Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908
Bande Mataram. March 23, 1908
The Weapon of Secession
There has been much talk recently of drawing up a constitution for the Congress, but even if we are able to decide the question of the constitution, the next step before us will be to carry it out. To think that a paper constitution will help to bring about peace between the parties, is to ignore the fact that men are swayed by feelings and not by machinery. Paper constitutions have always failed to effect their object, except when they are in harmony with the feeling of the nation and express the actual situation in their arrangements. Whatever constitution we may draw up, must be one which will suit the conditions of the country and meet the difficulties of the present crisis. We propose to go into the question from time to time and deal with the chief points which in our opinion ought to be decided in order to form a real starting-point for the fresh life of the Congress. The first and initially essential question is the object of the Congress, the function which it proposes to discharge and the aim which it sets before itself. We agree with the Moderates that this is the first point on which a clear understanding is necessary, but we do not follow them in their contention that the decision of this question need imply the exclusion of all who differ from the precise terms in which it is decided. The Congress is an expression of the life of the nation, and the will and aspiration of the nation must decide the function and object of the Congress; but that will and aspiration are not immutable; they develop, change, progress, and it is always the function of the dissentient minority to stand for that potential development and progress without which life is impossible. The exclusion of the minority by a rigid shibboleth means the perpetuation in the Congress of a state of things which may correspond for the moment to the desire of the nation, but may cease so to correspond in a few years. It means the conversion of a national assembly into a party caucus.
The function of the Congress has hitherto been to pass inoperative resolutions, its aim to influence British opinion. Needless to say, the originators were men of ability and wide views, and they had an ulterior object in instituting this body and giving it the shape it took. The situation in India as they envisaged it, resembled that of the patricians and plebeians in Rome; for they accepted the permanence of British control almost as a law of Nature though they were anxious to alter its conditions. A caste of white patricians arrogated the control of the State in all its functions and effected an inborn social superiority accompanied not only by an intolerable arrogance and aloofness but often by actual brutality; yet it was the indigenous mass that supplied the sinews of war and did the substantial work which secured the peaceful and efficient conduct of the administration. The political and social grievances were farther accentuated by the economical sufferings of the proletariat, which were largely caused by the selfish policy of the ruling caste. Yet there was no legal or constitutional means of redress, the people had no votes, no means of checking directly or indirectly either executive or legislature, no power over the purse. The only force at their command was the vague strength of public opinion. The object of the Indian leaders, like that of the Roman plebeians, was to give a definite form to that public opinion,– focus it, as it is commonly expressed, and, secondly, to make that definitely formulated opinion effective. In each case a new body was formed within the State which served the purpose of formulating popular sentiment with a view to bring pressure on the ruling caste and bring about a change in political conditions. But while the Roman comitia became a new sovereign assembly in the State, existing side by side with the already recognised organs of Government, invested with full legislative powers, governing by means of plebiscites or resolutions of the people and appointing magistrates of its own who were empowered to exercise a check on every action, legislative, executive or fiscal of the Government, the Congress has remained from beginning to end a nullity. The difference lay partly in the conditions, partly in the means employed.
The originators of the Congress had undoubtedly before them an object very similar to that of their Roman prototypes. The Congress has sometimes been described as His Majesty's permanent Opposition; but the aim of the originators was to make it something less futile than a mere meeting of powerless critics; they certainly hoped that the plebiscites or resolutions of the Congress would eventually come to have a sovereign force and translate themselves almost automatically into laws. But they took no sufficient notice of the immense difference in the conditions of a struggle for popular rights which is introduced by the foreign character of the ruling caste. There can always be an accommodation between the contending factions or classes within the same nationality, even though the accommodation may not come till after a severe and even violent struggle, but when the ruling caste is a caste of foreigners, it is unlikely to give up its powers, on any lesser compulsion than the alternative of extinction and will often prefer extinction to surrender. Even when the Congress leaders discovered that the bureaucracy were1 implacable and irreconcilable, they did not lay their hands on the right source of strength. The bureaucracy in India is in itself weak and powerless; it subsists greatly by the acquiescence and support of the people, partly by the existence behind it of the strength of the British Empire. The Congress leaders saw only the second source of its strength and sought to cut it off by depriving the bureaucracy of the moral support of the British public. Their initial miscalculation pursued them. They forgot that the British justice to which they appealed was foreign justice, the justice of alien to alien, of self-satisfied and arrogant masters to discontented dependents with whom they have no bonds of blood, culture, religion or social life. Justice might be on their side, but nature and self-interest were against them. Therefore they failed.
The real strength of their position lay in the other source of bureaucratic security, the acquiescence and support of the people. As at Rome, so in India the ruling caste cannot last for a moment except by this aid and acquiescence of the plebeian mass and when the plebeian leaders found their rulers deaf to the opinions and loudly-expressed feelings of the oppressed populace, they discovered an infallible weapon, a brahmāstra of peaceful political struggle, the weapon of secession. They gave the patricians notice that they would cease to give their aid and acquiescence to the patrician rule and would form a new city over against Rome. In India, by force of a similar situation, we rediscovered this weapon of secession. For boycott is nothing but this secession; we threaten to secede industrially, educationally, politically, to refuse our aid and acquiescence to the maintenance of British exploitation and British education and British administration in India, and build ourselves a new city, a State within the State, by creating our own industries, our own schools and colleges, our own instruments of justice and protection, our own network of public, executive and administrative bodies throughout the realm. Only while it was enough for the Romans to threaten, we have to carry out our threat before the weapon can be effective, because our ruling caste, being foreign, will certainly refuse to recognise the Congress as a sovereign body whether existing side by side with the present organs of Government or replacing them until it has such a position as an actual fact; they will recognise only the realised aspiration, not the distant possibility. The party of peaceful secession of thoroughgoing passive resistance does not forget that besides the support and acquiescence of the people the bureaucracy have another source of strength in the military force of the British Empire. They are often accused of forgetting it, but they realise it fully, only they also realise that this weapon of secession, of boycott and self-help, is the only chance which yet remained of a peaceful solution of the problem,– and they are willing to make full use of that chance.
The question of the function of the Congress hinges upon this acceptance or rejection of this weapon. Whatever be the aim of the Congress, whether it be Swaraj or Colonial Self-government or administrative reform, it cannot be brought about by inoperative resolutions, it can only be brought about by pressure; and the only means of pressure in our hands is the threat or the practice of boycott or secession. If the function of the Congress is merely to focus public opinion, it need do nothing but pass resolutions and a few slight changes of procedure will be sufficient. But if its function is to pass effective resolutions, if it is not only to focus public opinion but to collect and centralise2 national strength, it will have to use the weapon of secession to organise3 a State within the State, and for that purpose the body will have not only to be readjusted but gradually reconstructed.
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: was
2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: centralize
3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: organize