Rise of Extremism and Swadeshi Movement


By the last decade of the nineteenth century, there was conspicuous resentment against moderate politics within the Indian National Congress. This feeling of resentment eventually evolved into a new trend, referred to as the ‘Extremist’ trend. The extremist or what we may call radical or militant group was critical of the moderates for their cautious approach and the “mendicant policy” of appealing to the British by way of prayers and petitions. This form of militancy developed under the leadership of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Maharashtra, Bipin Chandra Pal in Bengal and Lala Lajpat Rai in the Punjab. The primary reasons for the rise of this trend were: factionalism in the Congress, frustration with the moderate politics, anger against Lord Curzon for dividing Bengal.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 – a prime example of the British divide and rule policy– acted as the catalyst for the growth of anti-colonial swadeshi nationalism. The partition plan was first opposed by moderates but as the movement progressed, different techniques were improvised for the Swadeshi campaign. Swadeshi constructive programme included boycott of foreign goods and government-administered educational institutions. The Swadeshi movement (1905–1911) is the most important phase of the Indian National Movement in the pre-Gandhian era, as, during the course of the movement, the character of the Indian national movement changed significantly in terms of the stated objectives, methods and in its social base.

The mass base of the movement was expanded by exposing the problems of various social groups under the British governance and the underlying commonality in their lives – that is colonial exploitation. For the first time, in the history of Indian national movement, women, workers, peasants, and marginalised groups were exposed to modern nationalist ideas and politics. It was a period when the elite made a conscious effort to address the common people, calling upon them to join politics. The other prominent development during the Swadeshi period was the growth of the vernacular press (newspapers published in Indian languages) in various parts of India. The nationalistic tone of the vernacular press became more pronounced during this time. The role played by Swadesamitran in Tamil Nadu, Kesari in Maharashtra, Yugantar in Bengal are a few examples.

As the movement gained support among the people, the government passed a series of repressive Acts such as the Public Meetings Act (1907), the Explosive Substance Act (1908), the Newspaper (Incitement and Offence Act 1908) and the Indian Press Act (1910) to crush the nationalistic activities of any nature. One such measure was recording and monitoring of public meetings which were considered a matter of judicial scrutiny. (Shorthand was used by the police for the first time to record political speeches.) In this lesson, while discussing the Bengal as well as national scenarios, the Swadeshi Campaigns conducted in Tamil Nadu with particular focus on the role played by V.O. Chidambaram, V.V. Subramaniam, Subramania Siva and Subramania Bharati.


  • 1907 (1 Act), 1908 (2 Act), 1910 (1 Act)

Partition of Bengal

On January 6, 1899, Lord Curzon was appointed the new Governor General and Viceroy of India. This was a time when British unpopularity was increasing due to the impact of recurring famine and the plague. Curzon did little to change the opinion of the educated Indian class. Instead of engaging with the nationalist intelligentsia, he implemented a series of repressive measures. For instance, he reduced the number of elected Indian representatives in the Calcutta Corporation (1899). The University Act of 1904 brought the Calcutta University under the direct control of the government. The Official Secrets Act (1904) was amended to curb the nationalist tone of Indian newspapers. Finally, he ordered partition of Bengal in 1905. The partition led to widespread protest all across India, starting a new phase of the Indian national movement.


  • 1899 (1 Act), 1904 (2 Act), 1905 (1 Act)

Bengal Presidency as an administrative unit was indeed of unmanageable in size; the necessity of partition was being discussed since the 1860s. The scheme of partition was revived in March 1890. In Assam, when Curzon went on a tour, he was requested by the European planters to make a maritime outlet closer to Calcutta to reduce their dependence on the Assam– Bengal railways. Following this, in December 1903, Curzon drew up a scheme in his Minutes on Territorial Redistribution of India, which was later modified and published as the Risely Papers. The report gave two reasons in support of partition: Relief of Bengal and the improvement of Assam. The report, however, concealed information on how the plan was originally devised for the convenience of British officials and the European businessmen.

From December 1903 and 1905 this initial idea of transferring or reshuffling some areas from Bengal was changed to a full-fledged plan of partition. The Bengal was to be divided into two provinces. The new Eastern Bengal and Assam were to include the divisions of Chittagong, Dhaka, parts of Rajshahi hills of Tippera, Assam province and Malda.

