When nationalist leader Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee) — the anti-hero in Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire — realises that poor, Muslim villagers will not join his movement against the Partition of Bengal (1905-1911) and abjure foreign-made goods in favour of swadeshi alternatives, he decides to change his tactics. Sandip gets his gang of schoolboys to loot British goods from traders in the village and does a bonfire, with the background of Vande Mataram. When the manager of the local estate warns him that the police will get involved, he says that he will set fire to the granaries of those villagers who lodge complaints.
Sandip feels no compulsion to stick to a moral path, unlike his friend and local zamindar, Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee). Nikhilesh, too, as we learn, has subscribed to the swadeshi ideology, but in a personal capacity. Long before Sandip’s arrival in the village, Nikhilesh had set up factories to indigenously manufacture soap and other material — without much success. The local schoolteacher (Manoj Mitra) berates Sandip for using the politics of swadeshi to further his political career, with little or no care for its consequences. The two men, as Nikhilesh’s wife Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) finds out, are perfect counterfoils to each other — the contradiction of their characters and methods set up the drama of the narrative.
While both Ray and Rabindranath Tagore, from whose eponymous novel the film was adapted, seem to favour Nikhilesh, one wonders if Sandip has any need to follow a moral route. One of Sandip’s boys, Amulya (Indrapramit Roy), carries around a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in his pocket and tells Bimala that it provides him courage. But the Gita is a deeply violent text, with Krishna trying to convince Arjuna to kill his cousins and relatives. In the introduction to his English translation of the Gita, P Lal writes: “no rational refutation is possible of the essential humanist position that killing is wrong… Some of the answers given by Krishna appear to be evasive and occasionally not unsophisticated”. Was it even possible for a nationalist leader to stick unflinchingly to the moral path in British-ruled Bengal of the early 20th century?The condition in Bengal in 1905 can find parallels in the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). On October 31, the erstwhile state became two Union territories, but the process through which the central government in New Delhi has bifurcated J&K — imposing a brutal military crackdown in the Valley, blocking communication, detaining elected political leaders — throws all democratic principles to the wind. The consequence is not a muted acceptance of Indian rule by Kashmiris, who have long clamoured for self-determination, but the contrary — a return of violence and militancy. Earlier this week, as members of the European Parliament — most of them from right-wing parties — visited the Valley as part of what has now been proven to be a publicity stunt by the Centre, the militants killed five migrant labourers in the state.
As Sandip elaborates in his speech, the British colonial project in Bengal was economic exploitation, and to sustain it, brutal suppression of any attempt by natives for self-determination. Historians have shown how ruinous British rule was for Bengal, the long 19th century pockmarked with famine after famine, not due to the vagaries of weather, but because of the policies of the government. By the turn of the 20th century, the oppressed had learnt to use violence as well; the most notorious incident was the failed assassination attempt of District Magistrate Kingsford by teenagers Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki. Khudiram was arrested and hanged, becoming a martyr eulogised in songs like this:
Instead of killing Kingsford, Bose and Chaki had killed the wife and daughter of British barrister Pringle Kennedy.
The incident finds metaphoric representation in Ray’s film, where schoolboys who have joined the swadeshi gang assault Miss Gildy (Jennifer Kendal), Bimala’s music and English teacher. The short incident at the beginning of the film establishes the gratuitous nature of violence, even when unleashed by those whose mission is justified. When Viceroy Lord Curzon decided to carve up the troubled province of Bengal into Muslim-majority East and Hindu-dominated West, one of the first leaders of movement against it was Tagore.
But as the movement turned violent, he withdrew from it, and also stopped writing on political subjects in 1906-07. When he returned to writing political essays, he advocated constructive work, rather boycotts and speeches. As Ray tells his biographer Andrew Robinson, many of Tagore’s essays on the militant movement found their way to the mouth of Nikhilesh in the novel, published in 1915. In the same interview Ray tells Robinson: “He (Nikhilesh) represents Tagore’s attitude towards the terrorist movement and its ultimate futility. It is a very valid point... It was really a middle-class movement... So ultimately it just fizzled out.”
This is not only Tagore’s opinion, but also Ray’s. He had first written the script of Ghare Baire in the 1940s, but the movie was made only four decades later. By then, Ray had closely observed the Naxalite movement of the late-1960s and 1970s. He had been less than enthusiastic about the violence it unleashed on the streets of his hometown, Calcutta (now Kolkata). Sometime in 1970-71, when the Naxalite movement was in full swing, Ray remembered Kolkata as a “nightmare city”, and in letters to friends, even wrote about leaving it. His unofficial ‘Calcutta trilogy’ — Pratidwindi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975) — documents the condition of the city in those days, also seen in this extract from Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta:
The purpose of this essay is not to justify any kind of violence — of the Naxalites, the militants in J&K, or Bengali revolutionaries such as Khudiram Bose. I shall take this opportunity to reiterate P Lal’s words: “no rational refutation is possible of the essential humanist position that killing is wrong”. But, in the same breath, one must also decry the violence sanctioned by the state and justified through unjust laws. Violence is the child of oppression, as W H Auden sums up in the following lines: