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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

Brahmo Samaj and Toiling People

Saturday 7 December 2013, by Chinmohan Sehanavis


A very sound criterion for judging the character of any social movement, is its attitude towards the toiling people, denizens of the “lower depths” of the society. This is particularly so because it has a very pertinent relevance to our contemporary world with its widespread and deep, underlying social tensions and conflicts.

Insofar as the Brahmo Samaj signifies a vital social movement during the modern phase of our history—rather than yet another in this land of countless religious institutions—this criterion may fruitfully be applied to the thoughts and activities of the leaders of the movement to enable us to assess the true contribution of the Samaj to our national life.

Starting naturally with Rammohan Roy, we notice that he did not, in this regard, stop by just laying down the sound but very general dictum: “Every man is entitled by law and reason to enjoy the fruits of his honest labour and good management.” He tried also to apply the principle to the specific field of our Indian peasantry. Thus, in his evidence on the Revenue System of India, in reply to the question (No 30), “What is the condition of the cultivator under the present zamindary system of Bengal, and ryotwary system of Madras?”, Rammohum said:

“Under both systems the condition of the cultivators is very miserable; in the one they are placed at the mercy of the zamindars’ avarice and ambition, in the other they are subjected to the extortions and intrigues of the surveyors and other Government revenue officers. I deeply compassionate both, with this difference in regard to the agricultural peasantry of Bengal, that there the landlords have met with indulgence from Government in the assessment of their revenue, while no part of this indulgence is extended towards the poor cultivators. In an abundant season, when the price of corn is low, the sale of their whole crops is required to meet the demands of the landholders, leaving little or nothing for seed or subsistence to the labourer or his family.”—Susobhan Chandra Sarkar (ed., Rammohun on Indian Economy, p. 9)

In his paper, also on the Revenue System of India, dated London, August 19, 1831, Rammohun wrote:

“With a view to facilitate the collection of revenue and to encourage proprietors to improve their estates, the Government liberally relieved them, in the year 1793, from the distress and difficulties originating in the uncertainty of assessment by concluding a perpetual settlement with them. But I am at a loss to conceive why this indulgence was not extended to their tenants, by requiring proprietors to follow the example of Government, in fixing a definte rent to be received from each cultivator, according to the average sum actually collected from him during a given term of years; or why the feeling of compassion, excited by the miserable condition of cultivators, does not now induce the Government to fix a maximum standard, corresponding with the sum of rent now paid by each cultivator in one year, and positively interdict any further increase. (Point 14).” (Ibid., p. 24)

Sometimes his critics say that Rammohun had, after all, supported the Permanent Settlement of 1793. He did, but in fairness to him they should also point out that he had, at the same time, strongly pleaded for another Permanent Settlement—this time between the zamindar and the ryot—to be made obligatory by Government legislation.

It is also interesting that, while in England, Rammohun had visited Robert Owen, the Utopian Socialist leader. In his letter dated April 19, 1933 to Robert Owen’s son, Rammohun wrote:

“Did such philanthropists as Locke or Newton oppose Religion? No! They rather tried to remove the perversions gradually introduced in Religions. Admitting for a moment that the Truth of the Divinity of Religion cannot be established to the satisfaction of a free-thinker, but from an impartial enquiry, I presume we may feel persuaded to believe that a system of religion (Christianity) which consists in love and charity, is capable of furthering our happiness, facilitating our reciprocal transactions and curbing our obnoxious suspicions and feelings. I grieve to observe that by opposing Religion your most benevolent father has hitherto impeded his success. He, I seriosuly believe, is a follower of Christianity in the above sense though he is not aware of being so... My desire to see you and your father crowned with success in your benevolent undertakings, has emboldened me to make these observations, a freedom which, I hope, you will in consideration of my motives excuse...”

This shows that in spite of his fundamental difference with Robert Owen’s ideas on religion, Rammohun highly prized the latter’s social undertakings which he “desired to see crowned with success” and even thought that Owen was a true Christian “though he was not aware of being so”.

