Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 1

The Partition of Bengal
“…It is a strange idea, a foolish idea… to think that a nation which has once risen, once has been called up by the voice of God to rise, will be stopped by mere physical repression. It has never so happened in the history of a nation, nor will it so happen in the history of India. A storm has swept over us today. I saw it come,[1] I saw the striding of the storm-blast and the rush of the rain, and as I saw it an idea came to me. What is this storm that is so mighty and sweeps with such fury upon us? And I said in my heart, ‘It is God who rides abroad on the wings of the hurricane, it is the might and force of the Lord that manifested itself and his almighty hands that seized and shook the roof so violently over our heads today.’ A storm like this has swept also our national life… Repression is nothing but the hammer of God that is beating us into shape so that we may be moulded into a mighty nation and an instrument for his work in the world. We are iron upon his anvil and the blows are showering upon us not to destroy but to re-create. Without suffering there can be no growth…”

— From Sri Aurobindo’s Speeches, pp. 99-100

Since the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which put its seal upon the fate of India and gave her over to the possession of the British for about two hundred years, nothing had happened in the country, not even the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, of comparable political significance till the Partition of Bengal on the 16th of October, 1905. The Partition of Bengal was the reawakening and self-affirmation of a very ancient nation. The political tide turned. A long night of serfdom, oppression, cultural emasculation and economic strangulation, seemed to end for ever, and the first roseate glow of a new dawn of national liberation flushed the eastern horizon.

As many Indians, let alone foreigners, are not fully aware of the causes of the Partition of Bengal and the national forces that sprang up in reaction to it, we propose to pause upon it for a while before proceeding to take up the narrative of Sri Aurobindo’s political activities in the post-Partition period of the history of Bengal and India. Besides, the full significance of the manifold political life of Sri Aurobindo cannot be properly grasped until we put it in its true context, and study it against the tossing background of the national resurgence, which the Partition quickened and intensified on a wider scale. Sri Aurobindo hailed the Partition as a blessing in disguise, for he saw in it the hammering blows of benign Providence beating the torpid nation into a new life, a new aspiration, and a new shape. As Henry W. Nevinson puts it in his book, The New Spirit in India: “He (Sri Aurobindo) regarded the Partition of Bengal as the greatest blessing that had ever happened to India. No other measure could have stirred national feeling so deeply or roused it so suddenly from the lethargy of previous years.”

“We in India fell under the influence of the foreigner’s Maya which completely possessed our souls. It was the Maya of the alien rule, the alien civilisation, the powers and capacities of the alien people who happen to rule over us. These were as if so many shackles that put our physical, intellectual and moral life into bondage. We went to school with the aliens, we allowed the aliens to teach us and draw our minds away from all that was great and good in us. We considered ourselves unfit for self-government and political life, we looked to England as our exemplar and took her as our saviour. And all this was Maya, and bondage…. We helped them to destroy what life there was in India. We were under the protection of their police and we know now what protection they have given us. Nay, we ourselves became the instruments of our bondage. We Bengalis entered the services of foreigners. We brought in the foreigners and established their rule. Fallen as we were, we needed others to protect us, to teach us and even to feed us…

“It is only through repression and suffering that this Maya can be dispelled and the bitter fruit of the Partition of Bengal administered by Lord Curzon dispelled the illusion…”[2]

What was the Partition of Bengal?

In the nineteenth century, Bengal was the most populous province in India. In area also it was the largest, comprising, as it did, the whole of Bengal, Bihar, Chhota Nagpur, Orissa, and Assam. Later, it was found that such a huge territory was proving too much of a burden for a Governor to administer. So, in the interest of a more effective and efficient administration, Assam, constituting Sylhet, Cachar, and Goalpara — all the three Bengali-speaking areas — was separated from Bengal. But even after the separation of Assam, Bengal remained the largest, most populous, and important province with Calcutta as the capital of India. Its population was 78 millions. The Bengalis as a race, having received a better and more widely-spread education on Western lines than the people of any other province, occupied most of the high posts under the British Government, and naturally dominated the political as well as the educational and cultural scenes in the country.

