Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908
Bande Mataram. May 6, 1907
Look on This Picture, Then on That
Britain, the benevolent, Britain, the mother of Parliaments, Britain, the champion of liberty, Britain, the deliverer of the slave,– such was the sanctified and legendary figure which we have been trained to keep before our eyes from the earliest years of our childhood. Our minds imbued through and through with the colours of that legend, we cherished a faith in the justice and benevolence of Britain more profound, more implicit, more a very part of our beings than the faith of the Christian in Christ or of the Mahomedan in his Prophet. Officials might be oppressive, Viceroys and Lieutenant-Governors reactionary, the Secretary, of State obdurate, Parliament indifferent, the British public careless, but our faith was not to be shaken. If Anglo-India was unkind, we wooed the British people in India itself. If the British people failed us, we said that it was because the Conservatives were in power. If a Liberal Secretary showed himself no less obdurate, we set it down to his personal failings and confidently awaited justice from a Liberal Government in which he should have no part. If the most Radical of Radical Secretaries condemned us to age-long subjection to a paternal and absolute bureaucracy, we whispered to the people, ‘Wait, wait, Britain, the true Britain, the generous, the benevolent, the lover, the giver1 of freedom, is only sleeping; she shall awake again and we shall see her angelic and transfigured beauty’. Where precisely was this Britain we believed in, no man could say, but we would not give up our faith. Credo quia impossibile; – I believe because it is impossible, had become our political creed. Other countries might be selfish, violent, greedy, tyrannical, unjust; in other countries politics might be a continual readjustment of conflicting interests and clashing strengths. But Britain, the Britain of our dreams, was guided only by the light of truth and justice and reason; high ideals, noble impulses, liberal instincts, these were the sole guides of her political actions,– by the lustre of these bright moral fires she guided her mighty steps through an admiring and worshipping world. That was the dream; and so deeply had it lodged in our imaginations that not only the professed Loyalists, the men of moderation, but even the leading Nationalists, those branded as Extremists, could not altogether shake off its influence. Only recently Srijut Bepin2 Chandra Pal at Rajamundry told his hearers that those who thought the British Government would crush us if we tried by passive resistance to make administration impossible, held too low an opinion of British character and British civilisation. We fancy Srijut Bepin3 Chandra watching from the south the welter of official anarchy in East Bengal and the Punjab must have modified to a certain extent his trust in the bearing-power of British high-mindedness. We ourselves, though we had our own views about British character and civilisation, have allowed ourselves to speculate whether it was not just possible that the British bureaucracy might be sufficiently tender of their reputation to avoid extreme, violent and arbitrary measures.
That was the dream. The reality to which we awake is Rawalpindi and Jamalpur. The events in the Punjab are an instructive lesson in the nature of bureaucratic rule. The Punjab has, since the Mutiny, been a quiet, loyal and patient province; whatever burdens have been laid on it, its people have borne without complaint; whatever oppression might go on, it gave rise to no such clamour and agitation as the least arbitrary act would be met with in Bengal. How have the bureaucracy treated this loyal and quiet people? What fruit have they reaped from their loyalty, the men who saved the British Empire in 1857? Intolerable burdens, insolent treatment, rude oppression. The Anglo-Indian cry is that disloyal Bengal has infected loyal Punjab with the virus of sedition. Undoubtedly, the new spirit which has gone out like a mighty fire from Bengal lighting up the whole of India, has found its most favourable ground in the Punjab; but a fire does not burn without fuel, and where there is the most revolutionary spirit, there, we can always be sure, has been the most oppression. The water tax, the land laws, the Colonisation Act legalising the oppressions and illegalities under which the Punjab landholders and peasantry have groaned, had generated the feeling of an intolerable burden, and when a few fearless men brought to the people the message of self-help, the good tidings that in their own hands lay their own salvation, the men of the Punjab found again their ancient spirit and determined to stand upright in the strength of their manhood. They committed no act of violence, they broke no law. They confined themselves to sending in a statement of their grievances to the Government and passively abstaining from the use of the Canal water so that the bureaucracy might not benefit by an iniquitous tax. The rulers of India know well that if passive resistance is permitted, the artificial fabric of bureaucratic despotism will fall down like the walls of Jericho before mere sound, with the mere breath of a people's revolution. To save the situation, they resorted to the usual device of stifling the voice of the people into silence. On a frivolous pretext they struck at the Punjabee. The only result was that the calm resolution of the people received its first tinge of fierce indignation. Then the bureaucracy hurriedly resolved to lop off the tall heads – the policy of the tyrant Tarquin which is always the resort of men without judgment or statesmanship. Lala Hansraj, one of the most revered and beloved of the Punjab leaders, a man grown grey in the quiet and selfless service of his country, Ajit Singh, the nationalist orator, and other men of repute and leading were publicly threatened with prosecution and imprisonment as criminals and an enquiry begun with great pomp and circumstance. Then followed a phenomenon unprecedented, we think, in recent Indian history. For the first time the man in the workshop and the man in the street have risen in revolt for purely political reasons in anger at an attack on purely political leaders. The distinction, which Anglo-India has striven to draw between the ‘Babu class’ and the people, has in the Punjab ceased to exist. It was probably the panic at this alarming phenomenon which hurried the Punjab Government into an extraordinary coup d'état, also unprecedented in recent Indian history. The result is that we have a strange companion picture to that dream of a benevolent and angelic Britain,– a city of unarmed men terrorised by the military, the leaders of the people hurried from their daily avocations to prison, siege-guns pointed at the town, police rifles ready to fire on any group of five men or more to be seen in the streets4, bail refused to respectable pleaders and barristers from sheer terror of their influence. Look on this picture, then on that!
And what next? It is too early to say. This much only is certain that a new stage begins in the struggle between democracy and bureaucracy, a new chapter opens in the history of the progress of Indian Nationalism.
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: lover and giver
2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
4 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: street