Almost decade later, Dwarkanath Tagore, an ardent admirer and friend of Rammohun and the Brahmo Samaj, also visited Britain, that is, during the early forties of the last century. It was a time when the great Chartist Movement was raging in Britain. It is interesting to note his reactions to this earty revolt of the British working class. In course of a letter published in the Derozian journal Bengal Spectator, dated November 1, 1842 (Vol I, No II, pp. 132-34), Dwarkanath wrote:

“.... We intended to have visited Birmingham but owing to Chartists’ riot, took the railroad to Derby.... After seeing Edinburgh, I shall go to Glasgow and Manchestor by which time I hope to find the country in a tranquil state. At present some 300,000 people are out of employment which poor devils are being roughly handled by the troops—they talk of the starvation of the hill coolies in India but I see around me still more distress.”

The expression “Chartists’ riot” is there but so also an unmistakable sympathy for the “rioters”.

In 1851 the Landholders’ Association merged with the British India Soceity to give rise to the British Indian Association of Bengal of which the first Secretary was Debendranath Tagore. Its composition being what it was, it could not naturally be a revolutionary organisation. Yet in paragraph 2 of its First Annual Report, we find Debendranath writings:

“The rural population whose industry most largely contribute to the resources of the State, were left not only without adequate protection but also without many of the advantages which are enjoyed by other classes. The means devised in the draft of an Act for affording protection to them, contemplated a control over the watchmen employed by villagers at their own expense, but involved no outlay from the public resources. But as it happened that a considerable portion of the revenue was raised with the avowed object of providing a sufficient police for the country, the Committee were bound to bring to the notice of the Government the wrong which would be done, were the proposed measure to be carried into effect, and the obligation which had long been incurred but not fulfilled, of providing a sufficient force for the protection of the people.”

Debendranath’s well-known Tattwabodhini Patrika systematically exposed in its columns the exploitation of the indigo cultivators by the British planters. Its rationalist editor, Akshoy Kumar Dutt, was relentless in this regard and once wrote quite bluntly: “The peasants of Bengal have two enemies—the zamindars and the Indigo planters. The planter sahibs can never be regarded as gentlemen.”

In 1850, Tattwabodhini Patrika wrote:

“... The ryots do not want to cultivate indigo. The planters make them do so by force and select their best land for sowing indigo seeds. The planters do not believe in paying a just price for their purchase and fix up very low price for the indigo cultivated by the ryots. The indigo planter sahib is the absolute lord of the whole show and can rob the ryots of everything if he so desires. And from the little that he is pleased to grant as advance to the ryot, no less than half goes to the gomasthas and other officers as commission and by way of manipulation of figures. And so the land which, if put under rice or other cultivation, would enable the ryot to maintain his family throughout the year, only entangles him in a mess of inescapable debt when the same is sown with indigo seeds at the behest of the planter sahib. And so they would never do that on their own—particularly since agriculture is their only means of livelihood, land their only property, and all their hopes centre round the same. Who would forego such possibilities and choose suicide instead? However, have they any choice in the matter? Is it possible for the poor and humble ryot to go against the wishes of the high and mighty indigo planter sahib?... They have, therefore, to sow indigo seeds in their own land. Knowing full well what would happen they have, nevertheless, to take poison with their own hands.”

In 1873. Tattwabodhini Patrika published a review of Harachandra Chowdhury‘s book Serpur Bibaran. It gives a vivid account of a sect named Pagalpanthis established by one Tipu Pagla. Tipu’s stand was: All men are sons of God; there is, therefore, no master or servant—nor high and low in society.

And so in 1825 Tipu asked his followers not to pay rent to the zamindar. This revolt was suppressed by the Government with the help of the military and, in 1827, Tipu was sentenced to a prison term of 45 years. He died in prison in 1852 when his son and grandson were still serving their sentences along with him.

When Keshub Chunder Sen visited England in 1870, among the people present in the welcome soiree held on April 12, were such eminent personalities as the literary critic, Stopford Brooke, the Unitarian Dr James Martineau, the Egyptologist Samuel Sharpe and the French Socialist leader, Louis Blanc. On his return to India, Keshub Chunder started the well known one-pice organ, Sulabh Samachar. In its Sravan 31, 1278 (Bengali era) issue, he wrote:

“....Who are the really great men? the lowly ones of our country. For if they were not there who of us would get his daily bread, who would go to the races in this stately carriage or would lean against his luxurious pillow and go on smoking his hookah? Look, such ordinary people supply us with everything. We are rich only in the wealth produced by them. But how many of us remember to be grateful to them. They labour day and night to supply us our food, but how many care to think even once how they themselves manage to exist?

