The Islamic movement and secular nationalism

It is often mentioned that in the 1930s the Islamic movement was deeply fragmented, having neither a strong leadership nor a clear strategy, and that these two factors together were crucial to the decline of PSII’s influence at the national level. The same holds true also for the secularists.

Following Soekarno’s arrest in December 1929, Sartono - who had taken up the leadership of the movement - dissolved the PNI to establish, in 1930, the more accommodating Partindo (Partai Indonesia, Indonesian Party). This new party did not satisfy all of the old PNI membership, so in late 1931 the Study Clubs merged into a ‘new’ PNI, the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia (PNI Baru, Indonesian National Education). When Soekarno was released from prison in December 1931, Soetan Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta had already returned from the Netherlands, and Sartono was holding tight his leadership of Partindo. Their contrasting approaches resulted in a splintered movement, and the shattering of Soekarno’s achievements in unifying the movement in the previous decade.[1]

The fragmentation of the nationalist front was not simply a matter of leadership and power, but, rather more significantly, a matter of strategy about how to strengthen the movement and how to relate to the colonial authorities. On the first count, Hatta, Sjahrir and the new PNI believed in forming highly educated and intellectualized cadres, whilst Partindo and Soekarno focused on stirring mass agitation. On the second count, Hatta and Soekarno differed on the issue of cooperation: in 1929 Hatta announced that ‘non-cooperation is the only correct weapon’ in the current colonial relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands, and in 1931 he criticized Soekarno for using non-cooperation only to provoke the masses, but not to educate them about the ongoing political battle. But by 1932-33 the tables had turned, with Hatta’s acceptance of the candidacy for the Dutch parliament as a member of the Onafhankelijke Socialistische Partij (Independent Socialist Party). Soekarno declared that ‘non-cooperation is not only struggle, it is also a principle of that struggle’, thus accusing Hatta of betrayal for participating in the Dutch parliament. Yet, when he was arrested again in November 1933, Soek- arno abandoned Partindo and non-cooperation, an act that Hatta described as the ‘Soekarnoist tragedy’: ‘it was not yet ten months since Soekarno had beaten his breast and cried out that non-cooperation excluded cooperation with the masters in every field, and had called for unremitting struggle’[2] when he decided instead to accept the Dutch hand.

The arrest of Soekarno was followed by those of Hatta and Sjah- rir in February 1934. Soekarno - probably in exchange for softening his political rhetoric - was sent to Flores, but the more radical Hatta and Sjahrir were exiled to Digul until the Japanese invasion ofJava and Sumatra in 1942. The colonial government’s treatment of Soekarno, Hatta and Sjahrir proved to most nationalists that non-cooperation was no longer politically viable, and thus that they needed to change strategy.

After Partindo abandoned non-cooperation in December 1934, nationalist groups tended to be generally ‘cooperationist’, in the sense that they agreed to participate in the Volksraad to advance their demands for increased autonomy, as Susan Abeyasekere points out. This ‘People’s Council’ had been established in 1917 as an elected proto-parliament, where Europeans, ‘Foreign Orientals’ and ‘Indigenous’ members could voice ‘independent opinions’. Because of the electoral policies implemented, however, the council was not representative of the indigenous population, nor did it have any decision-making powers. In 1925 the council was transformed into a semi-legislative body, and in 1929 for the first time European members were the minority.

One example of the nationalists’ cooperationist tendencies is Soetomo’s decision to merge his Persatoean Bangsa Indonesia (Union of the Indonesian People) with Boedi Oetomo to form a new organization, Partai Indonesia Raja (Parindra, Great Indonesia Party). Protected by their immunity, several of the Volksraad members - especially those belonging to Mohammad Hoesni Thamrin’s political wing in Parindra - made radical statements, as they appeared to be coming to terms with their participation in the councils only so far as doing so was an avenue to independence. Yet, their grudging support for the councils did not translate into their support for gradual reforms. The Soetardjo petition of 1936 requested a conference to discuss the possibility of autonomy from the Netherlands. However, not only did the petition fail to gather the votes of the nationalist movement (as this proposal had emerged from a moderate and assorted group), but it was also rejected by the Dutch government in November 1938.[3]

In December 1936 Partindo dissolved, leaving Parindra as ‘the chief political organization’ until Amir Sjarifuddin’s founding of Gerakan Rakjat Indonesia (Gerindo, Indonesian People’s Movement) in 1937. Though it represented the left wing of the nationalist movement and was ‘inherently militant’, Gerindo took an overall cooperationist attitude,[4] thus making Sarekat Islam the only remaining party practising non-cooperation, a commitment that came with a high price.

  • [1] John David Legge, ‘Daulat Ra’jatand the ideas of the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia’, Indonesia 32 (October, 1981): pp. 151-68.
  • [2] Hatta’s quote from Indonesia Merdeka, in Greta O. Wilson (ed.), Regents, reformers, andrevolutionaries: Indonesian voices of colonial days (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1978),p. 136; Bernhard Dahm, Soekarno and the struggle for Indonesian independence (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1969), Chapter 4. Soekarno’s quote from Dibawah bendera rev-olusi, in Dahm, Soekarno, p. 161; Hatta’s quote from Daulat Rakjat 30 November 1933, in Dahm,Soekarno, p. 168.
  • [3] Susan Abeyasekere, ‘The Soetardjo petition’, Indonesia 15 (April 1973): pp. 80-108; the petition was signed by Soetardjo Kartohadikoesoemo (a patih), Ratu Langie (a Christian representative of the Minahasa Union), Kasimo (the Javanese president of the Political Association ofIndonesian Catholics), Datoek Toemenggoeng (a Minangkabau aristocrat) and two representatives of ethnic minorities, a Chinese and an Arab. Susan Abeyasekere, ‘Partai Indonesia Raja,1936-42: A study in cooperative nationalism’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3, 2 (September,1972): pp. 262-76. Since 1931 the composition of the Volksraad had been half Dutch and halfIndonesian, with one third of its members nominated, and the rest elected from amongst thecivil servants.
  • [4] George McTurnan Kahin, Nationalism and revolution in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell SoutheastAsia Program Publications, 2003 [1952]), pp. 95-6.
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