The Congress Split at Surat Dec.1907
Sri Aurobindo at Surat, December 1907
Sri Aurobindo Presiding over Nationalist Conference
Sri Aurobindo Presiding over a Conference of Nationalist Delegates at Surat in December,1907
Sri Aurobindo, sitting with his hands on the table, flanked on his right by G.S. Khaparde and on his left by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, speaking
Two Decisive Happenings at Surat
"History very seldom records the things that were decisive but took place behind the veil; it records the show in front of the curtain. Very few people know that it was Sri Aurobindo (without consulting Tilak) who gave the order that led to the breaking of the Congress and was responsible for the refusal to join the new-fangled Moderate Convention which were the two decisive happenings at Surat..."
Moderates vs Nationalists
In 1906 Sri Aurobindo came to Bengal with the purpose of a public initiation of a more forward and direct political action than the moderate reformism which had till then been the creed of the Indian National Congress. He joined the 'New Party' which had been recently formed in the Congress and persuaded its chiefs in Bengal to come forward publicly as an All-India party - the Nationalist Party - with Tilak at its head and to attack the then dominant Moderate (Reformist or Liberal) oligarchy of veteran politicians and capture from them the Congress and the country. This was the origin of the historic struggle between the Moderates and the Nationalists (called by their opponents Extremists) which in two years changed altogether the face of Indian politics.
Congress Session at Calcutta in 1906
The first great public clash between the two parties took place in the sessions of the Congress at Calcutta where Sri Aurobindo was present but still working behind the scenes. The Extremists, though still a minority, succeeded under the leadership of Tilak in imposing part of their political programme on the Congress. The Congress consisting of both Moderates and Nationalists unanimously resolved to have for its goal Swaraj or Self-government and Swadeshi, Boycott and National Education as the effective means for realising it. The Moderates at the time did not raise any dissentient voice but they seem to have felt that their position was somewhat compromised by these resolutions; and they had since then, been looking forward to an opportunity when they might return to their old position regarding ideals and methods of political progress in India.
Why the Moderates chose Surat?
The session of the Congress had first been arranged at Nagpur, but Nagpur was predominantly a Mahratta city and violently extremist. Gujerat was at that time predominantly moderate, there were very few Nationalists and Surat was a stronghold of Moderatism though afterwards Gujerat became, especially after Gandhi took the lead, one of the most revolutionary of the provinces. So the Moderate leaders decided to hold the Congress at Surat. The Nationalists however came there in strength from all parts, they held a public conference with Sri Aurobindo as president and for some time it was doubtful which side would have the majority, but finally in this moderate city that party was able to bring in a crowd of so-called delegates up to the number of 1300 while the Nationalists were able by the same method to muster something over 1100.
Swamp it or Split it!
It was known that the Moderate leaders had prepared a new constitution for the Congress which would make it practically impossible for the extreme party to command a majority at any annual session for many years to come. The younger Nationalists, especially those from Maharashtra, were determined to prevent this by any means and it was decided by them to break the Congress if they could not swamp it; this decision was unknown to Tilak and the older leaders but it was known to Sri Aurobindo. At the sessions Tilak went on to the platform to propose a resolution regarding the presidentship of the Congress; the president appointed by the Moderates refused to him the permission to speak but Tilak insisted on his right and began to read his resolution and speak. There was a tremendous uproar, the young Gujerati volunteers lifted up chairs over the head of Tilak to beat him. At that the Mahrattas became furious, a Mahratta shoe came hurtling across the pavilion aimed at the President Dr. Rash Behari Ghose and hit Surendra Nath Banerji on the shoulder. The young Mahrattas in a body charged up to the platform, the Moderate leaders fled and after a short fight on the platform with chairs the session broke up not to be resumed.
The Moderate leaders decided to suspend the Congress and replace it by a national conference with a constitution and arrangement which would make it safe for their party. Meanwhile Lajpatrai came to Tilak and informed him that the Government had decided, if the Congress split, to crush the Extremists by the most ruthless repression. Tilak thought, and the event proved that he was right, that the country was not yet ready to face successfully such a repression and he proposed to circumvent both the Moderate plan and the Government plan by the Nationalists joining the conference and signing the statement of adhesion to the new constitution demanded by the Moderates.
