Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908
Bande Mataram. March 15, 1907
The Comilla Incident
The Comilla affair remains, after everybody has said his say, obscured by the usual tangle of contradictions. The Hindu version presents a number of allegations, – specific, detailed and categorical – of attacks on Hindus, making up in the mass a serious picture of a mofussil town given over for days to an outbreak of brutal lawlessness on the part of one section of the Mahomedan community, a Magistrate quiescent and sympathetically tolerant of the rioters, and the final resort by the Hindu community to drastic measures of self-defence on the continued refusal of British authority to do its duty as the guardian of law and order. A Mahomedan report belittled the accounts of Mahomedan violence and presented picturesque and vivid details of Hindu aggressiveness; but as this version has since been repudiated we have to turn to the official account for the other side of the picture. But the official account – well, the value of official statements is an understood thing all the world over. Is it not a political byword in England itself that no rumour or irresponsible statement should be believed until it had been officially denied? The official version of the Comilla incident published on the 9th March is hard to beat as a specimen of its class – it is a most amazingly unskilful production over which suppression of truth and suggestion of falsehood are written large and palpable; but it presents a beautiful and artistic picture of wanton and murderous Hindu violence, comparative Mahomedan moderation, and fatherly British care brooding dove-eyed and maternal-winged over its irreconcilably quarrelsome step-children.
If anyone should think our characterisation of this historical document too sweeping, we invite him to a careful study both of what it says and what it does not say. It commences with the statement that “a series of anti-Partition meetings were recently held here without incident and on 6th March Nawab Salimullah arrived from Dacca to hold counter-meetings”. The insertion of the words “without incident” is admirable. It implies that there was violent irritation between Hindus and Mahomedans on the Partition question and the latter might have been expected to show their irritation by “incidents”, – especially when the “inflammatory” speeches of Babu Bepin1 Chandra Pal and other firebrands are taken into account, – but they very considerately refrained. Thus Mahomedan moderation is contrasted with the Hindu aggressiveness which is presently to be related, and the way paved for throwing the whole responsibility on the anti-Partition agitation and aggressive Swadeshism. Then we are informed as a positive fact that a brick was thrown at the Nawab's procession and brooms held up in derision. “This led to some disturbance and a cloth shop was entered but not looted and two prostitutes' houses robbed.” Let us pause over this delightful sentence. The outrageous assaults by the rioters which the Hindu accounts carefully specify, are all hidden away and glossed over under the mild and gentlemanly phrase “some disturbance”; the only specific instances which the Commissioner will acknowledge are the cloth-shop “incident” and the “incident” of the two prostitutes. But after all, what occurred in the cloth-shop? It was merely “entered”, – admirable word! the rioters were far too polite, honourable and considerate to loot it. They simply entered for the sheer joy of entering and perhaps of gazing ecstatically on bales of Swadeshi cloth! They also “entered” the houses of two prostitutes, but in this instance, indemnified themselves for their trouble; still, the people robbed were merely prostitutes! It is thus suggested that the disturbance was of the most trifling character and the only sufferers a shopkeeper and two prostitutes; in fact, the whole thing was little more than an amiable frolic. Of the violent maltreatment not only of students and shopkeepers but of pleaders and other respectable citizens, of the forcible invasion of private houses and the attempts to break into or, let us say, “enter” women's apartments, there is not a word.
After this day of “entries” there is a blank in the official record until the next evening when “the Nawab's Secretary, a Parsi was attacked while walking alone and severely beaten with lathis by some Hindus”. The provocation alleged to have been given by Mr. Cursetji is carefully omitted, and we are asked to believe that an inoffensive Parsi gentleman out for an innocent and healthful evening walk was waylaid, when alone, and severely beaten because he happened to be the Nawab's Private Secretary. And the evening and the morning were the second day. On the third all was again quiet till that dangerous time, the evening, when an “unlicensed Mahomedan procession”, greatly daring, took the air like Mr. Cursetji before them, apparently with the innocuous object of relieving their feelings and exercising their lungs shouting Allah-ho-Akbar. This explains a great deal; evidently the bands of hooligans ranging the streets and attacking people and “entering” houses were in reality “no such matter” except in vivid Hindu imaginations; they were merely “unlicensed Mahomedan processions” on innocent shouting intent. Some unknown person, however, fired upon this procession and killed a Mahomedan baker; and there, inexplicably enough, matters ended for the day. The shot, however, had a powerful effect upon the authorities; it seems to have stirred them up to some faint remembrance of the elementary duties of a civilised administration. Accordingly our martial Commissioner telegraphed, like Kuropatkin, for “reinforcements”, and pending their arrival, sent for the Mahomedan Sardars and Mullahs and “enlisted” their influence to keep the peace. In the name of reason and logic, why? The account shows that all the violence and lawlessness, if we except the trifling affairs of the unlooted shop and the looted prostitutes, proceeded from the Hindus. The Mahomedans, it seems, kept perfectly quiet until the night of this third day, when the only incidents were again of a trifling character; a man riding on the step of a carriage was “struck”; a Hindu peon was “struck”, nothing more. We are ourselves “struck” by the mildness of the methods employed by these rioters; they do not break into houses, they merely “enter” them; they do not severely beat any one as Mr. Cursetji was “severely beaten” by the Hindus; they merely “strike” a man or two in playful sort. Under the circumstances it is surely the leaders of the Hindu community who should have been enlisted “to keep the peace” – say, as special constables. However, in the end, the reinforcements arrived and the Commissioner busied himself in the fatherly British way, “inquiring personally into all allegations and endeavouring to bring the leaders of both parties together”. On this touching scene the official curtain falls. Who shall say after this that “divide and rule” is the policy of the British bureaucracy in India?