Aimed at Hindu Muslim Divide

The intention of Curzon was to suppress the political activities against the British rule in Bengal and to create a Hindu–Muslim divide. The government intentionally ignored alternative proposals presented by the civil servants, particularly the idea of dividing Bengal on linguistic basis. Curzon rejected this proposal as this would further consolidate the position of the Bengali politicians. Curzon was adamant as he wanted to create a clearly segregated Hindu and Muslim population in the divided Bengal. Curzon, like many before him, knew very well that there was a clear geographical divide along the river Bhagirathi: eastern Bengal dominated by the Muslims, and western Bengal dominated by the Hindus and in the central Bengal and the two communities balancing out each other. There was a conscious attempt on the part of British administration to woo the Muslim population in Bengal. In his speech at Dhaka, in Februry 1904, Curzon assured the Muslims that in the new province of East Bengal, Muslims would enjoy a unity, which they had never enjoyed since the days of old Muslim rule.

The partition, instead of dividing the Bengali people along the religious line, united them. Perhaps the British administration had underestimated the growing feeling of Bengali identity among the people, which cut across caste, class, religion and regional barriers.By the end of the nineteenth century, a strong sense of Bengali unity had developed among large sections in the society. Bengali language had acquired literary status with Rabindranath Tagore as the central figure. The growth of regional language newspapers played a role in building the narrative of solidarity. Similarly, recurring famines, unemployment, and a slump in the economic growth generated an anti-colonial feeling.

Anti-Partition Movement

Both the militants and the moderates were critical of the partition of Bengal ever since it was announced in December 1903. But the anti-partition response by leaders like Surendranath Banerjee, K.K. Mitra, and Prithwishchandra Ray remained restricted to prayers and petitions. The objective was limited to influencing public opinion in England against the partition. However, despite this widespread resentment, partition of Bengal was officially declared on 19 July 1905.

With the failure to stop the partition of Bengal and the pressure exerted by the radical leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Aswini Kumar Dutta, and Aurobindo Ghose, the moderate leaders were forced to rethink their strategy, and look for new techniques of protest. Boycott of British goods was one such method, which after much debate was accepted by the moderate leadership of the Indian National Congress. So, for the first time, the moderates went beyond their conventional political methods. It was decided, at a meeting in Calcutta on 17 July 1905, to extend the protest to the masses. In the same meeting, Surendranath Banerjee gave a call for the boycott of British goods and institutions. On 7 August, at another meeting at the Calcutta Town Hall, a formal proclamation of Swadeshi Movement was made.


  • 17th July, 1905 (Protest to Masses) @ INC, Calcutta — 7th August, 1905 (Proclamation of Swadeshi Movement) @ Calcutta Town Hall

However, the agenda of Swadeshi movement was still restricted to securing an annulment of the partition and the moderates were very much against utilizing the campaign to start a full-scale passive resistance. The militant nationalists, on the other hand, were in favour of extending the movement to other provinces too and to launch a full-fledged mass struggle.

Spread of the Movement

Besides the organized efforts of the leaders, there were spontaneous reactions against the partition of Bengal. Students, in particular, came out in large numbers. Reacting to the increased role of the students in the anti-partition agitation, British officials threatened to withdraw the scholarships and grants to those who participated in programmes of direct action. In response to this, a call was given to boycott official educational institutions and it was decided that efforts were to be made to open national schools. Thousands of public meetings were organized in towns and villages across Bengal. Religious festivals such as the Durga Pujas were utilized to invoke the idea of boycott. The day Bengal was officially partitioned – 16 Oct 1905 – was declared as a day of mourning. Thousands of people took bath in the Ganga and marched on the streets of Calcutta singing Bande Mataram.


  • Dec, 1903 (Partition of Bengal, announced) — 19th July, 1905 (Officially, declared) — 16th Oct, 1905 (Partitioned, officially)

Boycott and Swadeshi Movements in Bengal (1905–1911)

Such efforts, both organized and spontaneous, laid the foundation for a sustained campaign against the British. The boycott and swadeshi were always interlinked to each other and part of a wider plan to make India self-sufficient. G. Subramaniam, a nationalist leader from Madras, succinctly explained the aim of the swadeshi movement as ‘a revolt against their state of dependence…in all branches of their national life’. In the words of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, ‘the swadeshi movement is not only for the improvement of our industry but for an allround enhancement of our national life ….’ As the movement progressed, different definitions of Swadeshi appeared. However, for the larger part, the movement of Swadeshi and Boycott was practiced as an anti-colonial political agitation and not as a viable method to achieve dignity and freedom in life, a definition which would be later infused with the entry of Mahatma Gandhi.

