listen — and they found in his informal, unacademic way of teaching something which gripped their hearts, illumined their intelligence, and fired their imagination. He taught most by appearing to teach the least. His presence was an irresistible inspiration, and his soft, warm words, shot with flashes of intuition and insight, were evocative and quickening. Balai Dev Sharma, a noted Bengali writer, who was then one of his students at the National College, records his impressions in the following manner. It is his first experience in the class that he describes. “When I reached there, I saw in the middle hall a young man of placid appearance. He was clad in a shirt and a chaddar (upper cloth). If I remember right my impression of about forty years ago, I seem to recall his eyes, which were withdrawn from the outer world and concentrated on the inner spaces of his consciousness. On that day Sri Aurobindo addressed both the teachers and the students together. But the subject of his talk was not an educational one. He spoke of a sad accident that had happened. A student of the Calcutta University had fallen from the verandah of the first floor of a University Building and lost his consciousness. A crowd immediately collected there, but all it could do was to look on helplessly and wring their hands. None thought of rendering any active help. Just at that time, an Englishman was driving by. He noticed the boy, lying unconscious, picked him up in his car, and took him straight to the Campbell Medical College for first aid. Relating the accident, Sri Aurobindo compared the character of the Indians with that of the Europeans and observed that it was their devotion to duty which had made the Europeans masters of the world. When that titanic power of practical work would be united with the spirituality of India, our national character would evolve such a type as would be incomparable in the world.”[3]

Referring to the Bande Mataram, Sri Aurobindo writes: “The journal declared and developed a new political programme for the country as the programme of the Nationalist Party, non-cooperation, passive resistance, Swadeshi, Boycott, national education, settlement of disputes in law by popular arbitration and other items of Sri Aurobindo’s plan. Sri Aurobindo published in the paper a series of articles on passive resistance, another developing a political philosophy of revolution and wrote many leaders aimed at destroying the shibboleths and superstitions of the Moderate Party, such as the belief in British justice and benefits bestowed by foreign government in India, faith in British law courts and in the adequacy of the education given in schools and universities in India and stressed more strongly and persistently than had been done the emasculation, stagnation or slow progress, poverty, economic dependence, absence of a rich industrial activity and all other evil results of a foreign government; he insisted especially that even if an alien rule were benevolent and beneficent, that could not be a substitute for a free and healthy national life…. The Bande Mataram was almost unique in journalistic history in the influence it exerted in converting the mind of a people and preparing it for revolution…. Sri Aurobindo had always taken care to give no handle in the editorial articles of the Bande Mataram either for a prosecution for sedition or any other drastic action fatal to its existence; an editor of the Statesman complained that the paper reeked with sedition patently visible between every line, but it was so skilfully written that no legal action could be taken….”[4] S.K. Ratcliffe, editor of the Statesman of Calcutta, wrote the following letter to the Manchester Guardian: “We know Aurobindo Ghose only as a revolutionary nationalist and editor of a flaming newspaper which struck a ringing note in Indian daily nationalism…. (It) was full of leading and special articles written in English with brilliance and pungency not hitherto attained in the Indian press. It was the most effective voice of what we then called nationalist extremism.”[5]

Sri Aurobindo suffered from a dangerous attack of fever from October to the beginning of December, 1906. He stayed with his father-in-law, Bhupal Chandra Bose, at Serpentine Lane, during his illness. He recovered partially at the end of November, but had a relapse in December. In about the middle of December (11th December) he went to Deoghar, where his maternal grand-father, Rajnarayan Bose, was living, for a change of air, but could not stay there long. He had to hurry down to Calcutta to attend the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress, which promised to be a crucial one for his Nationalist Party. He had to go to Deoghar again a few times till March, 1907, for recruiting his health.


The Calcutta National Congress

The Calcutta Congress (26th to 29th December, 1906) marked a definite step in advance towards the ideal of the Nationalist Party. Fearing that the choice of the President would fall upon Tilak, who was the acknowledged leader of the Nationalist Party, the Moderates wired an urgent invitation to Dadabhai Naoroji, who was then in England, to preside over the twenty-second Session of the Congress. There was every possibility of a decisive tug-of-war between the two wings of the Congress, for the Moderates were as much bent on maintaining their authority as the Nationalists on squashing it. The latter were in no mood to put up any longer with the spineless political dalliance of the Moderates, which was damming the free flow of the new spirit of nationalism. Impassioned patriotism and self-sacrificing zeal threatened to engulf cautious and calculating political prudence. Sri Aurobindo, as the champion of the new spirit, wanted the Nationalist resolutions on Boycott[6], Swadeshi, National Education and Independence to be passed in the Congress, and his Party stood in solid support behind him. But the resolutions could not be passed in their original forms. Both the Parties had respect for Dadabhai Naoroji, and, besides, they did not want to take the extreme step of an open cleavage. After some tussle, all the resolutions proposed by the Nationalists were accepted with some minor clippings. Madan Mohan Malaviya, opposing Bepin Pal’s eloquent advocacy of the Boycott of all British goods to be adopted on an all-India basis, exhorted the Congress to keep it confined to Bengal only. The spirit of Swadeshi, which was growing more and more urgent and constructive in Bengal, and spreading to other parts of the country, was given a definite encouragement and stimulus. But the main importance of the Calcutta Congress lay in its declaration of Swaraj as the goal of the political movement in the country. Dadabhai Naoroji, the Grand Old Man of Indian politics, saved the face of the Moderates as well as appeased the Nationalist Party by declaring for the first time in the history of the Congress “Swaraj” as the goal. It is true that he meant by the word nothing more than Colonial Self-Government, but the word rang out with a compelling charm and seemed to satisfy both the Parties. It had been used in Bengal by Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar in his stirring book, Desher Katha (in Bengali) and also by Tilak.[7] To the Nationalist it meant nothing short of complete autonomy, free from foreign control. But the compromise arrived at in the Calcutta Congress could only put off and not obviate the menace of an open rupture between the two wings.

