How the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement Gained Popularity in Bengal

Secret societies like Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar prepared young women and men to mount an armed resistance against the British.

Political violence has always been an integral part of Bengal’s history. The forms of such violence – over time – have mutated and transformed themselves. In the series Bengal: Genealogies of ViolenceThe Wire attempts to capture some of the milestones that mark the narratives of political bloodshed spanning more than eight decades. Read the first part here.

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Revolutionary nationalism, or the “terrorist movement” as it was once known, was of one of the several political strands that went into the making of the Indian national movement. Maharashtra, Bengal and the Punjab were the nerve centres of a pan-Indian network of revolutionary societies that, emerging independently in the early 20th century, often collaborated with one another in the cause of Indian independence.  

Revolutionary nationalism emerged as a potent political force in Bengal in the wake of the Swadeshi Movement in the first decade of the 20th century and thereafter it worked alongside mainstream nationalism that was represented by the Congress party, sometimes in cooperation, at other times along parallel tracks. The Swadeshi Movement was the expression of the outrage triggered in Bengal by the partition of the province of Bengal in 1905. Though the colonial masters cited administrative reasons, the Bengalis were convinced that the Partition was a Machiavellian move to destroy the unity of the Bengali people, whose political activism the government had come to fear.

There was now an increasing sense of impatience among sections of Bengalis, including some politicians within the Congress, because they felt that the official Congress policy of pleading with and petitioning the government for reforms, which was rejected as “mendicancy”, had proven to be completely ineffective. The Swadeshi movement, which swept up the people of Bengal, especially the educated and the politically conscious, in a tide of nationalist emotion, is today remembered as the first mass movement, a forerunner to Mahatma Gandhi’s politics of mass involvement that altered the structure, form and tone of Indian nationalist politics.

The political message that the movement sent across was that if the British government refused to negotiate with their discontented subjects, they would be pressurised into doing so. It is within this context that we have to view the rise of the revolutionary nationalist movement that emerged as the most radical strand within the Swadeshi movement after 1907, with its claim that India had to become independent of British rule and if the British were not willing to grant independence to the Indians, then it had to be seized, by force if necessary. The immediate aim was to destabilise the British administration through acts of terror in preparation for the final revolution that would free India from colonial rule.

The revolutionary national movement burst upon the popular consciousness when on the night of April 30, 1908 in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, two teenagers named Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki threw a bomb at the horse-carriage that they mistakenly supposed was carrying the former chief presidency magistrate of Kolkata, Mr Kingsford. The bomb killed instead the mother-daughter duo of Mrs Kennnedy and Ms Kennedy, who it turned out, were the actual occupants of the carriage. Prafulla Chaki committed suicide before he could be captured but Khudiram was arrested, put on trial and hanged in Muzaffarpur jail on August 11, 1908.

The government had hoped that the exemplary punishment meted out to Khudiram would effectively nip all thoughts of revolution in the bud but the entire episode had just the opposite effect on significant sections of Bengalis. The British had for long promoted the stereotype of the “Bengali babu”, an effeminate, cowardly and insignificant creature who was typically employed in the lower rungs of the administration and was content to lead an unheroic and unimaginative life immersed in daily ritual and routine office work.  To many Bengalis who seethed at the racist assumptions underlying such stereotypes, Khudiram and Prafulla’s action came as a fitting reply to the arrogant posturing of the colonial masters and a validation of Bengali pride. Newspapers reported with glee that the British in Muzaffarnagar now lived in terror of their Bengali subjects who they had hitherto treated with dismissive contempt. Stories of the extraordinary courage shown by the young boys in the face of mortal danger were recounted with pride and celebrated in song and drama.

To add to the general political excitement, the bomb-throwing incident was soon followed by the arrest of a number of young men from a garden house in Muraripukur in the Manicktala area on the charge that they were manufacturing weapons with the purpose of attacking the government. The charismatic extremist leader Aurobindo Ghose, who was known as the spiritual guru of the revolutionaries, was also arrested and the government followed up by bringing the arrested men to trial on charges of sedition. The trial is famous is history as the Alipore bomb case (1908-1910) and it resulted in several of the revolutionaries suffering long terms of imprisonment and exile to the notorious Cellular Jail in the Andamans. But the trial also served the important purpose of bringing to the attention of the general public the activities of the web of secret societies that were engaged in the task of preparing for revolution in Bengal.  

Most of these societies were grouped round two revolutionary centres named the Anushilan and the Jugantar. The Anushilan Samiti was set up in 1902 in Calcutta under the presidentship of the barrister P. Mitter as a secret society to impart spiritual and physical training to patriotic youth of the educated classes in order to prepare them for the revolution to come. In March 1906, some members of the society led by Barin Ghose, the brother of Aurobindo, broke away to found a newspaper named Jugantar whose purpose would be to spread the revolutionary message and build up public support for the revolutionary cause. The headquarters of the Anushilan Samiti soon moved to Dacca while the Jugantar became the focal point of a loose conglomeration of secret societies concentrated in Calcutta and its surroundings.

The Jugantar newspaper played a vital role in building up public opinion in favour of the revolutionary cause during its early years. The idea of revolutionary violence introduced a new and unsettling element into the political culture of Bengal that was more familiar with boardroom intrigues than with bomb-throwing. The Jugantar writers skilfully deployed a political language, the aim of which was to legitimise the ideology of political violence and make acceptable the use of violence as a technique for the attainment of independence.