(a) Constructive Swadeshi

The constructive Swadeshi programmes largely stressed upon self-help. It focused on building alternative institutions of self-governance that would operate entirely free from British control. It also laid emphasis on the need for self-strengthening of the people which would help in creating a worthy citizen before the launch of political agitations.

Rabindranath Tagore was one of the central figures who popularized such ideas through his writings. He outlined the constructive programme of atmashakti (Self-help) Tagore called for economic self- development and insisted that education should be provided in swadeshi languages. He also made the call for utilising melas, or fairs, to spread the message of atmashakti. This became the creed of the whole of Bengal and swadeshi shops sprang all over the place selling textiles, handlooms, soaps, earthenware, matches and leather goods.

The idea of education in vernacular language made its appearance much before the swadeshi movement with the foundation of Dawn Society by Satish Chandra in 1902.

On 5 November 1905, at the initiative of the Dawn Society, the National Council of Education was formed. In August 1906, Bengal National College and a School were founded. A passionate appeal was made by Satish Chandra to the students to come out of ‘institutions of slavery.’ Such efforts, however, failed to attract many due to the bleak job prospects.

Evolution of the idea of Swadeshi

During the freedom struggle, the idea of Swadeshi movement was conceptualized first during 1905 by a string of Congress leaders and then later in the 1920s under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Swadeshi means ‘of one’s own country’. The origin of the idea can be traced to 1872 when Mahadev Govind Ranade, in a series of lectures in Poona, popularised the idea of Swadeshi. According to Ranade, the goods produced in one’s own country should be given preference even if the use of such goods proved to be less satisfactory.

In the 1920s Gandhi gave a new meaning to the idea of Swadeshi by linking it to the fulfilment of a duty that all Indians owed to the land of their birth. For Gandhi, Swadeshi did not merely mean the use of what is produced in one’s own country. Gandhi defined Swadeshi in following words “Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of more remote. I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they may be found wanting.”

(b) Samitis

The other successful method of mass mobilization was the formation of samitis (corps of volunteers). The samitis were engaged in a range of activities such as physical and moral training of members, philanthropic work during the famines, epidemics, propagation of Swadeshi message during festivals, and organization of indigenous arbitration courts, and schools. By its very nature boycott was passive action and its aim was to refuse to cooperate with the British administration.

But these mass mobilization efforts failed to flourish as they could not extend their base among the Muslim peasantry and the “Depressed Classes”. Most of the samitis recruited from the educated middle class and other upper caste Hindus. Besides this, the swadeshi campaigners often applied coercive methods, both social and physical. For instance, social boycott of those purchasing foreign goods was common and taken up through caste associations and other nationalist organisations.

(c) Passive Resistance

From 1906, when the abrogation of partition was no longer in sight, the Swadeshi Movement took a different turn. For many leaders, the movement was to be utilized for propagating the idea of the political independence or Swaraj across India. The constructive programmes came under heavy criticism from Aurobindo Ghose, Bipin Chandra Pal, and other militant leaders. Under their new direction, the swadeshi agenda included boycott of foreign goods; boycott of government schools and colleges; boycott of courts; renouncing the titles and relinquishing government services; and recourse to armed struggle if British repression went beyond the limits of endurance. The programme of this nature required mass mobilization. Using religion, combined with the invocation of a glorious past, became the essential features of their programmes.

Militant Nationalism

As pointed out earlier, thanks to the campaigns conducted by Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, often referred to as the Lal–Bal–Pal triumvirate, Maharashtra, Bengal, Punjab, emerged as the epicentres of militant nationalism during the Swadeshi phase. Aurobindo Ghose was another influential figure in the militant leadership. The nationalism of this form was more assertive compared to the early Indian nationalism.

Both the groups, moderate and militant, were well aware of the evils or the wrong doings of the British rule. The moderates, however, worked under the belief that the British rule in India could be reformed by convincing the rulers through representation and petitioning. The militant nationalist, on the other hand, was of the opinion that the colonial rulers would never be amenable to reason, as they would not like to give up the advantages of an empire.

