Revolutionary nationalists as guiding spirits
Sudeep Paul | 13 Aug, 2020
(L-R) Henry Derozio, Sri Aurobindo, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda
The Earl of Minto, better known in these parts as Lord Minto, who succeeded Lord Curzon of Kedleston as Viceroy in 1905, had found himself in an unenviable situation. Not because the most brilliant Viceroy ever—and one of the brightest minds of his generation—had just resigned and bequeathed him a mess. Curzon was leaving behind a problem he had supposedly solved. Lines had been drawn on a map and a big troublesome province partitioned. There were protests, rakhis exchanged, and the Poet wrote a song. There was far less enthusiasm for the opposition to the partition in the new eastern province than in the western one, not least because of sectarian demography. But soon, garden houses in the then suburbs of the colonial capital were being uncovered as bomb-making factories, some of which were going off and finding human targets, intended or otherwise, and then an 18-year-old kid and his slightly older associate ended up bombing the carriage of a woman and her daughter in Muzaffarpur, mistaking it to be the conveyance of the judge they were meant to assassinate. In a letter to John Morley, Secretary of State for India, the Viceroy wrote that the conspiracy evidenced ‘murderous methods hitherto unknown in India which have been imported from the West, and which the imitative Bengali has childishly accepted’.
Whether Lord Minto’s insight into the Bengali soul was as penetrating as his predecessor’s or not, he was not alone in being aghast at murderous methods being imported from Occidental revolutionaries and anarchists. In Memories of My Life and Times (1932), Bipin Chandra Pal, tracing a significant departure in Giuseppe Mazzini’s career, wrote: ‘Secret assassinations, Mazzini discovered, paid a premium to moral cowardice…The policy and methods of the Carbonari could not possibly find an effective remedy to this moral disease. Mazzini, therefore, left the Carbonari and boldly faced the persecutions of the Austrian government.’ The Genoese revolutionary and founder of Young Italy was an early and profound influence on budding Indian nationalism, albeit not the only one. But Mazzini is illustrative. Revered by early nationalists like Surendranath Banerjea and what would later constitute the ‘moderate’ faction in the nascent Indian National Congress, Mazzini, like fellow Ligurian Giuseppe Garibaldi, were idols in the eyes of the impatient younger nationalists too, who would be labelled the ‘extremists’ around the time of the 1907 Surat Split. The difference was that those who thought dialogue and depositions would never yield results, and that the need was for quicker and more dramatic action, were admirers of the Carbonari as well. Where you stood, depended on which Mazzini you liked better.
The formulaic description of the Indian nationalist revolutionaries as young and impatient in their own day and the subsequent judgment of mainstream history that their methods were myopic and their achievements ephemeral are mirrored in those two words in Pal’s memoirs: ‘moral cowardice’. Facts may bear out both ‘young and impatient’ and ‘myopic and ephemeral’. However, posterity might have called out the lack of both foresight and hindsight in that assessment, just as much as it could agree with it. The counter-argument was always simple: Is it evidence of cowardice (and perhaps ignorance) when you don’t value your own life and run risks that can end in your death? Isn’t willingness to die for a cause, as the cliché goes, the ultimate proof of fidelity to it? Does it take courage to be ready for death at every living moment? This is dangerous territory in the early 21st century, but the context here is the early 20th—and posterity, after all, has been interested in rather selective remembrance. As far as models of heroism and role models in adversity go, some might argue that we have never had any better. That these men and women, not all of them young, were the greatest and sincerest patriots we have had because they gave their country all they had—their lives—and like karmayogis in the land that formulated that code, they did their work and did not think about the fruits of their labour, only hoping that it would be more than a shot in the dark on the road to freedom.
Aurobindo identified three broad phases in the Bengal-Indian Renaissance. The first, epitomised by the Derozian Young Bengal movement, received the ‘European contact’ and rejected the ‘old culture’. The second, as with Bankim Chandra, was the Indian reaction to the European influence. The third, evidenced in Vivekananda, was a ‘new creation’ wherein Indian genius remained supreme but wedded itself to the best of the Occident
The ghost of Mazzini does not watch over the early history of the Indian freedom struggle for most Indians. In a forgotten little essay titled ‘Mazzini and Indian Nationalism’ (1956), RK Das Gupta lamented: ‘A British historian has recently regretted that the Cambridge History of India does not as much as mention the name of Bankim Chandra-Chatterji whom he calls the “Mazzini of Indian nationalism”. This remark reminded me of the profound influence of Mazzini on the early phase of the Indian national movement. The history of that influence is now forgotten and except for a few brief and at times unkind references to it in Englishmen’s books on India there is nothing that may acquaint the West of this significant instance of a great European patriot inspiring a political movement in the East. In India too the present generation has little knowledge of what Mazzini and Garibaldi meant to the Indian patriots of the nineteenth century.’ Das Gupta attributes much of this to the twin facts that the Indian national movement would soon acquire a largely non-violent character once Gandhi emerged on the scene and that since the 1920s, the ‘young men of the last thirty years’ would be more interested in Marx than Mazzini.