“How could England became so rich and powerful? Through the labour of such lowly people. There will come a time in our world when the humble and the lowly will no longer remain silent nor lie supine in misery and humiliation. Even now they have become so powerful in England that they do not want to obey their king. They assert their right and their power... In all countries of the world, large or small, the battle has begun between the rich and the poor.”

In the issue of March 13, 1880, Sulabh Samachar again wrote:

“In Russia now-a-days a tremendous upheaval is taking place. Among the educated classes a general idea has taken hold that the present monarch and the civil servants must go and the mode of administration be thoroughly over-hauled. This group is daily becoming more and more powerful. Like the Communists in France and the Socialist Party in Germany, they too are rebelling against the king. They are ready to smash up the present social, family and monarchical system in Russia.”

It has also to be remembered that Keshub Chunder on his return from England started the Workingmens’ Institute and such other activities in Calcutta and its suburbs, inspired perhaps by the social work of the Christian Churches which he had witnessed during his visit to England. Bipin Chandra Pal writes in this connection in his The Brahmo Samaj and the Battle for Swaraj:

“... Night schools were opened under the auspices of a new social reform organisation called Bharat Samskarak Sabha for the artisan and labouring classes in and near Calcutta.” (p. 50)

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the working class appeared as a potential force on the Indian scene. In the inter-national arena the International Workingmen’s Association, better known in history as the “First International”, came to be established in London in 1864. The minutes of a meeting of the General Council of that body held on August 15, 1871, at which both Marx and Engels were present, read, in part, as follows:

“...The minutes of the preceding meeting having been read and confirmed, the Secretary announced that branches had been formed at Liverpool and Laughborough in Leicestershire. He also read a letter from Calcutta asking for powers to start a section in India. The Secretary was instructed to write and advise the establish-ment of a branch, but he was to inform the writer that it must be self-supporting. He was also to urge the necessary of enrolling natives in the association.” (pp. 257-58)

The letter itself, in part, reads as follows: “...Great discontent exists among the people, and the British Government is thoroughly disliked. The taxation is excessive and the revenues are swallowed up in maintaining a costly system of officialdom. As in other places the extravagances of the ruling class contrast
in a paintful manner with the wretched condition of the workers, whose labour creates the wealth thus squandered. The principles of the International would bring the mass of the people into its organisation if a section was started.” (p. 530)

The question is—who could have written such a letter from Calcutta in 1871? Unfortu-nately, the identity of the writer has not, to this day, been established though debates are continuing among the scholars on this score. The names of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya who wrote about Communism and the First International in 1879, Reverned James Long who suffered imprisonment and a fine for publishing the English version of Nil Darpan, Principal Lobbe of Krishnagar College who happened to be a positivist and hailed the Paris Commune in 1871, have all been mentioned in this connection. However, before this question can be settled finally the following points concerning Keshub Chunder and Sivanath Sastri (together perhaps with some of their close associates) may, also, have to be taken into account.

Amrita Bazar Patrika (in the Bengali edition of the then bilingual daily of Calcutta), in its issue of July 20, 1871, published a fairly objective report of the foundation, objectives and activities of the First International. In its issue of August 31, 1871, the Patrika reported that some eminent citizens of Calcutta had met to plan the setting up of a “People’s Association” there. Later, on February 9, 1872, the Patrika again wrote that “when Babu Keshub Chunder Sen had visited England in 1870 some eminent gentlemen had approached him there with a request to explore the possibilities of setting up such a ‘People’s Association’ there”. One scholar conjectures from these data that the “People’s Association” might have been the proposed name of an organisation which the organisers wanted to set up as a section of the First International and that Keshub Chunder himself or one of his associates might have written that letter mentioned earlier.

To my mind this seems rather unlikely in view of Keshub Chunder’s pronounced and unquestioned loyalty to the Governmnt, and the International was not, after all, just a social service organisation. Yet Keshub’s sponsorship of the one-pice weekly Sulabh Samachar, writing in simple language meant for the common people and particularly of the Workingmen’s Institute, prove that he was aware of the potentiality of the labouring classes, here and abroad. In fact, that point was well made by him in his article in SulabhSamachar quoted earlier.

Anyway, I feel that as for the authorshop of the letter to the First International, the more plausible case would be Sivanath Sastri or one of his associates. This is because of the following:

In 1874 Sivanath’s close associate Sasipada Banerjee founded a Sramajivi Samiti or Toilers’ Association at Baranagore near Calcutta, and started from there the first labour journal in India—the Bharat Sramajivi. Its very first issue, of May 1874, published Sivanath’s significant poem Sramajivi two stanzas of which read as follows:

Awake, Oh! brother toiler!

