Sri Aurobindo in Bengal, Part 8

“…The Bengal boycott is not the outcome of mere economic necessity but it is rightly read by the politically awakened peoples as the first act of those who have come under the inspiring ideal of freedom. It marks a new epoch in our history. In fact, it inaugurates our history once more. The Indian history during the last few centuries was something like a blank and important events have just begun to fill in that emptiness. The history of free America began with the boycott. The spirit of freedom had everywhere its earliest manifestation in this act of passive resistance, and if events are divine, if the purpose of a higher power is distinctly written on their face, then the Bengal boycott should also be understood to herald the bright future of our country. Individual acts of self-sacrifice for faith and for conscience are also being reported from various places. The moral renascence has begun with the desire for self-rule. The tendency to dare and suffer is everywhere manifest. Patriotism is gaining strength the more it is sought to be cowed down. The juvenile community are facing the bureaucratic wrath with an indifference to consequence which is simply surprising. They are availing themselves of every opportunity to foster and spread the spirit of nationalism in the land. Their enthusiasm, their daring is ever on the increase, their noble contagion is extending to other quarters. In short, the spirit that gives rise to epoch-making events is once more in our midst, and let nobody despair of the future.”

Bande Mataram, September 15, 1907

The two papers, Yugantara in Bengali and Bande Mataram in English, continued with a mounting intensity of patriotic passion their call upon the nation to shake off the chains of slavery and regain freedom. Freedom is the life-breath of a nation. If freedom is lost, the nation decays and dies in spite of the utmost care and solicitude of its masters to keep it alive. Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya’s paper, Sandhya, also lent its virile voice to the rousing of the nation to an urgent sense of freedom. But Yugantara soon fell a victim to the wrath of the Government. Its manager, Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya, and its printer, Bhupendra Nath Datta, youngest brother of Swami Vivekananda, were arrested. On Sri Aurobindo’s advice, Bhupendra Nath refused to defend himself in an alien court, and courted rigorous imprisonment for one year. Abinash Chandra Bhattacharya was acquitted, as no definite evidence could be found against him.

At about this time Upendra Nath Bandopadhyaya came down to Calcutta and joined the staff of the Yugantara. He had written a letter to Sri Aurobindo from Chandernagore, where he was a teacher, offering his services in the cause of national freedom. Sri Aurobindo discerned in the writer of the letter the fiery stuff he was made of, and advised Shyam Sundar Chakravarty to communicate his permission to him. Upendra Nath did not take long to make his mark. He proved to be a talented writer and a dauntless, resourceful political fighter. Nolini Kanta Gupta writes about him in his Reminiscences: “Upenda was like a leader and teacher to us. It was he who taught us the Gita in the Maniktala Gardens. Living in his company in the jail I learnt many things and received considerable enthusiasm, stimulus and wholesome advice from him. I am grateful to him for it…. Upenda also showed me certain methods of doing meditation, and this too helped me pass my time in the jail.” Upendra Nath was imprisoned in the Alipore jail along with Sri Aurobindo, Nolini Kanta and others, and his intimate pen-picture of Sri Aurobindo, which we shall partly quote from his Bengali book, Nirvasiter Atmakatha (Autobiography of an Exile), is a vivid and authentic record of Sri Aurobindo’s life as a prisoner. Sri Aurobindo’s Uttarpara Speech gives us a glimpse of his inner life, the sudden flood of spiritual experiences he had in the jail; but Upendra Nath’s book admits us to the physical presence of the Master and a close view of his outer life and nature. Sri Aurobindo’s Kara Kahini in Bengali (now out of print), in which he deals with his jail life is another authentic source of our knowledge of the way he reacted to the great hardships and indignities to which he was subjected there, and which, instead of creating any bitterness or acute sense of discomfort in him, became a matter of amused observation and welcome experience. He seems not to have suffered from them at all. On the contrary, the book bubbles over with such kindly humour, and the narrative trips along with such sparkling buoyancy that the reader is left with the impression that the writer had distilled a positive enjoyment out of those sickening experiences.

