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The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908

The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908
Item Code: NAG087
Author: Sumit Sarkar
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788178243351
Pages: 517
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 494 gms

About the Author

Sumit Sarkar is among the most influential and widely admired historians of modern India. His several books include Modern India 1885-1947. Writing Social History, and beyond Nationalist Frames. Following a distinguished teaching career, he retired as Professor of History, Delhi University. He lives in New Delhi and is working on his next book.


More than forty years back, I wrote a book on the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. Considering the state of the historiography of Indian nationalism at that time, I think it did introduce some new departures. It differed in its approach to nationalism from the Left-nationalist perspective which was fairly uncritical of anti-colonial movements and its middle-class leadership. It also differed from the so-called Cambridge School writings which tended to ignore moments of anti-colonial mass movements. It combined archival and non-archival sources in a way that was then quite new: balancing official documents critically against Indian private papers, vernacular newspapers, pamphlets, tracts, and Bengali literature. It was attentive to nationalist leaders and strategies, as also to peasant movements, labour strikes, communal violence, and politics. In fact, the book's chapter on labour struggles in Swadeshi times was one of the earliest interventions in the field of labour history. In retrospect, I think I did show an awareness that those years had multiple histories which together constituted an extremely complex era.

Decades have passed since then and there is ample reason to rethink some of my old arguments. Doing that is an interesting exercise because it points at ways in which Indian history-writing has changed over the years. Obviously, a new generation of scholars is already looking at this period with new material and questions. Here, I will only set down my own response to the book after so many years. It is probably unnecessary to recapitulate the substance of my old work. I am happy to see that elements of the book have become almost part of an academic common sense about the Swadeshi era. But let me raise a couple of points about what the book did, to begin with. One of my major concerns had been to emphasize the importance of a new historical phase-the phase of anti-colonial mass movements. Bur in commemorating those times I had also found it necessary to highlight their limits. I wrote about two major limits which often became intertwined. First, the movement's leaders and activists had come largely from landowning or intermediary landed interests. In other words, they were middle class or upper class and almost always upper caste: in a word, bhadralok. Not all of them were rich or had a lot of land. But limited incomes generally meant that they clung all the more tenaciously to their small rentier incomes. This often made them hostile or indifferent to the aspirations of peasants and tenants. Second, given such class dimensions, nationalist discussions about the strategy of passive resistance against the colonial state-which in some ways anticipated Gandhian mass movements-could not develop beyond a point at this time. That sort of advance would have required a mobilization of mass support or, rather, of mass participation. Methods for this could not be evolved by bhadralok nationalists. Few of them would develop bases in villages and engage in constructive welfare work among peasants. None would support peasants in their struggles for larger rights to land and the agrarian surplus. The turn to revolutionary violence in the last phase of the Swadeshi movement was thus, in significant measure, related to this failure in mass mobilization. The movement was not a triumphal advance to a greater radicalism, as is often claimed, even though it was, most certainly, always heroic and idealistic.

Most nationalists came from the upper-caste Hindu strata. But the bulk of the peasants were lower caste or Muslim. Rabindranath Tagore had written of a vast ocean which separated Hindu bhadralok activists from the rest of the people. His observations about the class and caste limits of nationalism had considerably shaped my work. Even today I see no reason to abandon that argument. I feel, rather, the need to emphasize and deepen the criticism.

Let me, at this point, digress a little. It often seems to me today that there remains in our historiography an important flaw in ways of writing about anti-colonial nationalism which mars historical accounts of the late colonial period in general. My book, too, shared that flaw in some ways. We tend to look at nationalism and at the entire colonial era in terms of a simple dichotomy: imperialism-colonialism on the one hand, and the growing strength of anti-colonial sentiments and aspirations of the Indian people on the other. There had been a continuous struggle, it seemed, between the Indian and the foreign, at the end of which the colonial was defeated, or at least forced to retreat in 1947. This is, indeed, enormously significant and largely true. But should we enclose the entire history of more than a century within this single framework? If we do, we occlude from our historical lens all those dimensions and tendencies that do not neatly fit this paradigm. Even when we do not ignore the recalcitrant features entirely, we tend to look at them in a particular way: in terms of their contribution or otherwise to anti-colonial nationalism. This applies to peasant, lower caste, adivasi, and labour movements alike. A narrative dominated by the idea that imperial rule was overcome by nationalist struggle becomes a kind of discursive hegemony and leads towards a singular history that leaves out or distorts subaltern histories that are various and diverse. In other words, from the self-fulfilling prophecy of anticolonial nationalism all that we look at are the various strands within anti-colonial nationalism. The rest-what happens outside this frame becomes secondary or irrelevant.


