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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On December 27, 1907, a hundred years ago, the Indian National Congress suffered a split at its Surat session

:: OP-ED Anniversary of a split
By Govind Talwalkar Asian Age Wednesday, December 26, 2007
On December 27, 1907, a hundred years ago, the Indian National Congress suffered a split at its Surat session. The tension between the party’s moderate and radical groups had started building up for some years and the partition of Bengal proved to be the catalyst for the split.
United Bengal included Orissa, Assam and Bihar. So proposals were being discussed at the administrative level since 1886 to carve out the separate provinces of Assam, Orissa and Bihar. But when it was proposed that Bengal itself would be partitioned into east and west, it evoked instant opposition.
Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, gave his consent to the proposal of partition in 1903 and the secretary of state endorsed it in 1905. And then Bengal was partitioned.
The Statesman, the British owned daily, rejecting the partition plan, wrote on July 21, 1905 that the main objectives of the government were to destroy the collective power of the Bengali people; to overthrow the political ascendancy of Calcutta; and to foster in East Bengal the growth of Mahomedan power, which would effectively keep in check the rapidly growing strength of the educated Hindu community.
Partition was denounced by the Congress leaders as well as others. There were several meetings and marches all over the province. A massive movement was undertaken to collect signatures against the partition. All over Bengal "Vande Mataram" became the most popular slogan. Surendranath Banerjee and several other leaders were either prohibited from addressing public meetings or imprisoned.
The protest culminated in a boycott movement. Swadeshi, boycott of British goods and national education formed the main plank of the movement; and this became the bone of contention between the moderates and the radicals in the Congress. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who represented the moderates, opposed the partition and called Curzon an Aurangzeb. But he said that the boycott and Swadeshi should not spread outside Bengal. As the moderates were Constitutionalists, they did not approve of such mass movements.
The boycott movement in Bengal was achieving some success. This was evident from the reduced sales of foreign goods and the rise in the income of the handloom weavers. However, the number of textile mills gradually increased in Mumbai and Ahmedabad but not in Bengal.
Government was alarmed by two other developments. One was the rise in the revolutionary activities in Bengal and the other was the peasant agitation in Punjab. Revolutionary secret societies were active in Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab even before the partition of Bengal. They increased considerably because of the partition.
Several years earlier, in Punjab, irrigated land had been distributed by the government to the landlords, army men and citizens. This worked smoothly for some time. But after a while, the question of the sale or transfer of the land arose. Government restrictions proved irksome to ordinary landholders; and agitation started. As army men were also among the landholders, the government feared that the agitation might result in a revolt as in 1857.
In this backdrop, the Calcutta session of the Congress was held in 1906. The radicals wanted Bal Gangadhar Tilak to preside over the session; but it was strongly objected to by the moderates. So Tilak withdrew. They also did not accept Lala Lajpat Rai as a compromise candidate. So Surendranath wired Dadabhai Naoroji, requesting him to accept the presidentship. An irrepressible leader like Bipin Chandra Pal resisted this move and threatened Dadabhai that he would expose his trade scandal. The Grand Old Man did nor reply to Pal, but wrote to Gokhale that his dealings were above board. In his presidential speech, Dadabhai condemned the partition of Bengal, but did not speak about the boycott movement.
Next year, the Congress session was to be held in Nagpur, but the reception committee could not function because of the internecine feud. So Pherozeshah Mehta managed to shift the session to Surat, which was his fiefdom. He also got the committee to nominate Rashbehari Ghose as president. The radicals did not approve of this, as Ghose had made remarks critical of the boycott agitation. So when the session started with a great deal of pandemonium, it was adjourned.
Before the adjourned session started, Tilak had given a note to the chairman of the reception committee, Tribhuvandas Malavi, that he would move an amendment to the proposal to nominate Ghose as president. This went unanswered. So when the name of Ghose was proposed and seconded, Tilak went to the dais and announced that he wanted to move an amendment. He was ruled out. Tilak then said that he would put the amendment to the house.
All hell broke loose, lathis were wielded and a Poona shoe that was hurled at the dais struck Mehta. Policemen were called, and they cleared the venue.
It was then announced that a special convention would be held the next day, to which, those who would sign a pledge to follow Constitutional methods, would be admitted.
The mystery, as to who started the violence, was later cleared up by Aurobindo Ghose. In Poona he disclosed that he and some of his colleagues had kept Tilak in the dark and had decided to disrupt the session. It is evident from the memoirs of Motilal Ghose, the editor of Amrita Bazar Patrika, that Tilak did not want the Congress to be so divided.
Motilal Ghose, in his memoirs, A Step in the Steamer, says that in Surat he and Tilak acted closely; and so he knew Tilak’s mind. Ghose told Tilak that he should express regret and make it clear that he wanted peace and unity.
Accepting this suggestion, Tilak wrote a note, saying that if the other party was ready to continue with the session, he would accept all the blame and he and his colleagues would withdraw their opposition to the election of Rashbehari Ghose. The radicals expected that the resolution passed in Calcutta would be reiterated and the president would omit from his speech all critical references about the radicals. This was not acceptable to the moderates. Mehta was uncomfortable with the radicals in the Congress and welcomed their exit from the organisation.
Though the Congress without the radicals became homogeneous, it was devoid of its spirit and was virtually non-functional. The radicals did not form a parallel organisation, since Tilak did not approve of a rival to the Congress. Later, Tilak was prosecuted on charges of sedition and sentenced to six years of deportation to Burma; and Pal was converted to moderate politics.
It had taken twenty-two years to build the Congress; but it took only a few hours to break it.

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