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.