After the severance of Assam, a few more attempts were made by the Government to further reduce the size of Bengal, but nothing was definitely decided upon and done till 1905. In 1903, H.H. Risley, Secretary to the Government of India, wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal a letter, known as the Risley Letter, detailing the proposed further reduction of the area and population of Bengal by sundering the Chittagong Division and the districts of Dacca and Mymensingh from the mother province, and annexing them to Assam. Among the reasons advanced by the Government for the proposal, apart from the vastness of the original province, was the backwardness of the Muslims in education and the general standard of their life. It was thought that by separating East Bengal from the West and tacking it on to Assam, a greater attention could be devoted to the interests of the Muslims who formed the majority community there, and their condition bettered. But the very people of East Bengal for whom the change was proposed would have none of it. Sir Henry Cotton wrote in the Manchester Guardian of England on the 5th of April, 1904: “The idea of the severance of the oldest and most populous and wealthy portion of Bengal and the division of its people into two arbitrary sections has given such a shock to the Bengali race, and has roused such a feeling amongst them as was never known before. The idea of being severed from their own brethren, friends and relations and thrown in with a backward province like Assam, which in administrative, linguistic, social and ethnological features widely differs from Bengal, is so intolerable to the people of the affected tracts that public meetings have been held in almost every town and market-place in East Bengal, and the separation scheme has been universally and unanimously condemned.”

The real reasons for the Partition were, however, quite different. They were, first, that the British Government had been for some time feeling more and more uneasy and alarmed at the steady growth of the nationalist spirit in Bengal, and the conversion of the National Congress from a close preserve of the Moderates, who excelled in the innocuous art of petition and prayer and protest, to a resounding forum and platform for the demand of the nation’s birthright of full and unqualified independence. It was, as Lord Ronaldsay says in his Life of Curzon, “a subtle attack upon the growing solidarity of Bengali Nationalism”. John Morley, speaking as Secretary of State for India in the House of Commons in 1906, said: “I am bound to say, nothing was ever worse done in disregard to the feeling and opinion of the majority of the people concerned.” Henry W. Nevinson writes in his The New Spirit in India: “Such was the Partition of Bengal, prompted, as nearly all educated Indians believe, by Lord Curzon’s personal dislike[3] of the Bengali race, as shown also by his Convocation speech of the previous February, in which he brought against the whole people an indictment for mendacity.” Sir Henry Cotton, who had already denounced the proposal of partition when it was in embryo, says in his New India that the partition was “…part and parcel of Lord Curzon’s policy to enfeeble the growing power and destroy the political tendencies of a patriotic spirit.”

Another reason why the Partition was hustled through in despotic defiance of the swelling chorus of protests from the people and the political leaders of India, and even her well-wishers and sympathisers in England, was the sinister motive of dividing the Bengali race by driving a wedge between the Hindus and the Muslims. Sir Bampfylde Fuller, who was appointed the first Lt. Governor of East Bengal and Assam, declared, according to Surendra Nath Banerji, “half in jest and half in seriousness, to the amazement of all sober-minded men that he had two wives, Hindu and Mohammedan, but that the Mohammedan was the favourite wife.” Nevinson confirms Curzon’s flirtations with the Muslims when he says: “Always impatient of criticism, Lord Curzon hastened through East Bengal, lecturing the Hindu leaders and trying to win over the Moslems.”[4] Lord Curzon himself remarked, when he was on a tour of East Bengal, “that his object in partitioning was not only to relieve the Bengali administration, but to create a Mohammedan province, where Islam could be predominant and its followers in ascendency.” We know now how the poisonous seed of Hindu-Moslem disunity was sown in Bengal, and under what benign auspices! History perhaps records no more brazen confession, which is a virtual self-indictment, of one who was sent by Great Britain to preside over the destinies of over three hundred million people of a very ancient and cultured nation.