Congress Ceases, Moderates Decline
Sri Aurobindo and some other leaders were opposed to this submission; they did not believe that the Moderates would admit any Nationalists to their conference (and this proved to be the case) and they wanted the country to be asked to face the repression. Thus the Congress ceased for a time to exist; but the Moderate conference was not a success and was attended only by small and always dwindling numbers. Sri Aurobindo had hoped that the country would be strong enough to face the repression, at least in Bengal and Maharashtra where the enthusiasm had become intense and almost universal.
A Congress Pledged to Nationalism
Sri Aurobindo thought also that even if there was a temporary collapse the repression would create a deep change in the hearts and minds of the people and the whole nation would swing over to nationalism and the ideal of independence. This actually happened and when Tilak returned from jail in Burma after 6 years he was able in conjunction with Mrs Besant not only to revive the Congress but to make it representative of a nation pledged to the nationalist cause. The Moderate party shrank into a small body of liberals and even these finally subscribed to the ideal of complete independence.
The Real Questions in Debate
...the real questions in debate were those which involved the whole future development of the spirit and form of self-government in this country. Were that spirit and form to be democratic or oligarchic? Were they to be constitutional in procedure or governed by arbitrary and individual choice and discretion? Was the movement to be progressive and national or conservative and parochial in its aims, policy and spirit? These were the real issues. The Nationalist party stood for democracy, constitutionalism and progress. The Moderate party, governed by an exaggerated respect for old and esteemed leaders, helped, without clearly understanding what they did, those who stood for oligarchy, arbitrary procedure and an almost reactionary conservatism. Personal idiosyncracies, preferences, aversions settled like a thick cloud over the contest, the combatants on both sides flung themselves on every point of difference material or immaterial as a pretext or a weapon, the tactics of party warfare were freely used and, finally, the deliberate obstinacy of a few Moderate leaders in avoiding discussion of the points of difference and the unruly ardour of the younger men on both sides led to the violent scenes at Surat and the break-up of the Congress.
Nationalist Leaders at Surat
Group Photo of Sri Aurobindo amongst other Nationalist leaders at Surat, December 1907
Seated in the front line: (L to R) Ganesh Srikrishna Khaparde and Ashwini Kumar Dutt
Seated in the middle line: Sardar Ajit Singh (uncle of Bhagat Singh), Sri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak (with stick in hand) and Saiyad Haidar Reza
Standing: (L to R) Dr. Munje, Ramaswamy, K. Kuverji Desai
Leaders of the Nationalist Party
The main leaders of the Nationalist Party at Surat were: Lokmanya Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, G.S. Kharpade, Sardar Ajit Singh, H. Mukherjee, B.C. Chatterjee. Subramaniam Bharati and S. Doraiswamy Iyer had arrived from Madras.
Other note-worthy persons
Maharashtrian Saint Sakhare Bua, Satyendranth Tagore, Motilal Ghosh (Amrita Bazar Patrika), Motilal Nehru, Dr Rutherford (Government Representative), Henry Nevinson (British Correspondent)
The Chain of Events at Surat Session
...It has been decided, then, to attend the Surat Congress in what force we can muster at this short notice and do our best to hold the ground we have gained...
...We call upon Nationalists..to..go to Surat to support the Nationalist cause... We are aware of the tremendous difficulties in our way. Surat is far-distant, the expenses of such a journey are almost prohibitive... And yet we must go...For we are going not as holiday sightseers... and we do not demand comfort on the way or luxuries when we arrive. We must go as poor men whose wealth is our love for our Motherland, as missionaries taking nothing with them but the barest expenses of the way, as pilgrims travelling to our Mother's temple.
1907 as Turning-point
We have a great work to do and cannot afford to be negligent and half-hearted. Be sure that this year, 1907, is a turning-point of our destinies and do not imagine that the session of the Surat Congress will be as the sessions of other years. Let us fear to miss by absenting ourselves the chance of helping to put in one of the keystones of the house we are building for our Mother's dwelling in the future, the house of her salvation, the house of Swaraj.
