(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
The popular history has Indian National Congress-Mahatma Gandhi-Ahimsa-Independence as a sequential thread embedded in the mind of free Indians. The disruptive truth of 1905-1920 is hardly in circulation; the parallel flow of revolutionaries beginning with Lal-Bal-Pal and extending till Subhas Chandra Bose are like distant relatives we haven’t been keeping in touch with.
Between 1905-1920, India buzzed with the cry of Purna Swaraj, Swadeshi, boycott and the educational reforms. The triumvirate of Lala Lajpati Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal shook the conscience of the masses with oratory, vision and action. The Moderates, who had controlled the levers of Congress from its inception since 1885, became a side story in people’s mind for this decade and a half.
The years 1905-1920 are not just about Congress in modern India; these are years where you could trace back the roots of Muslim appeasement and the horrors of the Partition.
The birth anniversary of Bipin Chandra Pal (November 7, 1858) affords us an occasion to view these times through the prism of this man who for his magnificent oratory was called the “Burke of India” and whom Sri Aurobindo was apt to refer as one of the “Mightiest Prophets of Nationalism.” His wealthy background in his birthplace Sylhet (now in Bangladesh); the remarkable pen he wielded as an editor and author; and his commitment for improving the lot of women—Pal married widows twice—pale in significance to his role in India’s freedom struggle, beginning 1905.
This catalyst of a year was when Bengal was partitioned between commercially rich but largely Hindu West Bengal and economically weak and largely Muslim East Bengal. British clearly had Hindu-Muslim divide in mind as Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, wrote in a letter to the then Secretary of State for India, St. John Brodrick on February 2, 1905:
“Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal; and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire-pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here. The perfection of their machinery…are truly remarkable.” Curzon further wrote in the letter that if Bengal was divided, it would dethrone Calcutta “from its place as the center of successful intrigue.” Curzon assured the secretary that Indians “always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it.” (1)
Pal, along with Lalaji and Tilak, was instrumental in ensuring ruling British didn’t meet with their objective and were forced to reunite Bengal only six years later in 1911. He travelled around the country and unleashed a wave of resistance from the masses with his subliminal oratory. Boycott wasn’t limited to British goods alone; it extended to even British public institutions. Groups and committees, gatherings and demonstrations, mass pamphleteering and rousing speeches had the country inflamed. The more British tried to repress the wave; the more it gained in intensity. Its froth extended to expressions in culture, literature and science. Rabindranath Tagore wrote Banglar Mati Banglar Jolas, a rallying cry to advocates of annulment of Bengal Partition. (2)
The fervour of this national response evoked anxiety and not a little envy from the Moderates who still controlled the Congress and who had believed all along in the philosophy of “prayers, petitions and protests.” Most of the Moderates were on good terms with the high-ranking British officials in 1905 and had also held cushioned jobs.
Six months after the Bengal Partition, The Congress session was held in Banares in December 1905. The division between Moderates and Extremists was out in the open. The Extremists wanted the visit of Prince of Wales to be boycotted in protest to the Partition; the Moderates opposed this move. Moderates invited one of staunchest in its ranks, Dadabhai Naoroji, a founder of Congress, a former MP in British Parliament and then living in England, to come and preside over the session in 1906. However, Extremists prevailed in the session and “Swaraj” was declared the aim of the Congress (against the wishes of Moderates who still preferred Constitutional reforms).
The Surat Session in 1907 was a monumental moment for Congress and India’s future. Moderates stood in opposition to Purna Swaraj and Swadeshi; Bal Gangadhar Tilak was not even allowed to speak by none other than Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya. The Extremists thereafter were debarred and ruling British moved in for the kill. (3)
British unleashed a brutal crackdown on the Extremists. Their newspaper was closed; Tilak was banished to Mandalay Jail for six years; Pal was arrested for not giving evidence against Sri Aurobindo and compelled to opt out to England between 1908-1911. British followed up this measure by snuggling up to Muslims and the Moderates and took the wind out of India’s resistance.
Pal returned to Congress in 1916 but by then the stage was set for the advent of Mahatma Gandhi on another moderate Gopalkrishna Gokhale’s invitation. Gandhi’s subsequent movement of non-cooperation, as an allied action to Khilafat Movement, was seen as fanning the Pan-Islamism, and introducing the religious element in India’s politics by the likes of Pal. Khilafat Movement, to the uninitiated, was launched by Muslims in support of restoration of Ottoman Sultan in faraway Turkey, fully backed by Gandhi and Congress in a bid to promote Hindu-Muslim Unity.
The envisioned unity was a pipe-dream and start of Muslim appeasements by Gandhi-led Congress. It fanned the ambition of Mohammad Ali Jinnah for a separate Muslim state. The resultant Partition and rivers of blood which flowed in its wake still carries scars and repercussions for India’s future. As for the British, they were all too happy to introduce “separate electorates” and fan the communal divide between Hindu and Muslims.
Pal turned his back on Congress but not before he made a scathing attack on Gandhi in the 1921 session. “You wanted magic. I tried to give you logic. But logic is in bad odor when the popular mind is excited. You wanted mantaram, I am not a Rishi and cannot give mantaram…I have never spoken a half-truth when I know the truth…I have never tried to lead people in faith blind-folded.” He was critical of Gandhi for his “priestly, pontificating tendencies.” Comparing Gandhi with Leo Tolstoy, Pal noted that Tolstoy “was an honest philosophical anarchist,” while Gandhi to him was a “papal autocrat.” (4)
Pal, who kept out of public life between 1921-1932, died in a state of penury.
Just two words—Vande Mataram—by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who has his 179th birth anniversary (June 26, 1838) this Monday, tells a lot about we the Indians.
