When a Bengali Novel became a threat to the British Empire

Excerpts from the English Translation of Pather Dabi The Right of Way, by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Translated by Prasenjit Mukherjee, published by Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd, in 2002; We are grateful to the publishers for permission to carry this excerpt.

Eighty Nine Years ago, on January 4, 1927, Pather Dabi, the Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee was proscribed by the British government and the author prosecuted on charges of sedition. The novel had been serialized in the monthly journal, Bangabani between 1922 and 1926; but when it first appeared in book form on August 31, 1926 that the decision to proscribe it was taken. We bring our readers excerpts from this novel that had sold out 5,000 copies with a week of its publication.

The novel was banned by the British Government on January 4, 1927 for 'preaching of sedition' under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The Fazlul Hoque Governent lifted this ban on March 1, 1939. The Muslim League Government following the Dramatic performance Act debarred the theatrical performance of Pather Dabi and it was only after Independence in 1947 that it was staged at the famous Rangmahal Theater.

The story of Sabyasachi, the charismatic leader of the military organization called Pather Dabi and the powerful women in his life, is one of agony and ecstasy and continues to stir the public imagination.

Introduction to the Book (from the English Translation)

Pather Dabi was first serialized in a monthly journal, Bangabani, between Phalgun 1329 (February-March 1922) and Baishakh 1333 (April-May 1926).

As the novel appeared in Bangabani, in monthly installments, the British government took note of the bitter criticism of the British rule contained in it, the highly inflammatory tone of the writing, and the insurgency that it advocated. It was decided to proscribe the novel when it appeared in a book form, and to prosecute the author and the publisher on charges of sedition. This was disclosed to the publisher of Bangabani, Ramaprasad Mukherjee, by Rai Bahadur Tarakhan Sadhu who, in addition to being the Public Prosecutor, was also a writer and an admirer of Saratchandra.

The last chapter which appeared in Bangabani carried the legend ‘To be continued’ at the end to delude the authorities into believing that the episodes would continue for some more months.

In the meantime arrangements were made to publish the novel in a book form. Sudhir Chandra Sarkar, proprietor of Messrs M. C. Sarkar & Sons, had earlier agreed to publish the novel and had even paid an advance of one thousand rupees to the author. But after consulting his lawyer, he told Saratchandra to delete the objectionable portions which the author refused to do.

Saratchandra returned the advance which he had received from the firm and approached Haridas Chatterjee of Messrs Gurudas Chatterjee & Sons, who had published most of his earlier books. But they too backed out.

Ramaprasad Mukherjee, who had serialized the novel in his magazine, then agreed to publish the book. But another problem cropped up. No press was willing to print it. Finally, the Cotton Press belonging to the booksellers, Messrs S.C. Lahiri & Sons, agreed to print it.

The novel was published as a book on August 31, 1926. Umaprasad, younger brother of Ramaprasad Mukherjee, was shown as the publisher, and Satya Kinkar Banerjee, manager of the Cotton Press, as the printer. It was apprehended that the British government might arrest the author, the publisher, and the printer on charges of sedition, or at least institute cases eventualities. Ramaprasad offered to defray the expenses if a sedition case was initiated by the government.

The book became so popular that the first edition of 5,000 copies was sold out within the first week itself. When the police came to the office of the Bangabani to seize the copies of the book, not a single copy was found. Then, at their special request, Ramaprasad obtained a copy of the book from his youngest sister and gave it to the police.

In November 1926, Sir Charles Tegart, Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Political Department:
‘I have the honour to forward herewith, for consideration and orders of Government, the translation of objectionable passages from the book entitled Pather Dabee written by Saratchandra Chatterjee, a well-known novelist in Bengal, printed by Satya Kinkar Banerjee from the Cotton Press, 57, Harrison Road, and published by Umaprasad Mukherjee, 77, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Bhawanipore, Calcutta. A printed copy of the book was sent to the Public Prosecutor, Calcutta, for his opinion, and he advises that the book is liable to be proscribed under Section 99A of the Criminal Procedure Code and the author and the printer to be prosecuted under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.’
(Confidential No. 605/26 dated 23.11.1926)