Rabindranath Tagore once invited Sri Aurobindo to dinner at his Calcutta residence, where Sri Aurobindo met Okakura, the famous artist and art-connoisseur of Japan and the great scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose of international repute. Tagore used to see Sri Aurobindo from time to time at the Sanjivani Office.

Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of articles on passive resistance in the Bande Mataram from 9th to 23rd April, 1907. A few lines from these articles[1] will suffice to prove how clear was his perception of the potentialities of the movement of passive resistance, and how cogent and exhaustive his treatment of it. They bear out our contention that his politics was at once idealistic and practical — a rare blend of high spiritual flight and a quiet, vigilant, flexible dealing with the tangled forces of life. Those who think that spiritual or Yogic life is a life of visionary idealism, too unpractical, withdrawn, and passive or resigned to be able to grapple with brute material facts and the cross-currents of politico-economic factors, will be cured of their delusion if they read his articles on boycott and passive resistance. Dynamic Yoga is a Yoga of perfection in works, Yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam.

“The primary requisite for national progress, national reform, is the free habit of free and healthy national thought and action which is impossible in a state of servitude. The second is the organisation of the national will in a strong central authority… we have to establish a popular authority which will exist side by side and in rivalry with a despotic foreign bureaucracy — no ordinary rough-riding despotism, but quiet, pervasive and subtle, — one that has fastened its grip on every detail of our national life and will not easily be persuaded to let go, even in the least degree, its octopus-like hold. This popular authority will have to dispute every part of our national life and activity, one by one, step by step, with the intruding force to the extreme point of entire emancipation from alien control. This and no less than this is the task before us…. It is only by organised national resistance, passive or aggressive, that we can make our self-development effectual…. The present circumstances in India seem to point to passive resistance as our most natural and suitable weapon….

“Under certain circumstances a civil struggle becomes in reality a battle and the morality of the war is different from the morality of peace…. To shrink from bloodshed and violence under such circumstances is a weakness deserving as severe a rebuke as Sri Krishna addressed to Arjuna when he shrank from the colossal slaughter on the field of Kurukshetra…. Where the need for immediate liberty is urgent and it is a present question of national life or death on the instant, revolt is the only course. But where the oppression is legal and subtle in its methods and respects life, liberty and property and there is still breathing time, the circumstances demand that we should make the experiment of a method of a resolute but peaceful resistance which, while less bold and aggressive than other methods, calls for perhaps more heroism of a kind and certainly more universal endurance and suffering…. The peaceful character of passive resistance is one reason why it has found favour with the thinkers of the New Party.

“The passive method is especially suitable to countries where the Government depends mainly for the continuance of its administration on the voluntary help and acquiescence of the subject. The first principle of passive resistance… which the new school have placed in the forefront of their programme, is to make administration under present conditions impossible by the organised refusal to do anything which shall help either British commerce in the exploitation of the country or British officialdom in the administration of it, — unless and until the conditions are changed in the manner and in the extent demanded by the people…. This attitude is summed up in the one word, Boycott….

“It is at once clear that self-development and such a scheme of passive resistance are supplementary and necessary to each other. If we refuse to supply our needs from foreign sources, we must obviously supply them ourselves; we cannot have the industrial boycott without Swadeshi and the expansion of indigenous industries. If we decline to enter the alien courts of justice, we must have arbitration courts of our own to settle our disputes and differences. If we do not send our boys to schools owned or controlled by the Government, we must have schools of our own in which they may receive a thorough and national education. If we do not go for protection to the executive, we must have a system of self-protection of our own….

“The refusal to pay taxes is a natural and logical result of the attitude of passive resistance…. The refusal to pay taxes would… inevitably bring about the last desperate struggle between the forces of national aspiration and alien repression. It will be in the nature of an ultimatum from the people to the Government…. An ultimatum should never be presented unless one is prepared to follow it up to its last consequences…. In a vast country like India, any such general conflict with the dominant authority as is involved in a no-tax policy needs for its success a close organisation linking province to province and district to district and a powerful central authority representing the single will of the whole nation which could alone fight on equal terms the final struggle of defensive resistance with bureaucratic repression. Such an organisation and authority have not yet been developed. The new politics, therefore, confines itself for the time to the policy of lawful abstention from any kind of cooperation with the Government — the policy of boycott which is capable of gradual extension, leaving to the bureaucracy the onus of forcing on a more direct, sudden and dangerous struggle. Its principle at present is not ‘no representation, no taxation’, but ‘no control, no assistance’.”