Soon after the publication of the Risley Letter, to which we have already referred, there arose a mounting volume of indignant protest all over Bengal, and East Bengal which, according to Curzon, was going to be particularly benefited by the scheme of Partition, was perhaps the loudest in its denunciation. “The people of Dacca, Mymensingh and Chittagong organised in course of the following two months (December 1903-January 1904) about 500 protest meetings to voice forth their strong disapproval of the proposed change.”[5] The tempo of the agitation went on rising by leaps and bounds, and the Swadeshi idea filtered even to the most interior and remote parts of Bengal, and through Bengal to Gujarat and other parts of India. In the meantime, the proposal of the partition was undergoing various amendments and alterations, in strict secrecy, at the hands of the august arbiters of India’s destiny, and the public was kept studiously in the dark. The air was tense with forebodings. The thundering protests of the people were falling on stone-deaf ears. It was confidently assumed by the bureaucracy that the protests were motivated by the vested interests of a handful of educated Bengalis and landlords, and would naturally die down if only met with cold indifference. But the autocrats had reckoned without their host. The studied indifference, which was nothing short of callousness, added fuel to the fire — the agitation began to take on dangerous proportions. At last, on September 1, 1905, the India Government Gazette came out with the portentous proclamation, couched in positive terms, and it triggered off a tremendous explosion of national fury. For, the people had been hoping against hope that their impassioned protests would at last touch a chord even in the cynical heart of the Government. But though a despotic monarch may be moved to relent, a despotic bureaucracy is impregnable to human appeal. According to the Proclamation, “the districts of Dacca, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Backergunge, Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong, the Hill tracts, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna, and Malda which now form the Bengal division of the Presidency of Fort William will, along with the territories at present under the administration of the Chief Commissioner of Assam, form a separate province of Eastern Bengal and Assam.” The new province, it was also declared, would be under a Lt. Governor, and function as a separate unit from the 16th October, 1905.

Thus, at one fell blow, the British Government wanted to kill the “seditious” patriotism of the Bengali race, and disrupt Hindu-Moslem unity. The partition of Bengal became “a settled fact”. It threw down the glove to the nationalist spirit of Bengal. It was not, evidently, a solicitude for efficiency of administration that had prompted the Partition — that could have been as well compassed by the substitution of the Presidency Governorship like that of Bombay and Madras — but, as we have seen, it was the tyrant desire to cow down and crush the agitation for national freedom. And how did Bengal meet the Challenge? The whole province rose in indignant revolt to oppose the Partition, and continued to oppose it so long as it was not abrogated. And abrogated it was, though after a long and bitter struggle. The rebel spirit of freedom compelled the British bureaucracy to yield to its insistent demand and unsettle “the settled fact”!

On the 16th October, 1905, the fated partition came into force. “On that day”, says Nevinson in his book, “…thousands and thousands of Indians rub dust or ashes on their foreheads; at dawn they bathe in silence as at a sacred fast; no meals are eaten; the shops in cities and the village bazaars are shut; women refuse to cook; they lay aside their ornaments; men bind each other’s wrists with a yellow string as a sign that they will never forget the shame; and the whole day is passed in resentment, mourning, and the hunger of humiliation. In Calcutta vast meetings are held, and the errors of the Indian Government are exposed with eloquent patriotism. With each year the indignation of the protest has increased; the crowds have grown bigger, the ceremonial more widely spread, and the fast more rigorous.” Valentine Chirol writes in his The Indian Unrest: “…The Partition was the signal for an agitation such as India had not witnessed… monster demonstrations were organised in Calcutta and in the principal towns of the mofussils.” Abanindra Nath Tagore, the great artist, in his Bengali book, Gharoya, describes, in his picturesque way, the unprecedented upheaval of national feeling in which they all participated under the leadership of his uncle, Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath sang out in rousing strains the agony of outraged nationalism. He took an active part in collecting funds for the Swadeshi work, and went about the city, and even entered into the mosques of the Muslims, binding the wrists of his compatriots with the sacred thread, rakhi, in token of brotherly love and unity. Extremists and Moderates, Hindus and Muslims, young men and old, the rich and the poor, married women and young girls, all rose, as if from a long sleep, to greet the dawn of national awakening. A new life flowed, full and fast, through the province, like a torrent of fire. The skies were rent with the cries of Bande Mataram, the inspired and inspiring national hymn. It was, indeed, a glorious awakening, a virile self-assertion of a people branded by Macaulay with the stigma of effeminacy and cowardice. “In a few months’ time,” writes Lala Lajpat Rai in his Young India, “the face and the spirit of Bengal was changed. The press, the pulpit, the platform, the writers of prose and poetry, composers of music and playwrights — all were filled with the spirit of nationalism…. Volunteer corps were organised, and Sabhas and Samities and Akharas leaped into existence by hundreds where Bengali young men began to take lessons in fencing and other games.”

