Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908
Bande Mataram. April 6, 1908
The Constitution of the Subjects Committee
When we first wrote of the Constitution we pointed out the importance of the Subjects Committee as the first approach towards the democratisation of the Congress. The whole assembly of delegates is too large and too loose a body to discuss what resolutions shall be placed before it or what particular form of words should be used. This has necessarily to be done by a smaller body. But before the Subjects Committee came into existence these questions were decided irresponsibly by a small cabal of leaders in secret. When the first difference arose between the old leaders and younger men, the prospect of a difference of opinion on the platform of the Congress was sufficient to bring about the substitution of a Committee for the cabal. It was a step forward but a very small step. The Committee was nominated by the cabal, not elected by the Congress, with the result that only those who were likely to be subservient to the cabal, their satellites, their mofussil lieutenants or others who were too prominent to be ignored, became members of the Committee. The change widened the basis of the oligarchy, it did not introduce a democratic principle. The Committee met to consent to what the leaders proposed, the Congress met to consent to what the Committee suggested. Freedom of discussion was restricted in the Committee by the autocratic intervention of dominant members of the cabal, in the Congress it was tabooed as a violation of unity.
In any future constitution of the Congress the election of the Subjects Committee must be regulated by the principles of democratic representation, not of oligarchic nomination. The state of things during the last two years has been one of transition, the leaders attempting to dictate their choice to the delegates, the delegates attempting to force theirs on the leaders, and the formation of the Subjects Committee has been invariably the occasion of scenes of tumult, confusion and chaos which were painful to all lovers of orderly procedure. The only remedy is the frank acceptance of the principle of democratic representation. At Surat when the Bengali delegates were electing their representatives on the Subjects Committee, Srijut Surendranath Banerji let fall a remarkable expression of sentiment which explains the difficulty felt by the leaders in frankly accepting the principle of district or divisional election which can alone ensure that the Subjects Committee will represent the will of the country. “If the delegates are allowed to elect their representatives,” he said, “the best men will not be chosen.” The aristocratic nature of the objection was a surprise to many of the delegates, for it contains the very essence of the oligarchical spirit. The distrust of the people, the sense of aristocratic superiority, the confidence of superior wisdom which it conveyed are the stamp of this spirit in all ages. The best men are the men of position, rank, status, the men with a stake in the country, the men who have succeeded and are on the top of the ladder, and these have a right to lead by virtue of their position apart from the will of the people. The party of privilege in all ages have posed as the superior people, the monopolists of wisdom, the optimates or best men, the boni or good people. The party opposed to them are the ignorant, the pestilent demagogues, the crazy fanatics, the men without stake or substance who wish to create a revolution in order to benefit themselves. If democratic election is allowed, these men will be elected in increasing numbers and shoulder out their betters. This spirit of oligarchical exclusiveness is the secret of all the friction which has been evident and the scenes of anger, strife and disorder, the frequent outbreaks of popular indignation which have marked the Conferences and Congresses since the birth of the democratic spirit. The Congress oligarchs, unwilling to allow that spirit to assert itself, are yet unable to disavow openly the principles of democracy in the name of which they demand from the bureaucracy rights and privileges which they themselves refuse to the rank and file of their own followers. The conflict goes on behind the scenes and the outbreaks in the Conference or Congress are rare and the results of a growing impatience of the evasions, tricks, shufflings by which the leaders try to hold an untenable position. They can neither disown democracy nor frankly accept it. They are eager to keep up its forms, determined to exclude its spirit. We shall not dwell farther on this aspect of the question, for the democratic spirit cannot be permanently repressed or baffled by evasions. That the constitution must be based on democratic principles is one of the axioms with which we have started. The Subjects Committee is the brain of the Congress and must be democratised if the Congress itself is to be democratic. Otherwise we shall have a repetition of the scenes which we are all anxious to avoid. An oligarchical Subjects Committee preparing resolutions which have to be repeatedly challenged in the full house, is an unworkable arrangement. The delegates must be made to feel that the Committee is really representative of their wishes and opinions and the inclination to scan with suspicion the Subjects Committee's resolutions and amend them in full house, will then disappear.
The election of the members of the Committee is at present no election at all, but a scramble for the membership. It must be reduced to order and rule by a serious, settled and deliberate form of election. The representatives of each division in a province must be allowed to sit separately and vote their choice of representatives for their own division, the names must be written down by a temporary secretary and handed in to the Secretary for the Province who will read out the full list of names to the assembled delegates of the Province. These names should be sent in to the Secretaries of the Congress who will put in the full list as soon as the President's address is over. In this way the business of forming the Subjects Committee can be done quietly, timely and thoroughly. No objection should be allowed from one division against the choice of another division or from one Province against the choice of another Province.
But the method of election is not the only obstacle in the way of full correspondence between the will of the Subjects Committee and the will of the Congress. The method of discussion in the Committee is at present hampered by irregularities which often prevent the real sense of the Committee from being properly ascertained. It is only when a strong and conscientious President acquainted with the forms of discussion in a free country sits in the chair, that the proceedings of the Committee are worthy of itself. These irregularities arise partly from ignorance of the rules of debate, partly from over-eagerness to make points and score tactical successes. The only remedy is for the rules of discussion to be formalised1, made known to each member and rigidly enforced by the President. When this is done, the habit of orderly discussion will gradually create a public sentiment against excess of party spirit. Finally, the secrecy of the sitting is a feature which ought not to be continued. It is undemocratic in its origin, fosters irresponsibility and helps to create misunderstanding and facilitate crooked methods. There is no reason why our discussions should not be carried out in the full light of day, since we have nothing to conceal; on the contrary, the knowledge of the discussion in the Subjects Committee will serve the same end as the publicity of Parliamentary discussions in free countries. It will keep up a living interest in the people, educate the public mind to deal with political questions in a graver and more responsible spirit, accustom the representatives of the people to feel that they are speaking and acting with the eye of all India upon them and train the country to prepare itself the habits of mind, speech and action which are necessary for the success of representative government. Secrecy is the enemy of good government, but it is still more fatal to self-government. Publicity is the very breath of life to democratic institutions.
These then are the changes which we would suggest for the democratisation of the Subjects Committee – the members to be elected by the divisions of each Province by a regular and orderly method, the discussions of the Committee to be regulated by fixed rules of procedure and the sitting to be thrown open to the Press and the public or at least to the delegates. When these changes have been effected, the foundations of representative government in India will have been laid, for it is only out of the Congress that representative institutions can arise in India. The Congress is the seed and only by the proper development of the seed can the life of the tree be ensured.
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: formalized