Freedom Issue 2016: Feature

Written in Stone

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Tracing the origins of a historic Congress split in the city of diamonds

EYES PEELED FOR the slightest glint of light reflected by a flashpoint event that took place under extreme pressure long years ago, your correspondent descends on Diamond City Surat for an overnight tryst with infamy. The stone I am looking for, however, is not a jewel, but a memorial slab that might mark the spot where the infamous ‘Surat Split’ of the Indian National Congress—over the ideal way to pursue self-rule— happened back in December 1907, and I begin by asking Suratis at random if they could direct me to the site.

“No idea, try Google?” says the first one asked, a young lady who’d be echoed by dozens of others. It’s of no help. All that Google is good for, really, is a zoom-in on the map: to marvel at Surat asparkle at the Gulf of Khambat right under Saurashtra, Gujarat, a sight that justifies its name as much as fame. Function often follows form, and it’s clear why it was India’s greatest port city once upon a time.

My cabbie offers to drive me to the old fort at Chowk Bazaar. “Uske baaju meeting hoyaa hogaa, pataa nahin,” he says; it must’ve been held next to it, the Congress Session of 1907, he doesn’t know. This is a guess that’s hazarded over and over by the young and ageing alike, regardless of education, income and wi-fi access levels, almost as if this fort is the only thing that any reference to history springs to the Surati mind.

But then, why should locals bother? It’s a city of commerce, out and out, and with the razzle-dazzle of jewellery and ethnicwear all around, it would seem there’s little to do here but go shaadi shopping. Or scout for a business opportunity— which, a streetside gathering is convinced, is the actual purpose of my visit. “Arrey, bolaa na, patrakaar hai,” one snaps at another, endorsing my credentials as a reporter. “Inko pehle bhejte hain, bijnase waale,” replies the fellow, making me out to be an undercover agent sent for a business reccé of some sort.

Well, that’s Surat for you, says Professor Arun Pandya, who declares himself equally clueless about the object of my quest but explains the shrugs of apathy. “It’s the old laala culture here. They only want to enjoy life. Yes, local people took part in the freedom struggle, but today, that consciousness is not there,” says he, an assistant professor of Sociology at Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, named after the city’s poet laureate. “It’s also a city of migrants,” he adds, with Surat-borns now in a minority after the past decade’s boom; not that he thinks even they would have any inkling of the 1907 event. No, VNSG University has no History department, but he asks me to try my luck at MTB Arts College, an affiliate that does.

That Surat has thrived on zari, zaveri and all that glitters since time immemorial is common knowledge, though, a reputation going back to its early days as an import point for pearls got from another gulf across the sea. So it’s a surprise that diamond polishing—which employs about half a million workers at some 5,000 local units in a vast ‘industry of trust’ as Surat Diamond Association President Dinesh Navadiya calls it—began in earnest only six decades ago. It was in 1955, he says, that a few Bohra merchants got back from a wood-sourcing trip to Burma with a bagful of raw diamonds to cut and polish. The profit it made them had the rest of the city agog. “Palanpuri Jains of upper Gujarat got into the business, getting raw stones from Amsterdam and other places, and forged a partnership with Patels,” says Navadiya of a special bond of confidence that came to spawn a cluster of craftsmen trained and trusted to cut and polish the stuff to precision without any ‘adlaa badlee’ of bad gems for good.

Nine-tenths of all natural diamonds sold across the globe get their gleam in this city. What shines out is the value being added. In the first quarter of 2016-17, by SDA figures, India imported 38.3 million carats of the rough stuff, worth $4.6 billion in all, and exported 8.2 million carats of diamonds, worth $5.6 billion. That’s a billion dollars of work done every three months. Moreover, it’s a business open to anyone who picks up the fine art of evaluating a rock for what could be chipped out of it, claims Navadiya, citing name after name of millionaires who began as polishers. And now with a ritzy new bourse coming up on a 300-acre plot in a ‘smart city’ planned not too far away, Surat hopes to emerge as an international trade centre as well, for which the SDA hopes the Centre will let global traders fly gemstones in and out of the country with the same levy-free ease as they’re assured in Antwerp and Dubai. “Production and sales should be in the same place,” he reasons. It will keep costs low.

Value and trust are wedded in Surat, and this is evident in the tiniest of transactions. My auto driver, aware of my being from Delhi—a place rife with ‘loot maar’ in his opinion—refuses to accept a Rs 500 note from my wallet. It’s a fake, he suspects. Most pre-2005 currency is, he explains, and it looks worn out. That it legibly bears the signature of Raghuram Rajan—a post-2005 RBI Governor as Google testifies—assures him just enough to take it and hand me my change.

Nine-tenths of all natural diamonds sold across the globe get their gleam in this city. What shines out is the value being generated by this ‘industry of trust’: a billion dollars every three months

What blows me away, however, is the menu of Mysore Cafe at the corner of Chowpatty Park: ‘Idli Sambar’ is listed at Rs 40, but asking for the two served separately costs Rs 5 extra. Why the premium? The waiter won’t say, but the Surati splendour of it hits me a moment later: it’s what you pay to be sure your idli is freshly made. Ah, the discreet charms of market logic.

