Deshbondhu Chittoronjon Dash (দেশবন্ধু চিত্তরঞ্জন দাশ)



Portrait of Deshbondhu. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was reading over the “Presidential Address of Desabhandhu C. R. Das at the thirty-seventh session of the Indian National Congress held at Gaya on 26th December 1922” also known as “Freedom Through Disobedience.” I kept highlighting key passages for my own reference, but I thought that I’d post them up here for those interested in such things but who don’t have the time or desire to read the full 75 page speech. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes here come from that speech. But if you are interested in reading a lot, you could also check out this other collection of his speeches, “India for Indians” which fleshes out some of the details of Deshbondhu’s worldview which his Gaya speech leaves out. This will be somewhat relevant to the Ancient Constitution post I made earlier.
Deshbondhu (title meaning “friend of the nation”) seems like a much more lucid thinker than practically any other Indian independence leader who has risen to prominence in the historical memory of Indian independence in the west. In many ways he ends up approaching conclusions which in the west are associated with radical federalism, anarchism, classical liberalism, or proto-fascist conservatism. If this collection of ideas seems incongruous to you, you might want to check out this essay on anarchism and nationalism called Anarchist Integralism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Après-Garde which although hostile to integralism, shows how all these ideas are related to one another. Ultimately I think that Deshbondhu’s Swaraj ideology, like the preceding Swadeshi Ideology in its Bankinchandra through its Tagore forms, as well as Subhash Chandra Bose‘s unnamed ideology, and pretty much all forms of Bengali and Indian “culturalism” including Hindutva are all Indian manifestations of integralism. Deshbondhu’s iteration seems to be a more anarchic, libertarian, and internationalist iteration of Indian integralism than the average (though not as free spirited as Tagore).

Like Burke, and the liberals I mentioned in the Ancient Constitution post, Deshbondhu believed that rule of law had to be subservient to some other concept of law (shall we call it natural law?) in order to justify obedience:

Why are the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act 1908 and the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act 1911 to be retained on the Statute Book? For the preservation of law and order? They little think these learned gentlemen responsible for the report that these Statutes, giving as they do to the Executive wide, arbitrary and discretionary powers of constraint, constitute a state of things wherein it is the duty of every individual to resist and to defy the tyranny of such lawless laws. These Statutes in themselves constitute a breach of law and order, for, law and order is the result of the rule of law; and where you deny the existence of the rule of law, you cannot turn round and say it is your duty as law-abiding citizens to obey the law.

p. 14

His iteration of Nationalism is somewhat unlike the Hindu Nationalist or European conceptions, and seems rather to flow from Tagore:

What is the ideal which we must set before us? The first and foremost is the ideal of nationalism. Now what is Nationalism? It is, I conceive, a process through which a nation expresses itself and finds itself, not in isolation from other nations but, as part of a great scheme by which, in seeking its own expression and therefore its own identity, it materially assists the self-expression and self-realization of other nations as well. Diversity is as real as Unity. And in order that the unity of the world may be established it is essential that each nationality should proceed on its own lines and find fulfilment in self-expression and self-realisation. The Nationality of which I am speaking must not be confused with the conception of nationality as it exists in Europe to-day. Nationalism in Europe is an aggressive nationalism, a selfish nationalism, a commercial nationalism of gain and loss. The gain of France is a loss of Germany, and the gain of Germany is a loss of France. Therefore French nationalism is nurtured on the hatred of Germany and German nationalism is nurtured in the hatred of France. It is not yet realised that you cannot hurt Germany without hurting Humanity and in consequence hurting France; and that you cannot hurt France without hurting Humanity, and in consequence hurting Germany. That is European nationalism; that is not the nationalism of which I am speaking to you to-day. I contend that each nationality constitutes a particular stream of the great unity, but no nation can fulfil itself until it becomes itself and at the same time realises its identity with Humanity. The whole problem of nationalism is therefore to find that stream and to face the destiny. If you find the current and establish a continuity with the past, then the process of self-expression has begun, and nothing can stop the growth of nationality.

