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The Extremists

Causes of Growth of Extremists

The closing decade of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of a new and younger group within the Indian National Congress which were sharply critical of the ideology and methods of the older leadership.

These ‘angry young men’ advocated the adoption of Swaraj as the goal of the Congress; to be achieved by more self-reliant and independent methods. This new group came to be called as extremist group.

The early nationalist leaders had exposed the true nature of British rule in India. They repeatedly stated that the British rule and its policies were responsible for decrease in economic growth of India and poverty. All this led to great anger among the youth.

The political events from 1892 to 1905 also disappointed the Nationalists, and forced them to think of more radical politics. The Indian Council Act of 1892 was a completed disappointment.

In 1898, a law was passed making it an offence to excite any “feeling of this affection” towards the foreign government. In 1899, the number of Indian members in the Calcutta Corporation was reduced from 75 to 50.

Even socially and culturally, the British rule was no longer progressive. Primary and technical education was not making any progress. The Indian Universities act of 1904 was seen by the nationalist as an attempt to bring the Indian universities under tighter official control and to check the growth of higher education.

The younger elements within the Congress were dissatisfied with the achievements of the Congress during the first 15 to 20 years and were disgusted with the callous and reactionary attitude of the government. They had lost all faith in the British sense of justice and fair play.

Events outside India also exercised a powerful influence on the growth of militant nationalism in India. The humiliating treatment to Indians in British colonies, especially in South Africa hurted Indian feelings. Further national movements in the Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Russia gave Indians new hopes and new inspirations.

Leaders like Tilak and B.C Pal preached the message of self-respect and asked the nationalists to rely on the connector and capacities of the Indian people. They called upon the people to build their own future by their owner efforts.

A big famine occurred in 1896-97. It affected about 20 million people, spread over in different parts of India. The British government’s apathy towards people’s sufferings created severe discontent among people of India. The failure to check plagues infuriated people to such an extent that Damodar Hari Chapekar shot dead Rand, the Commissioner of Poona.

Agenda and Methods of Extremists

 There was some ambivalence regarding the goal of Extremist leaders, although they spoke of it as ‘swaraj’. Tilak famously spoke of Swaraj as his birthright, but never clearly stated whether he meant a complete rejection of and breach with the British. Lajpat Rai emphasized more the need for a social revolution within native society in the struggle against the British. Bipin Chandra Pal spoke of political autonomy at all costs.

They demanded equal rights and liberty for Indians, not as British subjects, but because these were fundamental human rights as enunciated by the French Revolution.

Aurobindo Ghosh, however, clearly spoke of complete independence from the British as the eventual goal of their movement.

The extremist agitation was more clearly an indictment of Moderate aims and methods. They severely criticized Moderate politics of ‘mendicancy’ and rejected constitutional agitation as derogatory to national honour.

Moderate politics was also attacked because they confined to the English-educated elite, and alienated the common people.

The main methods of agitation preached by Extremists were swadeshi and boycott. Swadeshi entailed positive and active encouragement and patronage to indigenous products and production techniques, and boycott was a negative programme of rejecting British goods, and by extension, British institutions like schools and colleges, law courts, administrative and legislative posts.

Aurobindo Ghosh also spoke of civil disobedience or the peaceful violation of unjust laws as a mode of agitation to build a complete movement of passive resistance. He also emphasized readiness to use violent methods if the need arose.

Though a wide range of political positions has been clubbed together as Extremist politics, there were divisions within the Extremist fold, based on the degree of radicalism preached. These positions were articulated by Aurobindo Ghosh and have been delineated by historian Sumit Sarkar.

The earliest Extremist politics envisaged a programme of ‘constructive swadeshi’, which entailed setting up swadeshi enterprises and stores, the spread of vernacular education and social work in villages, and the use of traditional and customary festivals to draw in common people. Rabindranath Tagore was an important proponent of this approach.

By 1906, a new radicalism infused extremist politics, as extended boycott and strikes were undertaken through mass participation in the agitation against the partition of Bengal, and complete swaraj was established as the objective. By 1908, against the background of intense government repression, revolutionary terrorism as a  form of political agitation came to dominate especially Bengal politics. This was a movement of small groups of elite young men, who organized themselves in secret societies to carry out political assassinations and ‘swadeshi dacoities’ in a bid to inspire people into action. They also had a plan of infiltrating the Indian army to carry out a coup.

This politics of individual violence is also closely associated with and seen as having emerged from extremist ideology.

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