A saint and martyr the statesman Saturday, 27 October 2007
Upadhyaya Brahmabandhab (1861-1907) was an outstanding personality of the Swadeshi movement of 1905 and died on 27 October 1907 as a saint and martyr of the new faith. He had close resemblance to Swami Vivekananda in many respects. Both were dedicated sanyasis wearing ochre dress of traditional Hindu ascetics. Both possessed a good deal of go in their character. Both were passionately committed to the cause of India’s liberation from foreign shackles, although their methods were different. In another respect too, Brahmabandhab was a worthy match of Vivekananda, and that was regarding their sturdy physique and physical strength. Of athletic build, Brahmabandhab was adept at swimming, boxing, lathi-play and wrestling. He also earned reputation as a cricketer, equally splendid in both bowling and batting. Endowed with a keen intellect, well-versed in Sanskrit lore, equally well-versed in Christian theology, Brahmabandhab was an embodiment of virile manliness and physical strength. Like Vivekananda, Upadhyaya too was a passionate lover of the country. While Vivekananda did not take part in direct politics, Upadhyaya did with all the emotional fervour of his character, giving a militant tone to India’s freedom movement. In spite of his deep Catholic loyalty, he remained a true Bengali Hindu in his social behaviour and lived the life of an ochre dressed Hindu sannyasin. Towards the end of his life even more important than religion was his passion for the country. He dreamt of its redemption and the flowering of its individuality as a nation. Even Christianity he sought to preach through Hindu garb. But with all his criticism of British rule, Upadhyaya was not a political extremist before 1905. In the pre-Swadeshi period his conception of Indian nationalism was not basically incompatible with the continued existence of British rule in India. Like other moderate political leaders of the Congress, he pinned his faith in British imperialism which he regarded as a divine blessing for India. He founded the Bengali evening daily, Sandhya, in 1904. While emphasising the need for acquiring mleccha language and mleccha learning (that is the language and learning of the Europeans) he advised his bewildered countrymen always to bear in mind that they were, above all, Bengalees. The paper was written in a most colloquial language, avoiding the chaste of Vidyasagar, even of Bankim. Commonplace words were picked up from the street to produce a new form of prose writing comparable to Vivekananda’s prose style - simple, terse and vigorous. Articles were generally written in a bantering tone directed against the feringhees. Determined to expose the exotic culture of the feringhees, he was equally vehement, often harsh, in his attack on the English-trained Bengalee babus sunk in tamas, sloth or inertia. He was bent on demolishing the hypnotic feringhee spell over our people. He found the whole country sunk in torpor and tamas, pretending to be swattik. He wanted to demolish this hypocritical stand. His object was to stimulate in the people powerful rajas by which they could fight the feringhees on equal terms. This mental revolution in the thoughts and feelings of his countrymen was an imperative, in his view, for national reawakening. And in this he was at one with Vivekananda. Bipin Pal observed in New India in 1907: “It was this sturdy patriot, whose almost unaided exertion has brought the people of Bengal to a practically resistful attitude today. Of all men it was he who had imparted a militant character to our Swadeshi movement.” The beginning of the Swadeshi movement in August 1905 set the stage for a new act. Upadhyaya rapidly moved towards radicalism. He emerged on the scene as the symbol and type of the new Swaraj spirit. He came to believe that India as part of the British Empire had no future. India must have its own unfettered freedom based on Vedanta. India could not rest content with political freedom alone. This must be accompanied by spiritual emancipation. This aspiration central to the Swadeshi movement was symbolised as much by Bipin Pal-Aurobindo as by Satis Mukherjee. The emerging new party rejected mendicant politics of the moderates and urged the people to enter into a grim battle with the bureaucracy with the powerful weapon of boycott or passive resistance and sought to reduce the bureaucracy to a mere skeleton of its former self by organised refusal of cooperation. Its complete philosophy and programme were sketched with the greatest fidelity by Aurobindo in his Bande Mataram daily. The forcible break-up of the Barisal conference (14-15 April 1906) added a new impetus to the extremist movement of which a high priest was Upadhyaya whose Sandhya now became a mighty vehicle for the propagation of his political extremism. Upadhyaya’s