At what point does an individual act of violence become an expression of patriotism? An individual driven by the love for his country and by the desire to articulate his sense of outrage at the atrocities and exploitation carried out by a foreign and alien State could seek to remove a principal representative of that State — to take examples from British India, a viceroy, a governor or a leading bureaucrat. Such an act — unless, following the tenets of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, there is a blanket condemnation of all acts of violence — could be interpreted as an attack on the State. Such an act was not one that involved the taking of innocent lives to make an ideological point or to draw public attention to an ideological cause. It is logical to argue that violence, when used to kill innocent people to make a point, is what constitutes a terrorist act. Terrorism seeks to strike indiscriminate terror to win attention. Patriotic violence is more target driven: it aims to remove a specific individual known to be particularly obnoxious.
With these general points in mind, the historic case of Khudiram Bose can be discussed. The young man, in the summer of 1908, set out to assassinate a judge in Muzzaffarpur, Douglas Kingsford. After having studied his target’s movements, Bose positioned himself outside the European Club one evening and then hurled bombs at what he thought to be the carriage of Kingsford. Unfortunately, his bombs killed the wife and daughter of Pringle Kennedy, a barrister-at-law. Bose was arrested the next night and died in the gallows. The British treated him as a criminal and a terrorist while Indian nationalism sung him into a hero. Even today, among Bengalis, his name remains synonymous with patriotism and self-sacrifice. He is supposed to have sung the song of life in the gallows. The writing of history must distance itself from such popular myth-making. It cannot be denied that whatever may have been his intentions, Bose’s actions resulted in the loss of innocent lives — a woman and her daughter, who barring the colour of their skin, had little or no link with the official structure of the British Indian State. What is also undeniable is that Bose’s actions, his individual courage notwithstanding, in no way furthered the cause of his beloved country’s freedom. His aim was awry in more senses than one.
Embedded in the previous paragraphs, narrative and comments is a profound question: how is an action to be judged — by the intentions behind the act or by the results following from it? The complication arises because it is not always easy to locate the intentions or motives of human actions. Was Bose driven by patriotism or was he blindly following what his mentors and gurus had drilled into his mind? He was only 19 years old. Had he thought about patriotism and the implications of what he had set out to do? Myth-making tends to equate blind enthusiasm with noble motives. Results can be more easily pinned down. The immediate result of Bose’s bomb-throwing was the death of two innocent ladies. Let there be no illusions about this.