Indian freedom struggle can be subdivided into three phases. The first phase is the moderate phase which as the name suggests was moderate both in terms of means and methods.
The second phase is characterised by extremism, extremists took an aggressive stance against the British rule and did not hesitate in resorting to extra-constitutional or non-constitutional methods of agitation.
The third and last phase is the Gandhian phase which is characterised by mass struggle. The history of our freedom struggle is not a single homogeneous story. It has several diverse at times, contradictory strands that intertwine and influence each other and unfold into the narrative of India’s independence.
The Extremists did not believe in the methods of moderates. They thought that the British would not pay heed to the voices of the nationalists unless some pressure was brought on them. According to the Extremists, the trust in the intentions of the colonial rulers was misplaced. Indians, instead, should rely on their own resources to improve their conditions. But this could not be done under the foreign rule. Therefore, self-government was needed.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak the most prominent leader of the Extremists, declared that 'Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”.
Aurobindo Ghosh, another leader, attacked the very foundation of the Western civilisation and asserted that the Indians should oppose not only the political aspects of the foreign rule but also abandon the foreign goods, foreign dress, foreign language and foreign habits and manners.
The most important leaders of the Extremist wing were Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghosh and Lala Lajpat Rai.
Factors responsible for the growth of extremism:
The moderate leaders' inability to obtain any meaningful results from the British authorities was the primary driver of extremism's ascent. The partition of Bengal in 1905 revealed the true colours of the British rulers to the Indians.
Already disappointment was brewing owing to the inadequacy of the Indian councils' act of 1892, which was fuelled by the growing ignorant attitude of the raj.
The moderates were criticised for being too cautious and politics with stereotyped as the politics of mendicancy. Moderates failed to put enough pressure to gain concessions.
Partition of Bengal
Lord Curzon’s policies created immense discontent, the partition of Bengal in 1905 met severe protests. The authorities claimed reorganisation was undertaken to serve administrative convenience but the real underlying cause was growing nationalistic spirit and Hindu-Muslim cohesiveness.
It was here that the Britisher's real intentions of creating rifts within the society were unmasked. It was not an administrative decision rather it was a politically motivated move.
Partition revolutionised the political life of Bengal, according to RC Majumdar, the movement had the character of an incipient rebellion, an undeclared war between the government and the people.
It is interesting both the cause and consequence of tensions, contradictions and confrontation between the moderates and extremists. The differences between the moderates and the extremists became official in the Surat session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1907.
Extremists wanted to extend the programme of swadeshi and boycotts from Bengal to the rest of India. They wished to not only politically boycott the raj but also economically and intellectually reject anything foreign. This created rifts and ultimately split was inevitable.
Poverty, Famine and Unemployment:
The Delhi Durbar held in 1903 when people had not fully recovered from the horrific effects of the famine that killed lakhs of people drew widespread condemnation.
British imposed excise duty on cotton goods produced in India to help the British trading interests.
At the international level, the defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 exploded the myth of the invincibility of the white.
Political extremism in the second half of the 19th century was not just a reaction to moderate failures. It drew its inspiration and ideology from a cultural and intellectual movement that unfolded simultaneously in parallel to the moderate politics of the Indian National Congress.
There was a fear among some leaders that the moderates with their westernised notions were trying to create an India in the image of the West. There was a revival of national pride at that time.
Methods of Extremist Leaders
The extremists were ready to suffer imprisonment, deportation and other physical sufferings for the sake of mobilising the masses for the struggle against foreign rule. They saw the struggle against foreign rule as a full-time activity and devoted their whole life to it.
The extremists aimed at preparing the masses for the struggle to gain ‘Swaraj’ by educating them, uniting them and instilling in them a sense of self-respect, self-reliance, and pride in their ancient heritage.
Aurobindo Ghose and Lokmanya Tilak had played a major role in developing the blueprint of the extremist programme, They majorly drew inspiration from India’s past.
‘Boycott’ of foreign goods and promotion of ‘Swadeshi’ goods to give impetus to the growth of indigenous industry and commerce. The working-class participated in large numbers, hence strengthening the movement.