The first casualty in this vigorous onslaught of anti-Partition agitation was the British textile goods. Swadeshi, which Sri Aurobindo had been inculcating from even much before the partition, received a sudden creative impetus. “The movement achieved a great success, and became widely popular with the masses. Foreign cloth shops were picketed, foreign textiles were burnt in huge bonfires in market places and on crossings and roads. The family priests refused to perform marriage ceremonies if either of the couple was clad in cloth other than Swadeshi. Swadeshi pledges were taken at meetings,” writes Dr. S.C. Bartarya in his book, The Indian Nationalist Movement. He says further: “Swadeshi was an economic weapon to achieve India’s industrial advance and economic regeneration. The Boycott[6] with a programme of boycott of British goods, renunciation of titles, resignation from Government services, and withdrawal from Government educational institutions, was a weapon forged to force the Government to stop repression and undo the Partition.” Frightened and flustered, the Englishman, an influential Anglo-Indian paper in Calcutta, wrote: “It is absolutely true that Calcutta ware-houses are full of fabrics that cannot be sold…. Boycott must not be acquiesced in or it will more surely ruin British connection with India than an armed revolution. Lord Ronaldsay writes in his The Heart of Arya-varta: “The Swadeshi movement rushed headlong impetuously like some mighty flood, submerging them, sweeping them off their feet, but revitalising their lives.”

Along with the British goods, foreign salt and sugar were also boycotted. The growth of national industries received an unforeseen stimulus. The Bengalis, who had been for long rather apathetic to commercial and industrial enterprises, suddenly seemed to develop a phenomenal aptitude for them, and achieved signal success in the course of a few years. Mill-made textiles, hand-loom products, medicines, chemicals for various purposes, toilet goods, woollen fabrics, hosiery, shoes etc. began to be manufactured and marketed on an ever-widening scale. The textile mills of Gujarat came forward with remarkable promptness and generosity to help Bengal in respect of textile goods, and it contributed to a substantial increase and expansion of their own business into the bargain. All this was the laudable fruit of Lord Curzon’s malicious policy. Swadeshi, which had really had its birth in the days, and principally by the initiative, of Sri Aurobindo’s maternal grand-father, Rishi Rajnarayan Bose, received an unprecedented fillip by the anti-Partition agitation, and became an abiding feature of the all-round national regeneration.

The second casualty in the anti-Partition campaign was the education imparted on Western lines and calculated to turn out subservient clerks and scribes of the alien Government. The existing system of education was, according to Sri Aurobindo, intrinsically demoralising on account of its “calculated poverty and insufficiency, its antinational character, its subordination to Government and the use made of that subordination for the discouragement of patriotism and the inculcation of loyalty.” Government schools and colleges were boycotted, and new ones started to impart national education free from Government control. The humanities and sciences were intended to be taught in them, keeping in view the building up of the character of the students and instilling in them love of Mother India, a knowledge and appreciation of her immemorial culture, and a devoted consecration to her service. The leading part taken by the students all over Bengal in the boycott and the picketing, and the stirring of patriotic feeling in the hearts of the people fluttered the Government, and the Pedlar and Carlyle Letters, which sought to repress the students’ national activities and gag the singing of the national hymn, Bande Mataram, served, instead, to acerbate the already frayed temper of young Bengal and set ablaze the patriotic fire they strove to quench. The more the repression the greater the upsurge of the spirit of patriotism and dedication. It is blind authoritarianism that seeks to dragoon the rising spirit of a nation into perpetual submission.