next journalistic venture was the founding of a Bengali weekly, Swaraj, dedicated to the stimulation of the Swaraj spirit among the people. Its central message was to expose the hollowness of feringhee rule, and to encourage the people in inflammatory language to kick the feringhees out of India. The language of Swaraj was more violent and vituperative than that of Sandhya. His greatest service was to strike at the roots of Indian tamastic imbecility at the sight of the Feringhees, that, the Europeans. Alarmed by the vituperative language of the Swaraj, the British bureaucracy soon made an attack on the paper, arrested the editor, manager and printer of the Press. Proceedings were drawn up against them on charges of sedition. Barrister CR Das stood as counsel for the editor Upadhyaya. Upadhyaya submitted a written statement to the court containing his historic declaration: “I accept the entire responsibility of the publication, management and conduct of the newspaper Sandhya... But I do not want to take any part in this trial because I do not believe that in carrying out my humble share of the God-appointed mission of Swaraj, I am in any way accountable to the alien people, who happen to rule over us and whose interest is and must necessarily be in the way of our true national development.” This statement was read out before the court on 23 September 1907. The boldness of the language in which the statement was issued and the spirit of total defiance of the alien authority shown by him as an undertrial prisoner have made it a classic declaration of the enfranchisement of the human soul. When asked to make a statement in the court whether he would plead guilty or not guilty of the charge of sedition against the government constituted by law in India, Upadhyaya stoutly told the trying magistrate, Kingsford: “I have already made a statement. I don’t want to say anything more.” In course of the trial he fell ill with hernia and was admitted to Campbell Hospital where he was operated upon on 22 October 1907. His condition, after an initial improvement, suddenly became worse. He died at 9 in the morning on 27 October 1907 in the midst of an unfinished sedition trial eluding the grasp of the bureaucracy. His death was on a par with his historic declaration of defiance, which he had flung at the alien bureaucracy. He had fulfilled the pledge of not answering in the court of the aliens for his God-ordained work of Swaraj.
Upadhyaya was a stormy personality full of dare-devil energy. In his experiments with truth he was unbending and uncompromising. The reported story of his private oral communication to Rabindranath Tagore in 1907 at Jorasanko to the effect that he had suffered a fall or degradation as recorded in Tagore’s Char Adhyay (Four Chapters) has already been rejected as a fable. He loved his country so intensely, so passionately that he was often misunderstood by many as a crank, only because he refused to toe the beaten track. The tribute which Sri Aurobindo paid to his memory after his death is the most authentic testimony to his greatness as a saint and martyr of nationalism:
“The work of Nationalism is therefore twofold. It has to win Swaraj for India... and it has to ensure that the Swaraj it brings about shall be a Swadeshi Swaraj and not an importation of the European article... If there were some irrational features in the revolt of the people against foreign things, it was the violence of the malady which necessitated the violence of the reaction. The late Upadhyaya was the type and champion of this feature of the National movement. He was never weary of harping on the necessity of stripping from ourselves every rag of borrowed European thought and habits and becoming intensely uncompromisingly Indian. When we put aside all the mannerisms of that strong personality and seek its kernel, we find that this was his message and the meaning of his life. After himself going through all the phases of Europeanised thought and religion, he returned like his country with a violent rebound to the religion, the thoughts, the habits and the speech of his forefathers. It is the spirit of old Bengal which incarnated itself in him, with the strength, courage, passionate adherence to conviction which was the temperament of old Bengal and which modern Bengal had for a period lost. His declaration in court and his death put a seal upon the meaning of his life and left his name stamped indelibly on the pages of history, as a saint and martyr of the new faith.”
In these words uttered by Sri Aurobindo in 1908 were epitomised the whole philosophy of Indian nationalism of which Upadhyaya Brahmabandhab ~ a Hindu Catholic or Catholic Vedantist ~ was a redoubtable champion. (The author is former Professor and Head of the Department of History, Presidency College and Maulana Azad College, Kolkata)