A Chapter From Sri Aurobindo’s Life
The Alipore Bomb Case took place against suspects involved in a bomb attack on April 30, 1908, targeting Magistrate Kingsford at Muzaffarpur in Bihar. The former Chief Magistrate of Calcutta Presidency was known for handing out especially harsh sentences on young political activists who, under his judicial responsibility, were also subjected to harsh corporal humiliation. In consequence, the powerful Englishman was sentenced by a secret trial-in-absence by “Jugantar” hardliners at Aurobindo Ghose’s family home in Manicktala. To execute the judgment, Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki travelled from Calcutta, duly studied Kingsford’s movements and chalked out the plan to assassinate him in the evening of that fateful day, when the target was expected to emerge from the European Club. The hurl landed on the horse carriage but not on the marked man. it killed two British women instead, the wife and daughter of barrister Pringle Kennedy. In the aftermath, Prafulla shot himself before his arrest in Mokama and Khudiram sounded the revolutionary’s signal call of “Vande Mataram” while he was led to the gallows in Muzaffarpur jail, after the verdict in May 1909.
The bomb attack was one of the many daring deeds by nationalist missionaries, fired by the cause of freedom from British rule in general. Distinct from apologetic moderates in the Congress, they were men who were prepared to use all means at their disposal to achieve their avowed aim which, at the time, was particularly representative of public anger directed against partitioning Bengal in October 1905, broadly between Hindu and Muslim majority areas. The decision was seen as a devious but blatant act of the English rulers’ attempt at perpetuating their reign through implementing a “divide and rule” policy.
The local police immediately swooped on a property of Aurobindo Ghose. His writings and letters were confiscated by the police. His family’s Manicktala garden premises where Barindra, Aurobindo’s younger brother, and other activists had been training was also raided. Along with many activists, Aurobindo Ghose was arrested on charges of planning and overseeing the attack. He was kept in solitary confinement in Alipore Jail through the trial duration, barring a few days of common stay strategically allowed by the investigating officer, Shamsul Alam, upon the advice of an approver in their midst.
In May, 1908, when the trial began, 49 people stood accused, 206 witnesses were called, around 400 documents were filed with the court and more than 5000 exhibits were produced including bombs, revolvers and acids. The trial continued for a year (1908-1909) and the judgment held Khudiram Bose as guilty.
The trial occasioned an intense battle, overt and covert, between the resourceful might of alien masters of the land and the irrepressible zeal of the nationalists. The high handed foul play of one was countered by the other with deadly effects. During the trial a revolver was smuggled into the jail that enabled Kanailal Dutt and Satyen Bose to kill Naren Gosain for being an approved informer. Kanai and Satyen refused to appeal and were hanged. On January 24, 1909 Biren Dattagupta killed Shamsul Alam, the investigating Deputy Superintendent of Police, in the Calcutta High Court. And, on February 10, Charu Basein murdered the prosecutor, Ashutosh Biswas, outside the Alipore courthouse. Neither assassin defended himself and both were hanged.
Aurobindo Ghose was defended by young Chittaranjan Das, in Alipore Sessions Court, the trial proceedings presided over by Judge C.P. Beachcroft. The counsel concluded his defence with a fervour and an eloquence that stands out even today :
My appeal to you is this, that long after the controversy will be hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, the agitation will have ceased, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed, not only in India but across distant seas and lands. Therefore, I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court, but before the bar of the High Court of History.
The Judge sentenced Barindra Ghosh and Ullaskar Dutt to death; Upendra Nath Banerjee, Bibhuti Bhusan Roy, Hrishikesh Kanjilal, Birendra Sen, Sudhir Ghosh, Indra Nundy, Abinash Bhuttacharjee, Soilendra Bose and Hem Chunder Dass to transportation for life and forfeiture of all property; Indu Bhusan Roy to transportation for life and forfeiture of property; Poresh Mullick, Sishir Ghosh and Nirapado Roy to transportation for ten years and forfeiture of property; Asoke Nundy, Balkrishna Kane and Susil Sen to transportation for seven years; Kristo Jiban Sanyal to one year’s rigorous imprisonment; and acquitted Noren Buxshi, Sochindra Sen, Nolini Gupta, Purno Sen, Bijoy Nag, Kanjilal Shaha, Hemendra Ghosh, Dharani Gupta, Nogen Gupta, Birendra Ghosh, Bijoy Bhuttacharjee, Hem Chundra Sen, Provas Dey, Dindayal Bose, Debobroto Bose, Nokhillessur Roy and Aurobindo Ghose.
