By: Amit Kumar Bhowmik
On August 15 our Independence Day, yet again, forgetting, (as always!), the sacrifices of thousands of our countrymen and women who laid down their lives; suffered unimaginable cruelties to wrest this freedom, that we take for granted, literally with their blood, sweat and tears from the British imperialistic yoke. Only a passing mention was made of them. The martyrs are countless. Hence, it is not possible to mention all their names and deeds of valour in this article, which I am dedicating to Surjo Sen aka ‘Masterda’; the Naval Ratings Uprisings; Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA) or Azad Hind Fauj; who, to my mind, were the true architects of our independence.
History is written by the conquerors! Thus, even though Gandhiji’s ‘Quit India movement was launched by him on August 8th, 1942, against Sir. Stanford Cripps, was a damp squib and a monumental failure, just because the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress (INC)were on shoulder-rubbing terms with the British and in the driver’s seat so-to-say, they claimed the trophy – and clung on to it as if it was their fiefdom. This, despite Gandhi Ji’s protests that fresh elections must be held to determine the peoples’ choice of running the Government. He advised the top echelon in the INC to resign and put the matter to vote. But he was vetoed, and, had his counsel been adhered to and we had waited for just a few more years, with the British already at the end of their tether, instead of a divided India we might have got an unbroken country. History is still taught in our schools only from a slanted point of view; glorifying some of the also-rans; focusing exclusively on the Mogul and British eras; exaggerated; highly coloured ‘deeds’ of a few individuals, while obliterating our rich cultural heritage- spanning over 7,000 years – times past and, willfully, failing to remember the long list of people who died so that we could live free. Or, deliberately, downplaying their imperative and dominant roles.
My father, late Fanindra Nath Bhowmik, was just eleven years old when his father died from throat cancer. My paternal grandfather had moved to Jalpaiguri, in North Bengal, from Faridpur, in erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. At thirteen, my father, who was and still is, my hero, even though he passed away in 1999, joined the cadre of the Indian National Congress Anushilan (INCA)headed by Surjo Sen aka ‘Masterda’. That same year, when he was nearly fourteen, my father was arrested for the first time, suspected of being associated with the INCA. He was beaten black and blue. Baba was made to lie down naked, on blocks of ice. Then, he was locked up in a dog – kennel; crouched up for two days, before being brought out at mid-day and forced, at bayonet point, to look at the sun. His eyes were forever damaged and he had to wear numbered glasses from that age. But Baba never squealed on his colleagues. He rarely spoke of those days. But, I learned of his exploits from his sisters, my aunts.
Surjo Sen was born on 22nd March 1894 in a‘Baidya’ family at Noapara, under Raozan Upazila in Chittagong He was a school teacher. ‘Masterda’ was influenced by Nationalist ideals in 1916 while he was a student at Behrampore College. Sen recruited young and passionate revolutionaries known as the ‘Chittagong group’, including Ananta Singh, Ganesh Ghosh and Lokenath Bal, who waged a guerilla war against the British, putting their own lives on the line.
The Chittagong armoury raid, also known as the ‘Chittagong uprising,’ was an attempt made on 18th April 1930 to raid the armoury of the police and Auxiliary Forces at Chittagong in the Bengal Presidency of British India (now in Bangladesh). The purpose was to show to the people of India that the British rulers were not invincible. The raiders were all members of the ‘Indian Republican Army’(IRA), which was a branch of the INCA, who favoured armed uprisings as a means to achieve India’s independence from British colonial rule. They were inspired by the 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ in Ireland and were led by Surjo Sen. The group included Ganesh Ghosh, Lokenath Bal, Ambika Chakraborty, Harigopal Bal (Tegra), Ananta Singh, Anand Prasad Gupta, Tripura Sen, Bilash Dey, Bidhubhusan Bhattacharya, Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Dutta, Himangshu Sen, Binod Bihari Chowdhury, Subodh Roy and, Monoranjan Bhattacharya.