B. L. Mitter, the then Advocate-General of Bengal, dealt with the case in considerable detail and gave his opinion in favour of only proscribing the novel. The Chief Secretary, W. D. R. Prentice, agreed with him and issued the following notification:
Gazette Notification
No. 103P. The 4th of January, 1927.
‘In exercise of the power conferred by Section 99A of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, as amended by the Third Schedule of the Press Law Repeal and Amendment Act 1922 (Act XIV of 1922), the Governor in Council hereby declares to be forfeited to his Majesty all copies, wherever found, of the Bengali book entitled Pather Dabi, written by Sri Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, printed by Sri Satya Kinkar Bandopadhyay at the Cotton Press, 57, Harrison Road, Calcutta, and published by Sri Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay, 77, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Calcutta, on the ground that the said book contains words which bring or attempt to bring into contempt to bring into contempt and excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in British India, the publication of which is punishable under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.’

Saratchandra felt that, whether it produced any result or not, there should be a protest against the action of the government. He approached Rabindranath Tagore and requested him to consider whether it was not desirable to make a protest.

Rabindranath wrote back:
‘I had gone through your book Pather Dabi. It causes excitement; that is, it causes disaffection in the mind of the reader against the British rule. It may not be objectionable on the part of the author to do this, because if he feels that the British rulers deserve to be censured and it is his duty to expose them, he cannot keep quiet. But he must be prepared to face the danger arising out of his action. It is, I think, undignified to expect that the British government will deal with us leniently when we denounce it.

‘I have visited many countries. It is my experience that no other government, whether Indian or foreign, tolerates its criticism by its own subjects as patiently as the British government does. If we are bold enough to speak ill of the British government not out of our own strength of mind, but taking advantage of their patience, we demean ourselves, and show by our behavior that we actually have regards for the British government. The government has the physical force; if we consider it our duty to stand against it, we must possess the spiritual force. But we expect that from our British rulers, not from ourselves. That proves that whatever we might say, we unconsciously admire the British government. When we denounce that government in the expectation that they will not take any punitive action against us, we show by our behavior how we admire them. If we consider that even though the British government is all powerful, they have simply proscribed your book and not taken any action against you, it is almost an act of pardon. No other government, whether in the east or the west, would have done this. That our own government would not have done so had India been a free country is amply proved by the behaviour of the Indian rulers and our own landlords.

‘But does that mean that you should give up writing against the government? No, I don’t suggest that. You should write if you feel that it is your duty to do so, but you should be fully prepared for the punishment. Whenever there has been a conflict between any government and its subjects, the rebellious subjects rose against their government knowing fully well that it would not leave them in peace.

‘Had you written seditious things in newspapers, it would not have any lasting effect. But when a writer of your standing writes against the government even in a novel, it will have enormous effect on the people for all times to come. Every reader, from boys and girls in their teens to old men and women, will be greatly influenced by your writing. In the circumstances, had the British government not proscribed your book, it would have proved that they were either unaware of your power as a writer and your high position in Bengali literature, or were contemptuous of your influence. When you attack a powerful government, you must be prepared for a counter-attack. Only then will your attack be meaningful. If, however, you start bemoaning the government’s counter-attack, your own attack will lose all its significance.’ (Magh 27, 1933.)

As the novel appeared in Bangabani, in monthly installments, the British government took note of the bitter criticism of the British rule contained in it, the highly inflammatory tone of the writing, and the insurgency that it advocated. It was decided to proscribe the novel when it appeared in a book form

This letter of Rabindranath aggrieved Saratchandra who felt it contained a veiled insinuation that he wanted to protest against the action of the government merely to save his own skin. He wrote the following reply but, on second thoughts, did not dispatch it.
‘I am in receipt of your letter. Very well, let it be as you say.

‘As I am the author of this book, its proscription by the government might have made me unhappy, but that need not be taken into consideration. I have nothing to say about your decision and about your views. But I would like to say something on one or two points raised by you in your letter. If it appears as an explanation of my conduct, well, I can offer that to you alone.