...as a member of the group of extremists, I subscribed to their belief that democracy and equality between the rich and the poor were essential constituents of the spirit of Nationalism. I recalled how we had tried to apply these principles in practical life by ensuring that everyone travelled in the third-class compartments on our way to the Surat Conference; in the camp, as leaders, we did not make separate arrangements but slept in the same room as everyone else. The rich and poor, the Brahmins, the Vaishya, the Shudra, the Bengali, the Maratha, the Punjabi, the Gujarati - came together in a divine sense of brotherhood and ate, slept and lived in the same manner. We slept on the ground and ate rice-pulses-curd - the highest form of Swadeshi found expression in all matters. The 'foreign-returned' from Bombay and Calcutta and the Brahmin from Madras with his 'tilak' (sandal-mark on forehead) intermixed freely....
Extract from 'Tales of Prison Life' by Sri Aurobindo
Eye-witness Report by Barindra
With a canvas bag in my hand and a blanket over my shoulder I came to the Howrah Station and was shown by volunteers into a third class compartment in the Congress Special packed full of Congress delegates. Sri Aurobindo and Syam Sundar Chakravarty were sitting smiling in that compartment while J. Ghosal, the Congress Secretary of the moderate party, was travelling in a first class compartment in perfect European clothes and style. The train started in the midst of deafening cries of "Bande Mataram" and the whole thousand-miles route from Kharagpur to Surat was a triumphal journey of lights, crowds, and continued cheering. The way-side stations even which the special did not touch were lined with admiring crowds and lights flashed and cheer after cheer rose and fell as the train leaping for a time into the lighted yard again rushed into the darkness of the night. We alighted at Amraoti and Nagpur. In both places a sea of heads covered the station and the adjoining grounds, and short halts were made in order to deliver appropriate speeches.
Sri 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 station platform looking for him in the first and second class carriages, while all the time Aurobindo sat unobserved in a third class compartment. By the time this fact became known and he was found out, the train was about to start. In these days of style, luxury and easy leadership, no one could imagine that Aurobindo - nurtured and educated in England and a high official of His Highness the Gaikwad's service, who could leap into an all-India fame in such a short time, - would dream of travelling third class. J. Ghosal felt small in contrast and tried again and again to invite Sri Aurobindo into his first class carriage and keep him there to save his face.
This simplicity of Sri Aurobindo was natural and quite unostentatious. All his life he wore nothing but his country-made dhoti, piran (Indian shirt) and a urani [shawl] with gold threads in its border. Small in stature and slender in build, this quiet unobtrusive man was very often lost in the crowd of his own admirers. When he rose to speak his voice was hardly audible except to those nearest to him, - that thin and almost girlish voice which in measured cadence gave vent to truths ringing with strength and beauty. Crowds of thousands materialised as if by magic and were kept spell-bound as it were in a dream by his wonderful personal magnetism.
We detrained in Bombay; there a meeting was arranged on the sea beach. We could hardly walk to the place through the living streams converging through the streets and lanes towards the chosen spot, automatically stopping all vehicular traffic for a time. It was a sight for the Gods to see: the awakening of a whole nation from its age-long sleep and inertia into conscious life of flaming aspiration.
Conference of Nationalist Delegates
Report in Amrita Bazar Patrika, 25th December, 1907
Surat, December 25th, 1907. - The first meeting of the Nationalists' Conference was held on the 24th December in the afternoon. Babu Arvind Ghose, of the Bande Mataram fame, presided. The meeting was not open to the public. Only those who paid the fee of Re. 1 and signed the pledge of being Nationalists were admitted. There were more than a thousand persons present. On the motion of Mr. Khaparde of Amraoti Mr. Ghose, being elected to the Chair, observed that the object of the Conference was to disseminate the gospel of Nationalism and that for that purpose the Nationalists must be prepared to make all sorts of sacrifices. For the purpose of pushing forward the work of Nationalism an organisation was necessary and hence this conference. It was the object of the Conference to enforce the views of the Nationalists on the Indian National Congress and to make the Congress, which had hitherto been a body for the concentration of opinion, a body for the concentration of work. He then called upon Mr. B.G. Tilak to state in detail the object of the Conference.
