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113 THE REAWAKENING OF INDIA
December 7, 1932
I HAVE told you of the consolidation of British rule in India and of the policy which brought
poverty and misery to our people. Peace certainly came, and orderly government also, and both
were welcome after the disorders which followed the break-up of the Moghal empire. Organized
gangs of thieves and dacoits had been put down. But peace and order were worth little to the man
in the field or the factory, who was crushed under the grinding weight of the new domination.
But again, I would remind you, it is foolish to get angry with a country or with a people, with
Britain or the British. They were as much the victims of circumstances as we were. Our study of
history has shown us that life is often very cruel and callous. To get excited over it, or merely to
blame people, is foolish and does not help. It is much more sensible to try to understand the
causes of poverty and misery and exploitation, and then try to remove them. If we fail to do so,
and fall back in the march of events, we are bound to suffer. India fell back in this way. She
became a bit of a fossil; her society was crystallized in old tradition; her social system lost its
energy and life and began to stagnate. It is not surprising that India suffered. The British
happened to be the agents to make her suffer. If they had not been there, perhaps some other
people might have acted in the same way.
But one great benefit the English did confer on India. The very impact of their new and vigorous
life shook up India and brought about a feeling of political unity and nationality. Perhaps such a
shock, painful as it was, was needed to rejuvenate our ancient country and people. English
education, intended to produce clerks, also put Indians in touch with current western thought. A
new class began to arise, the English-educated class, small in numbers and cut off from the
masses, but still destined to take the
lead in the new nationalist movements. This class, at first, was full of admiration for England and
the English ideas of liberty. Just then people in England were talking a great deal about liberty
and democracy. All this was rather vague, and in India England was ruling despotically for her
own benefit. But it was hoped, rather optimistically, that England would confer freedom on India
at the right time.
The impact of western ideas on India had its effect on Hindu religion also to some extent. The
masses were not affected and, as I have told you, the British Government's policy actually helped
the orthodox people. But the new middle class that was arising, consisting of government
servants and professional people, were affected. Early in the nineteenth century an attempt to
reform Hinduism on western lines took place in Bengal. Of course Hinduism had had
innumerable reformers in the past, and some of these I have mentioned to you in the course of
these letters. But the new attempt was definitely influenced by Christianity and western thought.
The maker of this attempt was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a great man and a great scholar, whose
name we have come across already in connection with the abolition of sail. He knew Sanskrit
and Arabic and many other languages well, and he carefully studied various religions. He was
opposed to religious ceremonies and pujas and the like, and he pleaded for social reform and
women's education. The society he founded was called the Brahmo Samaj. It was, and has
remained, a small organization, so far as numbers go, and it has been confined to the Englishknowing
people of Bengal. But it has had considerable influence on the life of Bengal. The
Tagore family took to it, and for long the poet Rabindranath's father, known as Maharshi
Debendra Nath Tagore, was the prop and pillar of the Samaj. Another leading member was
Keshab Chander Sen.
Later in the century another religious reform movement took place. This was in the Punjab, and
the founder was Swami Dayananda Saras wati. Another society was started, called the Arya
Samaj. This also rejected many of the later growths of Hinduism and combated caste. Its cry was
" Back to the Vedas ". Although it was a reforming movement, influenced no doubt by Muslim
and Christian thought, it was in essence an aggressive militant movement. And so it happened,
curiously, that the Arya Samaj which, of many Hindu sects, probably came nearest to Islam,
became a rival and opponent of Islam. It was an attempt to convert the defensive and static
Hinduism into an aggressive missionary religion. It was meant to revive Hinduism. What gave
the movement some strength was a colouring of nationalism. It was, indeed, Hindu nationalism
raising its head. And the very fact that it was Hindu nationalism made it difficult for it to become
The Arya Samaj was far more widespread than the Brahmo Samaj, especially in the Punjab. But
it was largely confined to the middle classes. The Samaj has done a great deal of educational
work, and has started many schools and colleges, both for boys and girls.
Another remarkable religious man of the century, but very different from the others I have
mentioned in this letter, was Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He did not start any aggressive society
for reform. He laid stress on service, and the Ramakrishna Sevash. rams in many parts of the
country are carrying on this tradition of service of the weak and poor. A famous disciple of
Ramakrishna's was Swami Vivekananda, who very eloquently and forcibly preached the gospel
of nationalism. This was not in any way anti- Muslim or anti anyone else, nor was it the
somewhat narrow nationalism of the Arya Samaj. None the less Vivekananda's nationalism was
Hindu nationalism, and it had its roots in Hindu religion and culture.
Thus it is interesting to note that the early waves of nationalism in India in the nineteenth century
were religious and Hindu. The Muslims naturally could take no part in this Hindu nationalism.
