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Juri Dutta: Ideological Conflicts in Birendra Bhattacharya’s fiction

Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya. Image credit- Niyogi Books

Freedom Struggle and Ideological Conflicts in Select Assamese Fiction: With Reference to Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya

The Freedom Movement of India can be called one among the most widely fictionalised episodes in Indian literature. An event which so passionately influenced the socio-cultural, economic and political life of the country can never be ignored by the conscious, creative minds. Most of the times it is perceived that in literature there have been efforts at glorifying this event and those associated with this struggle.

Political programmes bring about changes and reactions in the lives of the people. Stephen Spender rightly stated that "....the writer who refuses to recognise the political nature of the age must to some extent be refusing to deal with an experience in which he himself is involved" (1953:215). Gotfreed Kuller, the Swedish writer said that politics is associated in all affairs of our life (Quoted in Howe, 1957: 19). In the book Politics and Novel, (1954) Irving Howe said “A mere information of Political philosophy cannot be considered as political novel, that philosophy must be deeply rooted” (1957: 102-103). In an interview with India Today correspondent Arul B Louis, Jnanpith award winning first Assamese writer Birndra Kumar Bhattacharya says, “Politics has its own life and this factor has to be taken into account in literature” (updated in internet on January 25, 2014)

The regional fictions of India of the post-independence era were deeply influenced by the epoch-making political, social and ideological philosophy of the Gandhian movement. Meenakshi Mukherjee observes that “The novel in India can be seen as the product of configurations in philosophical, aesthetic, economic and political forces in the larger life of the country” (1996: 65). For the first time the nationalist spirit was stimulated among the Indians after the First World War and further the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi became an all-India experience. However, after the 1857 Revolt and with an increase in anti-British nationalist activities during the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century, Indian novels began to be increasingly pre-occupied with Indian aspirations for freedom and the freedom struggle.

The Indian novelists of the first phrase were mainly interested in reflecting social and historical concerns. But, in the post-independence period and even in the pre-independence period in the beginning of the twentieth century, Indian writers have, directly or indirectly, engaged with contemporary social, political and economic realities. After the 1857 movement and with an increase in anti-British nationalist activities during the twenties, thirties and forties, Indian novels began to be increasingly pre-occupied with Indian aspirations for freedom and the freedom struggle. Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s patriotic, anti-imperialist Anandamath (1882) containing the song Bande Mataram that became the war-cry of the Indian revolution, belongs to the early period of this phase. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s (1876-1938) powerful novels of pro-downtrodden social realism, and Rabindranath Tagore’s novels- The Home and The World (1919) dealing with the revolutionary anti-colonial Bengal of 1905, Gora (1923) reflecting the Indian Renaissance and Char Adhyay or Four Chapters (1934) – all depict political passion. Raja Rao’s first novel Kanthapura (1938) sensitively portrays the response of Indian villages to Gandhi’s non-violent revolution. It presents the Gandhian ideology of non-violence and abolition of untouchability. It shows the influence of Gandhian ideology on common people. Gandhiji’s popular effects are noticed when we hear him chanted in a Keertan or in a village made swadeshi song, songs sung as preface to anticolonial protests, as he is considered as the main Lord of inspiration behind all actions and all political activities. There are dharnas, picketing and Satyagraha. People including children and old men are injured and wounded in large numbers. Shouts of ‘Gandhi Ki Jai’, ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ resound in the air and boost the morale of the people. There is a mass arrest and people are sent to jail. The novelist presents the Gandhian Movement impartially and objectively. There is no idealisation: both the dark and bright sides of pictures are presented.

Novels continued to document the influence of national events such as the freedom struggle and the assassination of Gandhiji on individuals and communities. For example, Bhabani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers (1947) deals with the impact of the 1942 Quit India movement and the great famine of the forties in Bengal. K A Abbas’ Inquilab (1955) focuses on the Gandhian revolution in the 1920s and 1930s. R K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma (1955) is imbued with the fire of the Gandhian freedom struggle and The Vendor of Sweets (1967) also continues the Gandhian motif. Nayantara Sahgal’s A Time to be Happy (1957) refers to the freedom struggle during the 1940s.

