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Sri Aurobindo

Bande Mataram

Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908

Bande Mataram. March 26, 1908

Freedom of Speech

The questions in Parliament about the change of the existing law and Mr. Morley's answers seem to point to a coming repressive measure intended to suppress the small amount of free speech still existing in India. The rights of free speech and free meeting were once reckoned among the priceless blessings which British rule had brought to India. Nowadays one can with difficulty put oneself back into the frame of mind which made such a conception possible. The entire dependence on British protection, the childlike faith in the machinery of European civilisation, the inability to perceive facts or distinguish words from realities, the facile contentment with the liberties of the slave to which that conception testified, are happily growing obsolete. They persist in the survivors of the old generation and in those of the present generation who cannot open themselves to new ideas, but are dead in the minds of those who will be the future people of India. In the course of another fifty years men will look back to the times when such ideas were possible, in the same spirit that the nineteenth century looked back to the Middle Ages, as a period of absolute ignorance and darkness when the national mind and consciousness were in a state of total eclipse. The blessings of British rule have all been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The Pax Britannica is now seen to be the cause of our loss of manliness and power of self-defence, a peace of death and torpor, security to starve in, the ease of the grave. British law has been found to be a fruitful source of demoralisation, an engine to destroy ancient houses, beggar wealthy families and drain the poor of their little competence. British education has denationalised the educated community, laid waste the fertile soil of the Indian intellect, suppressed originality and invention, created a gulf between the classes and the masses and done its best to kill that spirituality which is the soul of India. The petty privileges which British statecraft has thrown to us as morsels from the rich repast of liberty, have pauperised us politically, preserved all that was low, weak and dependent in our political temperament and discouraged the old robust manhood of our forefathers. Every Municipal or District Board has been a nursery of dependence and pampered slavery, and the right of public meeting and freedom of the Press only served to complete this demoralisation, while at the same time cheating us into the belief that we were free.

The ancient Romans had a class of slaves born in the family and pampered in their childhood by their masters, who were called vernae and enjoyed a peculiar position of mingled licence and subjection. They were allowed to speak with the most unbounded licence, to abuse their masters, to play tricks sometimes of a most injurious character and were yet indulged so long as the master was in a good humour; let the master's temper turn sour or break into passion and the lash was called into requisition. The freedom of speech enjoyed by us under the bureaucratic rule has been precisely of this kind. It depended on the will of a despotic administration, and at any moment it could be withdrawn or abridged, at any moment the lash of the law could be brought down on the back of the critic. This freedom of speech was worse than the Russian censorship; for in Russia the editor laboured under no delusion, he knew that freedom of speech was not his, and if he wrote against the administration, it was at his own risk; there was no pretence, no dissimulation on either side. But our freedom of speech has demoralised us, fostered an ignoble mixture of servility and licence, of cringing and impudence, which are the very temperament of the slave. We were extravagantly pleased with the slightest boons conceded to us and poured out our feelings with fulsome gratitude, or we grew furious at favours withheld and abused the withholders in the same key. Our public expressions were full of evasions, falsehoods, flatteries of British rule coupled with venomous and damaging attacks on that which in the same breath we lauded to the skies. A habit of cowardly insincerity became ingrained in us, which was fatal to the soundness of the heart, an insincerity which refused to be confined to our relations with the rulers and pursued us into our relations with our own countrymen. The same dry rot of insincerity vitiated all our public action and even our private lives, making a farce of our politics, a comedy of our social reform, and turning us from men into masks. The strenuous attempt to live what we believed, which was the result of the ancient Indian discipline, left the educated class altogether and a gulf was placed between our practice and our professions, so that the heart of India began to beat slower and slower and seemed likely to stop.

It was the proud privilege of the Nationalist Party to strike at the root of this terrible evil. From the first outburst of the Swadeshi movement, their speakers and writers decided to be no longer masks but men, to speak and write the truth that was in their minds, the feeling that was in their hearts without disguise, without equivocation, as freemen vindicating their freedom, a freedom not bestowed but inborn. The poison passed out of the national system and the blood began to circulate freely in our veins. Once more we stood up as men and not as gibbering spectres of a vanished humanity. The attitude of the Sandhya and Yugantar, consistently maintained in the dock, stood for a revival of Indian sincerity, truthfulness, manliness, fearlessness; it was the resurgence of the Arya, the ideal of honour and quiet manhood which made our forefathers great. But when the prosecutions failed to crush the papers for which the martyrs offered themselves as a sacrifice, the cry was raised that they were being sacrificed by designing men who kept themselves in the background. The persistence of the same tone and the same writings showed that those who maintained the spirit of the paper were untouched, and it was obvious that only by putting them under lock and key, could the journal itself be snuffed out. So the threat of a change in the law which would hunt out the real culprits, has been persistently held before our eyes, and, if disregarded, may be carried out. The threat is an empty one, because no change of law can find out those whom the nation is determined to save, lest the light of truth be prematurely put under eclipse. Only by the abrogation of all law, by an arbitrary measure extinguishing the freedom of speech altogether can these journals be snuffed out of being by the hand of Power. Such a measure may at any moment be hurried through the Legislative Council, and the fear of it troubles our Moderate friends and sometimes finds expression in objurgations against our past indiscretions or our policy of protecting our writers and contributors coupled with more or less bland invitations to commit suicide so that their journals may survive. But the existence of one paper which does not shrink from expression of the heart and mind of the nation is of a higher value than that of many journals which fill their columns with insincerities and platitudes. The freedom of speech which the Moderate Party are so anxious to save from extinction is a badge of slavery, a poison to the national health, a perpetuation of servitude, and it is better that it should be extinguished than that the recovered freedom of a nation's soul should cease. God will find out a way to spread the movement, even as it was found out in Russia, if the bureaucracy are so ill-advised as to gag the Press. This voice is abroad and what law shall prevail against it?

 

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.