The National College of Calcutta, of which Sri Aurobindo became the first Principal in June, 1905, owed its origin to this movement of the boycott of the Government schools and colleges. It was started by the initiative of Satish Chandra Mukherji, the reputed educationist of the time, who had also founded the Dawn Society, and was running the English organ, Dawn, in Calcutta. Almost all the men of light and leading in the city, including Rabindranath Tagore, Hiren Datta, Sir Gooroodas Banerji, Bepin Chandra Pal etc., were among the patrons and supporters of the college, and Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Radha Kumud Mookherji among its young professors. But the new movement for education lacked the basis of an inspired vision, a knowledge of the essential spirit of Indian culture, and the true ideal of national education, and was, besides, still wedded to the current system of Western education in its thought and action. It could not, therefore, produce the high results it promised, and languished and waned in course of time. Though many schools and colleges were established all over Bengal, and, in some of them, a fair measure of success was, indeed, achieved, the education imparted could not be called national — it remained essentially the same Western education with certain important modifications.

The Bengal Partition, as we have tried to show, roused the national spirit as nothing had roused it before, and gave a revolutionary turn to the resurgence of the whole country. What happened in Bengal had its mighty repercussions all over India, notably in Maharashtra, the Punjab, and Madras. The reign of terror, inaugurated in Bengal by the Government, and later extended to the three provinces just mentioned, galvanised the whole nation. The spark of an intense, inextinguishable patriotism, flying from Bengal, kindled a country-wide conflagration. The official report of the Banaras Indian National Congress[7], which was held in December, 1905, records as follows: “Never since the dark days of Lord Lytton’s Viceroyalty had India been so distracted, discontented, despondent; the victim of so many misfortunes, political and other; the target for so much scorn and calumny emanating from the highest quarters — its most moderate demands ridiculed and scouted, its most reasonable prayers greeted with a stiff negative, its noblest aspirations spurned and denounced as pure mischief or solemn nonsense, its most cherished ideals hurled down from their pedestal and trodden underfoot — never had the condition of India been more critical than it was during the second ill-starred administration of Lord Curzon. The Official Secrets Act was passed in the teeth of universal opposition… and the Gagging Act was passed. Education was crippled and mutilated; it was made expensive and it was officialised; and, so, that most effective instrument for the enslavement of our national interest, the Universities Act, was passed.” Gokhale, the very paradigm of moderation, who was by no means unfriendly to the Government, had at last to vent his feelings rather boldly for the sake of truth: “To him (Lord Curzon) India was a country where the Englishman was to monopolise for all time all power, and talk all the while of duty. The Indian’s only business was to be governed, and it was a sacrilege on his part to have any other aspiration…. A cruel wrong has been inflicted on our Bengali brethren, and the whole country has been stirred to its depths in sorrow and resentment, as had never been the case before…. The tremendous upheaval of popular feeling which has taken place in Bengal in consequence of the Partition, will constitute a landmark in the history of our national progress…. Bengal’s heroic stand against the oppression of a harsh and uncontrolled bureaucracy has astonished and gratified all India…. The most astounding fact of the situation is that the public life of the country has received an accession of strength of great importance, and for this all India owes a deep debt of gratitude to Bengal.” Lala Lajpat Rai expressed the same view when he said: “I think the people of Bengal ought to be congratulated on being leaders of that march (for freedom) in the van of progress…. And if the people of India will just learn that lesson from the people of Bengal, I think the struggle is not hopeless.”

