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An interesting paper

Jan 08, 1998 07:29 PM
by M K Ramadoss

Herman de Tollenaere

The Theosophical Society and labour and national movements in Indonesia,

Drs. H.A.O. de Tollenaere, Leiden, The Netherlands

First, I will briefly introduce the Theosophical Society. Then, I
will do likewise for the labour and national movements in
Indonesia. Then, I will discuss the relationships between them.
    Eric Hobsbawm, writing on the  age of empire , mentions Annie
Besant and  the apparently non-political ideology of theosophy .
What, then, was appearance, what reality?
    The Theosophical Society (TS) was founded in 1875, with
occult religious aims. It had members from scores of countries.
Much literature sees it as either politically irrelevant or
politically Leftist. As I found out working at my Ph. D., often
neither was true. Hierarchy was an important element in its
philosophy; most of its members were privileged in some way. One
can test this in relationships to labour and national movements
in Indonesia in 1913-1918.
    Among Dutch in the East Indies colony, the TS had the highest
proportion of members anywhere in the world. It also had quite
some support among the Javanese nobility (priyayi). Theosophical
supporters put the names of their leaders literally on the map of
cities in Java: in Batavia (Jakarta), there was Blavatsky Park;
in Bandung, Olcott Park; in Semarang, Annie Besant Square.
    Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, the leader of the TS in
Indonesia in the period with which we are concerned, joined in
1899. At first, he was a manager of a sugar factory. Later, he
became an official. From 1918-1921, he sat in the first
Volksraad, the  mock parliament  of the Dutch East Indies. Five
of its 39 members were theosophists.
    Another Volksraad member was Theo Vreede. He sat on Boards of
Directors of various transport businesses. Like his brother
Adriaan, he was also a prominent theosophist. In 1922, Theo
Vreede held a speech at Leiden university.  The lecturer [Vreede]
feels sympathy for the trade unions; they should be led towards
the right track by the government . The manager of the East Java
Steam-Tram Company may have been thinking here of his brother
Adriaan. A. Vreede had been Secretary of the Indies government in
the 1910's; by then, he was director of the newly founded
government labour office.


As for the labour movement: in 1908, the first trade union was
founded in Indonesia. It was the Vereeniging van Spoor-en
Tramwegpersoneel, the VSTP, for public transport workers. At
first, most members were Dutch, but by 1917, Indonesians already
formed the great majority. Many of its leaders and members were
    In 1914, the first socialist political organization active in
public, the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging, started.
As with the VSTP, at the time it was founded, most members were
Dutch; but at least in the Leftist majority tendency, Indonesians
eventually predominated.
    Many socialists and trade unionists were also active in
Sarekat Islam, the biggest organization then. Its members came
from diverse groups, like traders, low and middle level civil
servants, peasants, and workers. It was a multi-issue movement,
concerned not only with Islamic religion, but also with protests
against social hierarchy and colonial authority.


There were various nationalisms in Indonesia then, both regional
and super-regional forms.
    In 1912, the same year as Sarekat Islam, the Indische Partij
was founded. It demanded independence for the colony as a whole.
It had a good relationship to the social democrat party of the
Netherlands, the SDAP.
    With the Indische Partij, theosophists' relationships were
not as good as some literature says. This showed when the
government banned from Indonesia its three leaders Tjipto
Mangoenkoesoemo, E.F.E. Douwes Dekker, and Soewardi
Soerianingrat. Van Hinloopen Labberton, optimistic about winning
people to his views, on 6 September 1913 wrote an open letter in
the Theosofisch Maandblad voor Nederlandsch-Indi‰ to Tjipto and
Soewardi. He admitted they were  courageous  as persons;  but
still, you erred.  He urged them:

     You love freedom: but did you really think of what true
     freedom is? ... You really should know that True Freedom may
     only manifest itself as the tie of law exists and people act
     according to its limits. ... If you take away from a child
     that learns how to stand up and to walk, the tie by which
     the Father kept it up: surely it will stumble and not be
     free. ... Would you take away a young bird, still unable to
     fly, from its nest, which, yes, keeps it imprisoned high up
     in the branches, but which also by its limits saves and
     frees that youngster from an ignominious fall? Desist from
     actions like that. ... All that commits violence, all that
     murders, that soils itself with blood, in that red colour
     wears the mark of the Antichrist. For the country, only
     Govern ment authority has the right to wield the club of
     punishment. It should do this with a merciful heart, though.
     ... JAVA AND THE NETHERLANDS SHOULD BE ONE. ... not in brute
     force, but only in Wisdom and Love one may find true prog
     ress. May such a force of wisdom and love be granted to you,
     so that you too may be an instrument to make Java great,
     jointly with The Netherlands. ... Your Friend and Brother,

    Apart from all- Indies  nationalism, as people then still
said, there were regional nationalisms, based on aristocrats. One
of the tendencies within the Javanese League BudiUtomo was the
Committee for Javanese Nationalism, led by Prince Soetatmo
Soeriokoesoemo. There was a similar tendency, led by Datoek
[Sumatran title of nobility] Soetan Maharadja in West Sumatra.
Both Soeriokoesoemo and Maharadja were theosophists. This
differed from India. There, the international president of the
Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, emphasized supra-regional
unity. The regionalism of Tamil Nadu, where she lived, had links
to her non-Brahman opponents.