Mazzini, in India, is forgotten but he served at one time as shorthand for all Western influences on Indian nationalism, including the French Revolution, Russian anarchists, and revolutionaries across Europe. Where the moderates wanted Mazzini’s patriotism and idealism to be picked up, the extremists grasped ‘revolutionary terrorism’, as native historians would label it after the British, and developed a penchant for secret societies, clandestine meetings, passwords and conspiracy to violently drive the colonialists out. The more or less convergence of views between a Minto and a Surendranath Banerjea or Bipin Chandra Pal would apparently come to be legitimised by the Gandhian movement. That, however, does justice to neither Gandhi nor the young extremists.
If Gandhi’s arrival on the scene was the single biggest transformative event in the public history of the Indian freedom movement, the individual who underwent the biggest personal transformation through the freedom struggle was Aurobindo Ghosh. In the public eye, especially in his home province, it’s usually either Aurobindo Ghosh, the revolutionary, or Sri Aurobindo, poet, philosopher, sage, seer (Aurobindo was a poet before he became a revolutionary, but that’s fodder for another argument)—almost never the two together. Aurobindo identified three broad trends or phases in the Bengal-Indian Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1918, he wrote in Arya: ‘The first step was the reception of the European contact, a radical reconsideration of many of the prominent elements and some revolutionary denial of the very principles of the old culture. The second was a reaction of the Indian spirit upon the European influence, sometimes with a total denial of what it offered and a stressing both of the essential and the strict letter of the national past…The third…is rather a process of new creation in which the spiritual power of the Indian mind remains supreme, recovers its truths, accepts whatever it finds sound or true, useful or inevitable of the modern idea and form, but so transmutes and Indianises it…’ The first, epitomised by the Young Bengal movement, signalled the resuscitation of thought. Bankim Chandra was the icon of the second while the third was evident in the words of Vivekananda.
Mazzini, Garibaldi, the French Revolution, the Irish nationalists, and the gamut of European influence on Indian nationalism, revolutionary or otherwise, worked their way into this. But it was, after all, an Indian regeneration. It was, in Aurobindo’s words, the ‘Shakti of India mastering and taking possession of the modern influence, no longer possessed or overcome by it.’ Thus, a Minto or a Bipin Chandra Pal was both right and wrong. Notwithstanding secrets societies, passwords, guns and bombs, these were more than romantically deluded young men playing with the law, thinking it was just a game. Recall VVS Aiyar’s protégé Vanchinathan’s note to posterity found in his pocket after the assassination of Robert Ashe in 1911—words dedicating his life to the motherland and taking responsibility for his action. He was only a few years older than Khudiram when he shot himself on the run.
The death of Bagha Jatin in 1915 marks an inexact but necessary midpoint of the revolutionary movement. This was no longer Minto’s childish imitation of Western revolutionary tactics but a fully fledged international plot involving
warring states of World War I
Aiyar’s Bharatha Matha Association may have been different in form from the Anushilan Samiti of Dhaka or Jugantar of Calcutta or Rash Behari Bose’s organisational activities in northern India, but the spirit that animated the revolutionaries across the subcontinent’s geography had a few things in common, again with regional variations: The project to liberate India was expressed in a vocabulary and framed in a worldview that was overwhelmingly Hindu. The pledge to Mother and Motherland did not appeal to Muslims but that did not mean they stayed away everywhere and always. On the other hand, those who conceived the national rebirth in terms of reawakening Shakti, did not do so with a design to keep the Muslims out. Their terms of reference were what the context provided, and the context was, as seen earlier, one in which India had just been rediscovered, her genius of old salvaged and remoulded. (Later, the younger revolutionaries’ increasing fascination for Marxist thought would change the character of the revolutionary movement, or whatever would be left of it.)
The timeline of the revolutionary movement, confined largely to Bengal, Punjab, Bombay, Bihar and the United Provinces, extends from the Alipore Conspiracy Case of 1908 to the Chittagong Armoury Raid, or the Writers’ Building attack, both of 1930. (Indian activists and their activities abroad, such as Shyamji Krishna Varma’s Indian Home Rule Society, and particularly the Gadar Movement, intersect with this timeline and its nodes but cannot be explored here.) That’s to settle for only two prominent dates at either end, as school textbooks perhaps still do. But those dates are important. Without the 1905 partition of Bengal, history is a big what-if. And without Bhagat Singh and the Central Assembly Bomb case, or the Surya Sen interlude before Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, little visible trace would have remained of revolutionary activity which had been, by then, subsumed under and transformed by the Gandhian pan-India movement. Many revolutionaries, those that did not perish on the gallows or by their own hand, had long ago joined Gandhi, or disappeared in the communist cloud.