Sometime around 1905, Aurobindo Ghose was asked by a man as to how to become a patriot. In response Aurobindo pointed to a wall map of India, and said “Do you see this map? It is not a map but the portrait of Bharat Mata: its cities and mountains rivers and jungles form her physical body. All her children are her nerves, large and small…. Concentrate on Bharat as a living mother, worship her with nine-fold bhakti.”

Militant nationalism also changed the nature of political pressure from the earlier force of public opinion of educated Indians to the protesting masses. Despite these changes, the militant nationalism phase retained a continuity from the moderate phase. This continuity was evident in the inability to transcend the peaceful method of struggle and for the most parts militant nationalism remained tied to the idea of non-violence. However, they appealed to the patriotic sentiments of the people using the religious symbols.

Swaraj or Political Independence

One of the common goals of the militant leaders was to achieve Swaraj or Self Rule. However, the leaders differed on the meaning of Swaraj. For Tilak, Swaraj was restricted to the Indian control over the administration or rule by the natives, but not total severance of relation with Britain. In Bipin Chandra Pal’s view, Swaraj was the attainment of complete freedom from any foreign rule.

The other point of departure of the militants from the moderates was over the rising extremism in Bengal, Punjab, and Maharashtra. Unlike the moderates, who were critical of the reckless revolutionaries, militant nationalists were sympathetic towards them. However, the political murders and individual acts of terrorism were not approved of by the militant leaders and they were cautious of associating themselves with the cause of revolutionaries.

The patriotism glued with the assertion of Hindu beliefs was not acceptable to the Muslims. Also much like their predecessors the leaders of the swadeshi movement failed to penetrate the larger section of the society. By 1908 militant nationalism was on the decline. The Surat split of 1907 was another contributing factor to this decline.

Surat Split

The tension between the militants and the moderates became more pronounced with the appointment of Lord Minto as the new Viceroy to India in 1906. As the tension was rising between the two groups, a split was avoided, in the 1906 Calcutta session, by accepting demands of moderate leaders and electing Dadabhai Naoroji as president. Most of the moderates, led by Pherozeshah Mehta, were defeated in the election. The militants managed to pass four resolutions on Swadeshi, Boycott, National Education, and Self-Government.

The next session of Congress was originally planned to be held in Poona, considered to be a stronghold of the militants. Fearing repeat of the Calcutta session, the moderates shifted the venue to Surat. The militants proposed Lala Lajpat Rai’s name for the next Congress presidency opposing the moderate’s candidate Rash Behari Ghosh. Lala Lajpat Rai, however, turned down the offer to avoid the split. The matter finally boiled down to the question of retaining the four resolutions that were passed in the Calcutta session in 1906. The Pherozeshah Mehta group sought removal of those items from the agenda. In order to counter Mehta’s manoeuvering, the militants decided to oppose the election of Rash Behari Gosh as president. The session ended in chaos.

The Indian National Congress, born in December 1885, was now split into two groups – militant and moderate. The Congress which emerged after the Surat split was more loyal to the British than they were before. The new Congress, minus the militants, came to be known as Mehta Congress and the 1908 session of the Congress was attended only by the moderates who reiterated their loyalty to the Raj. The politics of militants, on the other hand, could not crystallize into a new political organization. The primary reason was the repressive measures of the government by putting all the prominent leaders in jail.

Revolutionary Extremism

Around 1908, the decline of the militant nationalists and the rise of revolutionary activities marked an important shift from non-violent methods to violent action. It also meant a shift from mass-based action to elite response to the British rule. In Bengal, revolutionary terrorism had developed even earlier; around the 1870s, when the akharas or gymnasiums were setup in various places to develop what Swami Vivekananda had described as strong muscles and nerves of steel. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel, Anandmath also had a significant impact. Anandmath was widely read by the revolutionaries in Bengal. The Bande Mataram song, which is part of the novel, became the anthem of the swadeshi movement.

During the Swadeshi movement three factors contributed to the upsurge in the individual acts of violence:

  • The apolitical constructive programmes had little acceptance among the youth who was growing impatient under the repressive foreign rule.
  • The failure of the militant nationalists to lead the young people into a long-term mass movement also contributed to the growth of individual action.
  • The revolutionary action was part of an effort towards the symbolic recovery of Indian manhood, which the revolutionaries believed was often challenged and looked down upon by the British.

