The popular history has Indian National Congress-Mahatma Gandhi-Ahimsa-Independence as a sequential thread embedded in the mind of free Indians. The disruptive truth of 1905-1920 is hardly in circulation; the parallel flow of revolutionaries beginning with Lal-Bal-Pal and extending till Subhas Chandra Bose are like distant relatives we haven’t been keeping in touch with.
Between 1905-1920, India buzzed with the cry of Purna Swaraj, Swadeshi, boycott and the educational reforms. The triumvirate of Lala Lajpati Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal shook the conscience of the masses with oratory, vision and action. The Moderates, who had controlled the levers of Congress from its inception since 1885, became a side story in people’s mind for this decade and a half.
The years 1905-1920 are not just about Congress in modern India; these are years where you could trace back the roots of Muslim appeasement and the horrors of the Partition.
The birth anniversary of Bipin Chandra Pal (November 7, 1858) affords us an occasion to view these times through the prism of this man who for his magnificent oratory was called the “Burke of India” and whom Sri Aurobindo was apt to refer as one of the “Mightiest Prophets of Nationalism.” His wealthy background in his birthplace Sylhet (now in Bangladesh); the remarkable pen he wielded as an editor and author; and his commitment for improving the lot of women—Pal married widows twice—pale in significance to his role in India’s freedom struggle, beginning 1905.
This catalyst of a year was when Bengal was partitioned between commercially rich but largely Hindu West Bengal and economically weak and largely Muslim East Bengal. British clearly had Hindu-Muslim divide in mind as Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, wrote in a letter to the then Secretary of State for India, St. John Brodrick on February 2, 1905:
“Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal; and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire-pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here. The perfection of their machinery…are truly remarkable.” Curzon further wrote in the letter that if Bengal was divided, it would dethrone Calcutta “from its place as the center of successful intrigue.” Curzon assured the secretary that Indians “always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it.” (1)
Pal, along with Lalaji and Tilak, was instrumental in ensuring ruling British didn’t meet with their objective and were forced to reunite Bengal only six years later in 1911. He travelled around the country and unleashed a wave of resistance from the masses with his subliminal oratory. Boycott wasn’t limited to British goods alone; it extended to even British public institutions. Groups and committees, gatherings and demonstrations, mass pamphleteering and rousing speeches had the country inflamed. The more British tried to repress the wave; the more it gained in intensity. Its froth extended to expressions in culture, literature and science. Rabindranath Tagore wrote Banglar Mati Banglar Jolas, a rallying cry to advocates of annulment of Bengal Partition. (2)
The fervour of this national response evoked anxiety and not a little envy from the Moderates who still controlled the Congress and who had believed all along in the philosophy of “prayers, petitions and protests.” Most of the Moderates were on good terms with the high-ranking British officials in 1905 and had also held cushioned jobs.
Six months after the Bengal Partition, The Congress session was held in Banares in December 1905. The division between Moderates and Extremists was out in the open. The Extremists wanted the visit of Prince of Wales to be boycotted in protest to the Partition; the Moderates opposed this move. Moderates invited one of staunchest in its ranks, Dadabhai Naoroji, a founder of Congress, a former MP in British Parliament and then living in England, to come and preside over the session in 1906. However, Extremists prevailed in the session and “Swaraj” was declared the aim of the Congress (against the wishes of Moderates who still preferred Constitutional reforms).
The Surat Session in 1907 was a monumental moment for Congress and India’s future. Moderates stood in opposition to Purna Swaraj and Swadeshi; Bal Gangadhar Tilak was not even allowed to speak by none other than Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya. The Extremists thereafter were debarred and ruling British moved in for the kill. (3)
British unleashed a brutal crackdown on the Extremists. Their newspaper was closed; Tilak was banished to Mandalay Jail for six years; Pal was arrested for not giving evidence against Sri Aurobindo and compelled to opt out to England between 1908-1911. British followed up this measure by snuggling up to Muslims and the Moderates and took the wind out of India’s resistance.
Pal returned to Congress in 1916 but by then the stage was set for the advent of Mahatma Gandhi on another moderate Gopalkrishna Gokhale’s invitation. Gandhi’s subsequent movement of non-cooperation, as an allied action to Khilafat Movement, was seen as fanning the Pan-Islamism, and introducing the religious element in India’s politics by the likes of Pal. Khilafat Movement, to the uninitiated, was launched by Muslims in support of restoration of Ottoman Sultan in faraway Turkey, fully backed by Gandhi and Congress in a bid to promote Hindu-Muslim Unity.
The envisioned unity was a pipe-dream and start of Muslim appeasements by Gandhi-led Congress. It fanned the ambition of Mohammad Ali Jinnah for a separate Muslim state. The resultant Partition and rivers of blood which flowed in its wake still carries scars and repercussions for India’s future. As for the British, they were all too happy to introduce “separate electorates” and fan the communal divide between Hindu and Muslims.
Pal turned his back on Congress but not before he made a scathing attack on Gandhi in the 1921 session. “You wanted magic. I tried to give you logic. But logic is in bad odor when the popular mind is excited. You wanted mantaram, I am not a Rishi and cannot give mantaram…I have never spoken a half-truth when I know the truth…I have never tried to lead people in faith blind-folded.” He was critical of Gandhi for his “priestly, pontificating tendencies.” Comparing Gandhi with Leo Tolstoy, Pal noted that Tolstoy “was an honest philosophical anarchist,” while Gandhi to him was a “papal autocrat.” (4)
Pal, who kept out of public life between 1921-1932, died in a state of penury.