The above extracts forcibly recall the manifestos of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920-21 and 1930-32 — so lucid, so convincing, so objective and practical they are! “No control, no assistance” is nothing but a firm and definite policy of noncooperation, preached almost in the very beginning of the national agitation. One of the manifestos of Mahatma Gandhi issued in 1930 reads as follows: “…We recognise that the most effective way of gaining our freedom is not through violence. We will therefore prepare ourselves by withdrawing, so far as we can, all voluntary association from the British Government, and will prepare for civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes. We are convinced that if we can but withdraw our voluntary help and stop payment of taxes without doing violence even under provocation, the end of this inhuman rule is assured. We therefore hereby solemnly resolve to carry out the Congress instructions issued from time to time for the purpose of establishing Purna Swaraj.” The utterances of the two leaders, one preaching in 1906-7 and the other in 1920-21 and 1930-32, have the same firm and confident ring. The only difference, but a very important one, is that Sri Aurobindo did not believe in absolute non-violence imposed as a rigid principle in politics. He knew that politics being the business of the Kshatriya and concerned not with saints but with erring, mortal men, subject to the natural reactions of their common human nature, could not and should not bind itself to any inflexible ethical rule of conduct when faced with the destructive forces of an autocratic Government. As Dr. Radhakrishnan says[2]:

“The Hindu view does not sternly uphold a distant ideal, while condemning all compromises with it….[3] While ascetics and hermits who have retired from the world, and so are not directly concerned with the welfare of organised societies, may not use arms in defence of individuals or groups, citizens are under an obligation to resist aggression by arms, if necessary and possible…. Non-violence belongs to the last two stages of life, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. Arjuna, as a Kshatriya householder, cannot pursue the ideal of a sannyasin…. Love is not mere sentimentality. It can use force to restrain the evil and protect the good. Non-violence as a mental state is different from non-resistance…. Sometimes the spirit of love actually demands resistance to evil…. We cannot say that violence is evil in itself…. In the present conditions, the use of force is necessary to check the turbulent, protect the helpless, and keep order between man and man and group and group. But such a use of force is not by intention destructive. It works for the ultimate good of those to whom it is applied. This legitimate police action is necessary if we are to be saved from anarchy.” Sri Aurobindo accepted non-violent passive resistance as a policy, and not as a cramping and crippling principle. Violence can be employed in self-defence or for the protection of the oppressed; and if it is to be employed by a nation against its oppressors, it must be organised on a sound martial basis and fully equipped to meet their armed might. But the political developments in the country led him to pin his faith on boycott and passive resistance as the most effective means of regaining freedom.

On 9th May, 1907, the news of Lala Lajpat Rai’s deportation was flashed to Bengal almost at the dead of night. Sri Aurobindo was then asleep. One of the co-editors of the Bande Mataram woke him up and gave the news. He sat up on his bed and dashed the following lines, which created a country-wide stir next morning: “Lala Lajpat Rai has been deported out of British India. The fact is its own comment. The telegram goes on to say that indignation meetings have been forbidden for four days. Indignation meetings? The hour of speeches and fine writings is past. The bureaucracy has thrown down the gauntlet. We take it up. Men of the Punjab! Race of the Lion! Show these men who would stamp you into the dust that for one Lajpat they have taken away, a hundred Lajpats will arise in his place. Let them hear a hundred times louder your war-cry: ‘Jai Hindusthan’!” — Bande Mataram, 10th May, 1907.


[1] Put together and published in book form in 1948 under the title, The Doctrine of Passive Resistance.
[2] Religion and Society by Dr. Radhakrishnan.
[3] Hinduism admits relative standards, a wisdom too hard for the European intelligence. Non-injury is the highest of its laws, ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ; still it does not lay it down as a physical rule for the warrior… and so escapes the unpracticality of a too absolutist rule for all life.” — Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture.

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