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Excerpt: Reading Sri Aurobindo, edited by Gautam Chikarmane and Devdip Ganguli

Aurobindo’s editorials and articles in Bande Mataram, which he wrote almost daily between 1907 and 1908… provide the reader with an insight into the nationalist political discourse of the era, and also the evolution of the nationalist movement… Often referred to as the pre-Gandhian phase, this was a time of political developments that laid the foundations on which the nationalist movement would later be broadened.

Bande Mataram came into action at a time when the advanced group within the Congress… was struggling to gain political control… As one of the principal leaders of the “New Party”, Sri Aurobindo felt the need for an English daily, through which the ideas and policies of the new nationalist group could be broadcast among the educated sections in Bengal and the rest of India…

The early phase of the Indian freedom struggle had two distinct dimensions to it — one was public political action and the other was secret revolutionary activities aimed at violently overthrowing British rule. Sri Aurobindo saw the need for combining both these dimensions. In his short but intense period of political action, he succeeded, to a certain degree, in synergising the two. Bande Mataram emerged as the ideational platform for articulating and spreading the political philosophy and policies of his “New Party”. It soon acquired wide popularity. Read throughout India, it came to be identified with Sri Aurobindo’s politics, and the politics of the Extremists…

304 pp, ₹599; Penguin

…The call for revolt in his columns was masterly couched in symbolism, the demand for non-cooperation astutely argued, making it difficult for the colonial censors to clamp down on the paper for sedition. Bande Mataram, as Sri Aurobindo observed, “was never prosecuted for its editorial articles”. In fact, there were complaints against its highly skilled messaging:

The editor of the Statesman complained that they were too diabolically clever, crammed full of sedition between the lines, but legally unattackable because of the skill of the language. The Government must have shared this view, for they never ventured to attack the paper for its editorial or other articles, whether Sri Aurobindo’s or from the pen of his three editorial colleagues. There is also the fact that Sri Aurobindo never based his case for freedom on racial hatred or charges of tyranny or misgovernment, but always on the inalienable right of the nation to independence. His stand was that even good government could not take the place of national government,— independence…

The pages of Bande Mataram abounded with articles on “Swaraj, Swadeshi, Boycott, National Education” — the four-fold programme on which the Extremist school based its politics. After much struggle behind the scenes, the Moderate leaders were obliged to incorporate these principles in the resolutions of the 1906 annual session of the Congress held in Kolkata. This was the first major political victory of the new party within the Congress. In the following months, Sri Aurobindo’s increasing involvement and gradual control of Bande Mataram would see the daily emerge as the mouthpiece of the new group.

Bipin Chandra Pal started Bande Mataram in 1906. (HT Photo)
Bipin Chandra Pal started Bande Mataram in 1906. (HT Photo)

Bipin Chandra Pal, one of the leading lights of the “new school”, had started Bande Mataram in 1906 with “only 500 rupees in his pocket”. Pal’s invitation to Sri Aurobindo to join the venture in support, and to write a lead article every day for the daily, saw ready consent from the latter… The name chosen for the new daily signified both devotion to the motherland and defiance of the British authorities.

Though the daily was an immediate success, it soon ran into financial difficulties… Sri Aurobindo’s proposal to set up Bande Mataram as a joint-stock company to ensure its financial viability saw the Kolkata-based industrialist with Swadeshi sympathies, Subodh Chandra Basu-Mullick, and his brother, Nirodh, support the venture… Subodh not only financed the newspaper and provided for its office, but was also a benefactor of the national education movement. By late 1906, the circulation of Bande Mataram “was ever on the increase and its popularity was the envy of the pro-colonial or Anglo-Indian press”. Soon, Sri Aurobindo was practically in full control of the policy of the paper till his own arrest in the Alipore Bomb Case in 1908.

Subodh Chandra Basu-Mullick (standing) financed Bande Mataram. (HT Photo)
Subodh Chandra Basu-Mullick (standing) financed Bande Mataram. (HT Photo)

The year 1907, when Sri Aurobindo churned out most of the pieces for the newspaper, was also the fiftieth anniversary year of the revolt of 1857… His articles in Bande Mataram give an insight into the problems and the politics of the period.

Sri Aurobindo’s range in Bande Mataram was phenomenal. He wrote on social and economic issues, education, self-help, self-reliance, agriculture, the need to return to the land, rural empowerment, village organizations, national education, communal issues, riots and resistance and the Swadeshi movement — educational and commercial. He was caustic of moderate politics, inveterately aggressive towards the British and their supporters in the Anglo-Indian press, discussed the need for broad-basing the movement and repeatedly wrote of freedom and complete freedom. It was in the columns of Bande Mataram that Sri Aurobindo articulated his famous demand for absolute independence:

The Congress has contented itself with demanding self-government as it exists in the Colonies. We of the new school would not pitch our ideal one inch lower than absolute Swaraj—self-government as it exists in the United Kingdom. We believe that no smaller ideal can inspire national revival or nerve the people of India for the fierce, stubborn and formidable struggle by which alone they can again become a nation.