The journey of the Assamese novel began through translation. In the year 1848, Nathan Brown (1807-1886) translated ‘The Pilgrims’ Progress’ of John Bunyan into Assamese with the title Jatrikar Jatra which was published and circulated through the Orunodoi (the first Assamese periodical) serially. Then it was published as a book form in the year 1857. (Thakur, 26-27.) Later, Rev A K Gurney and his wife Mrs. Mary F. Laurance Gurney consecutively published the novels Kaminikanta and Elokeshy Beshyar Bishaye in the year 1877. Elokeshy Beshyar Bishaye was originally written in Bengali by Miss M E Leslie. Mrs Gurney went on to publish Phulmoni Aru Karuna (1877) which was also originally written in Bengali with the title Phulmoni O Karuna by Mrs Hannah Catherine Mullen. “Though the superiority of Christianity is the main plank to establish in this novel, yet the novel avoided to some extent the course of direct propagation” (Saikia: 149).

The Assamese fiction after 1920 was deeply influenced by the epoch-making political, social and ideological ferment caused by the Gandhian movement. From the time just before or after the independence of India, the spirit of political consciousness unveiled a new tradition in the Assamese novel. From ‘Rathar Cakari Ghure’ (1950) of Syed Abdul Malik (1919-2000) to ‘Rajpathe Ringiay’ (1955) of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, the political consciousness of the times was strongly revealed. Even before this, in a few Assamese novels written before independence, the influence of the struggle for freedom of the country and also Gandhiji’s non-cooperation movement were felt.

Dandinath Kalita’s Sadhana (1928), Daibachandra Talukdar’s Apurna (1930) and Bidrohi (1939) , Nabakanta Barua’s Kapilipariya Sadhu (1954), Jogesh Das’s (1927-1999) ‘Dawar Aru Nai’ (1955), Bina Barua’s ‘Jibanar Batat’ (1944), and Umakanta Sarma (Pashupati Bharadwaj)’s ‘Ronga Ronga Tez’ (1968) and ‘Simsangar Duti Par’ (1965) Arun Sarma’s ‘Ashirbadar Rong’ (1996) are a few Assamese novels where freedom movement appears in various modes and fervours. In Umakanta Sarma’s Ronga Ronga Tez (1968) and Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s Jnanapith award winning novel, Mrityunjoy (1970), a clear picture of the freedom struggle is depicted. ‘Yaruingam’ (1960) and ‘Mrityunjoy’ (1970) are two notable novels of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya (1924-97) where Bhattacharya has dealt with the philosophy of non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi and the plight of the common people in the freedom movement. Bhattacharya is a humanitarian. His political consciousness is expressed in his novels. But, it must be accepted that he does not want to establish a particular political philosophy. Rather the aim of his philosophy is to seek cross-cultural unity and cooperation.

There are Assamese novels that encapsulate Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and also Subhash Chandra Bose’s violent inclinations. The significant point is that there is an ideological conflict among the characters of the novels in relation to the philosophical ideas that they follow. The same author seems to be an ardent believer of Gandhian philosophy at times and also deeply inclined to the ideas of Subhash Chandra’s violent path of freedom at another time. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya can be said to be one of the most prominent among a few who wrote novels on the theme of political environment of the time of freedom movement and after that. A man with socio- political consciousness, Bhattacharya is greatly influenced by the socialistic ideas of classless society. In his novels Rajpathe Ringiay (1955), Yaruingam (The Rule of the People, 1960) and Mrityunjoy (1970), he has successfully drawn the pictures of the conflict between the philosophy of Gandhi’s non-violence and the role of Subhas Chandra Bose and his ideology based on violence in connection with the Indian freedom movement. There are a few Assamese novels (as mentioned earlier) other than these by Bhattacharya that touch upon the issues of freedom struggle and its impact on the Assamese people and Assamese mind.