The Jugantar maintained that since the British had seized political power through chicanery and brute force, their rule lacked moral and legal foundations and consequently the Indians were under no compulsion to accept British rule. Further, the newspaper repeatedly made the point that it was only the cowardice of Indians that were preventing them from rising up and overthrowing British rule, because how else could a handful of foreigners lord it over millions of Indians? If the Indians wished to restore the lost glories of the past and recover from the present state of decrepitude, the sole solution was to strive for independence. The failure of the Congress policy of “prayers and petitions” had made it abundantly clear that the colonial masters would not willingly hand over the reins of power to Indians and therefore, the latter had no choice but to resort to violence if they wished to regain their political freedom.

To successfully disseminate such propaganda among the masses, the Jugantar writers used an effective rhetorical technique, that is, the use of cultural symbols such as stories, images and figures that had immediate resonance in Indian society. The Jugantar writers were mainly drawn from educated, middle-class, high-caste Hindu Bengali families and the cultural symbols they deployed tended to be overwhelmingly Hindu.  For example, the Jugantar writers imagined and represented the nation as a mother who had been imprisoned by foreign demons (asuras) and was suffering great indignities at their hands. It therefore behooved her devoted sons to destroy her chains even at the cost of sacrificing their lives.

This central idea was then buttressed by stories and metaphors drawn from the Hindu religious pantheon. Lord Krishna who had proclaimed in the Gita that he would appear in times of crisis to restore the moral order also emerged as a central figure in Jugantar propaganda. The Jugantar writers like Upendranath Bandopadhyay, Debabrata Basu and Bhupendranath Dutt were master story tellers and their writings proved to be hugely popular as evidenced by the soaring sales of the Jugantar. Its very popularity brought about its downfall, for the government came down heavily on the newspaper, together with others like the Sandhya and the Bande-Mataram on the grounds that these extremist newspapers were preaching sedition.

The Jugantar suffered a series of governmental prosecutions in 1907 and 1908 which ruined it financially and finally brought about its collapse in June 1908. But this did not dampen the revolutionary spirit, for the Jugantar went underground and continued to spread revolutionary propaganda through pamphlets whose authors remained anonymous and whose production and distribution processes were difficult to trace. Over the years, new series like Swadhin Bharat and Liberty appeared to supplement the Jugantar editions, summoning the young men of Bengal to take up arms against the colonial rulers. As revolutionary nationalism began to draw together the militants from all over India, the language of propaganda also became more inclusive and called on Hindus and Muslims to unite to fight the foreign enemy.

Pritilata Wadeddar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The youth of Bengal responded to these calls, not merely young men but young, educated women as well like Kamala Dasgupta and Pritilata Wadeddar, the last emerging as a respected leader of the Chittagong revolutionary uprisings in the early 1930s. However much the government might decry revolutionary activities as “terrorism”, implying that they were illegal attempts to subvert the duly constituted structure of government and try to stamp it out through repression, large numbers of men and women remained convinced that only by sacrificing their lives in the cause of nationalism could they free their beloved motherland from her chains.

Atmabali or self-sacrifice emerged as a new word in the political vocabulary of Bengalis to be replaced by the Arabic term shahadat (shaheed = martyr) as revolutionaries from different regions drew closer together and Bhagat Singh, Amir Chand, Balmokand, Abad Behari and Basanta Biswas (a Bengali who was involved in the conspiracy to murder the Viceroy Lord Hardinge by throwing a bomb on the viceregal procession at Delhi in December 1912) became as much figures of adoration and reverence as Khudiram, Bagha-Jatin (Jatin, the Tiger), Binoy-Badal-Dinesh, Master-da (Surya Sen, the master mind of the Chittagong uprising) and his disciple Pritilata, and so many others whose names have gradually faded from memory.

Kanailal Dutt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The idea and practice of shahadat drew together the revolutionary nationalists and their supporters into a common bond of emotion which went a long way in fostering the unity called the nation. The funeral procession of Kanailal Dutt who was hanged in 1908 for assassinating an informer called Naren Gosain inside Alipore jail was attended by thousands of admirers, many among whom wept bitterly as they escorted his body for cremation. After his cremation, the crowd jostled to gather pieces of his bones and pinches of his ashes as relics. This overt display of adoration for one whom they considered to be a “terrorist” rattled the colonial authorities and influenced their decision not to allow public funerals for revolutionaries in the future.

For the adoring crowd that accompanied Kanailal’s body, what mattered most was that the heroic martyr had sacrificed himself for the motherland. This personal act of redemption prepared the way for social redemption as the sight of his mortal body evoked sentiments of nationalist pride and honour, and many more vowed that this supreme sacrifice would not be in vain. The violence of his actions became purely incidental. The violence involved in revolutionary action was submerged and transcended in the sentiments evoked by the spectre of heroic martyrdom.

Even today as we excavate memories of revolutionary nationalism, not only in Bengal but throughout India, it is the figure of the martyr that overshadows all else. Revolutionary nationalism is commemorated through the figures of the martyrs, who once walked the earth like ordinary mortals but became immortal when they willingly sacrificed their lives in the cause of the nation.

Shukla Sanyal received her PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park, US. She taught history at Calcutta University and then at Presidency University, Kolkata. The broad focus of her research is on political violence. She has published articles in journals on food riots in the French Revolution and has authored a book in Bengali titled Farasi Biplaber-er Utsho Sandhaney (In Search of the Origins of the French Revolution) (2017). She has also published articles on propaganda and political violence in colonial Bengal and a book titled Revolutionary Pamphlets, Propaganda and Political Violence in Colonial Bengal (Cambridge University Press, 2014).