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Sri Aurobindo in Surat

— Narrated by Hiranmayi


cover
Price: Rs 175

Soft Cover
Pages: 208
Dimensions (in cms): 20x20
   
Publisher: Sri Aurobindo Centre, Surat





About Sri Aurobindo in Surat

Published to commemorate the centenary of Sri Aurobindo's 1907 visit to Surat for the All India Annual Convention of the then Indian National Congress, the book acquaints the reader with the major political players of the day and the issues of contention between the Moderates and the Nationalists. Using the words of Sri Aurobindo, convention participants, and observers, as well as facsimile copies of Indian newspaper reports, the author unfolds the dramatic events before and during the convention, when all efforts at compromise and reconciliation between the two groups failed, leading to the climactic moment when the convention dissolved in an uproar of charged emotions. Sri Aurobindo's leadership in awakening the country to the demand for swaraj is the primary focus of this narrative retelling of the Surat Congress Convention.


REVIEW

An objective study of the history of the Indian National Congress will show that its 23rd session at Surat in 1907 marked its real turn towards the goal of the freedom of the country. It appears surprising to us today that the illustrious leaders of the Congress could stomach till that day a threat by Lord Elgin, the Viceroy of India from 1894 to 1899, declaring "India was conquered by the sword and by the sword it shall be held" or the observation by another Viceroy, Lord Curzon, that "Indeed, truth has never been an Indian ideal!"

However, a radical change was brewing in the political weather of the middle of the first decade of the 20th century. With Sri Aurobindo coming over to Kolkata and giving a vibrant voice to the newspaper Bande Mataram, the weather was marked by gathering clouds that burst into a storm at Surat.

The backdrop, in brief, was this: Leaders such as Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Khaparde, Khare and Lala Lajpat Rai were keen to see that the resolutions adopted at the 22nd session of the Congress at Kolkata in 1906 were endorsed at the 23rd session scheduled to be held at Nagpur. But the conservatives, who were still of the view that "we cannot afford to flout the Government at this stage", managed to change the venue to Surat, their stronghold, and also chose the passive leader Rash Behari Ghose to preside over it instead of Lala Lajpat Rai. The proposed agenda excluded any reference to the inspiring Kolkata call.

Tilak and other Nationalist leaders, on reaching Surat, mobilized the opinions of the delegates to demand reiteration of the Kolkata resolutions. Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the historian of the Congress, writes, "Attempts were made by Lokamanya Tilak, through intermediaries, to bring about a compromise but these failed, and his effort to meet Mr. Malvi, the Chairman of the Reception Committee, met with no better success."

The session began on 26 December 2007 before a gathering ten thousand strong. Rash Behari Ghose was proposed for the chair, but the moment the great orator of Bengal, S.N. Bannerji, stood up to second the proposal, the unexpected happened. Let us turn to the inimitable narrative left by Henry W. Nevinson, the correspondent for the Manchester Guardian:

Waving their arms, their scarves, their sticks and umbrellas, a solid mass of delegates and spectators sprang to their feet and shouted without a moment's pause … the whole ten thousand were on their feet, shouting for order, shouting for tumult. Mr. Malvi (Chairman of the Reception Committee) still half in the chair, rang his brass Benares bell and rang in vain. Surendranath sprang upon the very table itself. Even a voice like his was not a whisper in the din. Again and again he shouted, unheard as silence.… Again the Chairman rang his Benares bell, and rang in vain. In an inaudible voice, like a sob, he declared the sitting suspended.

A gloomy day passed, marked by ominous whispers in an atmosphere tense and awesome. The session resumed the next day. As soon as Dr. Ghose occupied the Chair, a determined Tilak who had served notice for an amendment stood up in order to move it. "You cannot move an adjournment of the Congress. I declare you out of order," warned Malvi." "I wish to move an amendment to the election of President, and you are not in the Chair," Tilak answered. "I declare you out of order!" cried Dr. Ghosh. "But you have not been elected! I appeal to the delegates," snubbed Tilak.