Non-cooperation with the bureaucracy; this included ‘boycott’ of governmental activities.
Establishment of schools and colleges that imparted education in the Indian languages and infuse national pride among students for the glorious heritage of India, making the students nationalistic and public-spirited in character and knowledgeable, self-reliant and independent in spirit.
‘Passive Resistance’ to British rule by non-payment of revenue and taxes and by organising separate ‘indigenous administrative institutions’ parallel to those of the British at the level of villages, talukas and districts.
How were they different from the Moderates?
They did not stick to constitutional methods to protest and demand. They resorted to boycotts, strikes, etc.
They also burned foreign-made goods.
They believed in confrontation rather than persuasion.
The Swadeshi movement gathered momentum in India because of the extremists’ support. This led to the establishment of Indian banks, mills, factories, etc.
They were strongly against British imperialistic policies in India.
They took pride in Indian culture and history. They looked at the ancient scriptures for inspiration and courage.
They believed in sacrificing everything including life for the cause of the motherland.
They opposed the westernisation of Indian society by the British.
They were very vocal in their opposition to British rule, unlike the moderates who had faith in British justice.
They tried to instil self-respect and patriotism in the people by invoking past heroes like Ashoka, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap and Rani Laxmibai.
They did not believe in loyalty to the British Crown.
Government Reaction to Extremists:
The government attacked the extremist leaders vigorously. Various laws were passed to check their activities and influence. The following laws were passed between 1907 and 1911:
Seditious Meetings Act, 1907
Indian Newspapers (Incitement to Offences) Act, 1908
Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908
The Indian Press Act, 1910.
Tilak was sentenced and served in prison in Mandalay (Burma) for writing in support of revolutionaries who were involved in the killing of two British women (their original target was a British magistrate.)
Under the Extremist leadership, the Indian National Movement gradually began to acquire a mass character. However, the extremists could not fully exploit the potential of mobilised people or of their radical methods like boycotts and passive resistance.
They were successful in arousing the urban middle and lower classes, apart from mobilising the peasants and workers.
Extremist nationalism proved short-lived. Between 1907-08 when its prominent leaders were arrested the entire movement was rendered leaderless. Those who survived took to revolutionary terrorism. Another major criticism is the saffronisation of the movement, it failed to bring under its ambit the Muslim masses, the Hindu tint marked by Shivaji and Ganpati processions discouraged wider participation of Muslim masses.
The Extremist leaders used religious symbols in arousing the masses; however, they did not mix religion and politics. Their concept of nationhood encompassed all religions in India.
Though the ‘Dharma’ advocated by leaders like Tilak and Lajpat Rai looked like it had a Hindu connotation, for the extremists, it actually meant ‘universal.
Significance of the Extremists/Conclusion
There was a fundamental change in the nature of Indian nationalism under extremist leadership due to their forceful articulation of the demand for ‘Swaraj’ and the use of more radical methods than those of the moderates. Their concept of nationalism was emotionally charged and based on a rich interpretations of Indian religious traditions. The Extremist leaders tried to reorient Indian religious traditions to worldly life and link them with the national liberation struggle.
Aurobindo Ghosh reinterpreted Vedanta philosophy, which advocated the unity of man and God and based his concept of nationalism on it. The extremists conceived the nation as ‘Mother India’, which represented united power or Shakti of millions of her children.
Tilak reinterpreted the message of the Gita in his famous book Gita Rahasya. The new nationalism of the extremists was an “attempt to create a nation in India by reviving the spirit and action of the ancient Indian character.” They vehemently opposed foreign rule. According to them, a good or just government was not a substitute for self-government and freedom was an inalienable right of all human beings.
The extremists emphasised the mobilisation of people against foreign rule by launching political movements. If the nation was not ready to undertake political movement, then it was the duty of the leaders to prepare the people for it. The demonstrations, processions undertaken by the extremists brought about an involvement of the common people in agitations against British rule. They also made use of popular symbols like Shivaji and religious symbols like God Ganapati and Goddess Kali for mobilising the people.