But, we observe a clear note of difference in the fiction of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya and other fiction writers in dealing with the theme of the freedom movement. The strong ideological dilemma present in Bhattacharya’s novel is never seen in other novels of his time or of the time before or after him. Political consciousness of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya is clearly expressed in Yaruingam. Bhattacharya’s reflection of non-violence of Gandhiji as well as the deep impact of the freedom movement of Subhas Chandra Bose through violence (though he didn’t support it) finds expression in his two novels Yaruingam (The rule of the people) and Mrityunjoy (one who has conquered death).

Carlo Coppola observes, “Post-independence novels fall into two broad categories which both concern one basic theme: Indian aspiration for freedom and independence from Britain… Those favourable towards non-violent, more or less, peaceful expulsion of the British from India comprised one group. Their outlook could be characterised as Gandhian… The second group advocated the expulsion of the British by any means whatsoever, usually violent in nature. It consists of writers with Marxist and terrorist sympathies. Essentially, the ends for both groups were the same, only the means differed significantly” (Carlo Coppola 1978:2). We hear clear resonances of these words in Bhattacharya’s Mrityunjoy:

The leaders are of two divisions. One group wants to obey the path of non-violence and another one is for the violent one…one group has thought of guerrilla warfare (41).

In this novel, one character expresses that the non-independent India seeks independence by any means and the British should be expelled from India by hook or crook.

Although Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya didn’t support Subhas Chandra Bose’s concept of freedom movement, it is true that the freedom movement made a deep impact in his mind and this is apparent in his novels. In Yaruingam, based on the political situation of Nagaland and the love-affairs of Rishang, Khutingla, Fanitfang and Sarengla, the novelist has introduced the Naga life in the Assamese novel. Within the revolutionary fervour of a revolt and with a strong political message, the novel deals with the conflict of an opposing scales of values represented by the Christian and non-Christian, the Gandhian and the other, the three main protagonists of the narrative with their three different approaches: violence and militancy being more dominant in this ensemble. Yaruingam (1960) derives its force and relevance from its authentic depiction of life in a small Tangkhul Naga village during the turbulent period of the Second World War. The story is set in Ukhrul, a Tangkhul Naga village going through devastating changes. The impact of the Second World War is great in that small village. The novelist has been able to grasp the impact of the war in its totality making the small Naga village a microcosm of the larger reality. The novel covers a span of five years beginning with the invasion of the Japanese Army and ending by the time the most cataclysmic event of Indian history: the killing of the Mahatma.

Yaruingam is a political novel that pictures all the aspects of the Naga struggle as the novelist saw them along two different paths that diverged both in respect of the goal as well as the means to achieve that goal. Rishang is the main protagonist; his gradually evolving vision of a Naga future is embodied in the novel and at the end it is given a Gandhian mould. Contrary to that Videssellie's vision is based on militancy and violence. Shangrela's wrecked life is the author's comment on the war. Naga life in transition is also the microcosm of the larger political reality of India. With regard to the situations in the novel-the actualities of war, insurgency and the overlapping nationalist struggle for freedom, the novelist has a clear vision. As already been said, his engagement is neither entirely ideological nor intellectual. He has neither mystified identity nor has situated it in the story in other than human terms. But we must accept that it emerges from a sustained dialectic of different political ideologies. The vision of the 'People's Rule' has ultimately to be embedded in the concept of a larger or more universal human agency. It can be cited that Rishang Keishing has been projected as the follower of M K Gandhi and Videshellie has been projected as the follower of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

At one point of time Sharengla tells Rishang of Videssellie and his dream of freedom for the Nagas: "Videssellie was full of ideas when I met him at our cottage. Those ideas were however beyond my grasp. He wanted to liberate the Nagas like Subhas Bose. He has a fertile brain" (1984: 19), Sharengla concluded. "However, I feel your way is easier to understand and follow. It is crystal clear" (1984: 19). Rishang speaks of his path as being different from Videssellie's for he believes in building the life of the community anew through constructive work. Sharengla meets Khating, son of Ngazek, the Tangkhul elder who is about to join the Army. Ngazek's views on Naga ethos, tradition and the desire for freedom of the Nagas are more in tune with those of Videssellie but Khating stands for changing Naga society. According to G P Sarma, “Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya had created the character of Videssellie, a character with complete opposite ideology of Rishang with utmost care and honesty. Videssellie was a member of the Azad Hind Force of Subhash Chandra Bose. He was a follower of the ideology of Subhash Chandra Bose…in the novel, Videssellie is also a character of equal attention and equal position with Rishang...The differences between the ideas of these two characters form the basis of the novel, Iyaruingam. It can be cited that Rishang Keishing has been projected as the follower of M K Gandhi and Videssellie has been projected as the follower of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who was Fizo in practical life” (Quoted in Thakur, 2000: 431).