“The Doctrine of Passive Resistance”, serialized in the pages of the newspaper between 11 and 23 April 1907, was the first public statement of an idea and method that would become the principal method of the national movement only after 1919, applied as “satyagraha” by the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi. No one before Sri Aurobindo, in the Indian political context, had examined the method of passive resistance and its applicability and suitability to the struggle for freedom as he did in these columns. Before him, none had enunciated in such bold and clear terms the objectives, the methods and limitations of passive resistance. Sri Aurobindo called for complete freedom:

…We desire industrial expansion, but Swadeshi without boycott…has no attractions for us, since we know that it can bring no safe and permanent national gain; that can only be secured by the industrial and fiscal independence of the Indian nation. Our immediate problem as a nation is not how to be intellectual and well-informed or how to be rich and industrious, but how to stave off imminent national death, how to put an end to the white peril, how to assert ourselves and live. It is for this reason that whatever minor differences there may be between different exponents of the new spirit, they are all agreed on the immediate necessity of an organized national resistance to the state of things which is crushing us out of existence as a nation and on the one goal of that resistance, — freedom.

A view of the raod to the telegraph office in Simla, the summer capital of British India in 1900. (HT Photo)
A view of the raod to the telegraph office in Simla, the summer capital of British India in 1900. (HT Photo)

Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a new nationalism may be understood more deeply from an unpublished but seminal essay, The Bourgeois and the Samurai, written between 1906 and 1907 (whether intended to be published in Bande Mataram or not, we will never know). Here, Sri Aurobindo called for the democratisation of the nationalist movement, for making it inclusive. Sri Aurobindo wrote that this new nationalism’s scope and ambit cleared every barrier:

The new overleaps every barrier; it calls to the clerk at his counter, the trader in his shop, the peasant at his plough; it summons the Brahmin from his temple and takes the hand [of] the Chandala in his degradation; it seeks out the student in his College, the schoolboy at his books, it touches the very child in its mother’s arms & the secluded zenana has thrilled to its voice; its eye searches the jungle for the Santal and travels the hills for the wild tribes of the mountains. It cares nothing for age or sex or caste or wealth or education or respectability; it mocks at the talk of a stake in the country; it spurns aside the demand for a property qualification or a certificate of literacy. It speaks to the illiterate or the man in the street in such rude vigorous language as he best understands, to youth & the enthusiast in accents of poetry, in language of fire, to the thinker in the terms of philosophy and logic, to the Hindu it repeats the name of Kali, to the Mahomedan it spurs to action for the glory of Islam. It cries to all to come forth, to help in God’s work & remake a nation, each with what his creed or his culture, his strength, his manhood or his genius can give to the new nationality.

The same fiery tone of Sri Aurobindo’s writings in Bande Mataram extended into his speeches of that period…

Co editor of the volume Devdip Ganguli (Courtesy the publisher)
Co editor of the volume Devdip Ganguli (Courtesy the publisher)

In the winter of 1907–08, Sri Aurobindo undertook a trip to western India as a part of his political work. After attending the historic Surat session of the Indian National Congress (which led to the split of the Congress between the Moderates and the Extremists), Sri Aurobindo went to Baroda, and then, starting with a speech at the house of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Pune, went on to give at least 14 speeches in various towns of modern-day Maharashtra….

Co editor of the volume Gautam Chikarmane (Courtesy the publisher)
Co editor of the volume Gautam Chikarmane (Courtesy the publisher)

It is evident from these speeches that Sri Aurobindo would have left an incredible mark wherever he spoke. His words are full of an intense and absolute devotion to the motherland. To read them is to understand and feel, at least to some extent, the passion that flowed in the veins of the revolutionaries of this period. Let us take, for example, this passage from a speech titled ‘The Present Situation’, delivered in Bombay on 19 January 1908, at a time when the British government was coming down heavily on the revolutionary movement in Bengal:

Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In the winter of 1907–08, Sri Aurobindo undertook a trip to western India as a part of his political work.Starting with After a speech at the house of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Pune, he went on to give at least 14 speeches in various towns of modern-day Maharashtra. (HT Archive)
Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In the winter of 1907–08, Sri Aurobindo undertook a trip to western India as a part of his political work.Starting with After a speech at the house of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Pune, he went on to give at least 14 speeches in various towns of modern-day Maharashtra. (HT Archive)

You call yourselves Nationalists. What is Nationalism? Nationalism is not a mere political programme; Nationalism is a religion that has come from God; Nationalism is a creed in which you shall have to live. Let no man dare to call himself a Nationalist if he does so merely with a sort of intellectual pride…You must remember that you are the instrument of God for the salvation of your own country. You must live as the instruments of God…By what strength are we in Bengal able to survive? Nationalism has not been crushed. Nationalism is not going to be crushed. Nationalism survives in the strength of God and it is not possible to crush it, whatever weapons are brought against it. Nationalism is immortal; Nationalism cannot die, because it is no human thing. It is God who is working in Bengal. God cannot be killed, God cannot be sent to jail.

Anirban Ganguly, author of this reading of Sri Aurobindo’s political writing. (www.spmrf.org)
Anirban Ganguly, author of this reading of Sri Aurobindo’s political writing. (www.spmrf.org)

Such is the inspiring and insightful material available in this volume… The essence and spirit of Sri Aurobindo’s early political thought and action, which… radiates through the pages of Bande Mataram, essentially describe and shape a new nationalism, a nationalism that would drive India’s quest for selfhood over the decades, long after Sri Aurobindo had physically withdrawn from the movement.

Anirban Ganguly is honorary director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. He is also a Member of the BJP’s National Executive Committee.

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