Extremism or militant nationalism became a predominant philosophy of Indian nationalism or Indian national movement from 1905 to 1917.
Many factors contributed to the rise of extremism or militant nationalism.
One such factor was the opposition of certain early nationalists in the strategy and technique adopted by the moderates’ expression of faith in the fairness of the British, mendicancy and appealing to the British government.
The failure of the Indian Council Act of 1892 in satisfying the aspirations of the Indians is another important cause. Further, the callous attitude exhibited by the British towards the sufferings of the people due to the famine of 1897 was also one of the causes. The outbreak of the Bubonic plague in Bombay presidency and the means followed by the government created strong resentment in the minds of the people which led to the murder of Rand, the Plague Commissioner of Poona by the Chapekar brothers.
Another factor was the exclusion of educated Indians from the public services also which led to the dissatisfaction for the moderate methods and the view of Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, “the highest ranks of civil employment must be a general rule, as held by Englishmen” made the blood of the Indians boil and think of resorting to violent means to redeem their honour.
Lord Curzon’s high-handed mission, commission and omissions – the Calcutta Corporation Act of 1899, and Calcutta University Act of 1904, along with the partition of Bengal in 1905 accelerated the extremist movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the trail blazer of extremism rightly pointed “political rights will have to be fought for. The moderates think that these can be won by persuasion. We think that they can be only be obtained by strong pressure”. The bases of extremists were Maharashtra, Punjab and Bengal. Tilak preached “protests are of no avail. Mere protests not backed by self-reliance will not help the people. Days of protests and prayers have gone”.
He further advised “prepare your forces, organize your power and then go to work so that they cannot refuse you what you demand”. The methods chosen by the extremists were boycott, Swadeshi and national education. Boycott implies refusal to use foreign goods and of government services, honours and titles and everything that is foreign.
Bipan Chandra writes:
“With the start of the Swadeshi movement at the turn of the century, the Indian national movement took a major leap forward. Women, students and a large section of the urban and rural population of Bengal and other parts of India became actively involved in politics for the first time”. It indicates how the social base of the movement increased.
He further states,
“The next half a decade saw the emergence of almost all the major political trends of the Indian national movement. From conservative moderation to political extremism, from terrorism to incipient socialism, from petitioning and public speeches to passive resistance and boycott – all had their origins in the movement”.
The British realizing the sullen mood of the Indians and change in the attitude of the early nationalist leaders towards extremist measures resorted to the clever technique of ‘divide and rule’, and to woo the Muslims against the Congress demand of representative government. The idea of the partition of Bengal was in the air since 1903 in the pretext of better government and it was resented by the Congress organization through public meetings organized spontaneously in different parts of Bengal. The real intention of the partition of Bengal was the division of the people on religious or communal lines.
Lord Curzon wanted “to dethrone Calcutta” from its central position as Bengal was the centre of intrigue, by dividing Bengali-speaking population. Risely, the Home Secretary to Government of India pointed in 1904 in the month of December on 6th, “Bengal united is power. Bengal divided, will pull in several different ways”.
Even before the partition of Bengal materialized on October 15, 1905, the Swadeshi movement was announced on 7, August, 1905. The advocates of the Swadeshi movement undertook tours throughout India and roused the public opinion in favour of Swadeshi movement. The response was so favourable and positive; the sale of the British cloth fell by 5 to 15 times between September 1904 and September 1905.
The message of Swadeshi and the boycott of foreign goods were carried on by Surendranath Banerjee, Anand Mohan Bose, Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Ajit Singh and Sayyad Haidar Raja to different parts of India. The Banaras session of Indian National Congress presided over by Gokhale endorsed the Swadeshi and boycott movements for Bengal. But Tilak, Bipan Chandra Pal, Lajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghosh advocated for the spread of the movement throughout India along with the message of Swarajya as the objective. Tilak popularized the slogan ‘Swaraj is my birth right and I will have it’. By 1906, the Indian National Congress declared ‘self-government’ or ‘swaraj’ like that of the United Kingdom or Colombo as its objective at the Calcutta session.
In Bengal anti-partition movement and swadeshi and boycott movements became a mass movement and took the shape of non-cooperation and passive resistance through mass mobilization. Along with this movement, they made it their objective to promote ‘self-reliance’ or ‘Atmasakti’ and ‘self-help’ concept and ‘national education policy’ As a result, Bipan Chandra observes: “In sum, the Swadeshi movement with its multi-facetal programme and activity was able to draw for the first time a large section of society into active participation in modern nationalist politics and still larger sections into the ambit of modern political ideas.
The social base of the national movement was now extended to include a certain jamindari section, the lower middle class in the cities and small towns and school and college students on a massive scale”. Yet, the movement failed to draw the peasantry as well as the Muslims. The movement continued till 1908 and it became a burnt movement by mid-1908.
The reasons for the gradual failure of the movement were the repressive measures of the government and the internal squabbles among the leaders that led to the well-known split of Surat of 1907. The Indian National Congress was divided as extremists and the Moderates openly and publicly professing different techniques and objectives.
