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Un-British Activities

What tendencies emerge from thirty years of these running comments on the daily output of books? First, ethnographic bewilderment. To the British librarians in the 1870s, Bengali literature was a strange assortment of incompatible elements. Thus the remarks on Pigment of Knowledge: “Miscellaneous verses on time, hope, rich men, the quail and cocoanuts.” And on Waves of Meditation: “A piece of incoherent and unintelligible writing.” By the 1890s, when the Indians had taken over the catalogs, the expressions of incomprehension gave way to a second theme: scorn for the vast popular literature, which was pouring off the presses and being sold by peddlers among the poor of Calcutta and the peasants of the hinterland. This literature dealt in urban horrors—low-life, murderers, detectives, prostitutes—and rural fantasies—fairies, magic, adventures, astrology.

To judge from the remarks in column sixteen, it was somewhat similar to the penny dreadfuls and chapbooks of contemporary Europe. But its sentimental romances drew on Hindu mythology, and its almanacs combined astrological advice with mantras to be recited while piercing ears or giving a child rice for the first time. Songbooks also circulated widely, mixing traditional ribaldry with comments on current events. And most important of all, printed versions of popular plays, usually small booklets, but sometimes volumes of two hundred pages or more, spread the spicy fare of Calcutta’s theaters throughout the entire province. All this printed matter was read aloud, in workplaces, bazaars, and the domestic quarters of women; and the readings were performances, some by professionals, who sang or acted out the texts, bringing them alive before a vast audience—roughly two million in Bengal alone in 1857, according to one well-informed source, James Long, a British missionary and expert on Bengali literature.

The keepers of the catalog did not show much appreciation of the serious strain in this literature, although they made some respectful remarks about Rabindranath Tagore. What most commanded their respect was linguistic purity and philological prowess. Thus a review of The Moonlight of Marriage: “The book is written in pure, idiomatic Sanskrit, which very few pandits, if any, can write in these days. The metrical introduction…will be of great value. The work is in every way worthy of the deep and varied scholarship of its author.” A proportionate degree of scorn fell on anything “low” and “vulgar” in style as well as subject matter. The catalogers acted as guardians of the flame of culture, and they identified civilization with Sanskritization, or what they took to be a cultural strain that led back to an ancient world of classical purity. That, too, belonged to the Raj constructed jointly by the British and the Indians, and it had an element of self-imposed Orientalism in it.

Finally, column sixteen shows the Raj keeping watch over literature for signs of danger. The catalogers recorded a great many books that deplored the Indians’ subjection to foreign rule and that bewailed their decadence, poverty, and powerlessness, a theme that was frequently used in contrast to the glory of the ancient Aryans, who were celebrated for their fiercely independent spirit as well as their superior culture. Here is a typical example:

The Bengali is called a coward and taunted with being so accustomed to the chains of slavery, and so delighted with it, as to forget the very name and meaning of “independence.” The poet reminds his countrymen of their noble ancestors and their valorous deeds; describes “independence” as a precious jewel, the very sound of the name of which gives life to the dead; also that the Americans esteemed it so great a treasure as to have flown to arms with one accord to preserve it.

So the catalogers detected sedition—but nowhere in the papers of the India Office do you find the slightest trace of prepublication censorship. Perhaps the British in India did not really worry about what the “natives” published; perhaps the Raj was really liberal after all.

There is some truth, I believe, in both those propositions. But before rallying to the revisionist notion that imperialism in India should be considered as a rather happy chapter in world history, I think it is time to reconsider the nature of censorship itself. The standard French model of vetting texts before publication does not apply to Indian circumstances, although Foucault’s other formula, “surveillance and punishment,” comes closer to the mark. In India, however, the two halves of that equation fell apart, leaving a regime that was all surveillance and no punishment. Indians, like Englishmen, could publish anything they liked, subject only to prosecution for libel and sedition. Even more remarkable, the British brought together two other tendencies that would seem to be incompatible: imperialism and liberalism. Britannia ruled and the press remained free, free even to lament the country’s lack of independence. And this strange bundle of incongruities held together…until 1905, when the British partitioned Bengal.