They kept apart. Having kept away from English education, the new ideas affected them less,
and there was far less intellectual ferment amongst them. Many decades later they began to come
out 01 their shell, and then, as with the Hindus, their nationalism took the shape of a Muslim
nationalism, looking back to Islamic traditions and culture, and fearful of losing these because of
the Hindu majority. But this Muslim movement became evident much later, towards the end of
Another interesting thing to note is that these reform and progressive movements in Hinduism
and Islam tried to fit in, as far as possible, the new scientific and political ideas derived from the
West with their old religious notions and habits. They were not prepared to challenge and
examine fearlessly these old notions and habits; nor could they ignore the new world of science
and political and social ideas which lay around them. So they tried to harmonize the two by
trying to show that all modern ideas and progress could be traced back to the old sacred books of
their religions. This attempt was bound to end in failure. It merely prevented people from
thinking straight. Instead of thinking boldly and trying to understand the new forces and ideas
which were changing the world, they were oppressed by the weight of ancient habit and
tradition. Instead of looking ahead and marching ahead, they were all the time furtively looking
back. It is not easy to go ahead, if the head is always turned and looks back.
The English-educated class grew slowly in the cities, and at the same time a new middle class
arose consisting of professional people —that is, lawyers and doctors and the like, and merchants
and traders. There had been, of course, a middle class in the past, but this was largely crushed by
the early British policy. The new bourgeoisie, or middle class, was a direct outcome of British
rule; in a sense they were the hangers-on of this rule. They shared to a small extent in the
exploitation of the masses; they took the crumbs that fell from the richly laden table of the
British ruling classes. They were petty officials helping in the British administration of the
country ; many were lawyers assisting in the working of
the law courts and growing rich by litigation; and there were merchants, the go-betweens of
British trade and industry, who sold British goods for a profit or commission.
The great majority of these people of the new bourgeoisie were Hindus. This was due to their
somewhat better economic condition, as compared to the Muslims, and also to their taking to
English education, which was a passport to government service and the professions. The
Muslims were generally poorer. Most of the weavers, who had gone to the wall on account of the
British destruction of Indian industries, were Muslims. In Bengal, which has the biggest Muslim
population of any Indian province, they were poor tenants or small land-holders. The landlord
was usually a Hindu, and so was the village bania, who was the money-lender and the owner of
the village store. The landlord and the bania were thus in a position to oppress the tenant and
exploit him, and they took full advantage of this position. It is well to remember this fact, for in
this lies the root cause of the tension between Hindu and Muslim.
In the same way the higher-caste Hindus, especially in the south, exploited the so-called "
depressed " classes, who were mostly workers on the land. The problem of the depressed classes
has been very much before us recently, and especially since Bapu's fast. Untouchability has been
attacked all along the front, and hundreds of temples and other places have been thrown open to
these classes. But right down at the bottom of the question is this economic exploitation, and
unless this goes, the depressed classes will remain depressed. The untouchables have been
agricultural serfs who were not allowed to own land. They had other disabilities also.
Although India as a whole and the masses grew poorer, the handful of people comprising the
new bourgeoisie prospered to some extent because they shared in the country's exploitation. The
lawyers and other professional people and the merchants accumulated some money. They
wanted to invest this, so that they could have an income from interest. Many of them bought up
land from the impoverished landlords, and thus they became themselves landowners. Others,
seeing the wonderful prosperity of English industry, wanted to invest their money in factories in
India. So Indian capital went into these big machine factories and an Indian industrial capitalist
class began to arise. This was about fifty years ago, after 1880.
As this bourgeoisie grew, their appetite also grew. They wanted to get on, to make more money,
to have more posts in government service, more facilities for starting factories. They found the
British obstructing them in every path. All the high posts were monopolized by the British, and
industry was run for the profit of the British. So they began agitating, and this was the origin of
the new nationalist movement. After the revolt of 1857 and its cruel suppression, people had
been too much broken up for any agitation or aggressive movement, It took them many years to
revive a little.
Nationalist ideas were soon spreading, and Bengal was taking the lead. New books came out in
Bengali, and they had a great influence on the language as well as on the development of
nationalism in Bengal. It was in one of these books, Ananda Matha, by Bankim Chandra
Chatterji, that our famous song Vande Mairam occurs. A Bengali poem which created a stir was
Nil Darpan—the mirror of indigo. It gave a very painful account of the miseries of the Bengal
peasantry under the plantation system, of which I have told you something.