F W Daly, wrote after the judgment : “Arabindo, as usual, looked stoically indifferent, but seemed well pleased with himself when he was allowed to walk out and leave the Court. The accused all embraced Baren in turn. Hem Das for the first time looked seriously depressed. I think he was disappointed at not being sentenced to death…”
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Aurobindo had been engaged in yoga practice for a few years by the time he spent that year in solitary confinement. After attending the Surat session of the Congress in 1907, Aurobindo met Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, aMaharashtrian yogi in Baroda. They retired for three days into seclusion where, following Lele’s instructions, Aurobindo had his first major experience, called nirvana – a state of complete mental silence, free of all thought or mental activity.Later, while awaiting trial as a prisoner in AliporeCentral Jail in CalcuttaAurobindo had a number of mystical experiences. In his letters, Sri Aurobindo mentions that while in jail as under-trial, the spirit of Swami Vivekananda visited him for two weeks and spoke about higher planes of consciousness leading to the supermind.
He later said, “I have spoken of a year’s imprisonment. It would have been more appropriate to speak of a year’s living in an ashram or a hermitage. The only result of the wrath of the British Government was that I found God.”
Sri Aurobindo Recounts
A Day During His Trial At Alipore Court, 1908
The nature of the case was a little strange. Magistrate, counsel, witnesses, evidence, exhibits, accused, all appeared a little outer. Watching, day after day, the endless stream of witnesses and exhibits, the counsel’s unvaried dramatic performance, the boyish frivolity and light-heartiness of the youthful magistrate, looking at the amazing spectacle I often thought that instead of sitting in a British court of justice we were inside a stage of some world of fiction. Let me describe some of the odd inhabitants of that kingdom.
The star performer of the show was the government counsel, Mr. Norton. Not only the star performer, but he was also its composer, stage manager and prompter — a versatile genius like him must be rare in the world. Counsel Mr. Norton hailed from Madras, hence it appeared he was unaccustomed and inexperienced in the common code and courtesy as it obtained among the barristers of Bengal. He had been at one time a leader of the National Organisation, and for that reason might have been incapable of tolerating opposition and contradiction, and in the habit of punishing opponents. Such natures are known as ferocious. I cannot say whether Mr. Norton had been the lion of Madras Corporation, but he certainly was the king among beasts at the Alipore court. It was hard to admire his depth of legal acumen — which was as rare as winter in summer. But in the ceaseless flow of words, and through verbal quips, in the strange ability to transmute inconsequential witness into something
serious, in the boldness of making groundless statements or statements with little ground, in riding roughshod over witnesses and junior barristers and in the charming ability to turn white into black, to see his incomparable genius in action was but to admire him. Among the great counsels there are three kinds — those who, through their legal acumen, satisfactory exposition and subtle analysis can create a favourable impression on the judge; those who can skilfully draw out the truth from the witnesses and by presenting the facts of the case and the subject under discussion draw the mind of the judge or the jury towards themselves; and those who through their loud speech, by threats and oratorical flow can dumbfound the witness and splendidly confuse the entire issue, can win the case by distracting the intelligence of the judge or the jury. Mr. Norton is foremost in this third category.
This is by no means a defect. The counsel is a worldly person, he takes money for his service, to gain the intention of the client is his duty, is what he is there for. Now, according to the British legal system the bringing out of truth by the contending parties, complainant and defendant, is not the real purpose, to win the case, by hook or by crook, is what it is really after. Hence the counsel must bend his energies towards that end, else he would be unfaithful to the law of his being. If God has not endowed one with other qualities then one must fight with such qualities as one possesses, and win the case with their help. Thus Mr. Norton was but following the law of his own being (svadharma). The government paid him a thousand rupees a day. In case this turned out to be a useless expenditure the government would be loser, Mr. Norton was trying heart and soul to prevent such a loss to the government. But in a political case, the accused have to be given wide privileges and not to emphasise doubtful or uncertain evidence were rules germane to the British legal system. Had Mr. Norton cared to remember this convention it would not have, I feel, harmed the case. On the other hand, a few innocent persons would have been spared the torture of solitary imprisonment and innocent Ashok Nandi might have even been alive. The counsel’s leonine nature was probably at the root of the trouble. Just as Holinshed and Plutarch had collected the material for Shakespeare’s historical plays, in the same manner the police had collected the material for this drama of a case. And Mr. Norton happened to be the Shakespeare of this play. I, however, noticed a difference between Shakespeare