India’s struggle for Independence was truly multi-faceted. Each facet made its contribution to the eventual Independence in 1947 that emanated from it. ‘Bandi Jeevan’ by Sachindra Nath Sanyal tells the story of the underground, violent revolutionary strand of the struggle. It was first published in the 1920s and constituted the manifesto for revolutionary politics in its own time. It also provided inspiration to a large number of young revolutionaries. ‘Bandi Jeevan’ was written in Bengali and soon translated into most Indian languages. It has finally been made available in English, thanks to a brilliant translation by Maneesha Taneja. The book provides a vivid account of the times in which it was written, of the nature of revolutionary politics and the challenges it faced.
Sanyal was directly involved in this politics and spent around 15 years in the Cellular Jail of the Andaman Islands in two phases of five and 10 years each. Quite surprisingly, the book refrains from giving many details of the hardships and tribulations of his jail life. Sanyal has underplayed his sufferings and sacrifices in the book. Presumably, the title ‘Bandi Jeevan’ (an imprisoned life) is attributed to the times when the entire country felt like a prison. Sanyal lived in this prison even when he was not serving his prison term in the Andamans.
The book proceeds at two levels. At one level, it tells the story of the underground strand of the revolutionary anti-imperialist politics. It contains details of how and why this politics started, the disenchantment with the politics of the mainstream Indian nationalism and the multiple factions of this politics and their interrelationships, particularly of groups from Punjab and Bengal. At another level, however, it is the story of Sanyal’s life, his encounters with the colonial state and the many important people he came in contact with. As Sanyal experimented with his life, he made important discoveries. As he faced an important choice between other-worldly asceticism and this-worldly activism, his inclination was towards activism. Clearly, he was attracted to the life of a karmayogi rather than that of a renouncer. His encounters with Marxism with its focus on materialism also left him largely disappointed. He found materialism to be of a limited value. Sanyal was very inspired by Vivekanand and Sri Aurobindo. It was a matter of deep regret for him that he was not able to meet either of his role models.
As Sanyal joined revolutionary politics, he constantly endeavoured to elevate it from a narrow violent struggle. As he saw it, revolutionary struggle could not simply be based on a mindless valorisation of violence. Considerable efforts had to be made into evolving a strategy for the struggle. There was an expectation that the Indians serving in the army, sufficiently trained and equipped with weapons, would be ready to strike at the colonial state at the opportune moment. At the same time, it was believed and hoped that the necessary support from other countries would also be forthcoming. Sanyal, and many others, genuinely believed that World War I had provided just the opportunity they needed.
However, Sanyal was also acutely aware that they were handicapped in their mission because of the scarcity of funds and lack of popular support. In order to make up for these deficiencies, the leaders of the revolutionary struggle constantly tried to reach out to the leaders of the mainstream nationalist politics. Sanyal records his meetings with leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, Motilal Nehru, Chitaranjan Das, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. Some were genuinely sympathetic, some indifferent and some explicitly hostile. In spite of the realisation that they were all working towards a common cause, fundamental differences on the question of violence came in the way of a larger anti-imperialist alliance. Sanyal made great individual efforts to create this alliance. He even tried to meet Gandhi to impress upon him the supreme necessity of a largest possible alliance of all the diverse anti-imperialist elements. However, in spite of noting the futility of these efforts, Sanyals’s treatment of his political opponents is not only fair, but also generous.
Sanyal is also very candid in pointing out the major flaws of the revolutionary struggle. Mutual distrust and factionalism were rampant. There was also a general lack of a literary, philosophical input, compared to the revolutionary struggles in some of the other countries. Sanyal was convinced that in the absence of a philosophical foundation, revolutionary politics would be indistinguishable from terrorist violence. On his part, he tried hard to introduce a blueprint of an ideal social order. He also tried to convince his contemporaries that it was not enough to fight against the British; it was equally important to link the struggle with a utopian vision of a future society.
Sachindra Nath Sanyal was easily one of the finest minds of his times. It requires great intellect, erudition and a certain philosophical depth to be able to write a book like ‘Bandi Jeevan’. Unfortunately, he spent the most creative years of his active life in jail, under harsh conditions. Minds such as those of Sanyal contribute much more to society under conditions of freedom rather than of captivity. It does not seem to occur to governments and state systems — of past and present — that their obstinacy and insecurity deprive the societies they govern of much creativity. It is such a pity that people who can contribute so much through their freedom end up spending their precious time in captivity.
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