Meanwhile the power of Indian capital was also increasing, and it demanded more elbow-room
to grow. At last in 1885 all these various elements of the new bourgeoisie determined to start an
organization to plead their cause. Thus was the Indian National Congress founded in 1885. This
organization, which you and every boy and girl in India know well, has become in recent years
great and powerful. It took up the cause of the masses and became, to some extent, their
champion. It challenged the very basis of British rule in India, and led great mass movements
against it. It raised the banner of independence and fought for freedom manfully. And to-day it is
still carrying on the fight. But all this is subsequent history. The Nat ional Congress when it was
first founded was a very moderate and cautious body, affirming its loyalty to the British and
asking, very politely, for some petty reforms. It represented the richer bourgeoisie; even the
poorer middle classes were not in it. As for the masses, the peasants and workers, they had
nothing to do with it. It was the organ of the English-educated classes chiefly, and it carried on
its activities in our step-mother tongue— the English language. Its demands were the demands of
the landlords and Indian capitalists and the educated unemployed seeking for jobs. Little
attention was paid to the grinding poverty of the masses or their needs. It demanded the "
Indianization " of the services—that is to say, the greater employment of Indians in government
service in place of Englishmen. It did not see that what was wrong with India was the machine
which exploited the people, and that it made no difference who had charge of the machine,
Indian or foreigner. The Congress further complained of the huge expenses of the English
officials in the military and civil services, and of the " drain " of gold and silver from India to
Do not think that in pointing out how moderate the early Congress was I am criticizing it or
trying to belittle it. That is not my purpose, for I believe that the Congress in those days and its
leaders did great work. The hard facts of Indian politics drove it step by step, almost unwillingly,
to a more and more extreme position. But in the early days it could not have been anything but
what it was. And in those days it required great courage for its founders to go ahead. It is easy
enough for us to talk bravely of freedom when the crowd is with us and praises us for it. But it is
very difficult to be the pioneer in a great undertaking.
The first Congress was held in Bombay in 1885. W. C. Bonnerji of Bengal was the first
president. Other prominent names of those
early days are Surendra Nath Banerji, Badruddin Tyabji, Pheroze-shah Mehta. But one name
towers above all others—that of Dadabhai Naoroji, who became the Grand Old Man of India and
who first used the word Swaraj for India's goal. One other name I shall tell you, for he is the sole
survivor to-day of the old guard of the Congress, and you know him well. He is Pandit Madan
Mohan Malaviya. For over fifty years he has laboured in India's cause, and, worn down with
years and anxiety, he labours still for the realization of the dream he dreamed in the days of his
So the Congress went on from year to year and gained in strength. It was not narrow in its appeal
like the Hindu nationalism of an earlier day. But still it was in the main Hindu. Some leading
Muslims joined it, and even presided over it, but the Muslims as a whole kept away. A great
Muslim leader of the day was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He saw that lack of education, and
especially modern education, had injured the Muslims greatly and kept them backward. He felt
therefore that he must persuade them to take to this education and to concentrate on it, before
dabbling in politics. So he advised the Muslims to keep away from the Congress, and he cooperated
with the government and founded a fine college in Aligarh, which has since grown into
a university. Sir Syed's advice was followed by the great majority of the Muslims, who did not
join the Congress. But a small minority was always with it. Remember that when I refer to
majorities and minorities I mean the majority or minority of the upper middle class, Englisheducated,
Muslims and Hindus. The masses, both Hindu and Muslim, had nothing to do with the
Congress, and very few had even heard of it in those days. Even the lower middle classes were
not affected by it then.
The Congress grew, but even faster than the Congress grew the ideas of nationality and the
desire for freedom. The Congress appeal was necessarily limited because it was confined to the
English-knowing people. To some extent this helped in bringing different provinces nearer to
each other and developing a common outlook. But because it did not go down deep to the
people, it had little strength. I have told you in another letter of an occurrence which stirred Asia
greatly. This was the victory of little Japan over giant Russia in 1904-5. India, in common with
other Asiatic countries, was vastly impressed, that is, the educated middle classes were
impressed, and their self-confidence grew. If Japan could make good against one of the most
powerful European countries, why not India ? For long the Indian people had suffered from a
feeling of inferiority before the British. The long domination by the British, the savage
suppression of the Revolt of 1857, had cowed them. By an Arms Act they were prevented from
keeping arms. In everything that happened in India they were reminded that they were the
subject race, the inferior race. Even the education that was given to them filled them with this
idea of inferiority. Perverted and false history taught them that India was a land where anarchy
had always prevailed, and Hindus and Muslims had cut each other's throats, till the British came
to rescue the country
from this miserable plight and give it peace and prosperity. Indeed, the whole of Asia, the
Europeans believed and proclaimed, regard, less of fact or history, was a backward continent
which must remain under European domination.