and Mr. Norton: Shakespeare would now and then leave out some of the available material, but Mr. Norton never allowed any material, true or false, cogent or irrelevant, from the smallest to the largest, to go unused; on top of it he could create such a wonderful plot by his self-created and abundant suggestion, inference and hypothesis that the great poets and writers of fiction like Shakespeare and Defoe would have to acknowledge defeat before this grand master of the art. The critic might say that just as Falstaff’s hotel bill showed a pennyworth of bread and countless gallons of wine, similarly in Norton’s plot “an ounce of proof was mixed with tons of inference and suggestion”. But even detractors are bound to praise the elegance and construction of the plot. It gave me great happiness that Mr. Norton had chosen me as the protagonist of this play. Like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in Mr. Norton’s plot at the centre of the mighty rebellion stood I, an extraordinarily sharp, intelligent and powerful, bold, bad man! Of the national movement I was the alpha and the omega, its creator and saviour, engaged in undermining the British empire. As soon as he came across any piece of excellent or vigorous writing in English he would jump and loudly proclaim, Aurobindo Ghose! All the legal and illegal, the organised activities or unexpected consequences of the movement were the doings of Aurobindo Ghose! and when they are the doings of Aurobindo Ghose then when even lawfully admissible they must contain hidden illegal intentions and potentialities. He probably thought that if I were not caught within two years, it would be all up with the British empire. If my name ever appeared on any torn sheet of paper, Mr. Norton’s joy knew no bounds, with great cordiality he would present it at the holy feet of the presiding magistrate. It is a pity I was not born as an Avatar, otherwise thanks to his intense devotion and ceaseless contemplation of me for the nonce, he would surely have earned his release, mukti, then and there and both the period of our detention and the government’s expenses would have been curtailed. Since the sessions court declared me innocent of the charges Norton’s plot was sadly shorn of its glory and elegance. By leaving the Prince of Denmark out of Hamlet the humourless judge, Beachcroft, damaged the greatest poem of the twentieth century. If the critic is allowed his right to alter poetic compositions, such loss of meaning can hardly be prevented. Norton’s other agony was that some of the other witnesses too were so caused that they had wholly refused to bear evidence in keeping with his fabricated plot. At this Norton would grow red with fury and, roaring like a lion, he would strike terror in the heart of the witness and cower him down. Like the legitimate and irrepressible anger of a poet when his words are altered or of a stage manager when the actor’s declamation, tone or postures go against his directions, Norton felt a comparable loss of temper. His quarrel with barrister Bhuban Chatterji had this holy orsАttvic anger as its root. Such an inordinately sensitive person as Mr. Chatterji I have not come across. He had no sense of time or propriety. For instance, whenever Mr. Norton sacrificed the distinction between the relevant and the irrelevant, tried to force odd arguments purely for the sake of poetic effect, Mr. Chatterji would invariably get up and raise objections and declare these as inadmissible. He did not appreciate that these were being furnished not because they were relevant or legal, but because they might serve the purpose of Norton’s stagecraft. At such impropriety not Norton alone but Mr. Birley could hardly contain himself. Once Mr. Birley addressed Chatterji in a pathetic tone: “Mr. Chatterji, we were getting on very nicely before you came.” Indeed so, if one raises objections at every word the drama does not proceed, nor has the audience the joy of it.
If Mr. Norton was the author of the play, its protagonist and stage manager, Mr. Birley may well be described as its patron. He seemed to be a credit to his Scotch origin. His figure was a symbol or reminder of Scotland. Very fair, quite tall, extremely spare, the little head on the long body seemed like little Auchterlonie sitting on top of the sky-kissing Auchterlonie monument, or as if a ripe coconut had been put on the crest of Cleopatra’s obelisk! Sandy-haired, all the cold and ice of Scotland seemed to lie frozen on his face. So tall a person needed an intelligence to match, else one had to be sceptical about the economy of nature. But in this matter, of the creation of Birley, probably the Creatrix had been slightly unmindful and inattentive. The English poet Marlowe has described this miserliness as “infinite riches in a little room” but encountering Mr. Birley one has an opposite feeling, infinite room in little riches. Finding so little intelligence in such a lengthy body one indeed felt pity. Remembering how a few such administrators were governing thirty crores of Indians could not but rouse a deep devotion towards the majesty of the English masters and their methods of administration. Mr. Birley’s knowledge came a cropper during the cross-examination by Shrijut Byomkesh Chakravarty. Asked to declare when he had taken charge of the case in his own benign hands and how to complete the process of taking over charge of a case, after years of magistracy, Mr.
Birley’s head reeled to find these out. Unable to solve the problem he finally tried to save his skin by leaving it to Mr. Chakravarty to decide.