‘You say that a perusal of this book causes disaffection in the reader’s mind towards the British government. That indeed was the intention. But had I gone so by writing something false or untrue, certainly I would have had reason to feel ashamed or guilty. But to the best of my knowledge and belief, I have not written anything that might be regarded as untrue. Had I gone so, the book would have become a piece of political propaganda, and not a work of art. For various reasons no writer in Bengal has written such a book before. When I wrote it and published it, I did so knowing fully well what might be the consequences.

‘When, throughout India, large numbers of people are being imprisoned or externed by the government on flimsy grounds without trial or in flagrant miscarriage of justice, I did not entertain any hope that I would escape scot-free; nor do I have any such hope even today. The government will choose its own time to take action against me sooner or later. I have reasons to believe that the delay in taking action does not mean that they have given up the idea of prosecuting me. However, that’s entirely my personal affair. If, as a writer of Bengal, I have to suffer punishment even though I have not written, anything untrue in my book, I am prepared to face it, whether I do so quietly or by shedding tears. But does that mean that there is no necessity for protesting against the government action in proscribing the book? The protest may bring in further punishment, but I feel that there should be further protest against that. Otherwise our silence may be interpreted as acceptance of the government’s physical force as justifiable. That is why I wanted that there should be a formal protest against the government’s action. Otherwise I had not the faintest hope that as a result of our protest, the government would lift the ban and the book would be printed again.

‘If one is imprisoned on a charge of theft or dacoity, one can file an appeal in the High Court. If the appeal is dismissed, one should not bewail his lot because he was given three years’ rigorous imprisonment instead of two years’! A prisoner is not given milk or butter in the jail. I feel it is shameful to start an agitation over this. But if the jail authorities supply them grass to eat instead of coarse rice and force them to eat it by belabouring them with sticks, the prisoners have, I feel, a right to call such action oppressive and to protest against it.

‘As I have written the book myself, I alone am responsible for it. The important point is whether I have said all that was considered necessary. I did not bank on the British government’s sense of justice or forgiveness. I wrote whatever I considered necessary for the good of my country. All my literary work is based on this basic conception.

‘You say that no other government in the east or the west, including Indian rulers, has as much patience as the British government. I do not have the necessary experience to deny this. But that was not my point at all. What I wanted to emphaise is this: if the British government has any justification for proscribing this book, the people of subjugated India have an equal justification in protesting against the government action.

‘I feel that an injustice has been done to me when it is hinted in your letter that I wanted to protest against the government action simply to escape punishment and to save my own skin. That was not my intention. If my countrymen do not wish to protest, I will have to do it myself. I propose to do so not by starting an agitation, but by writing another such book.

‘You have been engaged for a long time in the service of the country. You have vast experience of the state of affairs in other countries. Had you told me that the publication of this book would be harmful for the country, I would not have minded it. To err is human. I would have thought that I had made a mistake.

‘I am not writing this letter as a complaint. I have expressed freely what was in my mind. Had I any sense of grievance against you, I would have kept quiet. I am in quest of truth. That is why I have exiled myself to this obscure place. I feel my days are numbered. So I wanted to do something really good for the country.

‘If due to my ignorance or excitement, this letter appears to be impolite at any place, kindly forgive me. I am one of your many admirers. I cannot think of giving you offence in any way, by my speech or writing.’ (2nd Phalgun, 1333.)

Saratchandra had originally planned to write a sequel to Pather Dabi, but he gave up the idea due to ill health.

Saratchandra died on January 16, 1938. On 16 January 1939, a public meeting was organised at the Albert Hall in Calcutta, on the occasion of his first death anniversary. A resolution was passed in this meeting requesting the government to lift the ban on Pather Dabi. After two months, the Fazlul Haque ministry, which was then in power in Bengal, lifted the ban.

In Baishakh 1346 (April-May 1939), a second edition of Pather Dabi was published.

Excerpts from Chapter 26 of the Novel
….Doctor gave no reply to her earnest request and continued to row the boat in silence. Bharati could not see his face in the darkness but his silence filled her with hope. When she spoke her voice was warm and hopeful. ‘Then will you take me with you?’ she asked. ‘You’re my only hope. Everything else seems shrouded in darkness.’

