The Home & The World Read Along – Part III

This is the final post of the three part snapshot of Indian History (you can read them here and here), which I briefly and sketchily tried to summarize to help better understand the political nuances of The Home and The World, the Read Along, I am hosting for August. For those of you who still continue to read my long winded essays, Thank you for your patience and interest and I promise, this will be the very last of the Indian History 101!

The new century brought an increased awareness among the Indians – the states of Bengal, Bombay and Punjab especially had a growing population of educated class who were beginning to think for themselves and ask questions on the right of British to rule India. Bengal more than any other state was at the forefront as Calcutta, the capital of British India was located in Bengal and since the days of Siraj-Ud-Dula in 1700s, the Bengalees more than anyone else were in direct contact with the merchant rulers and were first to be educated in the English system and first to initiate reform for Indian woman. By 1900s they were producing authors, poets, statesman and scientist.The region was overflowing with intellectual brilliance and there was a need to curb its questions and revolutionary tendencies and to stem this, Lord Curzon came up with the plan to partition Bengal in 1905, apparently for administrative reasons, but on ground it was clear that it was an effort to divide the Hindu-Muslim population of the state and have them fight each other. This blatant act of tyranny, led to a mass scale agitation and protest by Indian called the Swadeshi Movement and it was during this time that the events of the novel unfold.

The Swadeshi Movement very simply put was an effort to boycott British made goods, from clothes to soaps, and instead support indigenous and small scale industries in India, by patronizing their product. The aim was to halt the unbridled commercial success of British trading community and therefore force the government in rescinding the order for Partition. One may ask to begin with, why did Indians buy British product – the simple answer is because Indian did not have their own products. For the previous  150 years,. India was used by the British to produce raw material from cotton to coal to Indigo and then dump all the manufactured goods back in Indian markets. The Indian industries which so far had been built on merchant guild lines and had no exposure to the industrial revolution of the West , could not keep up and folded up; the traders becoming indentured farmers or laborers. Under the Swadeshi Movement, there was an effort made to re-start the small scale industries by giving them the Indian market to sell their products.

The movement had a lot of ideological and bravado zeal; there were awe inspiring speeches , picketed against shops that sold British goods and made bonfires  to burn British products. it extended beyond economics and into other spheres- Indians began boycotting government jobs, use of British courts and schools and colleges.Most importantly socially, the political movement came to the masses; since inception of Congress, politics had been the dominion of some educated elites, but Swadeshi bought it to every home and hearth. The call for independence based on economic equality rang true to every man/woman. Meetings and processions, forming of committees, propaganda through press, and diplomatic pressure, every and each tool was used by the Indians to get their message across. Even Indian festivals were used as a platform to reassert Indian identity and strength.Richness of the movement extended to culture, science and literature. Traditional folk theater forms such as jatras i.e. extensively used in disseminating the Swadeshi message in an intelligible form to vast sections of the people, many of whom were being introduced to modern political ideas for the first time. Similarly authors from Tagore to others wrote pieces hailing the brilliant past of India and asking fellow countryman to seek out the country’s future destiny as well. Masses were educated for a bolder form of politics and colonial hegemony was undermined.There were a lot of student participation and some fiery young leaders,  took to the stage and adopted some aggressive means to drive the point. The indigenous and vernacular press also came of the age during this time, strongly condemning British force to curb non violent protests and faced shutdowns and imprisonment for writing against the British Government and jailed under Sedition charges. The British naturally also took other steps to curb the movements, including “lathi charge” – attack by long bamboo sticks to dispel protesters, imprisonment of many under the aforementioned sedition charges and use of terms like Bande Mataram (literally, “I pray/bow down to thee, Mother and a patriotic song penned during this time by the prolific Indian author, Bankim Chandra) were deemed illegal. (Making Bande Mataram illegal made it in fact the rallying crying of the Indian Independence movement until 1947)

Swadeshi movement for the first time in Modern History effectively united Indians and brought them together to fight what was an imperialistic policy. However there was one downside of this movement – the Indian goods because they were produced in smaller numbers, were expensive and not ubiquitously available. The British goods were cheap and constantly in supply; the common man living under severe poverty could barely afford to make his two ends meet, he need the cheap sugar and cloth of British factories and for a country whose average per capita income was below the Poverty line (1885 to 1921), even with best of intentions, supporting the slow and expensive Indian industry was out of question.To understand the grinding poverty of the time, here just one fact – The Lancet reported 19 million died from starvation and consequences of extreme poverty in British India, between 1896 and 1900. The other effect which made many, including Tagore draw away from the movement was the violence – the youth in patriotic fervor committed several acts of aggression, which principally makes Indian uncomfortable. A country which historically taught peace and acceptance, only wages wars as a last resource and acts of terror were as abhorrent to 20th century India as it was in 300 BC India.