It is interesting to note here that not only was the programme of Passive Resistance and Non-Cooperation preached in Bengal for attaining the goal of Swaraj or Independence, but even the use of the Charkha was advocated as a subsidiary cottage industry to supplement the supply of mill-made cloth and give an added impetus to the Boycott of British cloth. The Bande Mataram of the 30th December 1906, published the following: “The Charkha: Hironmoyee Devi advocated Charkha in the industrial Conference.[8] She said: ‘If we could not utilise the leisure of our women, which is now uselessly frittered away, in some small industries, assuming that Charkha cannot compete with machinery, it will yet give food to millions of starving women and find some useful work for those who have, for want thereof, to fritter away their leisure hours’ ‘…then again bear in mind that Manchester is trying to kill our mill industry, and of this we are daily getting more and more tangible proof.’” Charkha was thus advocated as a double remedy, at once economic and political, — as providing work for the unemployed, and aiding the Boycott of foreign cloth — which was perhaps envisaging it in the right perspective, and not crediting it with illimitable potentialities. The machine has come to stay, and Charkha cannot presume to oust it.

A question crops up here, which seems to be quite pertinent to the context. How did the idea of Boycott, which later on came to be expanded and elaborated into the policy of Non-cooperation and Passive Resistance by Sri Aurobindo, originate? It is a complicated question, and no answer is likely to be authentic and conclusive. Basing their observations on the I.B. Records, Government of West Bengal, Profs. Haridas Mukherjee and Uma Mukherjee write in their book, India’s Fight for Freedom, pp. 189-190: “Even as early as 1874 Boycott was advocated as a step to revive Indian industries which had been ruined by British commercial policy in this country. The idea of Boycott of Manchester cloth was preached during 1875-76 and again in 1878 on account of Manchester hostility to the newly started Indian mills in Bombay. Again, during 1883-84 when popular feelings ran very high as a sequel to the Anti-Ilbert Bill agitation by the Anglo-Indians and the imprisonment of Surendra Nath Banerjea, the Boycott of British goods was strongly advocated by a section of the Indian community. Again, in 1891 as a sequel to popular indignation against the Consent Bill, the Boycott of British goods was not only preached, but also practised to some extent.

“From the same official source we learn that the real originator of the idea of boycotting foreign goods, particularly British,… was Tahal Ram Ganga Ram (an inhabitant of North Western India and belonging to the Arya Samaj) who visited Calcutta during February-March, 1905, delivering inflammatory speeches every evening before the students in the College Square, and asking them to go in for Boycott of British goods in favour of indigenous products… in the days of heated Anti-Partition agitation, it acquired a new force and vitality on account of its close political associations. In this mental climate Krishna Kumar Mitra’s[9] call for Boycott through his weekly organ, the Sanjivani (July 13, 1905) found a ready response in the country. The Sanjivani’s call for Boycott was soon followed by a similar call given out by the Amrita Bazar Patrika which published on July 17, 1905, a letter over the initial ‘G’, in which the Boycott of English goods was strongly advocated. ‘G’ was first believed to be the name of Lai Mohan Ghose, but afterwards it was known that the writer was either Aurobindo Ghose or Barindra Kumar Ghose, as revealed in the I.B. Records, L. No. 47, West Bengal. All Government reports and records of that time attached very great importance to this letter of July 17, and even called it the ‘first’ manifesto of Boycott….[10] We may leave it to history to trace the origination of the idea of the Boycott, but we can quite legitimately ask: “Who revived, expanded and developed the idea into a stable base for a vigorous policy and programme of political action for the attainment of national independence?[11] Who reduced the theory to a consistent and persistent practice? Who forged it into the most deadly weapon in the armoury of militant nationalism? Who breathed the fire into it, which blazed up in subsequent years into a country-wide conflagration?”

[1] Gokhale characterised the demand for independence as stark madness.
[2] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother.
[3] Freely rendered into English from the author’s Bengali article in the Galpa Bharati, a journal, of Paus 1357.
[4] Sri Aurobindo on Himself and on The Mother.
[5] Life of Sri Aurobindo by A.B. Purani.
[6] “…We have repeatedly said that boycott is not a gospel of hatred, it is simply our assertion of independence, our national separateness.” — Bande Mataram, 7th August, 1907.
[7] “Swaraj is my birth-right”. — Tilak
[8] Held in Calcutta in December, 1906, during the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress.
[9] Krishna Kumar Mitra, Sri Aurobindo’s maternal uncle, was in close touch with Sri Aurobindo, even when the latter was in Baroda, and it is quite possible that he shared many of Sri Aurobindo’s political views.
[10] Italics are ours.
[11] Rabindranath Tagore advocated Boycott in his essay on “Swadeshi Samaj”, which he read in a meeting on 22nd July, 1904.

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