Day 1 of Surat Congress Session
26.Dec.1907: Eye-witness Report by Henry Nevinson
Sitting is Suspended
Dewan Bahadur Ambalal S. Desai,...rose formally to propose that Dr. Ghose, already designated President, should now take the Presidential Chair. At the name of Ghose, the deep murmur of dissent was heard again, and one shrill voice cried, "Never!". But the moment the Dewan sat down, Mr. Banerjea was seen standing in his place beside the table.. to second the proposal that Dr. Ghose should take the Chair. Hardly had his immense voice uttered ten words when... the tumult burst and no more was heard.
Waving their arms, their scarves, their sticks and umbrellas, a solid mass of delegates and spectators on the right of the Chair 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 but a whisper in the din. Again and again he shouted, unheard as silence. He sat down and for a moment the storm was lulled. The voices of the leaders were audible, consulting in agitated tones - Dr. Ghose shrill, impatient and perturbed with anger; Mr. Gokhale distressed, anxious, harassed with vain negotiation and sleepless nights. Already one caught the word 'suspension'. 'If they will not hear Surendranath, whom will they hear?' said one. 'It is an insult to the Congress,' said another. 'An insult to Bengal,' cried a third. Again Surendranath sprang on the table, and again the assembly roared with clamour. Again the Chairman rang his Benares bell, and again in vain. In an inaudible voice, like a sob, he declared the sitting suspended.
Day 2 of Surat Congress Session
27.Dec.1907: Eye-witness Report by Henry Nevinson
Pandal at Surat Congress Session (before uproar) in December, 1907
Pandal at Surat Congress Session (after uproar) in December, 1907
National Congress Dissolving in Chaos
In deliberate and expectant silence the proceedings began. Mr. Malvi called upon Mr. Banerjea to take up his speech, seconding the appointment of Dr. Ghose as President... In inaudible words Mr. Malvi proposed that Dr. Ghose should take the Chair as President, and amid various shouting he declared the motion carried... As when lightning flashes in air surcharged with storm, Mr. Tilak was seen standing straight in front of the Presidential Chair itself, expostulating, protesting, all in that calm, decisive voice of his, the voice of a man indifferent to fate. He had given notice of an amendment, he was there to move it, and there he would remain. "You cannot move an adjournment of the Congress," cried Mr. Malvi; "I declare you out of order." "I wish to move an amendment to the election of President, and you are not in the Chair," Mr. Tilak replied. "I declare you out of order!" cried Dr. Ghose. "You have not been elected," answered Mr. Tilak; "I appeal to the delegates."
Uproar drowned the rest. With folded hands 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 Chair, they clamoured to hurl him down the step of the platform. Behind him Dr. Ghose mounted the table, and, ringing an unheard bell, harangued the storm in shrill, agitated, unintelligible denunciations. Restraining the rage of the Moderates, inseminating peace if ever man inseminated, Mr. Gokhale, sweet-natured even in extremes, stood beside his old opponent, flinging out both arms to protect him from the threatened onset. But Mr. Tilak asked for no protection. He stood there with folded arms, defiant, calling on violence to do its worst, calling on violence to move him, for he would move for nothing else in hell or heaven. In front, the white-clad audience roared like a tumultuous sea.
Suddenly something flew through the air - a shoe! - a Mahratta shoe, reddish leather, pointed toe, sole studded with lead! It struck Surendranath Banerjea on the cheek; it cannoned off upon Sir Ferozeshah Mehta. It flew, it fell, and, as at a given signal, white waves of turbaned man surged up the escarpment of the platform. Leaping, climbing, hissing the breath of fury, brandishing long sticks, they came, striking 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 that today marks the beginning of a new era, and you can say that you were present at it.