WITH ITS GOTHIC arches and leafy avenues, Maganlal Thakordas Balmukunddas Arts College has a campus that defies much of what has etched itself onto my mind so far. Set up in 1918, it has an olden-day air of academia that suggests a rigour that might finally cast some light on where the Surat Split took place.

In a gallery near its central hall, one student advises me to go the fort. Alert to my dismay, another jumps to the rescue. “Mukka-mukki yahaan hua thha,” says History student Sahil Patel. He says it clownishly, with a finger pointed at the floor even as his buddy Arjun Srivastava aims an illustrative punch at his chin. So, did it happen right here, then, the slugfest? Around here, Patel clarifies. “For details, go to Sir.”

Danglu badiyu ke naa hathvu, naa hathvu,’ declares Veer Narmad off a faded poster on the wall behind: once a step is taken forward, one mustn’t step back. Suitably inspired, a few campus enquiries lead me to ‘Sir’.

Professor Mukesh J Patel, who teaches History at MTB Arts College, sounds impressed that anyone should turn up asking about the Tilak-Gokhale showdown of 1907 at the 23rd Congress Session, which was shifted from Nagpur to Surat since the latter was seen—ironically—as a calmer place to elect the president of a party fiercely divided over how to rid India of its British Raj.

Those were heady days, by all accounts. Viceroy Curzon’s 1905 partition of Bengal had stirred nationalist fervour and there was fury in the air. Ranged on one side were ‘extremists’ led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak—he of Swaraj as a Birthright fame—Lala Lajpat Rai and Aurobindo Ghose, who wanted a boycott of all things British, not just clothes and goods, even calling upon people to quit educational institutes and turn away from the judiciary. Opposed to this were the ‘moderates’ led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta and Surendranath Banerjee, who didn’t want rules flouted, extremes taken or religious idioms adopted in India’s struggle for freedom.

By late 1907, it was clear that one of the two views would prevail in the party. “The meeting was held in a waadi, an orchard area under French control,” says Professor Patel, “because the British wouldn’t permit it anywhere else.” And his impish student wasn’t entirely kidding, it turns out, for the likely spot could well be right across the street on the east bank of the River Tapti. With that nugget of temptation, the professor offers me a dhokla made of corn, promises to scour the college library for details of the event, and asks me back the next morning. In the meantime, venturing out to the fort area may be a good idea, he suggests, just to look around the remnants of Mughal India’s chief entrepôt.

Of the fort built in 1546, there isn’t much left. But there are stray hints of the city’s rise to glory once Akbar took over Surat in 1573 and set up a royal mint here four years later, turning it into a bustling hub of finance as much as trade. Looking out over the vast estuary of the Tapti here, it’s easy to imagine Chauriyasi Bandar, where ships flying the flags of 84 countries would dock, as a truly multicultural wonder of its time, with Arabs, Turks, Europeans and Armenians jostling for jewellery, textiles, spices, tobacco, gumlac, indigo and what not.

Surat back then was ‘the famed emporium of the Indian Empire’, in the words of the 17th century British traveller J Ovington, ‘where all commodities are vendible, though they were never there seen before’. ‘The very curiosity of them,’ he noted in his 1689 diary, ‘will engage the expectation of the purchaser to sell them again with some advantage, and will be apt to invite some other by their novelty, as they did him, to venture upon them.’

It was also known as Bab-ul-Mecca. Setting sail from Surat would be thousands of Hajj pilgrims, to house whom Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara even had a grand ‘serai’ built, a mid- 17th century hotel that now serves as a municipal building. This is also where the British East India Company first landed, setting up a factory in 1613 and rivalling the Dutch not only in business but also grandeur, signs of which survive in the form of Euro-Mughal tombs with domes and arches.

The bungalow around which the Congress Session of 1907 took place was in Surat’s French quarter. It served as JF Wadia Women’s College before being demolished for a larger building

This was the ‘ajab shehr’ of Wali Gujarati, an Urdu poet of the 17th century who declared himself pleased to give up trying to enumerate all the faiths in peaceful co-existence here: ‘Vahaan saakin itne hain ahl-e-mazhab/ ke ginti mein naa aaven’.

Barring the odd skirmish, Surat’s history has mostly been a tale of harmony in diversity. It doesn’t seem like a place where a stage could be set for anything with a bloody fallout.