‘Masterda’ planned to capture the two main armouries in Chittagong; destroy the telegraph and telephone office and take as hostages, members of the European Club, while rail and communication lines were to be cut, to sever communiqué between Chittagong and Calcutta. Imperial banks at Chittagong were to be looted to fund further uprisings and jailed revolutionaries were also to be set free.
The plan was put into action at 10 p.m. on 18th April 1930. The police armoury (in the Police Lines in Dampara) was captured by a group led by Ganesh Ghosh, while another lot of ten men, led by Lokenath Bal, took over the Auxiliary Forces armoury (now the old Circuit House). About 65 persons took part in the assault. They failed to locate ammunition but did succeed in cutting off the telephone and telegraph wires, as well as disrupting train movements.
About 16 of the group captured the European Club’s headquarters (in Pahartali, now the Railway Office next to Shahjahan Field), but there were very few members present because of it being ‘Good Friday. ’On learning of the situation, the Europeans were able to alarm the troops, which the revolutionaries had not expected. After the incursions, the rebels gathered outside the police armoury, where’ Masterda’ took a military salute; hoisted our National flag in place of the Union Jack and proclaimed a ‘Provisional Revolutionary Government’. The revolutionaries left the city before dawn and marched towards the Chittagong Hill Ranges, looking for a safe place to hide.A few of them, including Ganesh Ghosh, Ananta Singh and teenagers, Ananda Gupta and Jeebon Ghoshal, who had struggled, were nearly captured at ‘Feni ‘ railway station, but they managed to escape. Later, they took shelter in a house at Chandannagar.
After a few days, the police traced some of them. They were surrounded by several thousand troops, while they took refuge in the’ Jalalabad’ hills, near the Chittagong Cantonment, on the afternoon of 22nd April 1930. More than 80 soldiers and 12 revolutionaries were killed in the ensuing gunfight in the ‘Battle of Jalalabad Hills’. ‘Masterda’ dispersed his remaining men to neighbouring villages in small groups and, thus, a number of them managed to run away. A few fled to Calcutta, while others were, subsequently, arrested. An intense crackdown on the resistance members resulted. When his family, including his aged parents, were unfairly, systematically and brutally targeted by the police-henchmen of the British ‘Raaj’ – Ananta Singh came out of his hide-out at Chandannagar and gave himself up at the Lal Bazar Police Head Quarters in Calcutta. Baba told me that when Ananta Singh presented himself before the Duty Officer, after scaling the walls undetected, the poor police officer was so petrified that he urinated in his shorts! Anant Singh also sought to be close to the two teenagers who had been captured and placed under Trial at Chittagong. He wanted to provide them with succour. Anant Singh was sent to Chittagong Jail from Calcutta. A few months later, Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, surrounded their hideout in Chandannagar and the exchange of fire, Jiban Ghoshal was killed.
Some of the revolutionaries managed to re-organize. On 24th September 1932, Debi Prasad Gupta, Manoranjan Sen, Rajat Sen, Swadesh Roy, Phanindra Nandi and Subodh Chaudhary, led by Pritilata Waddedar, attacked the ‘Pahartali European Club’, killing one woman and injuring several police officials. However, the plan was not entirely successful. The revolutionaries fled after the attack. But Pritilata, who was severely wounded, consumed cyanide to evade arrest and took her own life, rather than surrender. The police searched for the rest of the absconders. In the Kalarpole encounter that followed, Deba Gupta, Manoranjan Sen, Rajat Sen and Swadeshranjan Ray were shot dead, while Subodh and Phani, were wounded and arrested. During 1930–1932, 22 police officials and 220 touts of the British, were killed by revolutionaries in separate incidents. Debi Prasad Gupta’s brother was sentenced to transportation for life to the infamous Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
The mass trial of those arrested during and after the raids concluded in January 1932 and the judgment was swiftly delivered on 1st March that year itself. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to deportation for life; two received three-year prison sentences and the remaining 32 were acquitted. The twelve deported to the Andamans included Ganesh Ghosh, Lokenath Bal, sixteen-year-old Ananda Gupta, and Ananta Singh.