The present work attempts a detailed study of a five-year period in Bengal's history which despite its brief duration has come to occupy a very notable place in the historiography of nationalism and in the collective memory of our people. Apart from the abundant literature of biographies and memoirs, 1 individual aspects of this anti-partition or swadeshi movement already have their his torians, the main landmarks of political history have been adequately covered in numerous works on Indian nationalism. I and growing access to the private papers of viceroys and officials have produced recently a spate of monographs on government policies in general and the evolution of the partition plan in particular.? I have therefore avoided the tedium of a purely chronological narration and felt free to follow my personal interests in focusing on the streets of Calcutta or the villages of Barisal rather than the somewhat rarefied heights of Darjeeling, Simla or the India Office. The reader might still ask why a new book was needed at all on such a well-worn subject, and what relevance it can have for us today. An explanation may help to clarify also the precise themes chosen by the author, their arrangement, and maybe the preferences implied therein.

Historians in our country still occasionally claim for themselves the impartiality of judges? (itself, one would feel, hardly an unquestionable absolute); that historical reconstruction at both popular and academic levels is rather a dialogue between present and past generations, inevitably time-bound and selective, is amply borne out by the existing literature on the swadeshi movement. What has fascinated most the imagination of educated bhadralok Bengal and her historians is undoubtedly the saga of individual terrorism beginning with Kshudiram and the Maniktala conspiracy-so-called militant nationalism for example is evidently Dr R.C. Majumdar's first love, the heroic climax to which all earlier endeavors inevitably lead. The upsurge of 1905-7 is also emembered, of course, but often in a romanticised version which exaggerates it into a 'Great Bengali Revolution', while at the same time strangely neglects aspects like labour unrest or quiet constructive work in villages, and slurs over uncomfortable things like peasant passivity and the probable role of Hindu revivalist ideology in sharpening communal tensions. Such attitudes not unoften betray traces of Bengali and Hindu chauvinism. They also leave unanswered and even unasked the crucial question as to why 1905 was succeeded by 1908, why techniques of open mass struggle (meetings and demonstrations, boycott of foreign goods and schools, 'passive resistance' anticipating much of Gandhi, labour unions and strikes) had to give place so quickly to methods of individual terror. The conventional explanation in terms of police repression alone, I feel, is not really sufficient; what we need is a study in depth of the tensions within the swadeshi movement as it evolved out of and wrestled with the socio-economic structure, political challenges and cultural and religious traditions of Bengal.

I have chosen, then, as my central theme the shifts within nationalism in political objectives, methods and social ideals. The ant partition movement, conducted at first on quite conventional lines by established politicians worried mainly over an alleged threat to certain elite privileges, rapidly broadened after 1905 into an awareness of irreconcilable conflict between British and Indian interests which only swaraj could resolve. 'Prayers and petitions' consequently gave place to the first major efforts of the nationalist bhadralok intelligentsia to attain identity with the masses and mobilise them around a programme of 'passive- resistance'. But swaraj was never translated into concrete bread-and-butter terms for the masses, or integrated with any real peasant programme; nor could the swadeshi leaders despite some sincere efforts develop like Gandhi an idiom or style of political activity which could effectively bridge the elite-mass gap. By 1908, therefore, we are faced by the two poles of renewed 'mendicancy' and a cult of individual violence, opposites which still share something in common, twin manifestations of a failure to develop a genuine mass political movement. One is reminded of the history of Russian Narodnism-'However strange it may appear at first sight we are inevitably led to conclude that the pistol-shot becomes an exact substitute for SernoSolovevich's appeal to the tsar. It was both an act of extreme lack of confidence in the state and a confession that the revolutionaries themselves were too immature to replace it with an organisation of their own. Lenin's penetrating remarks on the affinity between economism and terrorism seem also not irrelevant here. 10

My choice of theme has dictated the chronological limits of 1903 and 1908, for the open and at least potentially mass movement sparked off by the announcement of the first draft of the partition plan in December 1903 was clearly giving place to something very different after the Maniktala arrests (May 1908), the deportation of nine leaders (December 1908), and the ban on the principal samitis (January 1909).