The end of the epoch is here.

Men and women, all are moving

This is no time for slumber.

I call upon you to wake up!

Look! There beyond the seas

How toilers in their thousands

Fight a tremendous battle.

Their motto—no more shall we remain in the dark.

Come, let me see you all!

Whom exactly does Sivanath here refer to—the Paris Commundards storming the heavens or the German Socialists frightening the redoubtable Bismark? In his Englander Diary, Sivanath wrote:

“When working among young men and women one has to bear in mind both the destructive and creative aspects. On the one hand, the smashing up of superstitions, caste differences and the empty Sastric injunctions, and on the other, the inculcation of steadfast honesty, respect for saintly lives, faith, in religion, absolute reliance on God—both the sides must be taken care of. On the one hand, socialist and secularist literature has to be studied and its essence assimilated and, on the other, our faith and reverence have to be kept alive by delving into the lives of saints, meditation and sadhana. To the extent that I am able to imbibe both in my life, I shall be able, exactly in the same measure, to transmit the same to others. I have to prepare myself the same to others. I have to prepare myself for all these before I return to my country.” (pp. 172-73)

Elsewhere he writes in his diary:

“After the afternoon meal, Hammergrain, Ostrogorski and I went to a meeting of the Socialists at Mrs Besant’s house. There a follower of Comte spoke against socialist views. Mrs Beant and some other socialists immediately got up to refute his arguments.” (p. 68)

Later in his unpublished diary the entry on October 5, 1888, reads: “One thing more has to be done. For the special service of the Samaj as also for my family service, I have to buy Church History, Lecky’s History of European Morals and the Great Sayings of Great Men. Over and above, I have also to purchase some socialist literature. For the study of such literature is essential for acquiring knowledge about the tasks that would face us while building the new society.” (Alekhya, Falgun-Chaitra, 1380 B.S.)

After his return from abroad, Sivanath organised a small, somewhat exclusive society, the Samadarshi Samiti, the members of which bound themselves by pledges when joining the Samiti. Bipin Chandra Pal, who was a member, refers to these pledges in his memoirs thus:

1. We shall not worship idols or images.

2. We shall not, in word or deed, accept caste differences.

3. We believe in equal rights for men and women.

4. We shall not marry girls of less than 15 nor before we ourselves are 21. Nor shall we have anything to do with such marriages.

5. We shall, as far as it lies in our power, try to spread education, particularly among women and the masses.

6. We shall practice riding and rifle-shooting.

7. Though we believe that self-government is the only system of government oriented by God, yet in view of the present condition prevailing in our country as also our future well being, we shall abide by the orders of the foreign rulers but in spite of all privations and poverty shall never accept service under this Government.

In the context of what we see all around us today, how much of this programme can be declared outdated? But in the context of this discussion, more significant is what Bipin Chandra adds immediately after the seven points enumerated above:

“We also took a pledge that none of us shall keep separate accounts. Whatever anyone earns will go to a common pool and from that pool arrangements will be made to maintain us all together with our families.” (Sattar Batsar, pp. 222-224)

Later, Bipin Chandra regrets: “The ideal of communism on which we wanted to base our group, that is, there shall be no private property, we shall donate all we earn to the common pool and make our living by taking from it only as much as we need—could not be realised in practice. However we did keep all the other pledges we had taken.” (Navayuger Bangla, pp. 127-128)

Two Brahmo stalwarts, Ramkumar Vidyaratna and a little later Dwarikanath Ganguly, went to Assam during the eighties of the last century to collect information about the true condition of the indentured coolies working in the tea gardens owned mostly by the Europeans. They had to move there secretly and had to risk their lives in this mission, for the planters openly set a price on their heads. It was really a Planters’ Raj in those days in Assam and there could be no doubt that they would have carried out their threat as soon as they had managed to lay their hands on the two, and get away with it. However, the sympathy of the coolies protected them all through and they came back alive to do pioneering work in the field of revolutionary journalism in India. For Ramkumar’s book Cooley Kahini and Dwarikanath’s exposures in the columns of Sanjivani entitled Dr Legriser Santan (Dr Legris was the infamous slave-holder in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—C.S.) created a sensation and roused the conscience of our people.

Dwarikanath also used for this work the Congress platform, which on his initiative passed a resolution in condemnation of this system of indentured labour.

