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LOOKING BACK

The great ideological split

The 23rd annual session of the Congress, held in Surat in 1907, firmly entrenched the notion of Swaraj in people’s minds. MANOJ DAS



Initiating change: Sri Aurbindo.

If, of all the ages of recorded history, the 20th century was most prominently characterised by paradox, its first decade was not without its share of this phenomenon. While the British Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlain happily announced, “ ;The day of empire has come!” Madame Cama unfurled the flag of free India at Stuttgart, proclaiming the end of empire!

The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 consisting of 71 delegates, was “possible under British rule; under British rule only,” announced its first President, W.C. Bonnerjee. Delegates to the second Congress were even entertained by the Viceroy.

However, it was not easy to stomach for an organisation representing the nation to countenance Viceroy (1894-1899) Lord Elgin’s blusters, like “India was conquered by the sword and by the sword it shall be held,” or Viceroy (1899-1905) Lord Curzon’s, “Indeed, truth has never been an Indian ideal,” accompanied by the latter’s pernicious action of partitioning Bengal. Nor did the Muslims feel flattered by East Bengal’s first and last Lt. Governor Fuller’s romantic revelation that he had two wives, one Hindu and one Muslim; the Muslim was his favourite.

An urge for self-assertion was rapidly growing stronger. It found its voice through leaders like Tilak, Bipin Pal, Khaparde and Lala Lajpat Rai. But the genius behind the new spirit was Sri Aurobindo, his role subtle and covert. From Vadodara he came over to Kolkata in 1906 and soon took over the editorship of Bande Mataram, launched by Bipin Pal, a newspaper that in no time became the “the most effective voice of what we then called national extremism,” as S.K. Ratcliffe, then the editor of The Statesman, recollected. The paper was, as he said further, “full of articles in English with brilliance and pungency not hitherto attained in the Indian Press.”

Though his name never appeared in the paper, Sri Aurobindo was prosecuted and that earned him a public reverence he never sought, epitomised in Tagore’s celebrated poem, “Aurobindo, Rabindranath salutes thee,/ Friend, O my country’s friend, O voice incarnate, free, of the country’s soul!”

Voice of the Nationalists

If the formation of the National Congress gave India a voice, Bande Mataram became a voice with a thunderous accent, that of the Nationalists. Their demand that the Congress give up its culture of petition and claim Swaraj was acknowledged as a goal at the 22nd session of the Congress in Kolkata in1906, presided over by Dadabhoy Naoroji. But the moderates managed to change the proposed venue of the next Congress from Nagpur to Surat, their stronghold. The proposed President, Lala Lajpat Rai, just released from jail, was to be replaced by Rash Behari Ghose. The agenda even excluded Swaraj, Boycott and national education, already upheld at Kolkata. “We cannot afford to flout Government at this stage,” was the argument.

Out of step

On the eve of the Surat session, the nationalists tried their best to convince the organisers that the future will never pardon them for any backward step, but to no avail. The next best course for the Nationalists was to show the rulers that the goody-goody policy the official Congress leadership formulated in the flickering flames of their worldly prudence had no relevance to the vast sunshine outside their ivory tower.

The session began on December 26, 1907 before a sea of humanity. Rash Behari Ghose was proposed for the Chair. But the moment the legendary orator Surendranath Bannerji stood up to second the proposal, the gathering storm burst forth. Let us have glimpses of the situation through the inimitable report of Henry W. Nevinson, Special Correspondent of The Daily News of London:

Waving their arms, their scarves, their sticks and umbrellas, a solid mass of delegates and spectators sprang to their feet and shouted without a moment’s pause…the whole ten thousand were on their feet, shouting for order, shouting for tumult. Mr. Malvi (Chairman, Reception Committee) still half in the chair, rang his brass Benares bell and rang in vain. Surendranath sprang upon the very table itself. Even a voice like his was not a whisper in the din. Again and again he shouted, unheard as silence. He sat down and for a moment the storm was lulled. The voice of the leaders were audible, consulting in agitated tones — Dr. Ghose shrill, impatient and perturbed with anger; Mr. Gokhale distressed, anxious and harassed with vague negotiation and sleepless nights… ‘If they will not hear Surendranath, whom will they hear?’ said one. ‘It is an insult to Congress’, said another. ‘An insult to Bengal,’ cried a third. Again Surendranath sprang on the table, and again the assembly roared with clamour. Again the Chairman rang his Benares bell, and rang in vain. In an inaudible voice, like a sob, he declared the sitting suspended.

A gloomy day passed, marked by ominous whispers in an atmosphere tense and awesome. The session resumed the next day. As soon as Dr. Ghose occupied the Chair, a determined Tilak, who had served notice for an amendment, stood up in order to move it. “You cannot move an adjournment of the Congress. I declare you out of order,” warned Malvi.” “I wish to move an amendment to the election of President, and you are not in the Chair,” Tilak answered. “I declare you out of order,” cried Dr. Ghosh. “But you have not been elected! I appeal to the delegates,” snubbed Tilak.

Let us turn to Nevinson again:

Uproar drowned the rest. With folded arms Mr. Tilak faced the audience. On either side of him young Moderates sprang to their feet, wildly gesticulating vengeance. Shaking their fists and yelling to the air, they clamoured to hurl him down the steps of the platform. Behind him Dr. Ghose mounted the table and ringing an unheard bell, harangued the storm in shrill, agitated, unintelligible denunciations. Restraining the rage of Moderates, ingeminating peace if ever man ingeminated, Mr. Gokhale, sweet-natured even in extremes, stood beside his old opponent, flinging out both arms to protect him from the threatened onset. But Mr. Tilak asked for no protection. He stood there with folded arms, defiant, calling on violence to do its worst, calling on violence to move him, for he would move for nothing else in hell or heaven. In front, the white-clad audience roared like a tumultuous sea.

Suddenly something flew through the air — a shoe! — Maharatta shoe! — reddish leather, pointed toe, sole studded with lead. It struck Surendranath Banerjee on the cheek; it cannoned off upon Sir Ferozeshah Mehta. It flew, it fell, and, as at a given signal, white waves of turbaned men surged up the escarpment of the platform. Leaping, climbing, hissing the breath of fury, brandishing long sticks, they came, striking at any head that looked to them Moderate, and in another moment, between brown legs standing upon the green-baize table, I caught glimpses of the Indian National Congress dissolving in chaos.

Like Goethe at the battle of Valmy, I could have said, ‘Today marks the beginning of a new era, and you can say that you were present at it.’

Beginning of a new era indeed! The Bengalee of Surendranath Bannerji bore this headline: “The Congress is Dead — Long Live the Congress.”

Turning point

Dr. Ghose’s Presidential address remained unread for good. Though the next day two different conferences were held, the Nationalists commanded the crowd. Observes Nevinson, “Grave and silent, I think without saying a single word — Mr. Aurobindo Ghose took the Chair and sat unmoved, with far-off eyes, as one who gazes at futurity. In clear, short sentences, without eloquence of passion, Mr. Tilak spoke till the stars shone out and someone kindled a lantern at his side.”

This first great Congress split, unlike a few subsequent ones caused by a clash of interests or personalities, was strictly ideological, resulting in the concept of Swaraj sinking into the nation’s psyche.

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