All progressive political leaders of India supported the fourfold programme of Boycott and stood solidly by Bengal on her hour of the gravest trial, for, they knew, the trial of Bengal was the travail of India’s political salvation. Perhaps it was something more, which time alone will reveal. Mahatma Gandhi paid a perceptive tribute to the heroic struggle of Bengal in the following words: “The real awakening (of India) took place after the Partition of Bengal…. That day may be considered to be the day of the partition of the British Empire…. The demand for the abrogation of the partition is tantamount to a demand for Home Rule…. As time passes, the nation is being forged…. After the partition the people saw that they must be capable of suffering. This new spirit must be considered to be the chief result of the partition.”

The Partition was, in fact, the focal point and accelerating force of the renaissance in India, which had begun with Ram Mohan Roy as its foremost herald and pioneer. It gave a vision and a direction of the path, and a glimpse of the glorious destiny towards which the nation was marching. An outburst of the creative urge, clearly visible in many spheres of the national life, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual, found now a unifying focus of self-expression. And when Sri Aurobindo identified nationalism with Sanatana Dharma — “I say that it is the Sanatana Dharma which for us is nationalism” — he recovered at one bound the highest values and widest ideals of the nation, leavened patriotism with spiritual realism, and swept it out of its narrow orbit into the vastness of a universal consummation. Nationalism became in his hands a liberating universalism, and the freedom of India a promise and precondition of the eventual freedom of the soul and body of the commonwealth of humanity. But, as a prophet and precursor, Sri Aurobindo was much in advance of his time. The spirituality which he infused into politics was, for a time, overlaid by inferior or extraneous elements, the dawn-blush covered up by the pall of an invading mist. Ethics then stepped in to do the necessary work of salvaging and sublimation, to give Indian politics a higher push, a purer content. But ethics is half-blind. However firm in faith and strong in self-sacrifice, it is arbitrary in its inhibitions and impositions, crude and cavalier in its repressions, rigid and exclusive in its insistences, and incapable of dealing with a wise and victorious flexibility with the complex forces of life. But the hour of its political domination has almost passed, and its cleansing but cramping spell is dissolving under the shocks of harsh realities, leaving the field clear for the influx of a dynamic, militant, conquering spirituality, the twin-force of Brahminhood and Kshatriyahood,[8] to lead India and the world towards the integral self-fulfilment of Nara-Narayana, the Divine Being in man.

We shall now follow the subsequent political movement in the country, and study what constituted Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to it.

 


[1] It was this unfailing foresight and inner light that always guided Sri Aurobindo’s steps throughout his political life and on which he wholly depended with the trusting confidence of a child.

[2] Speeches by Sri Aurobindo, pp. 44-45.

[3] “… Bengal, where the agitation was most alive, was then rent in twain. The partition was not merely a blunder: it was an indictable offence. Lord Curzon’s personal feelings entered into it in a most reprehensible way. He devised it, as the evidence shows most conclusively, to pay off scores —” Ramsay Macdonald. Macdonald again characterised the Partition as “the hugest blunder committed since the battle of Plassey.”

[4] Italics are ours.

[5] India’s Fight for Freedom by Profs. Haridas Mukherji & Uma Mukherji, p. 17.

We are indebted to this admirable, pioneering, research work by the Mukherjis for some historical data of great importance.

[6] Both Swadeshi and Boycott were accepted with certain reservations by the National Congress at its Banaras session in 1905 as legitimate means of redressing political wrongs.

[7] Sri Aurobindo went to Banaras to help the Extremist Party of Bengal to formulate its policy and press upon the Congress the adoption of its fourfold programme of Boycott. He guided, and actually influenced, the shaping of the new, important decisions, though perhaps he did not attend the open session. That was his usual way — getting things done by others, himself remaining in the background, averse to the limelight.

[8] Political freedom cannot be maintained without kṣātra-vīrya, the fire-force of the Kshatriya.

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