Despite British repression and the discomfort of Indians, the Swadeshi movement did manage to pressurize the government to pull back the Bengal Partition order  and in 1911, Bengal again became a unified state. The Swadeshi movement was also a pre-curser to Gandhi’s Non Violent movement for freedom and Gandhi worked on the student population of Swadeshi Movement who were now established lawyers, doctors teachers and demand independence from British rule, finally leading to an independent India in 1947. The only blip in this heroic historic victory, was that India was partitioned into two states of India and Pakistan and left behind in its wake one of worst instances of religious violence and the largest displacement of a population. But that is another story for another day!

Finally my usual disclaimer, while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, A History of India by Percival Spear, From Plassey to Partition – A History of Modern India  by Shekhar  Bandyopadhyay, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

12 thoughts on “The Home & The World Read Along – Part III

    1. My Pleasure Stefanie! I am so glad that this helped! I always felt that when reading a novel about a different culture, it helps to have some background history to appreciate the nuances better….of course, I went overboard with the information download, but thank you for sticking with me! 😉

  1. Yes, thanks for taking the time to educate us! You’ve whetted my interest to learn more about Indian history.

    The British coming and some of their systems and changes, allowed the Indians to develop thoughts and ideas (and actions) to resist the British effectively. How ironic!

    Have you seen One Man, One Cow, One Planet about a farming revolution in India? It really emphasized that if Indians are taught something, and they feel that it is effective and worthwhile, that idea is communicated quickly to others in a way, that I don’t think is usual in the West. It was inspiring.

    Okay, I’m off to read now with the history fresh in my mind!

    1. Like I said, I am glad you stuck around till the end…I know I went on a information download mania 😉 The biggest boon if it may be termed that way, of the British coming was India was forced to open herself to new ideas. For some 200 odd years, we had become very inward looking and only by force would we have looked elsewhere! I have not read One Man, One Crow, One Planet but I will now pick it up. You are right about Indians being convinced about the effectiveness of the idea, but once they are, it spreads through all kinds of medium and channels! This last 10 days I was on a road trip to upper Himalayas or what is called the Himalayan Desert. At 17500 ft from sea level, with little water and no electricity and a land completely barren due to shortage of water fall and winters that last 8 months with average temp of -32 Celsius, i saw villages with satellite phones, solar panels for electricity and Wi-Fi. If we are convinced about something, you betcha we are going to go after it, no matter what! 😉

  2. Oh wow, I am loving this book! The contrast between the old ways and the modern changes is startling but Tagore brings so many levels of insights into the ways they play together.

    So when Sandip comes, Bimala is technically in purdah still, isn’t she? But Sandip and Nikhil both have modern ways of thinking, even if they don’t agree. So their modern thinking brings a clash with the old ways in a manner perhaps both could not have predicted. It’s interesting that even in purdah, a woman could have sort of an “affair”.

    I can’t help but think that both Bimala and Nikhil were happy before these new ideas were introduced. If Tagore is going where I think he is, he’s doing a wonderful job of expressing how with any good intentions, there are at the very least going to be birth pains and/or negative repercussions along with the good, or even good intentions that spring from another source and can be poisonous. What a great read!

    1. Glad you are enjoying it! When Sandeep comes, Nikhil is in the process of bringing Bimala out of the Purdah. In fact making Bimala meet Sandeep, a man not related to the family, is in itself a big step in breaking the purdah and taking the woman to the outer world. This was revolutionary and yes, like all good things, there were birthing pangs! My grandmother was born in 1912 and by 1933, she had a masters degree in English and a year at a Swiss Finishing school. My great grandfather was widely decried for making his daughter an alien and a westerner to the Indian culture. When she eventually met and married my grandfather, a man from a different region of India, of a different caste and most importantly of her choice, in 1935, many said this is what happens when you take the girl out of the purdah, as if she had committed some heinous offence.Even my great grandfather was dissapointed with her in this particular scheme of things.However she remained happy and married to my grandfather for 43 years, when he died. New ideas are always challenging to accept and not all ideas should be accepted either. Bimala and Nikhil were no doubt happy before the latter thought of making his wife a ‘memsahib’ but I cannot help but feel, if there were no men like Nikhil, I would not be typing thoughts and ideas to you across the world and instead would have been married at the age of 14 and by now a mother of a brood, with little or no empowerment!

    1. Sorry…I was out on a road trip to the Himalayan Desert for 10 days in very remote locales and internet was not a luxury I had the ability to use when ever I wished! But I am back, so fire away the questions!! 🙂

  3. I suspect I’ll be popping back to this post as I proceed through the book.

    Thanks for putting these posts together. They’re fabulous.

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