Vande Mataram epitomized India’s freedom struggle against the monstrous British Rule and ”every patriot,” as Acharya Kriplani was to write later: “from Khudiram Bose to Bhagat Singh to Rajguru died with Vande Mataram on their lips.”
Madan Lal Dhingra, inspired by Vande Mataram, shot dead Curzon Wyllie and embraced gallows. Veer Savarkar’s Vande Mataram vow led to him being arrested in England, brought to India, and sentenced to two life-imprisonments before being packed to Andamans.
Sister Nivedita and Bhikaji Cama differed in their own flags about India but didkeep Vande Mataram firmly in its centre.
All across the globe, from Lala Har Dayal’s Gadar Party whose many members greeted each other with the words; to mass of Indians in South Africa who welcomed G.K.Gokhale with this fervent cry, Vande Mataram galvanized millions of Indians at home and abroad for the liberation of the motherland.
It moved Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to say: “Bande Mataram literally means `I salute the motherland’. It is the nearest approach to India’s national anthem.”
Yet, Vande Matram was not destined to be India’s national anthem. All it got was to be the national song of the country, and that too just the first two paragraphs, as the honour went to Janaganamana of Rabindranath Tagore.
It might make no sense to the uninitiated readers as to why Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru thought Vande Mataram couldn’t lend itself to orchestral music or why even before an official decision was taken by the Constituent Assembly of India, Janaganamana was played as a national anthem in the UN General Assembly. Or why India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad announced Janaganamana as national anthem on January 24, 1950 even before the Constituent Assembly could pass a resolution to this effect.
It might make more sense to readers if they relate the opposition to Vande Mataram by a section of Muslim leaders in today’s India,–on the grounds that it’s an idolatrous prayer–with the one of Muslim League in blood-soaked years of pre-independent India.
Vande Mataram, a part of Bankim Chandra’s celebrated novel Ananda Math, about the Sanyasi Revolt of the 18th century (1763-1800)–against the British East India Company who had just taken a foothold in India with the conquest of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey (1757)–was the battle-cry Congress had championed from the very early days of its inception in 1885..
The Vande Mataram song, which was written at least seven years before Ananda Math was penned in 1882, came into national consciousness due to events in the Barisal province of Bengal. On April 14, 1906, Indian National Congress was to meet at the venue and pledge against the partition of Bengal. A mammoth gathering burnt an effigy of Lord Curzon and rendered the air with the shrieks of Vande Mataram. The District Magistrate promptly put a ban on its singing but unmindful, a procession which had the likes of Surendranath Bannerjee, Sir Bipin Chandra Pal and Sri Aurobindo in the front, took to the streets. Police rained lathis and kicks on the peaceful and unarmed demonstrators.
The poem spread like a wildfire. Secret societies, like the one of Ananda Math, began springing all over the country. Lala Lajpat Rai started a journal called Vande Mataram. Subramaniam Bharati brought out the Tamil verse translation of the song. Vande Mataram even soaked the army in its spirit. Twenty-four young men of the Fourth Madras Coastal Defence Battery were sent to gallows and died singing Vande Mataram.
However, Muslim League opposed Vande Mataram from the very beginning. In its 1908 session, it was deemed sectarian. In 1923, Maulana Mohammed Ali, as the president of Congress, opposed it.
Congress, in conformity with its Muslim-appeasement stance, introduced Mohammad Iqbal’s Hindustan Hamaara. The Muslim leaders wanted Iqbal’s song to replace Vande Mataram. The All-India Muslim League passed resolutions condemning Vande Mataram. The Congress Working Committee in 1937 maimed the song Vande Mataram to just two paras. The Muslim League wasn’t satisfied still. Jinnah asked Nehru in 1938 to completely abandon Vande Mataram. To placate the Muslim League, the Congress decided to allow the singing of a song by Basheer Ahmad, Quran recital as well as a prayer in English in the assembly.
As for Janaaganamana, famous Indologist Dr. Koenraad Elst has this to say:
“Janaganamana itself is controversial because Tagore had allegedly written it in honour of the King of England, George V, the janaganamana adhinayak, master of the people’s minds, and the bharata bhagya vidhata, shaper of India’s destiny, mentioned in the opening line. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for this, and there is no convincing alternative explanation for the said opening line. In his 1911, Delhi Durbar, George V had annulled the partition of Bengal, conceding a nationalist demand, and that could give this glorification of the king a nationalist twist.”
When a nation is founded on secular lines, implying that religion wouldn’t play a role in its governance, it’s a debatable if national interests or sentiments are decided on the whims of a community. France has put a ban on burqa (veil) in public places. Same is now the stance in Australia. Germany’s Chancellor Angelo Merkel has a similar view and parties in Britain have long called for ban on veils.
However in India, appeasement only ended up vivescating one-third of the undivided India.
Meanwhile, it has kept Bankim Chandra, arguably Bengal’s greatest literary figure, alive to this day. One of the first graduates of Calcutta University, Bankim Chandra became a deputy collector in due course, like his father, Yadav Chandra Chattopadhyaya. He eventually became a deputy magistrate before his retirement in 1891. Three years later, he was dead.
Bankim Chandra was best summed up by Sri Aurobindo in these words: “And when posterity comes to crown with her praises the Makers of India, she will place her most splendid laurel not on the sweating temples of a place-hunting politician, nor on the narrow forehead of a noisy social reformer but on the serene brow of that gracious Bengali who never clamoured for place or power, but did his work in silence for love of his work, even as nature does, and, just because he had no aim but to give out the best that was in him, was able to create a language, a literature and a nation.”