The Japanese victory, therefore, was a great pick-me-up for Asia. In India it lessened the feeling
of inferioricy, from which most of us suffered. Nationalist ideas spread more widely, especially
in Bengal and Maharashtra. Just then an event took place which shook Bengal to the depths and
stirred the whole of India. The British Government divided up the great province of Bengal
which at that time included Bihar) into two parts, one of these being Eastern Bengal. The
growing nationalism of the bourgeoisie in Bengal resented it. It suspected that the British wanted
to weaken them by thus dividing them. Eastern Bengal had a majority of Muslims, so by this
division a Hindu-Muslim question was also raised. A great anti-British movement rose in
Bengal. Most of the landholders joined it, and so did Indian capitalists. The cry of Swadeshi was
first raised then, and with it the boycott of British goods, which of course helped Indian industry
and capital. The movement even spread to the masses to some extent, and partly it drew its
inspiration from Hinduism. Side by side with it there arose in Bengal a school of revolutionary
violence, and the bomb first made its appearance in Indian politics. Aurobindo Ghose was one of
the brilliant leaders of the Bengal movement. He still lives, but for many years he has lived a
retired life in Pondicherry, which is in French India.
In western India, in the Maharashtra country, there was also a great ferment at this time and a
revival of an aggressive nationalism, tinged also with Hinduism. A great leader arose there, Bal
Gangadhar Tilak, known throughout India as the Lokamanya, the "Honoured of the People ".
Tilak was a great scholar, learned alike in the old ways of the East and the new ways of the
West; he was a great politician; but, above all, he was a great mass leader. The leaders of the
National Congress had so far appealed only to the English-educated Indians; they were little
known by the masses. Tilak was the first political leader of the new India who reached the
masses and drew strength from them. His dynamic personality brought a new element of strength
and indomitable courage, and, added to the new spirit of nationalism and sacrifice in Bengal, it
changed the face of Indian politics.
What was the Congress doing during these stirring days of 1906 and 1907 and 1908 ? The
Congress leaders, far from leading the nation at the time of this awakening of the national spirit,
hung back. They were used to a quieter brand of politics in which the masses did not intrude.
They did not like the flaming enthusiasm of Bengal, nor did they feel at home with the new
unbending spirit of Maharashtra, as embodied in Tilak. They praised Swadeshi but hesitated at
the boycott of British goods. Two parties developed in the Congress—the extremists under Tilak
and some Bengal leaders and the moderates under the older Congress leaders. The most
prominent of the moderate leaders was, however, a young man,
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a very able man who had devoted his life to service. Gokhale was also
from Maharashtra. Tilak and he faced each other from their rival groups and, inevitably, the split
came in 1907 and the Congress was divided. The moderates continued to control the Congress,
the extremists were driven out. The moderates won, but it was at the cost of their popularity in
the country, for Tilak's party was far the more popular with the people. The Congress became
weak and for some years had little influence.
And what of the government during these years ? How did it react to the growth of Indian
nationalism? Governments have only one method of meeting an argument or a demand which
they do not like—the use of the bludgeon. So the government indulged in repression and sent
people to prison, and curbed the newspapers with Press laws, and let loose crowds of secret
policemen and spies to shadow everybody they did not like. Since those days the members of the
C.I.D. in India have been the constant companions of prominent Indian politicians. Many of the
Bengal leaders were sentenced to imprisonment. The most noted trial was that of Lokamanya
Tilak, who was sentenced to six years, and who during his imprisonment in Mandalay wrote a
famous book. Lala Lajpat Rai was also deported to Burma.
But repression did not succeed in crushing Bengal. So a measure of reform in the administration
was hurried up to appease some people at least. The policy was then, as it was later and is now,
to split up the nationalist ranks. The moderates were to be " rallied " and the extremists crushed.
In 1908 these new reforms, called the Morley-Minto reforms, were announced. They succeeded
in " rallying the moderates ", who were pleased with them. The extremists, with their leaders in
gaol, were demoralized and the national movement weakened. In Bengal, however, the agitation
against the partition continued and ended with success. In 1911 the British Government reversed
the partition of Bengal. This triumph put new heart in the Bengalis. But the movement of 1907
had spent itself, and India relapsed into political apathy.
In 1911 also it was proclaimed that Delhi was to be the new capital—Delhi, the seat of many an
empire, and the grave also of many an empire.
So stood India in 1914 when the World War broke out in Europe and ended the 100-year period.
That war also affected India tremendously, but of that I shall have something to say later.
I have done, at long last, with India in the nineteenth century. I have brought you to within
eighteen years of to-day. And now we must leave India and, in the next letter, go to China and
examine another type of imperialist exploitation.
The famous poet Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at Santiniketan, West Bengal in 1940.
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