In the second part of the novel, the narrative is placed in Calcutta. The relevance of Gandhian ideas to the Naga situation is brought to the fore in the novel through Rishang's experience in Calcutta. Now his perceptions about certain ideas, which he had admired once, start changing. Due to his deep faith in Gandhian philosophy, he rejects communalism and terrorism. As such, he can advise his terrorist friend, Avinash, " seems to me that the unarmed struggle of Gandhiji has contributed more to the movement than this kind of barricade fighting” (1984: 157). He is deeply worried that Videssellie who professes the politics of the gun is getting stronger every day and Naga youths are getting fascinated by the romantic appeal of a guerrilla war. At times, the author seems to be confused about the right means for freedom. While depicting the character of Videssellie, Bhattacharya’s arguments are neither baseless nor superficial. Instead, both Rishang and Videssellie offer very captivating and vital points in support of their ideological base. This gives an authentic picture of the time and people about which the writer is writing. His is not a romantic picture of the freedom struggle and its impact on the common masses, neither is it all about the pain and sorrow, violence and terror associated with freedom movement. The ideological conflict of the characters actually gives a true representation of the time and society of his setting.

In his novel Mrityunjoy and in his other novels too, anti-colonialism or the anti-imperialist struggle is an important preoccupation. It is evident in the novelist’s exploration of political identities in retrospect, emerging out of the freedom struggle (Mrityunjoy: 1970) and a significant working class movement (Pratipad: 1970) of the thirties of the last century. These novels are artistically significant because they effectively and concretely embody social and political identities.

Mrityunjay is also a novel based on political issues. During the Quit India Movement in 1942 there was socio-political unrest all over the country. The young generation was confused whether they should stick to the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi or the violent path of Subhash Chandra Bose. A group of revolutionaries in Assam designed a master plan to derail a British military train in Panikhaiti, located in modern Kamrup district of Assam. The author Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya himself had witnessed the Barapathar derailment that took place in 1942. This inspired him to carve out Mrityunjoy – a fascinating tale of revolt against the British Raj. Mrityunjoy is often compared to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s masterpiece Bengali novel Anandmath which is an extremely magnificent description of the Indian against the nineteenth century British Raj.

Mrityunjoy won for him the Jnanpith Award in 1979. Gobinda Prasad Sarma talks about the internal conflict of the novel, especially of the character Mahada Goswami. Mahada Goswami’s internal conflict is actually the reflection of writer’s inner conflict regarding the means and end of a movement. Mahada Goswami is the epitome of the ideological conflicts of the writer. G P Sarma rightly says:

On one hand, as a Vaishnavite and as a follower of Gandhiji, he (Mahada Goswami) is a strict follower of non-violence. But, circumstances compel him to dwell in such a situation that he has succumbed to the shelter of violence. The novel was written at the background of such mental conflict (1995: 250).

Conflict is the predominant theme of Mrityunjoy. In the unstable situation of the Quit India Movement, the clash between the Gandhian path to independence and the more revolutionary vision of some others has been wonderfully woven into this volume. Most of the characters accepted Gandhi’s path of non-violence, but a few of them decides that, “Subhash Bose has said the truth. We have to fight a war. Jay Prakash-Lohia has shown us the right path. We have to fight Guerrilla war” (182).

