Indu Prakas: A weekly newspaper
Monday — 18th September 1893
Part One. Writings and a Resolution 1890 – 1906
New Lamps for Old – IV
I repeat then with renewed confidence, but still with a strong desire to conciliate Mr. Pherozshah Mehta, that the Congress fails, because it has never been, and has made no honest endeavour to be, a popular body empowered by the fiat of the Indian people in its entirety. But for all that I have not managed to bring my view into coincidence with Mr. Mehta’s. It is true he is not invincibly reluctant to concede the limits, which hedge in the Congress action and restrict its output of energy; but he is quite averse to the dictum that by not transgressing the middle-class pale the Congress has condemned itself, as a saving power, to insignificance and ultimate sterility. The bounded scope of its potency and the subdued tone which it affects, are, he opines, precisely what our actual emergencies of the moment imperatively demand; wider activity and a more intense emphasis would be in his view highly unadvisable and even injurious and besides it does not at all signify whether we are fortified by popular sympathy or are not; for is not Mr. Pherozshah Mehta there with all the enlightenment of India at his back to plead temperately – temperately, mind you; we are nothing if not temperate – for just and remedial legislation on behalf of a patient and suffering people? In plain words a line of argument is adopted amounting to this: – “The Congress movement is nothing if not a grand suit-at-law, best described as the case of India vs. Anglo-India, in which the ultimate tribunal is the British sense of justice, and Pherozshah Mehta, Mr. Umesh Chandra Bonnerji1 and the other eminent leaders of the bar are counsel for the complainant. Well then when so many experienced advocates have bound themselves to find pleas for him, would it not be highly rash and inopportune for the client to insist on conducting his own complaint?” Now it is abundantly clear that, judged as it stands, this line of argument, though adroit beyond cavil and instinct with legal ingenuity, will nevertheless not answer. I am not going to deny that Mr. Pherozshah Mehta and the enlightenment of India, such as it is, are pleading, undoubtedly with temperance and perhaps with sincerity, for something or other, which for want of a more exact description, we may call remedial legislation. But so far there has been nothing at all to prevent me from denying that the analogy of the law-court holds; this sort of vicarious effort may be highly advantageous in judicial matters, but it is not, I would submit, at all adequate to express the reviving energies of a great people. The argument, I say, is not complete in itself, or to use a vernacular phrase, it will not walk; it badly wants a crutch to lean upon. Mr. Mehta is clever enough to see that and his legal acumen has taken him exactly to the very store where or not at all he must discover an efficient crutch. So he goes straight to history, correctly surmising that the experience of European races is all that we, a people new to modern problems, can find to warn or counsel us, and he tells us that this sort of vicarious effort has invariably been the original step towards progress: or, to put it in his own rhetorical way, “History teaches us that such has been the law of widening progress in all ages and all countries, notably in England itself.” Here then is the argument complete, crutch and all; and so adroit is it that in Congress propaganda it has become a phrase of common parlance, and is now in fact the stereotyped line of defence. Certainly, if he is accurate in his historical data, Mr. Mehta has amply proved his case; but in spite of all his adroitness, I suspect that his trend towards double-shotted phrases has led him into a serious difficulty. “In all ages and all countries” is a very big expression, and Mr. Mehta will be exceedingly lucky if it will stand a close scrutiny. But Mr. Manmohan Ghose at least is a sober speaker; and if we have deserted his smooth but perhaps rather tedious manner for a more brilliant style of oratory, now at any rate, when the specious orator fails us, we may well return to the rational disputant. But we shall be agreeably disappointed to find that this vivid statement about the teaching of History is Mr. Ghose’s own legitimate offspring and not the coinage of Mr. Mehta’s heated fancy: indeed, the latter has done nothing but convey it bodily into his own address. “History teaches us” says Mr. Ghose “that in all ages and all countries it is the thinking classes who have led the unthinking, and in the present state of our society we are bound not only to think for ourselves, but also to think for those who are still too ignorant to exercise that important function.” When we find the intellectual princes of the nation light-heartedly propagating such gross inaccuracies, we are really tempted to inquire if high education is after all of any use. History teaches us! Why, these gentlemen can never have studied any history at all except that of England. Would they be ignorant otherwise that mainly to that country, if not to that country alone, their statement applies, but that about most ages and most countries it is hopelessly inaccurate? Absurd as the statement is, its career has been neither limited nor obscure. Shot in the first instance from Mr. Ghose’s regulation smoothbore, it then served as a bullet in Mr. Pherozshah’s patent2 new double-barrelled rifle, and has ultimately turned out the stock ammunition of the Congress against that particular line upon which I have initially ventured. Here then the argument has culminated in a most important issue; for supposing this line of defence to be adequate, the gravest indictment I have to urge against the Congress goes at once to the ground. It will therefore be advisable to scrutinize3 Mr. Ghose’s light-hearted statement; and if the policy he advocates is actually stamped with the genuine consensus of all peoples in all ages, then we shall very readily admit that there is no reason why the masses should