28.Dec.1907: Eye-witness Report by Henry Nevinson
Sri Aurobindo Presiding over a Conference of Nationalist Delegates at Surat in December,1907
Sri Aurobindo, sitting with his hands on the table, flanked on his right by G.S. Khaparde and on his left by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, speaking
Congress is over... A new spirit..
In the afternoon the Extremists also held a convention, and also appointed a committee to watch events. In the large courtyard of a private house they met in silent crowds. Grave and silent - I think without saying a single word - Mr. Arabindo Ghose took the Chair, and sat unmoved, with far-of eyes, as one who gazes at futurity. In clear, short sentences, without eloquence or passion, Mr. Tilak spoke till the stars shone out and some one kindled a lantern at his side. He reviewed the situation, accused the 'Bombay Moderates' of seeking favour with the Government and rejecting the Nationalist offers of compromise. He had no wish to destroy the Congress, for its prestige was useful; but a new spirit had entered the entered Indian affairs, and unless the Congress was permeated with the new spirit it had better die. By the new spirit he meant self-confidence and self-assertion...
So, on the note of deep and perhaps irreconcilable divergence, the twenty-third Indian National Congress ended... But the Congress was over. The work of the old Congress as it had existed for all those years was rolled up and done...all felt the Congress would never be the same again. In the twinkling of a shoe it had been changed, and a new spirit, a different and difficult spirit, had indeed arisen in the country.
Eye-witness Report Henry Nevinson
As i returned with the leaders of the Congress movement in the train, each station rang with shouts of "Down with Rash Behari!", "Down with Gokhale!", "Down with Surendra Nath!". Not a cheer, not a single cry of 'Jai!'. That was on a Sunday and on the Wednesday before no cheering, no garlands had seemed enough. It had been roses, roses all the way.
Sri Aurobindo was protected by men with pistol...
Champaklal: Dutt says that at the Surat Congress Sri Aurobindo was protected by men with pistol.
Dr. Manilal: Was there any chance of personal injury, Sir?
Sri Aurobindo: Not that I know of. Only Satyen Bose was with me and he had a pistol. He said to me, "I have a pistol with me. Shall I shoot Suren Banerji?" I said, "For heaven's sake, don't do that." (Laughter)
Dr. Manilal: But why did he want to shoot him?
Sri Aurobindo: He must have got very excited. At any rate there was a pistol, there was Satyen and there was Banerji. (Laughter)
Bande Mataram Newspaper : A satirical editorial piece
Reflections of Srinath Paul, Rai Bahadoor, on the Present Discontents
(The Address of a Perspiring Chairman Rendered Faithfully into the Ordinary English Vernacular.)
Councillors, friends, Rai Bahadoors and others,
Gentlemen all, my bold and moderate brothers!
This Conference's revolutionary course
(By revolution, sirs, I mean of course
The year's,- not anything wicked and Extremist;)
Has brought us here, and like a skilful chemist
Mixed together our victorious batches
Bearing triumphant scars and famous scratches
Of a year's desperate fight. Behold, the glooms
Are over! See, our conquering Suren comes!
Dream not that when I talk of scars and fighting,
I really mean King Edward to go smiting
And bundle dear Sir Andrew out of Ind.
Nothing, nothing like that is in the wind.
Ah no! what has not Britain done for us?
Were we not savage, naked, barbarous?
Has she not snatched and raised us from the mire?
Taught us to dress, eat, talk, write, sneeze, perspire,
Like Europeans, giving civilisation
To this poor ignorant degraded nation?
Was not our India full of cuts and knocks?
'Twas Britain saved us from those hideous shocks.
No matter if our poor of hunger die,
Us she gave peace and ease and property.
Were't not for Clive, Dalhausie, Curzon, all,
You never would have heard of Srinath Paul.
But is this then good cause we should not meet,
Kiss their benevolent and booted feet,
Remonstrate mildly, praise and pray and cry,
"Have sympathy, great Minto, or we die"?
If he'll not hear, let then our humble oration
Travel with Gokhale to the British nation.
To be industrious, prayerful, tearful, meek
Is the sole end for which we meet this week.
