5 Aug 2015

Sri Aurobindo was a Terrorist, says Peter Heehs – by Krish Patwardhan

Sri Aurobindo was a Terrorist, says Peter Heehs, in his book Nationalism, Terrorism, Communalism – Essays in Modern Indian History, published by Oxford University Press in 1998. The fourth impression of the book was published in 2011 and the present administration of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, has been quietly sitting back enjoying the vilification of Sri Aurobindo by an American inmate of the Ashram. 

The book is on the revolutionary movement in Bengal led by Sri Aurobindo and his associates against the British regime between 1906 and 1910, after which Sri Aurobindo received an Adesh to go to Pondicherry. All through the book and very consistently, Peter Heehs has referred to Sri Aurobindo and his associates as “terrorists” instead of “revolutionaries” or even “militant nationalists”. He has justified the use of the word “terrorist” (see passage on p 12 reproduced below) and described their actions as “terrorist actions” (see p 44). Citing what a British judge had remarked in the Alipore Bomb Case trial (see p 10), he says that Sri Aurobindo, Barin Ghose and others introduced the “poison” of terrorism in modern India. He goes on to equate and compare their patriotic and revolutionary actions to the terrorist activities of Left Wing insurgents in 1960s, and more recent terrorist movements in Punjab, Assam, Kashmir and Sri Lanka. Sri Aurobindo who (with ample documentation) is shown to be the leader of the revolutionaries in Bengal, becomes thus the leader of the terrorists instead of the national hero of this early phase of the freedom movement in India. I reproduce below the relevant passages from the book:

Peter Heehs: In 1909 the judge in the conspiracy trial of Barin Ghose and his associates declared: 'The danger of a conspiracy such as this lies not so much in its prospect of success as in its fruition. When once the poison had entered into the system it is impos­sible to say where it will break out or how far-reaching will be its effects.' He spoke more prophetically than he knew. During the first two decades of India's independent existence there was little organized terrorism in the country; but since then it has been a constant presence. During the late 1960s left-wing insurgents began using terrorist methods to achieve their aims. The eighties saw the rise of separatist terrorism in Punjab, Kashmir and Assam and among ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. As I write (late 1991) Assamese and Kashmiri terrorists are holding hostages in their respective valleys, Punjabi terror­ists account for a dozen or so killings every week and a Sri Lankan Tamil group is being investigated in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. (p 10)

Peter Heehs: Early writers on the violent side of Indian nationalism avoided the term 'terrorism'. The phrase they preferred, 'militant nationalism', might have been a suitable label for the kind of operation Indian revolution­aries dreamed of: an armed uprising throughout the country. Nothing like this ever took place. The widespread risings of 1942 were quickly subdued; the Indian National Army was not taken seriously even by its Japanese masters. All other attempts at armed resistance during the 1858-1947 period were small-scale acts of covert violence: assassi­nations of officials and collaborators, armed robberies, etc. However 'terrorism' is defined — and more than a hundred definitions have been proposed — it would include any act of this sort. (p 12)

Comment: Early writers on the revolutionary movement avoided the word “terrorism” because they had the sense of national pride, which many of the present day intellectuals of India totally lack. Even plain common sense differentiates nationalist movements against oppressive colonial regimes from terrorist actions that deliberately target innocent civilians. Indian revolutionaries targeted cruel British Govt. officials and Indian traitors and spies; they did not blow up public buses or trains in the style of Islamic extremists, causing large scale mayhem and destruction of civic life. To club legitimate revolutionary action with terrorist activity shows only the clear intent to malign and denigrate Indian revolutionary heroes. How would Peter Heehs react if a British historian called George Washington the leader of American terrorism!

Also the implied argument that Indian revolutionary activity would not have been called terrorism had there been “an armed uprising throughout the country” (as it happened in the American revolution) is hardly an intelligent one. Does it mean that a failed uprising of Indian revolutionaries should be discounted as terrorist activity? Do Indian revolutionaries become “terrorists” by the mere fact of not being able to muster enough support from the people of India? How does numerical strength change the moral and patriotic issue?

Or does violence by itself become the sole criterion of distinguishing terrorism from legitimate political action?  If this were the case, I wonder how many honest citizens would be called terrorists, and how much of lawful political action would be tantamount to terrorism! Most countries (especially the U.S.A.) would be accused of it both in their internal administration as well as in their external relations with other countries.  

Finally, readers should know that Heehs is not making an original observation (even if it be a negative one) when he refers to Sri Aurobindo and his associates as terrorists. He faithfully toes the line of leftist historians of India such as Bipan Chandra and Romilla Thapar, who took over the reins of the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) in the seventies.  It was after this takeover that there was a systematic downplaying of the role of revolutionary leaders such as Sri Aurobindo and Subhash Chandra Bose. Bipan Chandra refers to the revolutionaries of the freedom movement of India as “revolutionary terrorists” in his India’s Struggle for Independence 1857 – 1947. The book was published in 1989 by Penguin, long before Peter Heehs came of age. Given that it is extremely difficult in India to gain entry into this elite coterie of leftist historians without whose approval no reputed publishing house will publish your work (however well-researched), it is not difficult guess why Heehs opted for this official line of thought. Academic success was obviously more important to him than historical truth. The following is the title of an article in this book:

Peter Heehs: “Aurobindo Ghose and Revolutionary Terrorism”
(Title of article on p. 42)

Here is another subtitle on page 53 of the same book:

Peter Heehs: “Aurobindo and the Terrorists”
(Subtitle on p. 53)

Another passage:

Peter Heehs: “It is accepted in all accounts, from the most laudatory to the most hostile, that from around 1902 Aurobindo had contacts with 'revolutionaries' in western India and also helped to establish samitis or secret societies in Bengal. Among those who carried out this work on his behalf was his brother Barindrakumar ('Barin'). In 1906 Aurobindo went to Bengal and began working in the Bengal National College and as a writer for the Extrem­ist organ Bande Mataram. Barin worked as an editor of the frankly revolutionary journal Jugantar and also took part in ter­rorist 'actions': attempted assassinations and dacoities. Around the middle of 1907 Barin severed his connection with Jugantar and became the leader of a group of young men who between November and April 1908 took part in a half-dozen terrorist actions, the last of which was the attempted murder of a judge in Muzaffarpur that resulted in the death of two women. Soon after this Barin, Aurobindo and more than thirty others were arrested and put on trial at Alipore.“  (p 44)

Comment: The death of these two women was not planned by Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, the two revolutionaries who were associated with Sri Aurobindo and Barin Ghose. The target was Kingsford, the cruel British magistrate of Muzaffarpur, who was known for passing harsh sentences and inflicting corporal punishments on young political workers of Bengal. Due to a mistake of identification, the two revolutionaries bombed the carriage of the two ladies instead of the one carrying Kingsford. This unplanned and accidental killing of these two women cannot be called a terrorist action. Terrorism is generally associated with the deliberate and senseless killing of innocent people. Peter Heehs has taken much advantage of this and other such incidents to show that the Bengal revolutionaries were indeed terrorists.

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