The beggar woman was still sitting at the same spot — under the lamp-post.
Every time he passed her on his way to Presidency College in Calcutta where he was a student, Subhas Chandra Bose,was struck by a fresh wave of sympathy for her. She looked more decrepit and hungry every passing day. Her sad eyes and tattered clothes that hung about her wasted body pained him. He looked down guiltily at his own clean clothes.
‘What right do I have to live in a three-storied house when this miserable beggar doesn’t have a roof over her head?’ he thought. He felt as if he had committed some crime because he had things she didn’t have and felt angry at the social system that made them unequal. He wanted to help her in some unobtrusive way.
He touched the money in his pocket — the tram-fare to college. Of course! He could save that by walking and use it for charity. From that day onwards, he walked back from college, and on days he left early, he walked to it too — a distance of over three miles either way. Though the beggar still remained poor, Subhas felt a little less guilty.
Subhas Chandra Bose was a sensitive person, who felt deeply concerned about social issues. Being interested in philosophy and religion, he avidly read the works of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Aurobindo Ghosh, and Swami Vivekananda. However, it was Viveknanda’s exhortation to the youth to serve the poor of the country that struck a chord in his heart. With a few like-minded friends, he went out to do his bit for the poor and needy, which included even nursing cholera patients.
It was during these expeditions to the poorer quarters, that he came face to face with the crushing poverty, illiteracy and disease that afflicted the rural population of India. Though he was socially conscious, he didn’t take a keen interest in political matters. Neither Gandhiji’s non-violent protest against the British, nor the revolutionary activities that were discussed in the Presidency College hostel, held any particular attraction for him.
However, about the time when World War I broke out, Bose fell ill. Lying on his sick bed, he had ample time to reflect about the plight of India. While following the course of the War, he came to the conclusion that if India had to be liberated, it had to be done on all fronts — civil and military. Only the country that had military power could remain free.
There were other things that began disturbing him too. In Cuttack, where he had lived earlier, he had had no occasion to personally come in contact with racial discrimination practised by the British. He had only heard that Indians in high positions like High Court Judges and the like, were refused entry into to the upper class compartments of trains. But in Calcutta, he saw daily scenes of common Indians being humiliated by the British — in tram-cars, on the streets, even in the college, where British professors were needlessly rude to the Indian students.
Once while Bose was travelling by tram, he saw an Englishman sitting with his feet up on the seat in front of him, where an Indian gentleman was sitting. The latter who was obviously a poor clerk, squirmed uncomfortably, but silently bore the insult.
Bose couldn’t keep quiet, however. “Please put your foot down. You are soiling the clothes of the gentleman in front of you,” he told the Englishman.
“Then let him get up from the seat,” retorted the latter arrogantly. This infuriated Bose and he answered back angrily. Seeing him stand up to him, others joined in berating the Englishman. However, the Indian who had been insulted, quietly got down from the tram to avoid more ugly scenes, much to the despair of Subhas Chandra.
Bose noticed that whenever the Indians reacted to such insults, and stood up to them, the Englishmen became subdued. He understood that all it required for the Indians to be free of the British was to stand up to their atrocities and retaliate in kind.
One day, he heard about an English professor, Mr.F.E.Oaten, manhandling some students in his college. Apparently the professor was annoyed by the disturbance caused by some students passing outside his lecture room. Angry, he had come out and violently shoved the boys. Subhas Chandra Bose, who was the class representative, went along to see what the matter was. He then told the Principal about the incident.
“Sir, I think Professor, Mr.F.E.Oaten should apologise to the students,” said Bose.
“Mr.F.E.Oaten belongs to the Indian Educational Service and I don’t have the power to make him tender an apology. Moreover, he did not manhandle anyone, but only took them by their arm. I don’t think that constitutes an insult to the students,” replied the Principal defensively.
Bose tried to reason with him, but the Principal was quite adamant in his opinion. The students were incensed and the next day, there was a general strike in the college to protest against the incident. Since Presidency College was a prestigious one in Calcutta, the news of the strike sent shockwaves through the city. The Principal tried all sorts of persuasive and coercive tactics to break the strike, but didn’t succeed. Bose was singled out as the instigator of the entire event. The Principal also levied a fine on all the students who were absent.
One of the professor, who was fond of Bose felt concerned about the consequences of such a strike on his career. He called Bose. “Are you aware of what you are letting yourself in for?” he asked.
“Yes Sir. I am,” replied Bose.
“In that case, I have nothing more to say,” said the professor, with a look of sympathy.
Contrary to his professor’s fears, nothing untoward happened. By the end of the second day, Mr.F.E.Oaten was persuaded by the college authorities to settle the dispute amicably and the issue was resolved.
However, even after the students began attending classes from the next day, the Principal refused to withdraw the fine he had imposed earlier. All appeals by the students and the professors to the Principal were in vain. The students fumed in silence.
However, a month later, the same professor was involved in another such incident. This time, the students decided to take the matter in their own hands instead of resorting to strike and inviting more punishments and fines and some of the students beat up the professor in retaliation. Immediately after this, the Government of Bengal issued a notification that a committee of enquiry would be appointed to probe the continued disturbance of Presidency College and also closed the College.
The infuriated the Principal, who felt insulted because the notification had been issued without consulting him, created a scene at the office of the Member who was in charge of Education. The next day, the Principal was suspended for having insulted the Honourable Member.
Not to be cowed down, he decided to exercise his authority before it was taken away and sent for the students he had earlier blacklisted, including Bose. He gave them a look of contempt and addressed Bose.
“Bose, you the most troublesome man in the college. I suspend you,” he snarled.
“Thank you,” replied Bose and went home. All the philosophy he had read, seemed meaningless in the face of such injustice.
Soon after, the Governing Body of the College met and confirmed the Principal’s order. Bose was even denied permission to study in any other college. He was effectively rusticated from the University.
The Committee of Enquiry, headed by Sir Ashutosh Mukehrji summoned the concerned parties for questioning. Bose was one of those representing the students.
“Was the attack on Mr.F.E.Oaten justified?” asked Sir.Mukherji.
“It was not justified, but the students had acted under extreme provocation. Moreover, this is not an isolated case of discrimination against Indian students,“ replied Bose and proceeded to chronicle the incidents. The Committee listened silently.
“Had you condemned the assault on Mr.F.E.Oaten, your suspension would have been lifted,” said some friends.
“But how could I say something that I don’t believe in? I did the right thing and I don’t care about its effects on my career,” said Bose.
When the Committee gave its report, Bose’s name was singled out as the most unfavourable. After waiting in vain for something to happen that would reinstate him in the University, Bose left for Cuttack. A chapter seemed to have ended and another one about to begin in his eventful life.
As he lay on his bunk in the train en route to Cuttack, he felt curiously satisfied and happy despite his bleak future. He had done the right thing, and that was what mattered.
This incident gave Subhas Chandra Bose the courage to stand up to any crisis, regardless of the personal gains or losses it entailed. Above all, it made him confident of his leadership and aware of the martyrdom attached to it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this incident paved the way for his future role as the leader of the Indian National Army and his contribution to the Freedom Struggle of India.
(Adapted from the original, published in The Children’s World by Thangamani)Images courtesy: This page: www.hindujagruti.org