Notes from Harvard

Journey Of A Leader

"The tragic events of l9l6" would emerge only later, when Subhas realized that his expulsion from college had given him "a foretaste of leadership though in a very restricted sphere - and of the martyrdom that it involves."

During 1916, there was much commentary in the Indian press on the break-down of the old paternalistic social norms. Perhaps the most astute intervention came from Rabindranath Tagore, in essays he wrote in English and Bengali. To his mind, the incident was a symptom of the rebellious spirit of Bengali students engendered by the arrogance of British professors and perceptions of unfair treatment meted out to lndian professors. The British demanded a relationship based on fear and hatred, rather than aspiring to a rule of love, and for Indian students this meant that "the least insult pierce[d] to the quick." The government, for its part, disbanded the recently instituted system of having elected class representatives to articulate students' grievances and interests. Those elected had been, in the government's view, "the demagogue type who is not necessarily the most desirable members from an intellectual and moral standpoint?" The authorities may have been justified in punishing students suspected in a case of physical assault. Yet by deeming democracy to be antithetical to the colonial imperative of maintaining order even in the field of education, they did away with a possible channel of communication with a new generation of students unlikely to be as deferential as their predecessors.

Subhas was clearly dismayed at the time to see his studies cut short, and hoped for a reprieve. His father and elder brother Sarat tried their best to use their family connections in high places and their access to the dictatorial vice-chancellor, Ashutosh Mookerjee, to get Subhas admitted elsewhere, but their efforts were not immediately successful. For the moment, they thought it prudent to put the expelled student on a train back to Cuttack. In retrospect, the Oaten affair looked like a defining moment in Subhas's life. "Lying on the bunk in the train at night," Subhas would write in his autobiography three decades later, "l reviewed the events of the last few months." The "inner significance" of "the tragic events of l9l6" would emerge only later, when he realized that his expulsion from college had given him "a foretaste of leadership though in a very restricted sphere - and of the martyrdom that it involves."

The "tragic events" had more to do with social tensions than with individual animosities. Oaten was by no means the only British professor to be assaulted by his Indian students in Calcutta in the early twentieth century. The episode surrounding him was best remembered because of its association with the early life of Subhas Chandra Bose, a future iconic figure of India's independence movement. Professors who later suffered a similar fate at the hands of their students were said to have been "oatenized." The professor whose name became a verb was for decades portrayed as a villain in popular accounts of the incident in India. But his reputation was redeemed more than two decades after independence when a poem composed by him on the Indian leader came to light:

Did I once suffer, Subhas, at your hands?

Your patriot heart is stilled, I would forget!

Let me recall but this, that while as yet

The Raj that you once challenged in your land

Was mighty; Icarus-like your courage planned

To mount the skies, and storm in battle set

The ramparts of High Heaven, to claim the debt

Of freedom owed, on plain and rude demand.

High Heaven yielded, but in dignity

Like Icarus, you sped towards the sea."

Such a grand historical reconciliation lav in the distant future. In March 1916, a promising young student's future looked bleak as he returned to Cuttack. Yet lndian society accorded him sympathy and respect, while his immediate family showed him understanding in his predicament. If anything, a distance developed between him and his spiritual circle of friends, whom he had not cared to consult during the tribulations of January and February. Subhas was setting his own course now by cutting loose from the group given to esoteric exercises. Instead, he threw himself more resolutely into social service. He spent his enforced year away from college in the environs of Cuttack, nursing patients suffering from cholera and smallpox. He also devoted some time to organizing youth for community work. At one of the students' hostels, he found a Santhal student named Arjun Majhi facing the all-too-familiar discrimination from the upper castes that was the lot of this tribal community. When this student fell ill with typhoid. Subhas took a stand against such prejudice and made sure he was nursed with extra care.

To his "surprise and joy," his mother joined him in nursing this Santhal student back to health, allying herself with her son's chosen path. After a year's absence, Subhas journeyed to Calcutta to try his luck with the university authorities once more. Bengalis were deemed by the British to be a "non-martial race," based on a spurious anthropological theory about martial races and castes formulated in the late nineteenth century. The bulk of the British Indian Army was drawn from the so-called "martial races," which included Punjabis, Pathans, and Gurkhas. The exigencies of war, however, had led the British to start recruiting for the "49th Bengalee Regiment" in 1917.

Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was to become Bengal's greatest revolutionary poet, enlisted in this regiment ostensibly because he wished to forsake the university for the universe. Subhas too quietly applied for recruitment at the army's office on Beadon Street in Calcutta. He was disqualified because of his poor eyesight, even though he passed all the other medical tests. So he headed back to the university and showed up at the office of Dr. Urquhart, the principal of Scottish Church College. He explained his situation and expressed his desire to enroll in the honors course in philosophy. Urquhart wanted a note from the new principal of Presidency College that he had no objection. Subhas was able to obtain this with the help of his brother Sarat. In July 1917, Subhas returned to his studies in philosophy "with zeal and devotion?"

 

Excerpted from His Majesty's Opponent by Sugata Bose
Chapter: God's Beloved Land
Penguin Books India, June 2011.

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