Such actions, however, did not lead to any organised revolutionary movement as was the case in Russia. The revolutionary actions were mostly attempts to assassinate specific oppressive British officers.

(a) Alipore Bomb Case

In Bengal, the story of revolutionary terrorism begins in 1902 with the formation of many secret societies. Most notable among them all was the Anushilan Samity of Calcutta, founded by Jatindernath Banerjee and Barindarkumar Ghose, brother of Aurobindo Ghose. Similarly, the Dhaka Anushilan Samity was born in 1906 through the initiative of Pulin Behari Das. This was followed by the launch of the revolutionary weekly Yugantar. The Calcutta Anushilan Samity soon started its activities and the first swadeshi dacoity, to raise funds, was organised in Rangpur in August 1906.

In the same year, Hemchandra Kanungo went abroad to get military training in Paris. After his return to India in 1908, he established a bomb factory along with a religious school at a garden house in Maniktala. In the same garden house, young inmates underwent various forms of physical training, reading classic Hindu text, and reading literature on revolutionary movement across the world.

A conspiracy was hatched there to kill Douglas Kingsford, notorious for his cruel ways of dealing with the swadeshi agitators. Two young revolutionaries – 18-year-old Khudiram Bose and 19-year-old Prafulla Chaki – were entrusted with the task of carrying out the killing. On 30 April 1908, they mistakenly threw a bomb on a carriage, that, instead of killing Kingsford, killed two English women. Prafulla Chaki committed suicide and Khudiram Bose was arrested and hanged for the murder.

Aurobindo Ghose, along with his brother Barinder Kumar Ghose and thirty-five other comrades, were arrested. Chittaranjan Das took up the case. It came to be known as the Alipore Bomb case.

The judgement observed that there was no evidence to show that Aurobindo Ghose was involved in any conspiracy against the British rule. Ghose was acquitted of all the charges. Barindra Ghose and Ullaskar Dutt were given the death penalty (later commuted to the transportation of life), with the rest being condemned to transportation for life. The year-long hearing of Alipore Bomb case made a great impact and portrayed the nationalist revolutionaries as heroes to the general public.

Trial and the Aftermath

After his acquittal, Aurobindo Ghose took to a spiritual path and shifted his base to Pondicherry, where he stayed until his death in 1950. The idea of bringing an armed revolution, envisaged by Aurobindo Ghose, never materialized. The reason for the gradual decline in the revolutionary activities in Bengal was a combination of government repression and alienation from the people. Beside this, revolutionary terrorism suffered from certain social limitations too as most of the revolutionaries were drawn from the three upper castes – Brahmin, Kayastha, and Vaishya.

(b) British Repression

In December 1908 the Morley-Minto constitutional reforms were announced. The moderates welcomed the reforms. However, they soon realised that there was hardly any shift of power. In fact, measures taken by Minto were highly divisive as it institutionalised communal electorates creating Hindu-Muslim divide. Beside this, the colonial government also introduced certain repressive laws such as:

  • The Newspapers (Incitement to Offence) Act, 1908. This act empowered the magistrate to confiscate press property which published objectionable material making it difficult to publish anything critical of British rule.
  • Indian Press Act 1910 made it mandatory for publishers and the printers to deposit a security that could be seized in case they printed ‘obnoxious material’.
  • The Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act allowed summary trails and also imposed the prohibition of ‘association dangerous to the public peace’.

Even with the widespread repression, the charm of revolutionary action never disappeared from the Indian national movement. The centre of activities moved from Bengal to Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Swadeshi Campaign in Tamil Nadu

Swadeshi movement in Tamil Nadu, notably in Tirunelveli district, generated a lot of attention and support. While the Swadeshi movement in Tamil Nadu had an all India flavour, with collective anger against the British rule remaining the common thread, it was also underpinned by Tamil – pride and consciousness. There was a deep divide in the Tamilnadu congress between the moderates and the extremists.

(a) Development of Vernacular Oratory

Initially, the movement was more of a reaction to the partition of Bengal and regular meetings were held to protest the partition. The speakers, in such meetings, spoke mostly in the vernacular language to an audience that included students, lawyers, and labourers at that time. The shift from English oratory to vernacular oratory was a significant development of this time, which had a huge impact on the mass politics in Tamil Nadu.