Let us turn to Nevinson again:

Uproar drowned the rest. With folded arms Mr. Tilak faced the audience. On either side of him young Moderates sprang to their feet, wildly gesticulating vengeance. Shaking their fists and yelling to the air, they clamoured to hurl him down the steps of the platform. Behind him Dr. Ghose mounted the table and ringing an unheard bell, harangued the storm in shrill, agitated, unintelligible denunciations.… But Mr. Tilak stood there with folded arms, defiant, calling on violence to do its worst, calling on the violence to move him, for he would move for nothing else in hell or heaven. In front, the white-clad audience roared like the tumultuous sea.

Suddenly something flew through the air – a shoe! – Maharatta shoe! Reddish leather, pointed toe, sole studded with lead. It struck Surendranath Banerjee on the cheek; it cannoned off upon Sir Pherozeshah Mehta. It flew, it fell, and, as at a given signal white waves of turbaned men surged up the escarpment of the platform. Leaping, climbing, hissing the breath of fury, brandishing long sticks, they came, striking at any head that looked to them Moderate, and in another moment, between brown legs standing upon the green baize table, I caught glimpses of the Indian National Congress dissolving in chaos.

Like Goethe at the battle of Valmy, I could have said, "Today marks the beginning of a new era, and you can say that you were present at it."

Beginning of a new era indeed! The Bengalee of Surendranath Banerjee bore this headline: "The Congress is Dead — Long Live the Congress!"

Dr. Ghose's presidential address remained unread. Though the next day two different conferences were held, the Nationalists commanded the crowd. Observes Nevinson, "Grave and silent – I think without saying a single word – Mr. Aurobindo Ghose took the chair and sat unmoved, with far-off eyes, as one who gazes at futurity. In clear, short sentences, without eloquence or passion, Mr. Tilak spoke till the stars shone out and someone kindled a lantern at his side."

This first great Congress split was strictly ideological, resulting in the concept of Swaraj sinking into the nation's psyche. It was Sri Aurobindo who was behind the significant turn.

As we know, India for Sri Aurobindo was not a mere geographical or even historical subcontinent, but a consciousness. Its freedom was indispensable for the unfoldment of human destiny. Soon, after his incarceration in the famous Alipore Conspiracy Case, he was to plunge into the hitherto unfathomed mysteries of creation and evolution and devote himself to discovering the way for the other freedom—humanity's freedom from its slavery to ignorance.

Sri Aurobindo was the master brain behind this auspicious break up of the Congress but for which there would have been a Congress without any thrust for freedom —an unimaginable spectre. By then he had become immensely popular because of the Government's vain effort to punish him for his articles in the Bande Mataram, inspiring Tagore to come out with his immortal tribute "Aurobindo, Rabindranath salutes thee,/ Friend, O my country's friend, O voice-incarnate, free, of India's soul."

Here is a glimpse of his travel from Kolkata to Surat, as narrated by Barindra Kumar Ghose:

The train started in the midst of deafening cries of "Bande Mataram" and the whole thousand-mile route from Kharagpur to Surat was a triumphal journey of lights, crowds, and continued cheering.…

Aurobindo, the new idol of the nation, was hardly known then by his face, and at every small and big station a frantic crowd rushed about in the platform looking for him in the first and second class carriages, while all the time Aurobindo sat unobserved in a third class compartment.

Sri Aurobindo in Surat, compiled by Hiranmayi, is a highly valuable narrative of this historic event and other events relevant to it, enriched with records left by Nevinson, Barindra Kumar Ghose, K. M. Munshi and others. It reproduces reports and comments from the newspapers of the day and several documents containing the attitudes of the Moderates vis-à-vis the Nationalists, among other facts that help us to develop an insight into the spirit of the time. This compilation, which was released during the centenary celebration of Sri Aurobindo's visit to Surat – efficiently organized by the Sri Aurobindo Centre in Surat, a branch of the Sri Aurobindo Society – deserves commendation, and we congratulate the compiler and her able associates. No wonder there are some proof-related errors that would of course be eliminated in the next edition, for it had to be ready by an unalterable date.

— Manoj Das

Shri Manoj Das is a well-known writer. A Padma awardee, he is also a recipient of the Saraswati Samman and Sahitya Akademi awards.
May 2008