Yet are there men, misunderstanding whites,
Who much misconstrue these our holy rites
Deeming it a bad criminal consultation
How best to free - O horrid thought! - our nation,
And send the English packing bag and baggage,
Polo and hockey stick, each scrap of luggage.
They think we are rank and file and proletariat
Fit to be throttled with the hangman's lariat.
Fie, sirs! that we should be confused with the mob,
We who with Viceroys and great men hobnob!
To be mistook,- Oh faugh! for the mere people,
Things that eat common food and water tipple,
Mere men, mere flesh and blood! - we, the elect,
The aristocracy of intellect
To be thus levelled with the stinking crowd!
No, sirs, I dare pronounce it very loud,
We are the sober, moderate wise men, needing
Scope only to be famed for light and leading,
Full of co-operative amorous loyalty
To Minto, Morley and Britannic Royalty.
O some there are impatient and too wild,
To that Curzonian lash unreconciled,
Repudiate with violence unchancy
Our gospel proud of futile mendicancy.
Strange that they can't perceive the utility
And nobleness of absolute futility!
O sirs, be moderate, patient, persevering;
Shun, shun the extremists and their horrid sneering.
O sirs, from loyalty budge not an inch;
What if your masters love your throats to pinch?
It's pure affection. Even if they kick,
Is that sufficient reason to feel sick?
No, though they thrash and cudgel, kick and beat,
Cling like the devil to their sacred feet!
Where are we? Is this the French Revolution
Infects our sacred Ind with its pollution?
Is Minto Louis? Kitchener Duke Broglie?
Away, away with revolutionary folly!
What, is this France or Russia? Are we men,
Servitude to reject and bonds disdain?
No, we are loyal, good religious dogs,
Born for delightful kicks and pleasant shogs.
It is a canine gospel that I preach.
Be dogs, be dogs, and learn to love the switch.
Whatever the result, be loyal still
To Minto, Morley and their mighty will.
Be loyal still, my prosperous countrymen,
Nor heed the moaning of the million's pain.
For serfdom in our very bones is bred,
And our religion teaches us to dread,-
Shivaji's creed and Pratap's though it be,-
More than the very devil disloyalty.
O constitutionally agitate your tails
And see whether that agitation fails.
The course of true love never did run smooth!
Morley will still relent,- that gracious youth.
Beg for new Legislative Councils, sirs,
Or any blessed thing your mind prefers.
The Shah's agreeable, why not the British?
Then there's Mysore - Great Scott! I feel quite skittish.
Local self-government we'll beg that's now
A farce,- (I'm getting quite extreme, I vow!)
And many other things. Prayers let us patter;
Whether we get them or not, can't really matter.
But one thing let me tell you, countrymen,
That clubs a boon and blessing are to men,
Where white with black and black can mix with white
And share a particoloured deep delight.
Great thanks we owe then, loyalists, to "Max",
Who his capacious brain the first did tax.
Behold the great result! Apollo Paean!
The holy club, the Indo-European!
Approach, approach the holy precincts, come
And chat with Risley of affairs at home;
With Fraser arm-in-arm like friends we'll walk,
To Luson and to Lee familiarly talk.
Mind! trousers and a hat. They keep good whiskey
And we shall feel particularly frisky.
As for Comilla, it was sad and bad,
But Minto's sympathy o'er that fell raid
Dropped like the gentle dew from heaven to heal;
No longer for our injured kin we feel.
And now think not of politics too much.
Three days or four is quite enough for such.
Much better done to store substantial honey
Of commerce, taste the joys that roll in money.
Be rich, my friends! who cares then to be free
In hard uncomfortable liberty?
Of boycott talk but not of Swaraj, sirs,
And if of independence you'ld discourse,
Let it of economic independence be.
For that the law proscribes no penalty,
Nor will your gentle hearts grow faint and sick
At shadow of the fell policeman's stick.
What folly to disturb our comfort fatty
And cudgelled be with regulation lathi?
Such the reflections, sirs -, let it drop.
Don't hiss so much, dear friends! for here I stop.