Forerunner of secular nationalism
By Subrata Mukherjee The Statesman - Kolkata, Saturday, 8 November 2008
The partition of Bengal in 1905 and the incapacity of the moderates to extract substantive concessions from the British helped in the consolidation of extremism. Bipin Chandra Pal, an integral part of the trio ~ Lal, Bal Pal ~ created the first major mass popular upsurge against the British Raj before the advent of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the second most important leader, after Aurobindo Ghosh, of extremist politics in Bengal. He was a radical both in his public as well as his private life. He started off as a believer in the Empire and subsequently became its militant opponent.
As a student he was a Brahmo and had to leave home for marrying a widow. He was not sectarian and looked upon Krishna as the soul of India. He had to discontinue with his education for lack of finances. He was a man of indomitable courage and conviction. This trait led him to disagree with Gandhiji during the non-cooperation movement of 1921. As a consequence, he had to spend the rest of his life in oblivion. He died in 1932 in abject poverty.
Pal believed that the basis of a successful and enduring political action is political philosophy and like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, endorsed a philosophy of praxis, thus making him an activist theoretician. After beginning his career as a teacher, Pal made his debut in politics at the Madras session of the Indian National Congress in 1887. Before taking to full time politics in 1901, he toured England and the USA to study comparative religion. He started a journal New India with a purpose of creating social awareness.
The partition of Bengal in 1905 became a catalyst, for until then, he was a moderate believing in the innate sense of British justice. With the Bengal partition New India became a political journal making a passionate plea for India’s independence. Pal joined Aurobindo and advocated boycott and Swadeshi as the very basis of independence struggle. It was Pal who introduced the phrase “passive resistance” to imply action that was opposite to aggression. This meant breaking the existing law by establishing a parallel administrative structure with the intent purpose of paralysing the official administration. Boycott, National Education, Swadeshi and self-government were the important ingredients of his notion of passive resistance. By 1905, Pal became the undisputed leader of the extremists in Bengal and in 1906 he started a daily Vande Mataram. With similar objectives of Jugantar founded in 1901 by Aurobindo’s brother Barindra Kumar Ghose, Pal established the Anushilan Samiti as a school to teach physical culture to Bengal’s youth.
As a Congressman, his major aim was to democratise and broaden the base of the party. He was aware of the limitations of the early Congress with its membership mainly confined to the urban-based successful lawyers. he was equally critical of the terrorists for he regarded them as cowards in general. He also observed that terrorism led to an increase in repression by the government resulting in the general breakdown of the national movement. In 1906, Pal and Aurobindo proposed Tilak’s name for the post of the Congress Presidency. The Tilak-Pal alliance not only generated considerable alarm among the British but also the Congress leadership. This assessment led him to quit Vande Mataram, which he rejoined after the arrest of Aurobindo in 1908. Though he was opposed to terrorism he refused to be a witness against Aurobindo in the latter’s trial for his writings against the Raj.
Pal’s major emphasis in this extremist phase was the attainment of Swaraj by open and lawful methods. His efforts were to emphasise self-help and self-organisation. Distancing himself completely from any terrorist activity, he remarked that bombs and assassinations did not have any place in the programme and that “both our instinct and our wisdom equally rebel against these outlandish methods of political warfare”. In the wake of the disarray of the extremists after the Surat Congress in 1907 mainly because of governmental repression and Tilak’s arrest, Pal was forced to go abroad. The revolutionaries in Europe expected the support of Pal but he continued to oppose their activities as he did in India.
During his stay in England there was a sea change in his outlook for he totally moved away from his extremist phase. Instead of total independence, he contemplated an association of free nations as a federal ideal. Pal returned to India in 1911 and participated in the home rule movement led by Tilak and Annie Besant. In 1918 along with Tilak he participated in the International Home Rule Conference in England.
The next phase in Pal revealed his severe criticism of Gandhiji’s philosophy and practice of non-violent non- cooperation. He considered Gandhian programmes as based on magic rather than logic. He also opposed the Khilafat and cautioned against the ill effects of pan Islamism. Pal suffered a defeat when his amendment was rejected at the special session of the Congress in Kolkata in September 1920 and when Gandhiji emerged as the undisputed leader of the Congress and secured overwhelming support for his resolution for launching the non-cooperation movement.
Pal contended that the action plan for non-cooperation be deferred and the time gained could be used for sending a delegation to England to meet the British Prime Minister to make a last-ditch effort to gain self-government by negotiation and dialogue. Pal, who never learnt the art of compromise, became “totally isolated and alienated from the mainstream of the national movement”.
Pal made a major contribution in the realm of political theory. He recognised the absence of modern vocabulary in Indian political thought and conceded that words like politics, patriotism, nation and independence were western in origin. Hindu thought was theological in nature and the social system was deformed by the caste system. Unlike the West where the spirit of patriotism was the link between the individual and the state, in India this link was provided by religion. But Pal was careful to note that no religion was entirely based on renunciation as their major sustenance came from satisfying people’s interests and needs. It is this later urge that led to the establishment of a modern nation.
Even in India this was true as evident from the unity of Hindu and Muslim landlords in protecting their common interests towards the end of the Mughal Empire and the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. As such the stability of a nation is best preserved when all sections of the people find fulfilment of their desires. In the context of India, Pal pleaded for a composite patriotism which would bridge the gap between the two major communities. Towards this end he insisted on the need to organise an “Akbar festival” along with a “Shivaji festival”.
Pal was no blind worshipper of the West. He characterised the American and European democracies as cruel and thought that the future Indian democracy would be far better than these for it would be based on equality. He felt that imperialism contributed more to unification of humanity than any other association or organisation. This did not mean that he endorsed its cruelties and exploitative mechanisms. What he pleaded for was transcendence to a larger and broader entity other than a nation. The sociability in human beings would eventually push towards a common bond among nations and the current trends towards globalisation affirm Pal’s belief. Like Gandhiji, he advocated labour intensive rather than capital intensive technology as far as India was concerned for that would mitigate the problem of unemployment.
Like Jefferson he believed in the idea of self-sufficiency and the freedom of the village-based artisans who could combine their art with agriculture. In 1917, Pal in association with Das and Motilal Ghose unseated the Moderates in the Bengal Provincial Congress. In the same year, Pal was one of the few Indian leaders who supported the Bolshevik Revolution explaining the cause of the revolution to the lack of democratic institutions in Czarist Russia. Pal has to be remembered for his courage, convictions and selfless devotion to the cause of India’s independence and development. In remaining steadfast with his belief in secularism he did not even mind near oblivion from the national scene and in spite of being in dire financial need he showed his courage of conviction. (The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)