We have said enough to expose thoroughly this ridiculous account of a very serious affair. It is the production not of an impartial official keeping the peace between two communities, but of a partisan in a political fight who looks upon the anti-Swadeshi Mahomedans as allies “enlisted” on the side of the bureaucracy. In order to understand the affair we have to read into the official account all that it carefully omits; and for this we must fall back on the Hindu version of the incident. What seems to have happened is clear enough in outline, whatever doubt there may be as to details. The popular cause was making immense strides in Comilla and the magnificent success of the District Conference had afforded a proof which could not be ignored. The redoubtable Nawab Salimullah of Dacca considered it his duty to his patron, the Assam Government, to stem the tide of nationalism in Tipperah. Accordingly he marched Comillawards with his lieutenants and entered the town in conquering pomp. That he ordered the sack of the conquered city is probably no more than the suspicion natural to excited imaginations; but it is certain that his coming was immediately responsible for the riots. His whole history, since he was shoved into prominence by his Anglo-Indian patrons, has been one long campaign against the Hindus with attempts to excite the passions and class selfishness of the Mahomedans and inflame them into permanent hostility to their Hindu fellow-countrymen. It is only within the territorial limits of the Nawab's influence that there has been any serious friction between Hindus and Mahomedans on the Swadeshi and Partition questions; but so far as it has gone, its immediate results have been not only friction but outbreaks of violence and lawlessness either on a small2, as at Serajgunge or on a large scale as at3 Mymensingh. It is not therefore surprising that while the Conference at Comilla and the recent Swadeshi meetings came off without “incident”, the Nawab should no sooner have set his foot in Comilla than a reign of violence and lawlessness began. At the same time it is probable that the suddenness of the outbreak was due to some immediate exciting cause. The brick story bears a suspicious resemblance to the incident which set Sir Bampfylde and his Gurkhas rioting officially at Barisal; but it is likely enough that a few individuals may have shown their feelings towards the Nawab in an offensive way. However that may be, it seems certain that the more rowdy elements of the Mahomedan population broke into lawless riot, attacked Hindus wherever they found them, broke into shops and private houses and brutally assaulted students, pleaders and other respectable Hindus, attempting even in some cases to enter the women's apartments.
Once begun, the affair followed familiar lines. As in Mymensingh, it commenced with an orgy of lawlessness on the part of ignorant low-class Mahomedans inflamed by the Nawab's anti-Hindu campaign. As in Mymensingh, local authorities would not at first interfere, although appealed to by Hindu gentlemen, and confined themselves to academic arguments as to the genesis of the outrages. As in Mymensingh, the Hindus, taken by surprise and denied the protection of the law, fell first into a panic and only afterwards rallied and began to organise self-defence. At Comilla, however, they seemed to have acted with greater promptitude and energy. The disturbances continued for three days at least; but by that time the Hindus had picked themselves together, the women were removed to a safe place where they could be guarded by bands of volunteers and the whole community stood on the defensive. Two or three collisions seem to have taken place in one of which, possibly, Mr. Cursetji was roughly handled, in another a Mahomedan shot dead. By this time, the Commissioner had realised that the policy of non-interference adopted by the British authorities, was leading to serious results which they cannot have anticipated. The military police were telegraphed for and other measures taken which came at least three days too late, since the mischief had been thoroughly done.
Divested of exaggeration and rumour, we fancy the actual facts will be found to amount to something like the above. We do not for a moment believe that the Hindus took aggressive action without serious and even unbearable provocation, any more than we believe that the riot was planned or ordered beforehand by the anti-Swadeshi section of the Mahomedans. We trust that the usual mistake of instituting cases and counter-cases will be avoided. If the Comilla nationalists wish the facts of the case to be known let them draw up a statement of their version with the evidence of the persons assaulted for the enlightenment of public opinion. The time ought to be now past, in Eastern Bengal at least, when appeal to the British courts could be either a remedy or a solace.
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volumes 6-7.- Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches. 1890–1908 .- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2002.- 1182 p.
1 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: in small
3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: in