p. 20

And as you might expect, this view of nationalism is also internationalist and anticipates a sort of Asian Union. Though because of his exaggerated and unrealistic optimism about the long term prospects of Hindu Muslim unity, it seems as though this Asian Union is anticipated to tie India into the Islamic world, whereas someone like Tagore more anticipated India joining with Eastern Asia:

Even more important than this is the participation of India in the great Asiatic Federation which I see in the course of formation. I have hardly any doubt that the Pan-Islamic movement which was started on a somewhat narrow basis has given way or is about to give way to the great Federation of all Asiatic people. It is the union of the oppressed nationalities of Asia. Is India to remain outside the union? I admit that our freedom must be won by ourselves, but such a bond of friendship and love of sympathy and co-operation between India and the rest of Asia, nay between India and all the liberty-loving people of the world is destined to bring about World Peace. World Peace, to my mind, means the freedom of every nationality and I go further and say that no nation in the face of the earth can be really free when other nations are in bondage. The policy which we have hitherto pursued, was absolutely necessary for the concentration of the work which we took upon ourselves to perform and I agreed to that policy whole-heartedly. The hope of the attainment of Swaraj or a substantial basis of Swaraj in the course of the year made such concentration absolutely necessary. To-day that very work demands broader sympathy and a wider outlook.

p. 37

He also makes some arguments for the necessity of non-violent revolution, and working within constitutional bounds, over violent revolution, which are reminiscent of Burke. But in making this argument he also quote Carlyle, which was quite unexpected for me:

The history of the French Revolution is the history of a struggle at the first instance between the Crown and the nobility on one side and the Representative Assemblies with armed Paris on the other. Both took to violence, one to the bayonet and the other to the pike. The pike succeeded because the bayonet was held with uncertain hands. And then, as is usual after the victory gained with violence, the popular party was sharply divided between two sections—the Girondins and the Jacobins. Again there was an appeal to force. The Girondins asked the provinces to rise in arms, the Jacobins asked Paris to rise in arms. Paris being nearer and stronger, the Girondins were defeated and sent to the guillotine—the Jacobins seized the power. But it did not take them many months to fall out among themselves. First Robespierre and Danton sent Hebert and Chanmette to the guillotine, then Robespierre sent Danton to the guillotine. Robespierre in his turn was guillotined by Collot, Billand and Tallien. These men again were banished by others to the far-off South America. If there was a slight difference of views between the Girondins and the Jacobins there was practically none between the different sections of the Jacobins. The whole question was which of the various sections was to rule France. Force gave way to stronger force and at last under Napoleon, France experienced a despotism similar to if not worse than the despotism of Louis XIV. As regards liberty there was not more liberty in France under the terrible Committee of Public Safety, and Napoleon than under Louis XIV or Louis XV. The law of Prairial was certainly much worse than Lettres de Cachet. And the people—? On the Pont au Change, on the Place de Greve, in long sheds, Mercier, at the end of the Revolution, saw working men at their repast. One’s allotment of daily bread had sunk to an ounce and a half. “Plates containing each three grilled herrings, sprinkled with shorn onions, wetted with a little vinegar; to this add some morsel of boiled prunes, and lentils swimming in a clear sauce; at these frogal tables I have seen them ranged by the hundred; consuming, without bread, their scant messes, far too moderate for the keenness of their appetite, and the extent of their stomach.” “Seine water,” remarks Carlyle grimly—“rushing plenteous by, will supply the deficiency.” One cannot forget the exclamation of Carlyle in this connection:

“O Man of Toil! Thy struggling and thy daring, these six long years of insurrection and tribulation, thou hast profited nothing by it, then? Thou consumest thy herring and water, in the blessed gold-red of evening. O why was the Earth so beautiful, becrimsoned with dawn and twilight, if man’s dealings with man were to make it a vale of scarcity, of tears, not even soft tears? Destroying of Bastilles, discomfiting of Brunswicks, fronting of Principalities and Powers, of Earth and Tophet, all that thou hast dared and endured,—it was for a Republic of the Saloons? Aristocracy of Feudal Parchment has passed away with a mighty rushing; and now, by a natural course, we arrive at Aristocracy of the Moneybag. It is the course through which all European Societies are, at this hour, travelling. Apparently a still baser sort of Aristocracy? An infinitely baser the basest yet known.”