Swadeshi meetings at the Marina beach in Madras were a regular sight. The Moore Market complex in Madras was another venue utilised for such gatherings. During the period (1905-1907) there are police reports calling students dangerous and their activities as seditious. Europeans in public places were greeted by the students with shouts of Vande Mataram. In 1907, Bipin Chandra Pal came to Madras and his speeches on the Madras Beach electrified the audience and won new converts to the nationalist cause. The visit had a profound impact all over Tamil Nadu. The public speeches in the Tamil language created an audience which was absent during the formative years of the political activities in Tamil Nadu.

(b) V.O.C. and Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNC)

The Swadeshi movement in Tamil Nadu came to national attention in 1906 when V.O Chidambaram mooted the idea of launching a swadesh shipping venture in in opposition to the monopoly of the British in navigation through the coast.

In 1906, V.O.C. registered a joint stock company called The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company (SSNC) with a capital of Rs 10 Lakh, divided into 40,000 shares of Rs. 25 each.

Shares were open only to Indians, Ceylonese and other Asian nationals. V.O.C. purchased two steamships, S.S. Gallia and S.S. Lawoe. When in the other parts of India, the response to Swadeshi was limited to symbolic gestures of making candles and bangles, the idea of forging a Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company was really spectacular. V.O.C invoked the rich history of the region and the maritime glory of India’s past and used it as a reference point to galvanize the public opinion in favour of a Swadeshi venture in the sea.

The initiative of V.O.C. was lauded by the national leaders. Lokmanya Tilak wrote about the success of the Swadeshi Navigation Company in his papers Kesari and Mahratta. Aurobindo Ghose also lauded the Swadeshi efforts and helped to promote the sale of shares of the company. The major shareholders included Pandithurai and Haji Fakir Mohamed.

The initial response of the British administration was to ignore the Swadeshi company. As patronage for Swadeshi Company increased, the European officials exhibited blatant bias and racial partiality against the Swadeshi steamship.

(c) The Coral Mill Strike

After attending the session of the Indian National Congress at Surat, V.O.C. on his return decided to work on building a political organisation. While looking for an able orator, he came across Subramania Siva, a swadeshi preacher. From February to March 1907, both the leaders addressed meetings almost on a daily basis at the beach in Tuticorin, educating the people about swadeshi and the boycott campaign. The meetings were attended by thousands of people. These public gatherings were closely monitored by the administration.

In 1908, the abject working and living conditions of the Coral Mill workers attracted the attention of V.O.C and Siva. In the next few days, both the leaders addressed the mill workers. In March 1908, the workers of the Coral Cotton Mills, inspired by the address went on strike. It was one of the earliest organised labour agitations in India.

The strike of the mill workers was fully backed by the nationalist newspapers. The mill owners, however, did not budge and was supported by the government which had decided to suppress the strike. To further increase the pressure on the workers, the leaders were prohibited from holding any meetings in Tuticorin. Finally, the mill owners decided to negotiate with the workers and concede their demands.

This victory of the workers generated excitement among the militants in Bengal and it was hailed by the newspapers in Bengal. For instance, Aurobindo Ghosh’s Bande Matram hailed the strike as “forging a bond between educated class and the masses, which is the first great step towards swaraj…. Every victory of Indian labour is a victory for the nation….”

(d) Subramania Bharati: Poet and Nationalist

The growth of newspapers, both in English and Tamil language, aided the swadeshi movement in Tamil Nadu. G. Subramaniam was one of the first among the leaders to use newspapers to spread the nationalist message across a larger audience. Subramaniam, along with five others, founded The Hindu (in English) and Swadesamitran (which was the first ever Tamil daily). In 1906 a book was published by Subramaniam to condemn the British actions during the Congress Conference in BarsalSwadesamitran extensively reported nationalist activities, particularly the news regarding V.O.C. and his speeches in Tuticorin.

Subramania Bharati became the sub-editor of Swadesamitran around the time (1904) when Indian nationalism was looking for a fresh direction. Bharati was also editing Chakravartini, a Tamil monthly devoted to the cause of Indian women.