                          CONFLICTS: CONSCRIPTION

After the Indische Partij leaders had been banned from Indonesia
in 1913, they went to a meeting of Indonesians, living in The
Netherlands, in The Hague, on the armed forces question. There,
they clashed with supporters of the Theosophical Society. During
the first world war, that debate continued on a much bigger
scale; and this time, mainly in Indonesia itself.
    Whether or not the colonial government would introduce
conscription for Indonesians became a big issue since 1916. Then,
senior civil servants, officers, and business men founded a
committee, called Indi‰ Weerbaar (Arm the Indies). Many of them
were TS members. Without the contacts of the TS among the
Javanese ‚lite, the pro-conscription campaign would probably have
remained largely an all-European affair. The Theosophical Society
supported introducing conscription, arguing from its occult
theories. The editor of their monthly, Van Leeuwen, wrote on the
social function of conscription:

     How difficult it still is for many people to understand that
     a nation cannot grow, cannot become an economic state,
     without the painful coercion of duty and neces sity.
     Fighting and militarism are still nearly always seen as the
     devils in our lives, which we should shirk away from and
     avoid as much as possible, as it is overlooked how inside
     every devil a deva [god or angel in theosophy] hides, who is
     able to bring us up towards the Light. Pain is the great
     Initiator. Coercion and fate are the educators of a still
     infant race [Indonesians] towards a conscious idea of
     national ity and a high feeling of duty.

    However, the trade union of Indonesian government pawnshop
employees, the Perserikatan Pegawai Pegadaian Boemipoetera,
rejected Indi‰ Weerbaar:

     as it thinks this is militarist propaganda. Besides, this
     union thinks that militarism strengthens capitalism. Against
     that, the indigenous people, many of whom are proletarians,
     should fight.

    The biggest union, the VSTP, held the same views. Its
chairman, H. Dekker, and his wife, were members of both the TS
and the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging; until Indi‰
Weerbaar started. That double membership was unusual, and did not
survive Indi‰ Weerbaar (I do not know whether, and how, the
marriage did). H. Dekker resigned from the TS, and attacked
theosophy sharply in the socialist paper Het Vrije Woord. Mrs
A.P. Dekker-Groot resigned as Het Vrije Woord's administrator,
and from the ISDV.
    There was a potential for conflicts between the TS and the
ISDV, the Marxists in Indonesia. That potential included:
theosophists were often managers, socialists union activists in
the same businesses; they had different philosophies on hierarchy
and harmony, showing for instance in issues like housing and
voting rights. Still, at first, there had been no big conflicts.
However, in ISDV magazines since 1916, Van Hinloopen Labberton,
the high priest of theosophy  and of conscription, became the
most criticized individual. Semaoen and Darsono, later leaders of
the communist party PKI, wrote their first-ever articles against
the theosophists Labberton, and Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo,
    The ISDV often organized its anti-conscription activities
jointly with Sarekat Islam local branches and with Insulinde, the
successor organization to the Indische Partij. Warna-Warta, an
Insulinde-minded daily, attacked the Theosophical Society. It
called Labberton

     Beton  [Malay: concrete],  a poison to society , and  the
     false prophet of theosophy-tai sapi .

Tai sapi is Malay for ox dung. The journalist Marco went to jail
for articles and cartoons against IW. He was a member of the left
wing of Sarekat Islam. The right wing of Sarekat Islam's national
executive was heavily theosophically-influenced and
pro-conscription in 1916-1918.
    The conflict led to deep polarization in SI, in Indonesian
society, and against colonial authority. By the end of the first
world war, many thousands everywhere in the archipelago
demonstrated against conscription. In Ujung Pandang on Sulawesi,
three thousand people met against Indi‰ Weerbaar on 25 August
1918. The sailor Arga from West Java told them that the militia
plans  should be kicked to the edge of the universe, as soon as
possible.  Nine thousand turned up at a meeting in Kudus, then a
small Java town, of the local branch of the PKBT, the Workers and
Peasants' League organized by ISDV militants, on 13 October 1918.
Darsono and Marco spoke against IW; a motion against it was voted
for. ISDV leader Sneevliet was unable to speak, as a car taking
him there broke down. Weeks later, the government banned him from
the Indies, with the approval of the editorial of the Theosofisch
Maandblad voor Nederlandsch Indi‰.
    The government, and theosophical papers, feared revolution.
Conscription was not introduced; it ceased to be a hot issue. But
the divisions which had arisen when it was, remained.
    We may conclude that the effect of the founding of Indi‰
Weerbaar was contrary to its governmental and theosophical
sponsors' view of harmony along hierarchical lines of
social and imperial pyramids.

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