Even now among the most complex problems of the case the question remains as to when Mr. Birley had taken over this case. The pathetic appeal to Mr. Chatterji, which I have quoted earlier, will help one to infer Mr. Birley’s manner of judgment. From the start, charmed by Mr. Norton’s learning and rhetoric, he had been completely under his spell. He would follow, so humbly, the road pointed out by Norton. Agreeing with his views, he laughed when Norton laughed, grew angry as Norton went angry. Looking at this daft childlike conduct one sometimes felt tenderly and paternally towards him. Birley was exceedingly childlike. I could never think of him as a magistrate, it seemed as if a school student suddenly turned teacher, was sitting at the teacher’s high desk. That was the manner in which he conducted the affairs of the court. In case someone did not behave pleasantly towards him, he would scold him like a schoolmaster. If any one of us, bored with the farce of a case, started to talk among ourselves, Mr. Birley would snap like a schoolmaster, in case people did not obey he would order everybody to keep standing and if this was not done at once he would tell the sentry to see to it. We had grown so accustomed to the schoolmasterish manner that when Birley and Chatterji had started to quarrel we were expecting every moment that the barrister would now be served with the stand up order. But Mr. Birley adopted an opposite course Shouting “Sit down, Mr. Chatterji”, he made this new and disobedient pupil of the Alipore School take his seat. Just as when a student asks questions or demands further explanation an
irritated teacher threatens him, so whenever the advocate representing the accused raised objections Mr. Birley would threaten him. Some witnesses gave Norton a hell of a time. Norton wanted to prove that a particular piece of writing was in the handwriting of such-and-such accused. If the witness said “No sir, this is not exactly like that handwriting, but may be, one cannot be sure,” — many witnesses answered like that — Norton would become quite agitated. Scolding, shouting, threatening, he would try somehow to get the desired answer. And his last question would be, “What is your belief? Do you think it is so or not?” To this the witness could say neither “yes” nor “no”, every time, again and again, he would repeat the same answer and try to make Norton understand that he had no “belief” in the matter and was swayed between scepticisms. But Norton did not care for such an answer. Every time he would hurl the same question, like thunder, at the witness: “Come, sir. what is your belief?” Mr. Birley, in his turn, would catch fire from the embers of Norton’s anger, and thunder from his high seat above: “Tomar biswas ki achay?”
Poor witness! he would be in a dilemma. He had no “biswas” (belief), yet on one side of him was ranged the magistrate, and on the other, like a hungry tiger, Norton was raging in a circle to disembowel him and get at the priceless never-to-be-had “biswas”. Often the “biswas” would not materialise, and his brain in a whirl, the sweating witness would escape with his life from the torture chamber. Some who held their life dearer than their “biswas” would make good their escape by offering an artificial “biswas” at the feet of Mr. Norton, who also, now highly pleased, would conduct the rest of the cross examination with care and affection. Because such a counsel had been matched with a magistrate of the same calibre the case had all the more taken on the proportions of a play.
Though a few of the witnesses went against Mr. Norton the majority answered in support of his questions. Among these there were few familiar faces. One or two we of course knew. Of these Devdas Karan helped to dispel our boredom and made us hold our sides with laughter, for which we shall be eternally grateful to him. In course of giving evidence he said that at the time of the Midnapore Conference when Surendrababu had asked from his students devotion to the teacher,gurubhakti, Aurobindobabu had spoken out: “What did Drona do?” Hearing this Mr. Norton’s eagerness and curiosity knew no bounds, he must have thought “Drona” to be a devotee of the bomb or a political killer or someone associated with the Manicktola Garden or the Student’s Store. Norton may have thought that the phrase meant that Aurobindo Ghose was advising the giving of bombs to Surendrababu as a reward instead of gurubhakti. For such an interpretation would have helped the case considerably. Hence he asked eagerly: “What did Drona do?” At first the witness was unable to make out the nature of the (silly) question. And for five minutes a debate went on, in the end throwing his hands high, Mr. Karan told Norton: “Drona performed many a miracle.” This did not satisfy Mr. Norton. How could he be content without knowing the whereabouts of Drona’s bomb? So he asked again: “What do you mean by that? Tell me what exactly he did.” The witness gave many answers, but in none was Dronacharya’s life’s secret unravelled as Norton would have liked it. He now lost his temper and started to roar. The witness too began to shout. An advocate, smiling, expressed the doubt that perhaps the witness did not know what Drona had done. At this Mr. Karan went wild with anger and wounded pride,abhimАna. “What”, he shouted, “I, I do not know what Drona had done? Bah, have I read the Mahabharata from cover to cover in vain?” For half an hour a battle royal waged between Norton and Karan over Drona’s corpse. Every five minutes, shaking the Alipore judge’s court, Norton hurled his question: “Out with it, Mr. Editor! What did Drona do?” In answer the editor began a long cock and bull story, but there was no reliable news about what Drona had done. The entire court reverberated with peals of laughter. At last, during tiffin time, Mr. Karan came back after a little reflection with a cool head, and he suggested this solution of the problem, that poor Drona had done nothing and that the half-hour long tug of war over his departed soul had been in vain, it was Arjuna who had killed his guru, Drona. Thanks to this false accusation, Dronacharya, relieved, must have offered his thanks at Kailasha to Sadashiva, that because of Mr. Karan’s evidence he did not have to stand in the dock in the Alipore bomb conspiracy case. A word from the editor would have easily established his relationship with Aurobindo Ghose. But the all-merciful Sadashiva saved him from such a fate.