Even to-day France is plodding her weary way towards Swaraj.

p. 25-27


Deshbondhu’s house in Darjeeling, now a museum. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Village level autonomy is the most important feature of Swaraj, not merely provincial independence. This after all, is the substance of India’s ancient constitution. India today has a somewhat decentralized state, but it isn’t nearly as decentralized as preceding forms of government, or as the type of state Deshabandhu (or Gandhi for that matter) would have envisioned. The bureaucracy has been weakened, but still is strong. India has yet to attain Deshabandhu’s iteration of Swaraj:

To me the organisation of village life and the practical autonomy of small local centres are more important than either provincial autonomy or central responsibility; and if the choice lay between the two, I would unhesitatingly accept the autonomy of the local centres. I must not be understood as implying that the village centres will he disconnected units. They must be held together by a system of co-operation and integration. For the present, there must be power in the hands of the provincial and the Indian Government; but the ideal should be accepted once for all, that the proper function of the central authority, whether in the provincial or in the Indian Government is to advise, having a residuary power of control only in case of need and to be exercised under proper safeguard. I maintain that real Swaraj can only be attained by vesting the power of Government in these local centres, and I suggest that the Congress should appoint a Committee to draw up a scheme of Government which would be acceptable to the Nation.

The foundation of real democracy must be laid in small centres—not gradual decentralisation which implies a previous centralisation—but a gradual integration of the practically autonomous small centres into one living harmonious whole. What is wanted is a human state, not a mechanical contrivance. We want the growth of institutions and organisations which are really dynamic in their nature and not the mere static stability of a centralised state.

p. 40-42

And he spells it out in even starker resolution:

To frame such a scheme of Government regard must therefore be had:—

1. To the formation of local centres more or less on the lines of the ancient village system of India.

2. The growth of larger and larger groups out of the integration of these village centres.

3. The unifying state should be the result of minor growth.

4. The village centres and the larger groups must be practically autonomous.

5. The residuary power of control must remain in the Central Government, but the exercise of such power should be exceptional and for that purpose proper safeguards should be provided, so that the practical autonomy of the local centres may be maintained and at the same time the growth of the Central Government into a really unifying state may be possible. The ordinary work of such Central Government should be mainly advisory.


There is no reason why we should not start the Government by these local centres to-day. They would depend for their authority on the voluntary co-operation of the people, and voluntary co-operation is much better than the compulsory co-operation which is at the bottom of the Bureaucratic rule in India.

p 46. 47

Whats interesting is that Gandhi probably would have been amenable to this sort of thing as well, but we ended up with the worst of all possible outcomes: Nehru.


He also advocated a sort of Prodhounian/IWW construction of a new society within the decaying shell of the old sort of model:

When I survey the work it is clear to my mind that the Congress was engaged in a two-fold activity. In everything that the Congress has commanded there is an aspect of destruction as there is an aspect of creation. The boycott of Lawyers and Law Courts means the destruction of existing legal institutions; and the formation of Panchayats means the creation of agencies through which justice may be administered. The boycott of schools and colleges means the destruction of the department of Education; and the establishment of National schools and colleges means the creation of educational institutions for the Youth of India. The boycott of foreign goods followed as it was by the burning of foreign goods covering into the country. But, on the other hand, the spinning wheel and looms means creative activity in supplying the people with indigenous cloth. Judged by this principle what is wrong about the desire either to convert the Councils into institutions which may lead us to Swaraj, or to destroy them altogether? The same twofold aspect of creation and destruction is to be found in the boycott of Councils in the way I want them to be boycotted.

p. 53

He had a general opposition to taxation in India. He referred to the “scheme of non-violent non-co-operation” as consisting of a spectrum of action between two extremes, namely: “renunciation of voluntary association with the present Government at one end and the refusal to pay taxes at the other.” (p. 52) This opposition was advocated on the grounds that it was an arbitrary imposition by an unelected government:

That right was resisted in England, not because the revenues raised by them were not necessary for the good and safety of the kingdom, but because that right was inconsistent with the fundamental right of the people to pay such taxes only as were determined by the representatives of the people for the people.

