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Sri Aurobindo

Bande Mataram

Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908

Bande Mataram. March 25, 1908

Oligarchy or Democracy?

Apart from questions of aim and method, a fruitful source of discord between the two parties has been the divergence of views with regard to the spirit of the Congress, whether it is to be the Congress of the few or the Congress of the many. This divergence has been chiefly operative in bringing about struggles over the election of the President and his method of conducting the proceedings, over the selection of the Subjects Committee and the rights of the delegates to express their opinion and use every means to make it operative. One side demands implicit obedience to the authority of the President and a small circle of leaders, the other claims that the President is only a servant of the Congress with a delegated and limited power, that the Congress is supreme and no small circle of leaders has a right to dictate to it, and that the obscurest delegate is by his very position equal in rights and status to the most distinguished men in the country. One side tries to form a Subjects Committee of the leading men in each province, the other tries to enforce the right of the delegates to make their own unhampered choice. One side wishes the Congress to register obediently the resolutions framed for it by wiser heads, the other claims a sovereign dignity and activity for the whole body and the utmost latitude of debate on all important questions. This difference of spirit has been the cause of even more discord and bitterness than the difference of aims and methods, and the most difficult and debatable points in the Congress Constitution will be those into which this issue enters.

In the early days of the world political development was the result of the needs of the civic organism; in modern times it is powerfully swayed by ideas, and often the idea creates the need. English education has brought in the idea of democracy, of the sovereign right and power of the people, and a predilection for the forms of a democratic assembly. When, therefore, the Congress was instituted, the originators tried to cast it in the democratic mould, to clothe it in democratic forms. But the idea by itself cannot become operative, it must first create a corresponding need. The Congress, therefore, while democratic in theory, was in reality a close oligarchy of the most primitive type. Claiming to realise in obedience to the most developed modern ideas the course of modern democratic development, it really followed in obedience to the actual political conditions of the country a course of primitive development very like in its essential features to the primitive constitutions of early times when democracy was unconsciously evolving. There was no electorate which could make the principle of election operative, no political vitality or habit of political thought in the people to put life into the forms of a democratic assembly, no battle of opinions which could hammer out the complete mould of a great deliberative assembly from the rough and shapeless mass called the Congress.

Nominally, the Congress was a sort of imitation Parliament and its delegates were supposed to be elected by the people and representatives of the people; in reality, there was no electorate to represent and the forms of election degenerated into a farce; five people often meeting to elect a hundred out of whom those only attended the Congress session who had time and leisure. In effect, therefore, the Congress was not a modern Parliament but a popular assembly like the old Aryan assemblies in which the whole body of the citizens could attend and all did attend who had the inclination and the leisure. But while the old Aryan assembly was actually the mustering of the citizens, the Congress was rather like those early federal assemblies held in a central place in which as many as could attended from distant places and the bulk of the gathering was made up of local citizens. The peculiarity of the Congress has been the failure to provide against the preponderance of the local majority except by the habit of aiming at unanimity in its resolutions. This flaw in the foundation has been largely responsible for the final tumbling to pieces of the structure. Nominally, again, the resolutions of the Congress were passed by the vote of the assembled delegates, as in a democratic chamber; in reality, the delegates did not vote at all but, like the primitive assemblies, simply accepted by acclamation resolutions ready prepared for them by a few influential men sitting in secret council. Nominally, the President was elected by the Congress and presided over the proceedings according to recognised rules of debate, but in reality he was chosen out of and by the small oligarchical circle which ruled the Congress, effected their decisions and carried out their will. His authority over the proceedings was unfettered by any written rules; the custom and the precedents of the assembly were the sole guide and these were interpreted by him according to the convenience of the Congress oligarchs. Thus the pretence of a modern democratic assembly reduced itself in practice to the reality of an oligarchy. A small circle meeting in secret called the Congress, decided its place of meeting, fixed its policy, framed its resolutions, selected its officers, governed its proceedings and took the opinion of the assembly by acclamation. The assembly listened to the speakers selected by the oligarchs and passed by acclamation the resolutions they had framed. The President was simply a temporary chief of the oligarchs and not the real head of a democratic assembly. In all these respects the Congress reproduced with extraordinary fidelity the essential features of a primitive Greek ecclesia or the Roman comitia in the most oligarchical period.

The first attempt to democratise the Congress was the creation of the Subjects Committee, as a sort of temporary Senate or Council which should prepare the business of the Congress. It was an unconscious reproduction of the Greek boulē or preliminary Council which had similar functions; but it failed to democratise the Congress, it only widened the basis of the Congress oligarchy. It was supposed to be elected by the assembly but was really selected by the oligarchs whose nominations were accepted by the Congress. The Subjects Committee meetings were indeed the scene of frequent encounters between the oligarchs and the free lances who represented a growing strain of popular discontent; but there was no popular party which these men could set against the prestige of the old leaders, and they themselves were usually young and ambitious men who soon passed into the charmed circle and became its chief supports. Those of a robuster type, a Tilak or a Bepin1 Pal, were held at arm's length and, having no organised2 following, were unable to prevail.

Another direction in which the incipient democratic tendency sought to fulfil itself was in the demand for a fixed and written constitution for the Congress. Unwritten law administered by a coterie, class or caste, has always been a strength to oligarchy, and we find in early times that the first demand of an infant3 democracy is for the codification of law and a fixed and written constitution. We have ourselves experienced in the last two years what a powerful weapon in the hands of the Congress oligarchy has been this absence of a written constitution, law and procedure for the Congress. The demand for a written constitution early manifested itself and led for some time to an actual secession of a whole Province from the Congress, but the privilege of administering the body without fixed or written restrictions was too highly valued by the official clique to be lightly parted with, and by procrastination and masterly inaction they succeeded in baffling the growing demand.

To democratise the Congress was, in fact, impossible without a popular awakening and widening of the political consciousness. Democracy is impossible without a demos, a people politically awake and active, and it was only in the upheaval of 1905 that the rudiments of such a demos began to form. The Nationalist Party which sprang out of that upheaval, showed its character by the democratic nature of its demands and the increasing tendency to democracy in its own composition. It demanded that the President should be elected according to popular sentiment and not by a coterie, that the Subjects Committee should be elected in due form and not nominated by a coterie, that the President and the Congress official circles should act constitutionally and not at their caprice or convenience, that the constitution should be reduced to writing, that the full assembly of delegates should be in fact as well as in theory the sovereign body and that the rights of discussion, amendment and rejection of resolutions should be allowed to be put in practice. In brief, they claimed that the theoretically democratic Congress should become democratic in effect and reality. The keenness of the struggle not only in the Congress but outside it has been largely if not principally due to this onslaught on the charmed oligarchical circle and the determination of the latter to preserve their position at any cost. At Midnapur4, for instance, the struggle was over this issue, and not over any serious difference of opinion. And though the issue at Surat was much larger and complicated, it is significant that the battle was joined over a question of constitutional procedure, and it was on a claim of the official oligarchy to override the constitutional rights of a delegate that the Surat Congress broke up in admired disorder. Oligarchy or democracy, authority or freedom are the issue, and no settlement can work which does not decide the question whether the Congress is to remain a mute assembly swayed by a handful of men or a democratic body of as modern a development as the political conditions of the country will allow.


Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volumes 6-7.- Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches. 18901908 .- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2002.- 1182 p.

1 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin


2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: organized


3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: of infant


4 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Midnapore