The movement lost its vitality and vigour but still the fire of rebellion was alive in the shape of individualized terrorist activity directed against the government through the method of sacrifice of life for the sake of motherland.
The British Viceroy Lord Minto adopted the strategy of pacifying Indians by promising the enactment of Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 Act. The Act failed to come near to the aspirations of the people of India as the Moderates were a disillusioned lot. R.C. Majumdar observes, “For nine years after the Surat fracas, the Moderates ruled over the Congress in splendid isolation with their ideals and programmes. But the country had lost faith in them, and the Congress had very little following. The Congress held its annual sessions as usual, but the spring had gone out of the year”.
In order to placate the Extremists, the British government annulled the partition of Bengal in 1911. The Indians realized that the British were using the same technique of ‘divide and rule’ to continue the split of Congress as Moderates and Extremists. In this backdrop, the First World War broke out in 1914 and it continued till 1919. In order to make the people actively cooperate in war effort, the British promised to introduce reforms by the 1919 Act, or Montague-Chelmsford reforms. This Act too did not come up to the expectations and aspirations of the Indians and the reforms were condemned as “inadequate, disappointing and unsatisfactory”.
Bipan Chandra points out “The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 gave a new lease of life to the nationalist movement which had been dormant since the heady days of the Swadeshi movement”. It is so because after 1908 the intensity of the national movement as a whole declined and the same as expressed by Aurobindo in these words, “when I went to jail the whole country was alive with the cry of Bandemataram, alive with the hope of a nation, the hope of millions of men who had newly risen out of degradation. When I came out of jail I listened for that cry, but there was instead, a silence. A hush had fallen on the country”.
The later events reveal that the national movement was only dormant during this period and it picked up momentum from 1914 after Tilak became free. From the end of 1907, a new political trend of the path of individual heroism and revolutionary terrorism came to forefront in Bengal, which in course of time spread to different parts of India. The active participants of this revolutionary terrorism were the youth of Bengal.
Bipan Chandra explained the origins of this phase as follows: “This was primarily because they could find no other way of expressing their patriotism. It is necessary at this point to reiterate the fact that, while the youth of Bengal might have been incensed at the British arrogance and repression, and the ‘mendicancy’ of the Congress moderates, they were also led to ‘the politics of the bomb’ by the extremists’ failure to give a positive lead to the people’.
In the backdrop of the repressive measures of the government and the failure of the moderate and the extremist tactics, the revolutionary youth decided to copy the methods of the Irish nationalists and Russian nihilists and populists”.
The revolutionary theorists targeted to assassinate unpopular British officials and thereby kindle patriotic spirit and sustain the pace of the nationalist movement. In 1907, an unsuccessful attempt was made on the like of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. In April 1908, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose threw a bomb on the carriage which they believed to be occupied by Kingford, the unpopular judge of Muzaffarpur but the attempt misfired and it killed two English ladies. Prafulla Chaki shot himself dead with the feeling of guilt for killing two innocent women and the other accused Khadiram Bose was tried and hanged. Both of them had become popular heroes and earned a permanent place through folk songs composed in the praise of their selfless sacrifice.
With these two episodes, the era of revolutionary terrorism had begun. Very soon secret societies of revolutionaries sprang up all over the country. Of such secret societies, the famous ones of long-standing credit were Anushilan Samity and Jugantar. Between 1908 and 1918, nearly 186 revolutionaries were killed or convicted for sedition.
Two of the most, spectacular revolutionary terrorist activities of this period were the unsuccessful attempts under the leadership of Rash Behari Bose and Sachin Sanyal to assassinate the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, who was wounded by the bomb thrown at him while he was riding an elephant in a state procession and the assassination of Curzon while in London by Madan Lai Dhingra. This type of revolutionary terrorist activities took place in important centres abroad. The most famous revolutionary terrorists acting abroad were Shyam Krishna Verma, V.D. Sarvarkar and Hardayal in London and Madame Cama and Ajit Singh in Europe.
Sumit Sarkar writes:
“Elite revolution did make substantial contributions to the national struggle. The British were often badly frightened, rare examples were set of death-defying heroism in the cause of complete independence and worldwide contacts were sought in quests for shelter and arms, leading to important ideological consequences”. Hemachandra Kanungo came back from Paris as an atheist with some interest in Marxism. It is no exaggeration to note that terrorist heroism evoked great admiration from very wide circles of educated Indians and sometimes from ordinary people.
In spite of its selfless sacrifice, the elite revolutionary Hindu religious zeal acted as a check for others to join the movement and it postponed efforts to draw the masses into active political struggle. Yet, the importance and significance of this revolutionary terrorist phase cannot be minimized.
One unique feature of Indian national movement was the simultaneous participation of Moderates, the extremists, the revolutionary terrorists side by side pursuing their definite paths making the people conscious the need of unity and creating a sense of apprehension in the minds of the British that time is nearing to leave India, from 1909 onwards till we achieved independence in 1947.