not be left in their political apathy. But if it is quite otherwise and we cannot discover more than one precedent of importance, then Mr. Ghose and the Congress chairmen4 will not make us dance to their music, charm they never so wisely, and we shall be slow to admit even the one precedent we have got without a very narrow scrutiny. If then we are bent upon adopting England as our exemplar, we shall certainly imitate the progress of the glacier rather than the progress of the torrent. From Runnymede to the Hull riots is a far cry; yet these seven centuries have done less to change partially the political and social exterior of England, than five short years to change entirely the political and social exterior of her immediate neighbour. But if Mr. Ghose’s dogmatic utterance is true of England, I imagine it does not apply with equal force to other climes and other eras. For example, is it at all true of France? Rather we know that the first step of that fortunate country towards progress was not through any decent and orderly expansion, but through a purification by blood and fire. It was not a convocation of respectable citizens, but the vast and ignorant proletariate, that emerged from a prolonged and almost coeval apathy and blotted out in five terrible years the accumulated oppression of thirteen centuries. And if the example of France is not sufficient to deprive Mr. Ghose’s statement of force, let us divert our eyes to Ireland, where the ancient and world-wide quarrel between Celt and Teuton is still pending. Is it at all true that the initiators of Irish resistance to England were a body of successful lawyers, remarkable only for a power of shallow rhetoric, and deputed by the sort of men that are turned out at Trinity College, Dublin? At any rate that is not what History tells us. We do not read that the Irish leaders annually assembled to declaim glib orations, eulogistic of British rule and timidly suggestive of certain flaws in its unparalleled excellence, nor did they suggest as a panacea for Irish miseries, that they should be given more posts and an ampler career in the British service. I rather fancy Turlough O’Neill and his compeers were a different sort of men from that. But then it is hardly fair perhaps to cite as an example a disreputable people never prolific of graduates and hence incapable of properly appreciating the extraordinary blessings which British rule gives out so liberally wherever it goes. Certainly men who preferred action to long speeches and appealed, by the only method available in that strenuous epoch, not to the British sense of justice but to their own sense of manhood, are not at all the sort of people we have either the will or the power to imitate. Well then let us return to our own orderly and eloquent era. But here too, just as the main strength of that ancient strenuous protest resided in the Irish populace led by the princes of their class, so the principal force of the modern subtler protest resides in the Irish peasantry led by the recognized5 chiefs of an united people. I might go on and cull instances from Italy and America but to elaborate the matter further would be to insult the understanding of my readers. It will be sufficient to remind them that the two grand instances of ancient history point to an exactly similar conclusion. In Athens and in Rome the first political quarrel is a distinct issue between the man of the people and a limited, perhaps an alien, aristocracy. The force behind Cleisthenes and the constituency that empowered Tiberius Gracchus were not a narrow middle class, but the people with its ancient wrongs and centuries of patient endurance.
If then, as we are compelled to infer, Mr. Mehta’s statement is entirely inaccurate of remoter ages and in modern times accurate of one country alone, we shall conclude that whatever other proof he may find for his lame argument, that crutch at least is too large and must go to the ground. But Mr. Mehta, too acute and experienced a pleader to be disheartened by any initial failure, will no doubt pick up his crutch again and whittle it down to the appropriate size. It may be quite correct, he will perhaps tell me, that his statement applies with appreciable force to England and to England alone but when all is said, it does not eventually matter. In allowing that his statement does generally apply to England, I have admitted everything he seriously wants me to admit, for England is after all that country which has best prospered in its aspirations after progress, and must therefore be the grand political exemplar of every nation animated by a like spirit, and it must be peculiarly and beyond dispute such for India in her present critical stage of renascence. I am quite aware that in the eyes of that growing community which Mr. Ghose is pleased to call the thinking class, these plausible assertions are only the elementary axioms of political science. But however confidently such statements are put before me, I am not at all sure that they are entirely correct. I have not quite made up my mind that England is indeed that country which has best prospered in its aspirations after progress and I am as yet unconvinced that it will eventually turn out at all a desirable exemplar for every nation aspiring to progress, or even for its peculiar pupil, renascent India. I shall therefore feel more disposed to probe the matter to the bottom than to acknowledge a very disputable thesis as in any way self-evident. To this end it is requisite closely to inquire what has actually been the main outcome of English political effort, and whether it is of a nature to justify any implicit reliance on English methods or exact imitation of English models.
Earlier edition of this work: Sri Aurobindo Birth Century Library: Set in 30 volumes.- Volume 1.- Bande Mataram: Early Political Writings. 1890 - May 1908.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1973.- 920 p.
1 1973 ed. Vol. 1: Bonerji
2 1973 ed. Vol. 1: Pherozshah Mehta’s patent
3 1973 ed. Vol. 1: scrutinise
4 1973 ed. Vol. 1: chairman
5 1973 ed. Vol. 1: recognised