Doctor shook his head slowly. ‘That’s impossible,’ he said. ‘You know, Bharati, you remind me of Joan. Like you, her life too turned to ashes. My sole aim in life is to achieve the independence of India, but I’ve never made the mistake of thinking that there can be nothing greater in life. Independence is not an end in itself. Religion, peace, literature, happiness, are all greater than that. It’s for their fullest development that freedom is essential; else of what use is it? Your heart, which is full of love, affection, compassion and sweetness, is far more valuable than freedom. It’s far greater than anything I’ve ever strived for. I can’t sacrifice it for the sake of independence!’

Bharati was filled with joy. This was an entirely different facet of Sabyasachi’s personality that was now revealed to her. She said reverently, ‘I feel that there’s nothing that you don’t know. But if this is so, why should you be engaged in conspiracy? Why go round setting up secret societies in different countries? Certainly no good can come out of that.’

‘That’s right,’ said Doctor. ‘But we’ve left the greatest good of man in the hands of God. We try to achieve only what’s possible for ordinary mortals like us. Freedom of speech and freedom of movement – these are the only two things we seek for our people. Nothing more than that at present!’
That’s what everyone wants,’ said Bharati. ‘But does that call for intrigue and murder?’

As soon as she uttered these words, she felt ashamed. Because the accusation was not only harsh, but also untrue. ‘Forgive me,’ she said with repentance. ‘I said that out of anger. I can’t reconcile myself to the thought that you’ll go away leaving me behind.’

‘I know that,’ smiled Doctor.

Both remained silent for a long while.

Around this time the Swadeshi movement was at its peak in India. The leaders of this movement were going around delivering inflammatory speeches during their spare hours, exhorting the people to fight for the freedom of their country without violating the provisions of the law. The summation of these speeches used to appear in the daily newspapers.  Bharati used to read these reports occasionally and was full of admiration for these leaders. On the previous night she had read one such inspiring report in the newspaper. This had made quite an impact on her mind and consequently left her agitated throughout the day.

Recalling this, she now said, ‘I know that there’s no place for you in the entire British empire, but the whole world in not under their domination. Why don’t you go to a place not under their control and carry on your agitation openly for achieving your goal?’

After waiting for a few moments for a reply, she added, ‘Although I can’t see your face in the darkness, I’ve no doubt you’re laughing at me. But you and your party aren’t the only people engaged in the freedom struggle. Those who are veterans in the political field …. By the way, did you read yesterday’s Bengali newspaper?’

Before she could finish, Doctor burst out laughing. ‘Please, for heaven’s sake, Bharati, don’t show disrespect to those venerable persons by comparing them with us.’

‘It’s not I, but you who’s making fun of them.’

Doctor shook his head violently. ‘Not in the least. I’ve the greatest respect for them. Besides, no one enjoys their speeches more than I do.’

Bharati was unconvinced. ‘Your methods may be different,’ she said, ‘but certainly your objectives are the same.’

Doctor kept quiet for a while and then said, ‘It’s true I was laughing so long, but now I shall be angry. It’s well known that our methods are different, but didn’t you realize all this time that our objectives were even more dissimilar? There are many countries in this world which are independent. Freedom is the greatest glory of mankind. But according to the laws framed by the British, it is seditious for Indians to ask for independence, it is seditious even to wish for it, leave aside striving to achieve it. I’m guilty of that sedition. British law presupposes that India will forever remain under their domination. So your veteran leaders don’t claim anything that may be construed as a transgression of the law. Supposing like the Manchu rulers of China, the British had passed a law requiring every Indian to sport a two-and-a-half-foot-long pigtail, our veteran leaders would never have protested against this irrational legislation. Instead they would’ve started an agitation proclaiming that a grave injustice had been committed and that the length of the pigtail should be reduced to two and a quarter feet only.’ Amused at his own joke, Doctor burst into a loud guffaw, disturbing the stillness of the placid river.



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