TODAY IT MIGHT SOUND LIKE A SCENE FROM A FAIRYTALE but in 1867, a national festival proudly titled Hindu Mela was birthed in Bengal with a twin objective. The first was to invoke the spirit of patriotism and rouse the Hindu society to its forgotten greatness. The Hindu Mela was suffused with devotional and patriotic songs but it was not explicitly anti-British. But with the memories of the 1857 War of Independence still fresh in their mind, the British colonial Government kept an eye on this Mela.
Generally speaking, an outgrowth of the Hindu Mela was the staging of the first political play, Bharatmata in 1873, a development that immediately alarmed the British. It was scrutinized and found that it was “not seditious but patriotic.” The brilliant success of Bharatamata spurred others to adopt this medium for nationalistic purposes. The Bengali stage was getting transformed in unforeseen ways. In less than a year, Bharatamata was followed by Purubikram, authored by Jyotirindranath Tagore, elder brother of the more famous Rabindranath. He topped this feat in 1875 with another play, Sarojini.
And then, in the same year, Dakshinacharan Chattopadhyaya’s Chakar Darpan Natak (Mirror of Tea Planters) was published. It was a highly provocative mockery of the British atrocities against the hapless and brutalized tea workers in British-owned tea plantations in Bengal. And the provocation worked, leading the British to observe that the road from patriotism to sedition was but one step. The British declared that “an attack against European tea-planters was an assault against the Government itself.” But the real revelation is the fact that Chakar Darpan Natak was never staged. Among the official papers related to the enactment of the Dramatic Performances Control Act is an English translation of this play. The mighty world-empire of Great Britain was not so mighty if a mere un-staged play could give it such shivers.
On August 14, 1875, the Surendra Binodini Natak was staged. This would have far-reaching consequences in the near future as we shall see.
IN THE FIRST WEEK OF JANUARY 1876, Edward VII (Prince of Wales) landed in Calcutta. He was received by Jagadananda Mukherjee, a prosperous Government Pleader, a code word for “slave of the British Empire.” With that, Jagadananda and his home became synonymous with scandal. The Macaulayite breed of Hindus was still nascent in that era and the Bengali Hindu society was proud of its cultural rootedness. A contemporary writer of that event describes the scene:
Barely a century later, this Hindu pride had not only vanished but a substantial chunk of Hindus was busy ransacking the British Library or queuing up outside the US Embassy for a quick, desperate escape out of filthy India with its morbid “Hindu rate of growth.”
The colonialists no longer needed guns and armies.
The backlash against Jagadananda Mukherjee was almost instantaneous. The January 20, 1876 issue of the Amrita Bazar Patrika published a damning satire by Hemachandra Banerjee who thoroughly disembowelled Jagadananda. But the Bengali Hindu society was not done yet. On February 19, the Great National Theatre in Calcutta uncurtained a new farce deliciously titled Gajadananda and Raj Kumar, leaving nothing to the imagination.
The ensuing outrage on the part of the ruling class and string-pulling behind the scenes culminated in a stern police warning: everybody involved in the play had committed an act of disloyalty by deliberately ridiculing an upright and loyal citizen, and they were hereby cautioned not to repeat it. It was an open challenge which the offenders gladly accepted. Four days later, they staged the same play with a changed title. Three more days later, they staged it a third time with an even more provocative title: Hanuman Charitra, a pun meaning, “tale of a monkey.”
Two things infuriated the British Government: the fact that on all three occasions, the play garnered huge audiences and received tremendous plaudits in the media; two, there were no existing laws that authorized the Government to act against these offenders. A furious “Lord” Northbrook passed an emergency ordinance on February 29, 1876, “empowering the Government of Bengal to prohibit certain dramatic performances which were scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene or otherwise prejudicial to the public interest.”
The Great National Theatre rejoiced at this news. Like the proverbial tiger that has tasted human blood, it decided to up the ante even further. On March 1, the very next day, it directly headbutted with the imperial Government with a new pastiche bearing a no-holds-barred title, The Police of Pig and Sheep. The play caricatured the Police Commissioner, Hogg and the Superintendent of Police, Lamb. This was followed by the selfsame Surendra Binodini Natak, which was anything but a parody. Staged on the same day, it showed a scene in which Indian prisoners smash the iron gates of the jail and kill a British magistrate.
On March 4, 1876, policemen arrested Upendranath Das, Amritalal Bose and eight others of the Great National Theatre on charges of screening an immoral drama. On march 8, the judge, Dickens sentenced Das and Bose under Sections 292 and 294 of the IPC to one month’s simple imprisonment. The rest were acquitted. The duo then appealed to the high court and were duly acquitted on March 20, leading a writer to remark as follows:
But the acquittal actually worsened matters.
THE CALCUTTA HIGH COURT JUDGEMENT also set an odious precedent, a legislative photocopy enacted by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, when he overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement in the notorious Shah Bano case.
The judgement had correctly exonerated Das and Bose but had simultaneously inflamed the British Government. As retaliation, Lytton and Salisbury enacted the despotic Dramatic Performances Control Act, 1876 (Act XIX) on December 16. Its provisions were flagrantly unambiguous:
If there is such a thing as tyranny by legislation, this is its cardinal definition with clear guidelines on how to interpret and enforce the tyranny.
Although it was pointless, the Dramatic Performances Control Act was chastised by the media as follows:
If this was not enough, the colonial Government passed another equally mercenary legislation: the Vernacular Press Act, 1878. Its provisions were similarly brutal and broke the spine of several Indian language publications and their owners and journalists. However, both legislations were ultimately powerless to douse the flames of our nationalism, a great spiritual force which treated death itself as a toy.
These repressive acts were not the real tragedy of cruelty. That happened after “independence.” Several if not all of such legislations were retained in toto by the brown-skinned neo-colonialists of the Nehru dynasty.
The Vernacular Press Act was eventually repealed in 1882 but made a sinister comeback in the form of the notorious censorship regime of Sanjay Gandhi.
And as we have seen, Disraeli-Lytton-Salisbury’s precedent of crushing judicial verdicts through executive fiat was photocopied by Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-reputed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986.
Bharatavarsha still awaits her full and real freedom.
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