The conflict of ideology of the political situation of India is well reflected in this novel. Rupnarayan, a character of Mrityunjoy says, “If we look back in the history of the world, we see people in France, in Russia, in China, in Yugoslavia who fought violent battles … Gandhiji’s war exists only in principle” (182). But, the same author expresses his views through another character, “War is very cruel. Guerrilla war is cruel too”. Such thoughts are expressed in Jogesh Das’s Dawar aru Nai when Bakhar told Bhim (whom he taught) to write a few words on war and Bhim writes:

War is a bad thing, because it degrades human being. War upsets human mind. It disrupts family life. Whoever goes for the sake of war, he is indulged in greed and then he is destroyed (1992: 105)

In the same novel, Jogesh Das expresses his views through the kind and peace-loving character, Bakhar when he speaks to his wife Kuki, “Listen Kuki, common people do not want war, everybody wants peace…But I do acknowledge that for this peace we need war”(1992: 62). Again he thinks, “We need war. To teach a lesson to these barbaric people through a gun or bayonet, we need a war” (1992: 63). The ideological conflict that is observed in the novels of Bhattacharya is definitely absent in Jogesh Das’ novel.

To a great extent, the writer and politics are intertwined with one another in their interaction with the public, without being categorical or dogmatic about commitments. Wolfgang Iser holds that "...unlike philosophies or ideologies, literature does not make its selections and its decision explicit. Instead its selections or records the signals of external reality in such a way that the reader himself is to find the motives underlying the questions, and in doing so he participates in producing the meanings" (1978:74).

Politics is part of man's history and it is men who make history. It, therefore, remains to be the privilege of the writer as man to decide upon the extent to which he may participate or stay away from the political goings on around him. Political atmosphere does touch the core of personal and collective life and the writers cannot escape from the surroundings, instead they are more sensitive to the ideas, issues and actions occurred in and around him/her. As such, they are capable of looking into the contradictory ideals and contrary values of different individuals from various angles. Such ideological conflicts are nicely depicted in Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s novels, especially in the novels like Mrityunjoy and Yaruingam where the theme of freedom struggle appears to be prominent.

The history of fiction in all languages shows the same route and direction. Indian fiction is no exception to this tendency. It selects the components necessary for its needs from the contexts of the available socio-political history and movements of its times for creative expression. The Freedom Movement of India finds its place in many Indian political novel as well as in the novels of regional languages too. These novels took its roots only with the expansion of nationalism and revolt against the foreign rule.


  1. Bhattacharya, Birendra Kumar. Mrityunjoy (One Who Conquers Death). Sahitya Prakash: Guwahati, 1970. Second Edition: 1980
  2. Bhattacharyya, B. K. Yaruingam: Peoples Rule, Guwahati, Christian Literature Centre, 1984
  3. Bhattacharyya, P.K. and P. Rajbongshi (ed) Jogesh Dasar Upanyas Samagra: Dawar aru Nai (Complete Novels of Jogesh Das), Kanaklata Das: Guwahati, 2003
  4. Coppola, Carlo. "Politics and the Novel in India: A Perspective." Politics and the Novel in India. Ed. Yogendra K. Malik. 1975. New Delhi: Orient Longman Limited, 1978. Contributions to Asian Studies, Vol. VI. 1-5. Page 2).
  5. Das, Jogesh. Dawar aru Nai (There is No Cloud), Guwahati: Cetana Prakash, 1955, 1992
  6. Howe, Irving: Politics and the Novel, Horizon Press: New York, 1957
  7. Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1978
  8. Mukherjee, Meenakshi. Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India, 2nd ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.Print.
  9. Neog, Maheswar. Asamiya Sahityar Ruprekha (Glimpses of Assamese Literature), Lawyers’ Book Stall: Guwahati, 1962.
  10. Saikia, Nagen. Background of Modern Assamese Literature, Purbanchal Prakash: Guwahati, 1988, Second edition: 2011
  11. Sarma, G.P. Upanyas aru Asamiya Upanyas (The Novel and Assamese Novel), Students’ Stores: Guwahati, 1995
  12. Spender, Stephen: World Within World, Readers Union: London, 1953
  13. Thakur, N: Axa Bacharar Axamiya Upanyax (Assamese Novels of Hundred Years) 2000, Jyoti Prakashan: Guwahati

Interview from Internet:

  • Interview of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya with India Today Correspondent Arul B. Louis UPDATED on January 25, 2014 | 14:54 IST



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