Two events had a significant impact on Subramania Bharati. A meeting in 1905 with Sister Nivedita, an Irish woman and a disciple of Vivekananda, whom he referred to as Gurumani (teacher), greatly inspired his nationalist ideals. The churning within the Congress on the nature of engagement with the British rule was also a contributory factor. As discussed earlier in this lesson, the militants ridiculed the mendicancy of the moderates who wanted to follow the constitutional methods. Bharati had little doubt, in his mind, that the British rule had to be challenged with a fresh approach and methods applied by the militant nationalists appealed to him more. For instance, his fascination with Tilak grew after the Surat session of the Congress in 1907. He translated into Tamil Tilak’s Tenets of the New Party and a booklet on the Madras militants’ trip to the Surat Congress in 1907. Bharati edited a Tamil weekly India, which became the voice of the radicals.

(e) Arrest and imprisonment of V.O.C. and Subramania Siva

On March 9, 1907, Bipin Chandra Pal was released from prison after serving a six-month jail sentence.The swadeshi leaders in Tamil Nadu planned to celebrate the day of his release as ‘Swarajya Day’ in Tirunelveli. The local administration refused permission. V.O.C., Subramania Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar defied the ban and went ahead. They were arrested on March 12, 1908, on charges of sedition.

The local public, angered over the arrest of the prominent swadeshi leaders, reacted violently. Shops were closed in a general show of defiance. The municipality building and the police station in Tirunelveli were set on fire. More importantly, the mill workers came out in large numbers to protest the arrest of swadeshi leaders. After a few incidents of confrontation with the protesting crowd, the police open fired, and four people were killed.

On 7 July 1908, V.O.C. and Subramania Siva were found guilty and imprisoned on charges of sedition. Siva was awarded a sentence of 10 years of transportation for his seditious speech whereas V.O.C. got a life term (20 years) for abetting him. V.O.C. was given another life sentence for his own seditious speech. This draconian sentence reveals how seriously the Tirunelveli agitation was viewed by the government.

In the aftermath of this incident, the repression of the British administration was not limited to the arrest of a few leaders. In fact, people who had actively participated in the protest were also punished and a punitive tax was imposed on the people of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin.

Excerpts from the Judgment in the case of King Emperor versus V.O.C. and Subramania Siva (4 November 1908).“It seems to me that sedition at any time is a most serious offense. It is true that the case is the first of its kind in the Presidency, but the present condition of other Presidencies where the crime seems to have secured a foothold would seem to indicate that light sentences of imprisonment of a few months or maybe a year or two are instances of misplaced leniency. …The first object of a sentence is that it shall be deterrent not to the criminal alone but to others who feel any inclination to follow his example. Here we have to deal with a campaign of sedition which nearly ended in revolt. The accused are morally responsible for all the lives lost in quelling the riots that ensured on their arrest”.

(f) Ashe Murder

Repression of the Swadeshi efforts in Tuticorin and the subsequent arrest and humiliation of the swadeshi leaders generated anger among the youth. A plan was hatched to avenge the Tirunelveli event. A sustained campaign in the newspapers about the repressive measures of the British administration also played a decisive role in building people’s anger against the administration.

In June 1911, the collector of Tirunelveli, Robert Ashe, was shot dead at Maniyachi Railway station by Vanchinathan. Born in the Travancore state in 1880, he was employed as a forest guard at Punalur in the then Travancore state. He was one of the members of a radical group called Bharata Mata Association. The aim of the association was to kill the European officers and inspire Indians to revolt, which they believed would eventually lead to Swaraj. Vanchinathan was trained in the use of a revolver, as part of the mission, by V.V. Subramaniam in Pondicherry.

After shooting Ashe at the Maniyachi Junction, Vanchinathan shot himself with the same pistol. A letter was found in his pocket which helps to understand the strands of inspiration for the revolutionaries like Vanchinathan.

The aftermath of the Assassination

During the course of the trial, the British government was able to establish that V.V.S and other political exiles in Pondicherry were in close and active association with the accused in the Ashe murder conspiracy. The colonial administration grew more suspicious with the Pondicherry groups and their activities. Such an atmosphere further scuttled the possibility of nationalistic propaganda and their activities in Tamil Nadu. As a fall-out of the repressive measure taken by the colonial government, the nationalist movement in Tamil Nadu entered a period of lull and some sort of revival happened only with the Home Rule Movement in 1916.

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