A Bengali Hindu disciple (perhaps the formidable Dilip Kumar Roy son of the legendary Bard of Bengal Dwijendralal Roy) depressed at the ongoing atrocities committed ‘by some Mohamedans on Hindu families in Bengal’ wrote to Sri Aurobindo expressing anguish. ‘…With the coming of Independence I hope such things will stop…’ he wrote and wished to know whether the Master definitely saw ‘a free India’ in his scheme of things. The reply Sri Aurobindo gave on September 16, 1935 – nearly 75 years ago to the date – was itself portentous, ‘That (India’s independence) is all settled. It is a question of working out only. The question is what is India going to do with her Independence? The above kind of affair? (rioting and attacks on Hindus) Bolshevism? Goonda-raj? Things look ominous.’ (Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 6th imp, 1995) The situation in Bengal seems to have circled back to the period in question.
In fact the 1935 Government of India Act did not bring much relief to the Bengali Hindus. It has been argued that under the provincial Constitution which the 1935 Act imposed on Bengal ‘Bengali Hindus were permanently debarred from exercising any political power in their province…they were reduced to a permanent statutory minority.’ (Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Thy Hand, Great Anarch, 1987 cited in Tathagata Roy, A Suppressed Chapter in History, 2007). Chaudhuri, a perceptive observer of socio-cultural-political trends in Bengal, saw the link going back to the Communal Award of 1932. The Award had definitely established, he observed, the dominance of Muslims ‘over the governance of Bengal’ and the Bengali Hindu was apprehensive that ‘as soon as the Muslims get political power they would, in education as in literature, undermine the very culture based on ancient Indian ideals which was the pride of the Bengali Hindu.’ Chaudhuri found the fear to be ‘neither baseless nor unjustified.’ (Sanibarer Chithi, September 1936, Ibid.,)
The political, social and cultural re-marginalisation of the Bengali Hindu seems to have begun in Bengal. His space appears to be shrinking and this time round there is little left to fall back on. It is ironic that the political formations which are now exacerbating and expediting the process are themselves led mostly by Bengali Hindus with roots in the eastern part of the province. A region they had to once forsake in face of unrelentingly marauding waves of Islamic fundamentalism.
The issue of the Bengali Hindu going back to his roots and there irreversibly entrenching himself had appeared to Sri Aurobindo to be one of the first ways forward. He had made an impassioned appeal to the Bengali Hindu in 1908, at the height of the early nationalist movement (following the attacks on Hindu Swadeshi activists and public at Comilla and Jamalpur, Eastern Bengal, in 1907), to cling on to his roots-to get back to the land. His words written then retain a remarkable contemporaneity – ‘If the present state of things’, he wrote, ‘is allowed to continue, the Mahomedan will be the inheritor of the future and after a brief period of national strength and splendour the Bengali Hindu, like the Greek, will disappear from the list of nations and remain only as a great name in history.’ (Bande Mataram, 6 March 1908) In order to preserve and perpetuate himself the Bengali Hindu had to doggedly stick to the land. He had to go ‘Back to the Land’ and in a Muslim peasantry dominated Bengal landscape resolutely make his presence felt as a mentor and leader. This way could be secured the ‘perpetuation of the Hindu in Bengal.’ (Ibid.,) It was not a call to retreat but to entrench and to resist.
The Comilla and Jamalpur riots of 1907 were clear ominous signals of things to come. The aggressively nationalist Bengali organ ‘Jugantar’ which had in its peak touched a circulation of 50,000 and functioned under the general direction of Sri Aurobindo and was run by a band of his core political followers spoke up against the riots in no uncertain terms. In fact it was one of the few papers to do so, the others followed a policy of, as Sri Aurobindo termed it, ‘cold timidity and heartless over-caution’. The Jugantar captioned a picture of the smashed idol at Jamalpur as ‘bhanga, cchinnamasta Basanti pratima’ (broken, decapitated statue of goddess Basanti) and paraphrasing Bankim’s Anandamath cried ‘ei dekho ma ja hoiacchen’ (here, see, what the mother has become). (Jugantar, Vol.2, No.8, 5th May, 1907, Angshuman Bandyopadhyay ed. Agnijuger Agnikatha, (Beng) 2001, all translations mine from the original Bengali version.) There was no attempt to whitewash or put the incidents under wrap- a chronic malady afflicting our present day secular media.