p. 17

But despite this democratic and non-individualist, non justification, the way he writes about taxation seems quite aesthetically similar to the way an anarchist or libertarian writes about it, as though he understands the innate tendency of governments to expand in power, and expand in tax extraction:

What is most necessary to consider is the fact that taxation has increased by leaps and bounds. The expenditure of the Government of India has grown enormously since the pre-war year 1913-14. In that year the total expenditure of the Government of India amounted to 79 crores and 37 lakhs; in 1919-20, it rose to 138 crores, and in 1920-21, the first year of the reformed system of administration, it stood at 149 crores. The expenses of the current year are likely to be even higher. To meet the successive increases in expenditure, additional taxation was levied in 1916-17, 1917-18, 1919-20, 1921-22 and 1922-23. We may prepare ourselves for proposals for further additional taxation in the ensuing year. In spite of the levy of additional taxation, seven out of the last nine years have been years of deficit.

The deficit of the Madras Government would have been much higher had it not taken steps to increase its revenues by Rs. 77½ lakhs from fresh taxation. The Bengal statement shows an estimated surplus owing to the remission of the Provincial contribution to the Central Government and expected receipts from fresh taxation amounting to 1 crore and 40 lakhs. But it is very doubtful if the expectation will be realised, and early next year, further fresh taxes are likely to be imposed. Assam has budgeted for a deficit of 14½ lakhs after the imposition of additional taxation. Proposals for further taxation are under consideration in the Punjab, Bihar and Orissa, the Central Provinces and Assam. In the United Provinces the proposals brought forward by the Government were rejected by the Legislative Council.

The increase in military expenditure is chiefly responsible for the present financial situation. In 1913-14, the expenses of this department amounted to about 31½ crores, in 1919-20, after the conclusion of the war they mounted up to 87 crores, and in 1920-21 they stood at 88 crores. As Sir Visveswaraya remarks the expenses under the head “Civil Administration” also have shown a perpetual tendency to increase.

p. 64-67


Deshbondhu as a young man. Image Source: somewhereinblog

Swaraj for him was not merely independence, as the prior quote about Panchayats should have made clear. Swaraj is independence for the Indian people themselves in a deeper sense:

But Labour has got a separate interest and they are often oppressed by foreign capitalists and the Peasantry of India is often oppressed by a class of men who are the standard bearers of the Bureaucracy. Is the service of this special interest in any way antagonistic to the service of nationalism? To find bread for the poor, to secure justice to a class of people who are engaged in a particular trade or avocation—how is that work different from the work of attaining Swaraj? Anything which strengthens the national cause, anything which supports the masses of India is surely as much a matter of Swaraj as any other items of work which the Congress has in hand. My advice is that the Congress should lose no time in appointing a Committee, a calm workable Committee to organise labour, and the peasantry of India. We have delayed the matter already too long. If the Congress fails to do its duty, you may expect to find organisations set up in the country by labour and peasants detached from you, dissociated from the cause of Swaraj which will inevitably bring within the arena of a peaceful evolution class struggles and the war of special interests.

p. 68

All of this is just what Deshbondhu said in his Gaya speech, but in”The Indian Struggle” Subhash Chandra Bose lays out some ways in which this manifested in practice. These quotes are taken from Chapter 5 of that text, which is on Deshbondhu’s term of leadership in Bengal.

The election of the Deshabandhu as the first Mayor under the new constitution symbolised our capture of the Calcutta Municipality and was attended by popular demonstrations. Under the new regime, new measures calculated to benefit the citizens were set in motion in quick succession. The newly-elected Swarajist Councillors and Aldermen, including the Mayor, all came dressed in home-made Khadi. Among the employees of the Municipality, Khadi became the official uniform. Many of the streets and parks were renamed after India’s greatest men. For the first time an Education Department was started and a distinguished Indian graduate of Cambridge42 was put in charge. Free primary schools for boys and girls sprang up all over the city. Health-Associations, financed by the Municipality, were started in every ward of the city by public-spirited citizens for carrying on health propaganda among the people. Dispensaries were opened by the Municipality in the different districts for giving free medical treatment to the poor. In purchasing stores, preference was given to Swadeshi (i.e., home-made) goods. In making new appointments, the claims of Moslems and other minorities were recognised for the first time. Infant clinics were established in different parts of the city and to each clinic was added a milk-kitchen for supplying milk free to the children of the poor. Last, but not least, the Municipality arranged to give civic receptions to Nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Motilal Nehru and Mr. V. J. Patel, when they visited the city and the previous custom of giving civic receptions to Viceroys, Governors and officials was discontinued once for all.