Stretching across that timeline and ideological reinventions, the revolutionaries were united by sacrifice, culminating in mostly painful deaths or lifelong imprisonment, often after years of running and hiding, hunting and being hunted. Imbibing Vivekananda and Bankim, the legacy of whose Anandamath (1882) to the early phase of the revolutionary movement has been explored threadbare for a hundred years, Jatindranath Mukherjee, aka Bagha Jatin—perhaps the most legendary and mythologised figure among the Bengal revolutionaries, who also a mentor to MN Roy—had said: “We will die, and thus the nation will awaken.” When Jatin died from his wounds in a Balasore hospital in September 1915—after the gun battle that sealed the coffin of the Indo-German Conspiracy—a surprising tribute was paid to him by none other than Charles Tegart, the efficient and hated police commissioner of Bengal, who admitted his admiration for the brave man.
The death of Bagha Jatin in 1915, seven years since the Alipore Conspiracy Case and 14 years before Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru bombed the Central Assembly, marks an inexact but necessary midpoint of the revolutionary movement. This was no longer Minto’s childish imitation of Western revolutionary tactics but a fully fledged international plot involving warring states of World War I, their diplomats, military officers and intelligence operatives. Nor was this a pursuit of secret-society romance by deluded gun-wielding youth. The likes of Jatin were nothing if not clear-eyed about what they were trying to do and about their impending fates.
By 1915, Mazzini, again as shorthand for much more, had been imported, Indianised, and executed over and over in all his avatars without anybody remembering enough to reflect on the origins of that connection a half-century earlier. Mazzini, of course, did not unify Italy. Garibaldi was Act V Scene V. The pragmatic man who used guile and diplomacy to do the most in real terms for Italian unification was Count Camillo Cavour. Neither moderates like Surendranath Banerjea nor the extremist fans of the Carbonari had much time for the Count di Cavour. (Maybe that’s why, despite every kind of movement, strategy, tactic and conspiracy, India had to wait for the biggest man-made cataclysm in human history to be delivered from its colonial masters.)
Revolutionary nationalism achieved few of its ends and had hardly any long-term gains on the ground to show for all the blood and pain. In that, the assessment of Lord Minto, the foresight of a Bipin Chandra Pal, Gandhi’s emphasis on a mass movement involving all Indians, Aurobindo’s journey on a different path, had all got it right. Textbooks tend to vary on pages dedicated to the revolutionary phases in our freedom struggle depending on which board’s history curriculum we are talking about—and what the extant state in question has to show for a revolutionary heritage. Textbooks matter because they are supposed to fill the young mind with matter. And because the real legacy of revolutionary nationalism has always been for the Indian mind.
Citizens of a free country—with an economy the fifth largest in the world and the fourth largest military—73 years after it gained independence might tend to think differently from the colonial subjects of a fallen and humiliated nation, especially when it has just begun to think for itself again, on matters of taking up arms and attempting to kill fellow humans no matter what they represent and what they do. The revolutionary nationalists, barring an official remembrance and a tweet, are ghosts we have long chosen not to see anymore. Their only continuous home has been the pages of history and of textbooks—and what they do there these days is questionable. Statues, of course, can always be torn down. But if we are looking for inspiration in the midst of a global catastrophe of a different kind, we have perhaps no better and brighter examples of heroism in adversity, of fearlessness and stoicism, of dedication to duty and self-sacrifice, than these men and women. And it’s important that we approach them knowing that they have a psychological space to occupy in our lives today, no more, no less.
In a world that sees multiple conflicts, albeit no major all-consuming war in a long while, terrorism targeting one and all, in a country that’s been a longstanding victim of secessionist and sectarian violence and armed non-state conspiracies to overthrow the state, nothing can remain free of blight, not even the legacy of its patriots. But for those looking to both split hairs and gather all under easy categories according to the convenience of moment and argument, there’s always the not-so-subtle difference to ponder between taking up arms to throw out a foreign power from one’s broken land, to unify, integrate and preserve it and doing the same against the state of one’s own that came into being once said foreigners departed. For a more scholarly take on that essential distinction, there’s quite a handy book by a foreigner—the 2004 edition of Peter Heehs’ The Bomb in Bengal, originally published in 1993—depending, of course, on availability in any format.