The paper also featured a report by its Mymensingh correspondent who reconnoitred the affected areas in Jamalpur. It is interesting to see how over a hundred years later the patterns and expressions of violence remain unchanged. ‘Upon reaching the market I saw Hindu shops with broken doors their wares looted by Muslims. The sight that greeted me at the Durgabari prevented me from calling myself a Hindu. The Durga idol was headless so were the idols of Kartik and Ganesha. The marks of a hundred blows adorned the mother’s body (aghater shatachinna mar ange birajman). (Jamalpurer Katha (the Jamalpur Story) Bishesh Sangbadatar patra (special correspondent report) Agnijuger Agnikatha, op.cit.,) It is reported that a team of 50 volunteers had arrived from Comilla to lend support to efforts of the Jamalpur Hindus at self-protection [most of these volunteers belonged to the Jugantar group and were sent there under express instructions from their ‘Supreme Commander’ see i.e. Oral Hist. Interview with Surendra Mohan Ghose, February 27, 1968, NMML, New Delhi] They had succeeded in bringing the situation under control to a large extent and the riotous Muslims had fallen silent and the conniving police superintendent dared not peep out. But as the habit with us, the local leaders did not take advantage of this group’s presence and could not facilitate its operations. The group eventually left and the Hindus in the area left alone, were unable to protect themselves, and lost all they had. (Jamalpurer Katha, op. cit.,)
Towards the evening the correspondent witnessed the local Muslim mob laying siege to the area’s Dayamayee Devi temple. The scene was as follows, it was one of terror and panic – the ladies all shuddering and crying in the house adjacent to the sanctorum. An injured guard with a broken rifle trying to protect the temple and raving Muslim mobs circling the road and pounding on the door and a head-priest crying at the altar asking the mother for protection was what the Jugantar correspondent witnessed. The night drifted with the sole rifle firing blank rounds and keeping the mob at bay. (Ibid.,)
The correspondent then records his emotion charged thoughts during the scene. It aptly describes the pseudo-secular intellectual and activist species that remain invariably silent during such occurrences. The description, over a hundred years old, has not lost any of its sheen: ‘I thought once of dragging all those who live without worry under a foreign (firinghi) government and wish to die as slaves, all those who run the length and breadth of the country making speeches at conferences and conferences and who keep petitioning and telegramming Morley [then Secretary of state for India referred to here as a symbol of foreign overlordship], I felt like dragging these fellows and making them see this scene similar to that of a cremation ground. Shame on those who are unable to protect their mothers, their wives and their daughters, shame on their life, shame on their speechmaking and shame on their university titles and recognitions.’ (Ibid.,) The correspondent barely managed to escape alive and report back. This is what the Jugantar dared to report. It openly called upon the Bengali Hindu to forsake lethargy and luxury and to awake and awaken, to get ready and determined to protect his dharma, his society and his women and to vindicate his identity as a Hindu and a worshipper (upasaka) of strength and Shakti.(Jugantar, Vol.2 No.9, 12th May, 1907, op.cit.,) For a section of the Bengali Hindu today, forever rapturous of some far off revolution and class emancipation, such words may seem particularly obsolete or inciting but for the discerning and the affected they remain as alive, as pragmatic as when they were first written.
Interestingly the Dacca Division Commissioner’s report on the Jamalpur incident described the rampaging Muslim mob and the temple desecration and ended with the usual alibi that since the SDO had a very small force ‘no arrests were made here and no names taken.’ (RC Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India, Vol.2, rpt.1997) It is illuminating to see how the functioning habits of a colonial force have easily transferred themselves to an indigenous one, especially in Bengal.
Sri Aurobindo himself writing for the Bande Mataram summed up the l’affaire Jamalpur in the following words, ‘ …the broken image of Durga, the outraged sanctity of religion, the blood of our kindred, the offended honour of our cause and country,-all cry out for succour and vindication…’ (Bande Mataram, April 25, 1907)
Unless this cry for succour and vindication is answered today in a sustained and concerted manner the Bengali Hindu’s retreat, decay and extinction shall perhaps be a process – irreversible, inevitable, inescapable.