But the British vested interests in the city felt that they were losing their importance and that they could no longer dominate the Municipality. At that time nearly all the departmental heads were Britishers, but with one or two exceptions, I had no difficulty whatsoever in dealing with them. The majority of them were quite loyal to the new Swarajist administration and some of them were even enthusiastic in praising it. Though within a few months the efficiency of the administration was considerably raised and citizens’ complaints were attended to more promptly than before, the official bloc in the Corporation, as also the Government, continued their policy of opposition, with the result that constant friction used to take place. In the mater of appointments, they were opposed to the Swarajist policy of doing justice to the minorities. With regard to the drainage problem of the city, they were also in conflict with the Swarajists. The scheme sponsored by the Government for the new drainage works was rejected by the Swarajists as being unscientific and useless. In this they had the support of the Drainage Engineer of the Municipality, the late Mr. O. J. Wilkinson and of the Director of Public Health, Dr. C. A. Bentley, while the Chief Engineer, Mr. J. R. Coats, was on the side of the Government. The drainage controversy between the Municipality and the Government continued for a long time and it took the Government ten years to give in to the Municipality on the drainage question.44

While the major issues were being tackled by its members in the Assembly, the Swaraj Party was following obstructive tactics in all the provincial legislatures. In the Assembly there was hardly any room for obstruction or deadlock because the Viceroy could easily override the legislature by his special powers of ‘veto’ and ‘certification’. Moreover, all the departments of the Central Government were administered by members who were under the full control of the Viceroy and were neither elected members of the Assembly nor removable by a vote of that body. In the provinces, on the other hand, the departments called ‘transferred’ departments were administered by ‘ministers’ who were elected members of the provincial legislature and were subject to the vote of that body — while the other departments, called ‘reserved’ departments, were administered by members who were quite independent of the vote of the legislature.45 The Swarajist tactics in the provincial legislatures therefore consisted in attacking the ministers and their ‘transferred’ departments. The salaries of the ministers would be either rejected altogether, in which case no ministers could be appointed at all — or votes of no- confidence in the ministers would be moved repeatedly so that no set of ministers could continue in office long. At the same time attempts would be made to throw out the Budget of the transferred departments which could not be restored by certification. By such tactics, the Governor of the province would be forced to suspend the working of the transferred departments, take over the administration into his own hands and go on ruling as he would in the pre-reform days. In the Central Provinces Legislative Council where the Swarajists had an absolute majority — the entire Budget was thrown out without any difficulty and no ministers could therefore be appointed. In Bengal the situation was somewhat similar to that in the Central Provinces. The salaries of the ministers were rejected and repeated attempts to restore them proved unavailing. The ministers had therefore to lay down their office. Thus, in the Central Provinces and in Bengal, the working of the constitution was rendered impossible. It is not possible to describe the enthusiasm of the public when diarchy was overthrown in these two provinces. It was regarded as a great triumph for the Swarajists and this victory brought a sense of elation all over the country. In 1920, the Congress had tried to paralyse the new constitution, by boycotting the polls but this attempt had failed, because not a single seat had remained vacant and undesirable men had flooded the legislatures. In 1924, on the other hand, the Swarajists, by carrying the fight inside the legislatures, were able to wreck the constitution, in at least some of the provinces.


