OPED Saturday, November 22, 2008 pioneer.com The bomb that shook an Empire Peter Hees
Aurobindo Ghose and his band of youthful 'terrorists' stood as accused in the famous Alipore Bomb Case exactly a century ago. The issues they threw up still rankleA hundred years ago, a trial was being heard in Calcutta that brought the issue of revolutionary terrorism before the people of modern India for the first time. There had, of course, been acts of violence against the British almost from the moment of their arrival. But when Khudiram Bose threw a bomb into a carriage that he thought was carrying a district judge on April 30, 1908, he started something new. A bhadralok youth, recruited by an organisation that was established and directed by highly educated men, used a state-of-the-art bomb in an attempt to assassinate a member of the foreign bureaucracy. Khudiram was tried and executed for his act, becoming one of India's most celebrated revolutionary martyrs. The leaders of the organisation, notably Hemchandra Das, Upendranath Banerjee, Barindrakumar Ghose, and Barin's brother Aurobindo Ghose (later Sri Aurobindo), were also put on trial in what became known as the Alipore Bomb Case. After proceedings that lasted almost a year, the first three were convicted and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Aurobindo was acquitted but soon left the political scene, becoming a philosopher and yogi in Pondicherry.
Aurobindo had never thought that scattered acts of small-scale violence would do much to advance the movement. His original idea was the preparation of an "armed insurrection", consisting of "guerrilla warfare accompanied by general resistance and revolt". His organisation "did not include terrorism in its programme", he wrote in 1946; "this element grew up in Bengal as a result of the strong repression and the reaction to it in that province". It was Barin, Upendranath, Hemchandra and others who thought that terrorist methods would be useful. In this they were wrong. Despite all the drama of the Indian revolutionary movement, and the undoubted valour of men like Khudiram, Surya Sen, and Bhagat Singh, Indian terrorists were not very good at accomplishing their aims, and had little practical (as opposed to psychological) effect on the movement.
Sensing this as early as 1911, Aurobindo wrote to a collaborator that terrorism was "our only enemy". He called for an end to "these theatrical assassinations, these frenzied appeals to national hatred with their watchword of Feringhi ko maro, these childish conspiracies, these idiotic schemes for facing a modern army with half a dozen guns and some hundred lathis". Yet to the end of his life Aurobindo never renounced his belief that "a nation is entitled to attain its freedom by violence". "Terrorism" has now become such a charged word that it is hard to use it in a discussion of national heroes. Historians of the immediate post-Independence era preferred the term "militant nationalism". This was not a good choice: the revolutionaries had little military training. Later historians were not afraid to use the term "terrorism", but they defined it carefully as the use of small-scale violence by urban groups to achieve political ends. This is what Barin Ghose and his friends were doing, and there was no reason not to call them terrorists, however unpleasant the word might sound. However, over the last two decades, the meaning of "terrorism" has become restricted in the popular mind to certain types of violent acts, notably ones in which members of the public are targeted as symbolic stand-ins for an inaccessible government. There is a world of difference between terrorists who leave bombs in public places, or detonate suicide vests in buses, and revolutionaries who assassinate carefully chosen colonial officials.
Contemporary terrorism's association with random, often anonymous, violence has fundamentally altered the meaning of the word in public discourse. Another association that colours most people's understanding of the term is the perceived link between terrorism and religion. Certainly many contemporary terrorists, whether operating in Gaza, Baghdad, Mumbai, or London, claim to be inspired by religious beliefs. But this link is not inevitable. Viewed historically, terrorist methods were first used by the Jacobins during the French Revolution in an attempt to maintain state power against perceived reactionaries. Religion never entered into the picture, except perhaps to label Catholic institutions and individuals as ‘reactionary’.
The second great era of terrorism was during the 19th and 20th centuries, when revolutionary groups used small-scale violence against the state. Some of these groups had a religious identity, such as the Irish National Army and some organisations in India, but the fundamental aim of revolutionary terrorists was the weakening of an oppressive state as a step towards its replacement by a more popular one. Revolutionary terrorism is still with us, but the characteristic form of terrorism in the 21st century is what I call 'apocalyptic terrorism', as exemplified by groups such as AUM Shinrikyo of Japan, and the transnational group, al-Qaeda. Both of these made (and make) use of religious discourse, but it could be argued that their inspiration and aims were (and are) not religious but rather apocalyptic: the overthrowing of a whole way of life in all its forms. Apocalyptic terrorist groups are unlikely to achieve their declared aims. How do you attack or destroy a way of life? Well-trained terrorists can hit symbolic targets such as the Tokyo subway system or the World Trade Center, but the world goes on as it always has. Viewed pragmatically, apocalyptic terrorism is more a form of theatre than a means of bringing about constructive change.
Revolutionary terrorists too were aware of the theatrical side of violence – Barin Ghose wrote that part of his aim in sponsoring terrorist attempts was capture headlines that would inspire young men to emulate him – but most revolutionaries had achievable and justifiable aims, and their acts contributed to some extent in their realisation. Can the same be said about the terrorism – much of it ostensibly religious – which continues to plague modern India? Most attempts over the past few years have succeeded in little else but sowing terror in the populace. The perpetrators have rarely identified themselves or their enemies, and achieved nothing beyond the immediate loss of life and property. This is duly reported in the Press, giving rise to frantic public debate; but neither the demographic makeup nor administrative direction of the country is changed in the least. Much of this recent terrorism seems to be nothing more than the simple acting out of revenge, one aggrieved community attacking another, leading to further retaliatory attacks, and so forth ad infinitum. In a democracy that offers all its citizens a chance (however slight in some cases) to air their grievances and bring about change, this terrorism of revenge looks like the pointless working out of a mechanical impulse.
On November 10, 1908, Kanailal Dutt, one of the accused in the Alipore Bomb Case, was hanged in Calcutta. Ten weeks earlier, he and his accomplice Satyendranath Bose had assassinated the government informer Narendranath Gowsami. Asked in court why he had pulled the trigger, Kanailal responded simply: "It was because he proved a traitor to his country." The funeral procession that followed his body to the Ganges was probably the largest ever seen in Kolkata. After his cremation, hundreds of people surged forward to take ash and pieces of bone as holy relics.
The Indian press hailed Kanailal as a martyr, most British papers condemned him as a coward; but an editor The Pioneer, a paper representing the interests of Empire, took issue with this: "Such a crime may be properly described as desperate action, but it is fatuous to call it a cowardly one. If the people of Bengal chose to enthrone Kanailal and Satyendranath "in popular remembrance" as the Greeks had done with the tyrannicide pair Harmodius and Aristogeiton, "it is not easy to see how anyone could justly object to the selection". It is hard to see how such an encomium could be published for those in modern India who leave tiffin-carriers packed with RDX in suburban commuter trains or holy places. -- The writer is an American historian on modern India. The Search Results are given below using word ALIPORE BOMB CASE 'God cannot be jailed' 22 November, 2008 The bomb that shook an Empire 22 November, 2008 100 years of righteous terror 22 November, 2008 Politics of reaching out 11 October, 2008 Alipore bomb case to be exhibited at SC museum 12 May, 2006