Krishna Kumar Mitra, the well-known editor of Sanjivani, was, in like manner, agitating among the peasantry and organising them into Krishak Samitis. He writes thus in his Atma-Charit:

“During Lord Ripon’s administration a beginning was made in the work of improving the laws regarding the tenancy rights of the peasants. The British Indian Association mobilised its forces to keep unimpaired the interest of the zamindars and the Indian Association took up the cause of the peasantry in a big way. Babu Dwarikanath Ganguly was, at the time, the Assistant Secretary of the Indian Association. He was an embodiment of inexhaustible enthusiasm. He used to take Kaliprasanna Bhattacharjee, Kaliprasanna Dutt, Kali Sankar Sukul and myself with him to many villages in Nadia. Hooghly and Howrah districts for organising meetings of the peasants. To some of these meetings Ananda Mohan Bose and Surendranath Banerjee also used to go to give courage to the peasants terrified of the zamindar’s might. At Krishnaganj in Nadia nearly 20,000 peasants assembled. Some of them caused great excitement among those present as they went on relating the story of the terrible atrocities of the zamindars. At Poradah, about 10,000 and at Kushtia almost 15,000 people joined the meetings. There was also a huge meeting at Tarakeswar. Ananda Mohan Bose, Surendranath Banerjee, two Sovabazar Rajkumars—Nilkrishna and Benoykrishna—and many other eminent men of Calcutta went there and heard the stories of atrocities of the zamindars from the victimised peasants themselves. As a result of such an agitation, the Government had to bring forward a new tenacy Bill.” (p. 94)

Brahmo Public Opinion also referred to similar activities in its columns:

“We are happy to hear that the Indian Association has been able to organise some Rent Unions in the mofussil areas. The importance of having such unions all over the country, is very great. If properly formed and organised these Unions will be a power to reckon with in our country. The field of such work is extensive.” (Vol. V., No. 2, January 12, 1882, p. 13)

The Brahmo Samaj leaders and workers have also done pioneering work in the field of removal of untouchability and other disabilities of the so-called depressed classes. The work of V.R. Shinde, at one time a missionary of the Bombay Prarthana Samaj—it was he who, for the first time, got a resolution to this effect passed at the Congress Session in 1917 and later made Gandhiji incorporate the issue as an essential plank of Congress propaganda, the work of the Sadhan Asram among the Namasudras of Dacca, of Reverend Nilmoni Chakravortty among the Khasi people of Assam, of Abinas Chandra Lahiri among the Rabhas, Garos and other tribals of Assam, of Manmathanath Das Gupta among the Mehtars of Hazaribath, of Jayamangal Rath among Oriya-speaking Hadis and Kaivartas in Ganjam District of Orissa and of other Brahmo missionaries among the Telugu-speaking depressed classes in Andhra Pradesh and the Ezhavas of Kerala—these cannot be dismissed as mere reformist work. Their dedication to the cause of the socially down-trodden may, with profit, be emulated even by our revolutionaries today.

All this is not to prove that the Brahmos were Communists without their being aware of the fact, nor that the Brahmo Samaj had anticipated Communism. That would, indeed, be too simplistic a proposition. All that I want to say here is that social history has to be read, not piecemeal, but as a continuing process, with many zigzags, of the developing consciousness of man and society. In the present context this point was admirably made by Dr Bhupendranath Datta, brother of Vivekananda and the well-known revolutionary:

“The writer (that is, Dr Datta—C.S.) was born in a family where liberal atmosphere prevailed. The contact of this family with Brahmo Samaj was from fairly early days. The writer had once, in fact, decided to get himself duly initiated into Brahmo missionary work by Pandit Sivanath Sastri himself and had been preparing himself accordingly. I also heard a story that Sastrimahasaya, too, had once said, ‘I shall get together a new band of missionaries with him (that is, Dr Datta—C.S.) as its core. Later, however, the writer, after studying Mazzini’s work and Swami Vivekananda’s From Colombo to Almora, came to the conclusion that without a political transformation no religious or social transformation was possible. With that idea in his mind he devoted himself wholly to revolutionary work in 1902-03. The writer feels that in his life, from the early contact with the Brahmo Samaj to his indirect contact with Lenin in Moscow, there has been a continuing process of development of ideas.” (Bharater Dwitiya Swadhinata Sangram, p. 91)

(Mainstream, Annual 1978)

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