IN THE MTB ARTS college library, Professor Patel translates a blow-by-blow account of the Congress Session from an old Gujarati account by Harendra Shukla, a senior journalist:

Incensed by the shift to Surat, Tilak had warned in his paper Kesri that it would not solve the problem, and since he’d got wind of Gokhale’s agenda, he arrived in the city a week ahead of time: ‘prachaar ke liye.’ He also met Banerjee, asking for Rai to be named president, but the latter declined. On 26 December 1907, the Session had about 7,000 people. Ambalal Desai proposed Rashbehari Ghosh as party chief, and as Banerjee got up to speak in the candidate’s favour, there was so much noise that nobody could hear him. The Session was called off amid a din, but efforts to reconcile Gokhale and Tilak were kept up. The next day, the audience heard Banerjee out, after which Tilak sent a note to the dais asking for his turn to speak. He wasn’t invited, but, cheered on by supporters, he started moving to the stage. Moderates tried to stop him, but he walked on. Ghosh, taking the president’s chair, asked Tilak to go back and sit down. Tilak said the election was not over. He still had to speak. And so he started, saying that only a proposal had been made, one he wanted reformed. Moderates rushed to get him off stage, but he stood there, arms folded (‘haath mein haath daalke khade huay’). Just then, a shoe was flung from somewhere that hit Mehta and Banerjee.

“It was this boot that started the fight,” observes Professor Patel. “Joote maarne ka tradition yaheen shuru hua,” quips Virang Bhatt, a research fellow of Psychology who’s listening in.

Cries of ‘Tilak get off’ arose. ‘If you have the courage,’ he dared them, ‘pick me up and do it.’ Desai’s son Srivenkat picked up a chair and tried to hit Tilak, but his supporters came running up. Shouts rent the air, laathis started being used, chairs began being hurled, and blood was drawn.

“Where did those laathis come from?” asks Professor Patel, raising a rhetorical eyebrow, “They had come prepared.”

The sabha was called off, the police came, and the final day of the session had entry barred to all those who could not show admission slips signed by Mehta, Gokhale, Banerjee and Ghosh, who was declared president, writes Shukla.

The rest of that drama is well documented. The Congress split apart, Tilak was arrested on charges of sedition, defended by a lawyer called Jinnah, and put behind bars in Burma. By 1909, Morley-Minto had cleaved India’s two big religious groups into separate electorates, an event that some argue set the Subcontinent for Partition.

Might the Surat Split have emboldened the British to go all out with divide-and-rule? Professor Mukul Kesavan rejects such a reading of cause-and-effect. “The British decision to bring in separate electorates had very little to do with the Split,” says the Jamia Millia Islamia historian over the phone, pointing to another sequence of events (the Simla Deputation and so on). “The consequences of the Surat Split were not particularly far reaching. What you had at Surat was a split between those who’re committed to constitutional politics— and also plural and secular politics, suspicious of the kind of idiom that the extremists were willing to use—and those who wanted a more ‘virile’ approach.” While the extremists “were willing to associate themselves with what could be described as a Hindu model of politics”, he says, the Split, “ironically, did not lead to an extremist ascendancy within the Congress.”

By 1916, the two factions had rejoined hands, but Gandhi took charge of the freedom struggle soon after (by 1917-18), and he not only hailed Gokhale as his mentor, he repudiated Tilak’s ideology. The split, thus, “had no national ramifications in terms of ideology”, says Professor Kesavan.

Surat’s next big dissension was to be at the Congress party’s 1938 Session, the one that elected Subhas Chandra Bose as president. This one was held at Haripura, a well known venue for rallies even today. But where exactly did the 1907 Split happen?

Adjoining Chowpatty Park, across the street from MTB Arts College, stands a palatial bungalow on the Tapti’s east bank. Could this be the site? Rude guards shoo me away.

Ah, but right next to it, at ZF Wadia Women’s College and NK Jhota College of Commerce, Principal Dr Ashok Desai’s eyes flicker alight on hearing of my mission.

Yes,” he says, “it was right here, on these very premises. This is the exact spot.”

This was a French quarter, Dr Desai says, chosen because the British wouldn’t allow a Congress gathering anywhere else. “From their point of view, they were terrorists,” he grins. “They lived here… There was a bungalow, an Irani building,” he adds, popping out of his seat to lead me down a stairwell to the college staff room.

At the far end, a framed picture of a mansion leaps at me, asking to be shot, shot and reshot for posterity. Owned by Zal Framroze Wadia, it was given away “for a nominal sum” to start a women’s college here in 1958. “I’ve even taken classes in it—from 1983 to 1990,” Dr Desai says, “Unfortunately, we had to break it down to accommodate more students, but, yes, this is it.” My fist clenches in a surge of misplaced triumph.

ACCORDING TO ONE Version of history, Surat might actually have been the site of a great rupture that laid the Mughal economy low. In The Arabian Seas (2002), RJ Barendse portrays trade across this sea as the big global game of the 17th century, a dramatic period that ended in a major power shift from the East to the West. Europe had turned inventive, but it also had its military might behind its trade ships. Voyagers back home, in contrast, had no state backing. Worse, by century end—in this telling—they were to suffer a severe jolt once Aurangzeb clobbered ‘usury’ and undid a roaring alliance between Hindu lenders and Muslim seafarers. Surat’s once-prized credit notes turned into contraband, its big ships stayed anchored, the sea’s most lucrative lanes were lost, and even the inland economy began to collapse.

It sounds apocryphal, and well might be. It’s a little too pat, this story of an earlier split. But it’s plausible, hauntingly so.

The past, thankfully, is not always prologue.