To the British, the partition made good, solid, bureaucratic sense. Bengal was a vast province of 189,000 square miles with a population of 85 million, more than twice that of Britain, and it could not be administered adequately by a lieutenant-governor and a scattering of district officers. But to the Bengalis, the partition was a murderous blow, which cut deeply into the flesh of their body politic. They attributed it to a cynical strategy of divide and rule: the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam would provide the British with a docile Muslim dependency, while the nationalist intellectuals of Calcutta, a growing body of overeducated and underemployed Babus, would lose influence relative to the non-Bengali speakers of West Bengal. Speeches, petitions, protest meetings, demonstrations, loud choruses of the new nationalist anthem “Bande Mataram” (“Hail to Thee, Mother”—i.e., India) fell on deaf ears. Lord Curzon, the viceroy, was as unbending as the steel brace that he wore to support his back. And Lord Minto, a fellow Tory who succeeded him in August 1905, showed even less concern for the wishes of the native population, despite the prodding of his superior, John Morley, the secretary of state for India in London. Morley was a devout Liberal, who took office with the Liberal government elected at the end of 1905. He favored all sorts of reforms, including the election of Indians to provincial councils; but when he spoke of the partition of Bengal as a “settled fact,” the Bengali intellectuals felt betrayed by the very principles they had imbibed in their English schools.

After the failure of “mendicancy”—the policy of cooperation favored by the moderate wing of the Congress Party—the Bengali nationalists took to swadeshi, a strategy of boycotting British imports and favoring home-made goods. The boycott of manufactures led to the boycott of institutions—courts, schools, the civil service—and ultimately to the demand for swaraj (or independence). Groups of militants drew on revivalist Hinduism in order to develop alternative forms of civic life, but this strategy brought them into conflict with Bengal’s large Muslim minority, 30 percent of the population in Calcutta itself. The creation, with Lord Minto’s encouragement, of the All-India Muslim League at the end of 1906 confirmed the view that the British were playing a game of divide and rule. Hindu–Muslim riots at Comilla and Mymensingh in the spring of 1907 drove a wedge between the two populations. Under the pretext of restoring order, the British suspended civil liberties and began arresting agitators everywhere from Bengal to the Punjab. But the Hindus themselves split when the Congress Party broke up at its annual meeting in December 1907. And the extremists found themselves increasingly isolated—unable to work with the old, moderate political elite, on the one hand, and incapable of mobilizing the impoverished, illiterate peasant masses, on the other.

Trapped in this impasse, the most radical nationalists tried to blast their way out by means of bombs. The examples of European anarchists, the notion of propaganda of the deed, the appeal of heroic self-sacrifice, and the cult of Kali, the goddess of destruction, also reinforced the turn to terrorism. On April 30, 1908, a bomb killed two British women in a railway car at Muzaffarpur, and a series of similar incidents continued until a failed attempt on the life of Minto’s successor, Lord Hardinge, in 1912. By then, most of the extremists had been arrested or driven out of the country. The transfer of the capital to Delhi and the reunification of Bengal in 1911, followed by the outbreak of World War I, put an end to this first phase of nationalist agitation. In retrospect, it seems clear that the partition protests and the terrorist campaign never posed a serious threat to the Raj. But they looked terribly threatening between 1905 and 1912, when the British kept reminding themselves that they were an alien population of a few hundred thousand trying to rule a subcontinent of several hundred million while preaching the virtues of freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom of the press.

The press had fueled the explosion of nationalism from the very beginning. The leading agitators were men of letters, who drew their inspiration from literature, both Indian and Western, and who gathered around newspapers and libraries. Calcutta’s most important nationalist group, the Anushilan Samiti, had a library of four thousand volumes, and its revolutionary weekly, Yugantar, which mixed belles-lettres with calls for revolutionary action, took its name from the novel by Sibnath Sastri. Songs, plays, poems, pamphlets, religious tracts, histories, literature of every variety turned up wherever a British agent discovered signs of sedition. The servants of the Raj knew this literature very well, because they had been keeping track of it for forty years in their catalogs. After 1905 the question was: How could they use this information to repress the outbreak of nationalism?


At this point surveillance turned into punishment. It took two forms: repression by police and prosecution in the courts.

The repression, which amounted to censorship of the postpublication variety, involved the same kinds of police action as had been used in Europe: the arrest of authors, publishers, and printers; raids on bookstores; the interception of letters and packages in the mail; even the use of secret agents to report on what was said in meetings and what was read in schools. As accounts of this activity began to churn through the vast digestive tract of the Indian Civil Service, it became clear that the literature now deemed to be seditious was the same as the literature that had appeared for years in the catalogs. It covered the same range of themes and genres, but now the agents of the Raj wanted to annihilate it, whatever the cost might be in the loss of civil liberties. “Summary procedures” were necessary, the lieutenant-governor of the Punjab said in 1907, for the natives were “credulous,” “emotional,” “inflammable,” and liable to explode when provoked by seditious messages. A commissioner in the Central Provinces warned that “the gravity of the situation demands that we take whatever is absolutely the most effective measure for controlling sedition in the press without regard to any Western theories or sentiments, which are not applicable to the condition of this country.”

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