As for the arrangement of my material, after a brief discussion of the partition plan and a sketch of conditions in Bengal on the eve of the swadeshi upsurge (Chapter I), I have passed on to the heart of my subject-an analysis of the 'trends' within the movement (Chapter 11). Here, in place of the conventional moderate-extremist' dichotomy which I think is oversimplified; I have explored the possibilities of a fourfold classification in terms of ideals and techniques. The 'model of the swadeshi age which I have tried to construct in this chapter includes three other dimensions-the ideological debates between 'modernism' and 'revivalism' which cut across the political trends, the impact of British policies, and the socio-economic structure of Bengal which ultimately set limits on the freedom of all actors on the political stage. The relevance of this model is tested in three succeeding chapters surveying swadeshi and boycott, national education, and- little-known but highly interesting and important-labour unrest. Chapters VI and VII attempt a different kind of cross-section of the movement, exploring the communication techniques and organizational forms adopted in the efforts to break through to the masses. The ultimate failure here is obviously closely bound up with the Hindu- Muslim problem, and isolation from the masses-not police repression alone-led to a growing emphasis on revolutionary terrorism; these constitute the themes of Chapters VIII and IX. I should add that while the focus throughout remains on the years from 1903 to 1908, attempts have been made wherever possible to link up the individual facets of the movement with what had preceded and what was to follow it in the life of Bengal, thus reducing, I hope, the myopia which tends to afflict all research workers. A serious limitation, however-for which I can only plead my own ignorance plus reasons of space and time-is the restriction of the entire discussion to Bengal alone, despite the evident interconnections with other parts of our country, particularly Tilak's Maharashtra and Lajpat Rai's Punjab.

Historical parallels are dangerous and seldom really fruitful, and yet to a present-day resident of Calcutta there is surely something almost uncannily familiar about the 1905 upsurge-which in one of its aspects was a movement of educated and idealist youth, reacting against the compromises indulged in by established political groups, seeking in vain an objective correlative to their own fervor among the masses, and turning to the attractive but ultimately frustrating short-cut of individual terrorism, of heroic self-sacrifice by the few in the hope of rousing the many. If the resemblance is not purely a coincidence, the link must be sought in the social contours of the elite-mass relationship in the Bengal of 1905 and of today. My concluding chapter, apart from offering a brief assessment of the swadeshi age and its cultural achievements, attempts a discussion of the social content and nature of the movement as a whole. In so far as it has gone beyond simple enumeration of patriotic deeds, research on Indian nationalism has tended to follow one of two alternative stereotypes, relating it either to the up thrust of a 'bourgeois' or 'middle' class, or to the status-aspirations of various 'elite' groups-and among the latter the Bengali bhadralok is currently enjoying considerable fame in Western academic circles. The bhadralok concept has its advantages in the swadeshi context- the politically active groups in 1905 Bengal after all hardly constituted a genuine industrial or commercial bourgeoisie-and as such I have used it fairly frequently. But I am not at all in agreement with some of the methodological assumptions made by present-day theorists of the bhadralok, most notably with their pseudo-Namierite attempts to reduce nationalism to individual material interests virtually divorced from ideological dimensions-and this I have tried to make clear in my last chapter.



  Acknowledgements ix
  Abbreviations xi
  Preface to the New Edition xiii
  Introduction 1
1 Partition and Bengal 8
  I. The Development of the Partition Plan 8
  II. Bengal on the Eve of the Swadeshi Upsurge 17
2 Trends in Bengal's Swadeshi Movenment 26
  I. The Moderate Tradition 30
  II. The Gospel of Atmasakti-Constructive Swadeshi 39
  III. Political Extremism-The Passive Resistance 53
  IV. The Shift to Terrorism 63
3 Swadeshi Enterprise and Boycott 78
  I. The Genesis and Ideology of Economic Swadeshi 78
  II. Swadeshi Enterprise 91
4 National Education 127
  I. Origins 127
  II. National Education in Calcutta 140
  III. National Schools in the Districts 149
5 Labour Unest and Trade Unions 156
  I. Sources 156
  II. Labour Conditions and Bhandralok Attitudes 158
  III. Strikers and Unions in Bengal, 1905-8 171
  IV. Political Implications 206
6 Techniques of mass contact 215
  I. The Press and the Platform 217
  II. Evolution of New Techniques 240
  III. The Appeal to Imagination 244
  IV. The Appeal to Fear 269
7 Swadeshi Oganisation-Associations and Samitis 286
  I. Organisational Types 286
  II. Samitis in Calcutta 307
  III. Samitis in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa 314
  IV. Samitis in Eastern Bengal and Assam 320
8 Hindu-Muslim Relations 344
  I. Hindus and Muslims in Bengal 344
  II. The Muslims and the Swedeshi Movement 355
  III. The Riots of 1906-7 377
9 Early Revolutionary Terrorism 395
  I. Sources 395
  II. First Revolutionary Groups 395
  III. The Inner life of the Secret Societies 410
10 Conclusion 419
  Chronological Table 439
  Bibliography 447
  The Home and the World in Sumit Sarkar's History  
  of the Swadeshi Movement, by Dipesh Chakrabarty 463
  Irony and the Writing of History, by Neeladri  
  Bhattacharya 472
  Index 481


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