By Prachi Mishra
The Swadeshi Movement, India’s first major mass movement, witnessed the rise of various political leaders like Surendranath Banerjee, K.K. Mitra and Prithwishchandra Ray, who inspired people to actively participate in the protests and rallies.
One of the front-man of the movement was Ashwini Kumar Dutt, who played a pivotal role in making the Swadeshi Movement successful. He extensively promoted the primary agenda of the protests, i.e. consumption of indigenous products and boycott foreign goods.
Ashwini Kumar was born in Barisal in 1856, just a year before the Sepoy Mutiny, the First Indian War of Independence. After completing his education in law, he settled at his homeland and started practicing at the Barisal Bar. He was told by Raj Narayan Bose, a writer and intellectual of the Bengal Renaissance, “Ashwini, you are meritorious. If you want money and fame, stay in Calcutta. You will earn a lot and become famous. But if you want to serve the country, if you want to serve the Motherland, go to Barisal, your homeland, please. Serve Barisal and you will find everything there.”
While working in Barisal he realized that corruption was particularly high in the government offices. So he decided to preach morality among people through proper education and started the ‘Brajamohan Institution’ in 1884.
The real Make in India
Other than boycotting foreign goods and promoting Indian products, the Swadeshi movement gave more emphasis to constructive programme of empowering people. It gradually developed into a movement which attempted at the vindication of the rights of the people to self- government, i.e. Swaraj.
The main purpose of Swadeshi was to educate the masses and provide employment to them, thus preparing the ground for the subsequent political agitation. The movement focused at encouraging the masses for participating in the protests.
When the Swadeshi Movement began in 1905, Ashwini Kumar Dutt had already laid down the groundwork for it in Bilsar. He had started educational institutions and volunteer organizations to enlighten the masses with the nationalistic ideals.
The Bengal anti-partition movement was most successful in Barisal because it was promoted by the students of BM Institution. In fact, the movement was so strong in the region that the British authority had to send special Gorkha force to punish the people.
Rise of Swadesh Bandhav Samiti
Ashwini Kumar also founded a ‘Swadesh Bandhav Samiti’, a popular volunteer organization. Through the activities of this samiti, Dutt was able to generate an unparalleled mass following, especially among the Muslim population in the area.
The volunteers of the samiti would visit the villages and conduct surveys of the requirements of the people. They used to find out how many people in a village were literate, what was the occupation of the villagers, what type of industry could be developed there and so on. They tried to reach out to the villagers on a daily basis.
In 1906 when famine broke out in Barisal, the ‘Swadesh Bandhav Samiti’ did a lot relief- work. Ashwini Kumar even raised a sum of Rs 96,000/- to redress the suffering of the famine-stricken people.
Taking Swadeshi To Masses
Other than using education and providing basic amenities to people, Ashwini Kumar also made use of the traditional folk culture to spread the message of Swadeshi Movement. He thought that the message of the movement should reach the doors of the masses not through lectures but through songs and musical performances.
Poets like Yaggeshwar Das, Mukunda Das were inspired by him. He asked them to spread the message of the Swadeshi Movement through their literary works. He himself wrote books on religion and patriotism like Bharatgeeti, Atmapratistha, Bhaktiyoga, Durgotsavtattva, Prem and Karmayoga.
Ashwini Kumar was so much successful in mobilizing the masses towards the Swadeshi movement that he became a cause of concern for the Britishers. They feared that arresting a popular figure like him would trigger public opinion against the rulers and people might rise in rebellion. So they decided to deport him to the United Province. But when he was being taken from Barisal all the residents of Barisal, Muslims and Hindus alike, came out on the streets.
Dr. Pabitra Kumar Gupta, former VC of the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswa Vidyalaya stated in a lecture that during the Swadeshi movement, not a single shop was allowed to sell British goods, and Swadeshi shops were set up in Barisal. This irked the Nawab of Dacca (present day Dhaka) who had a zamindari in Barisal where more than 70% people were Muslim. He asked his subjects through his agent, “Why are you not going to the bilati (foreign) shops? You are listening to what Ashwini Kumar says. Don’t you know that the Hindus hate us? We are separate. Don’t join Ashwini Kumar’s party”.
One Muslim leader then, asked the agent of the Nawab, “When we die of starvation, when there is scarcity of water in the village, when cholera breaks out in our villages, it is the ‘Babu’ (Ashwini Kumar) who always comes to our rescue. . . Can we leave him when he is in distress and being tortured by the Britishers?”
Such was the influence of this man, who always tried to raise the power of the people. Ashwini Kumar believed that the national struggle cannot be successful unless the people are involved in it and so he made great efforts to popularize the Swadeshi movement amongst the masses.