Following the Hindu custom, there was a trustee, called the Mohunt, in charge of the temple and the attached property. Though the Mohunts are expected to live a chaste and abstemious life, there were allegations against the Mohunt of Tarakeswar with regard to his personal character and to his administration of the endowed property. As Tarakeswar happens to be one of the most holy places of piligrimage in Bengal and is visited every year by people from all parts of the province, the allegations made against the Mohunt were widely known. After the success of the Akali movement in the Punjab, pressure was brought to bear on the Bengal Congress Committee for starting a similar movement at Tarakeswar. Notices were served on the Mohunt calling upon him to mend his ways but as these attempts were of no avail, in April 1924, the Deshabandhu launched a movement for taking peaceful possession of the temple and the attached property, with a view to placing them under the administration of a public committee. The Mohunt appealed to the Government for help and as soon as volunteers began to move towards temple and the palace of the Mohunt — the police appeared on the scene. The usual Satyagraha scenes were re-enacted at Tarakeswar — peaceful volunteers moving up from one side and the police attacking them mercilessly on the other and occasionally making arrests. Owing to the intervention of the Government, the issue became a political one. Once again, in order to set an example to the people, the Deshabandhu sent his son to prison at the head of the volunteers. Within a short time, the movement became extremely popular and there was a warm response from every corner of the province.4


Statue of Deshbondhu. Image Source:

And Bose makes the further evaluation of Deshbondhu’s character and the quality of his political activism and leadership:

The death of Deshabandhu on June 16th, 1925, was for India a national calamity of the first magnitude. Though his active political career consisted of barely five years, his rise had been phenomenal. With the reckless abandon of a Vaishnava devotee, he had plunged into the political movement with heart and soul and he had given not only himself but his all in the fight for Swaraj. When he died, whatever worldly possessions he still had, were left to the nation. By the Government he was both feared and admired. They feared his strength, but admired his character. They knew that he was a man of his word. They also knew that though he was a hard fighter, he was none the less a clean fighter, and further, he was also the man with whom they could bargain for a settlement. He was clearheaded, his political instinct was sound and unerring and unlike Mahatma he was fully conscious of the role he was to play in Indian politics. He knew, more than anyone else, that situations favourable for wresting political power from the enemy do not come often and when they do come, they do not last long. While the crisis lasts, a bargain has to be struck. He knew also that to sponsor a settlement, when public enthusiasm is at its height, needs much courage and may involve a certain amount of unpopularity. But he was nothing if not fearless. He was conscious of his exact role, namely that of a practical politician, and he was therefore never afraid of courting unpopularity.

In contrast with the Deshabandhu, the role of the Mahatma has not been a clear one. In many ways he is altogether an idealist and a visionary. In other respects, he is an astute politician. At times he is as obstinate as a fanatic; on other occasions he is liable to surrender like a child. The instinct, or the judgment, so necessary for political bargaining is lacking in him. When there is a real opportunity for a bargain, as in 1921, he is liable to stick out for small things and thereby upset all chances of a settlement Whenever he does go in for a bargain, as we shall see in 1931, he gives more than he takes. On the whole, he is no match in diplomacy for an astute British politician.

June 1925 proved to be a turning point in the recent history of India. The disappearance of the towering personality of the Deshabandhu from the political arena was for India a colossal misfortune. The Swaraj Party, which owed so much to him, was paralysed after his death and dissensions gradually arose within the Party.bNevertheless, the Party at the time of his death was an institution of which anyone would be proud. The Capital of Calcutta, the organ of British commercial interests, writing after his death, compared the Swaraj Party with the Sinn Fein Party of Ireland and remarked that during forty years of its existence, it had seen nothing like it before. The discipline of the Party, according to the paper, was German in character. The weakening of the Swaraj Party served to strengthen the forces of reaction in India and in England, while it let loose a flood of communal strife in India which had, up till then, been held back by the superior forces of Nationalism. Today, as we look back on the year 1925, we cannot help feeling that if Providence had spared the Deshabandhu for a few years more, the history of India would probably have taken a different turn. In the affairs of nations, it often happens that the appearance or disappearance of a single personality often means a new chapter in history. Thus has been the influence of Lenin in Russia, of Mussolini in Italy and of Hitler in Germany in recent world-history.


Funeral procession of Deshbondhu. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

And alas, in that stroke of bad luck we were deprived of Deshbondhu and given instead the much less lucid and strategic Gandhi…

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