The ‘Chittagong Revolutionary Group’ suffered a fatal blow when‘Masterda’ was arrested on 16th February 1933 from’ Gairala’ village after a tip-off was received from an insider of the group. For the reward money, Netra Sen informed the British Government that Surjo Sen was hiding in his house. But before Netra Sen was able to collect his Rs.10,000/- reward, a princely sum at that time, he was assassinated by the revolutionaries.
Surjo Sen along with Tarakeswar Dastidar was hanged on 12th January 1934, after being subjected to inhuman torture in prison. ’Master’s teeth and fingernails were pulled out. He was hanged while he was unconscious.
The ‘Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, also called the ‘1946 Naval Ratings Uprising’, was an insurrection of Indian naval ratings, soldiers, police personnel and civilians against the British Government in India. From the initial flashpoint in Bombay, the rebellion spread and found support throughout British India; from Karachi to Calcutta, and, ultimately, it came to involve over 20,000 sailors in 78 ships and shore establishments.
The mutiny was finally suppressed by British troops and Royal Navy warships. Notably, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League condemned it! Indian Naval personnel began calling themselves the “Indian National Navy” and offered left-handed salutes to British officers. At some places, NCOs in the British Indian Army defied orders from their British superiors. In Madras and Pune, the British garrisons had to face some unrest within the ranks of the Indian Army. Widespread rioting took place from Karachi to Calcutta.
The revolt was finally called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Vallabh Bhai Patel of the Congress, who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis. Patel issued a statement calling on the strikers to end their action, which was later echoed by a plea made in Calcutta by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, on behalf of the Muslim League. Under these extraordinary pressures, the strikers gave way. Arrests were then made, followed by a Court Marshal and dismissal of 476 sailors from the Royal Indian Navy. None of those dismissed was reinstated into either the Indian or Pakistani Navies after theirIndependence!
Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army(INA)had also shown the British that their days in India were numbered. These, according to me, were the clinching factors that forced the British to give us Independence, factually, on a silver platter! They realized that they had lost control over the Armed Forces and that it was better to save face rather than be forced out. But they played their ultimate card; their usual practice, when leaving, with their tried and tested Divide and Rule policy, to which the senior politicians concerned at the helm of affairs on both sides, readily succumbed—or connived with! It is important also, I think, to note that the honorific ‘Mahatma’ was given by Rabindra Nath Tagore to Gandhiji. The sobriquet ‘Father of the Nation’ was by Subhash Chandra Bose, who began every address over the Azad Hind radio with: “Salutations to Mahatma Gandhi – Father of the Nation!”This, despite several prominent members of the INC, openly spewing venom and spreading falsehoods against ‘Netaji’! The pacifists and purported ‘non-violence’ spouting members of the INC, publically damned the courageous sacrifices, including of their lives, of Bhagat Singh,Rajguru, Sukdev Madanlal Dhingra,Birsha Munda, Khudiram Bose, Gulam Ambia Khan,Bagha Jatin and many others who went smiling to the gallows; boldly embracing the noose and shouting ‘Jai Hind’, before the plank was pulled from under their feet and they dropped to their deaths. They were also hostile towards the brave soldiers of the INA because they had deserted the British Indian Army, and had opted for violent means to usher in our freedom. They labelled them as ‘deserters’, as also by the British, and they advocated stringent punishments for them when they were tried at the Red Fort. Bhulabhai Desai led the defence, brilliantly This is all a part of the records. But, they are conspicuously silent, and take an ostrich-like stance or wear rose-tinted glasses, regarding the most violent occurrence in history, engineered with their collusion, connivance and active participation, when during the partition of India, millions perished on both sides of the divide; a lot more than those slain in both the World Wars combined or even in the Holocaust!
I urge that all of us take a moment off to reflect inwards and, if possible, shed a few tears for our gallant heroes of the yesteryears; now long forgotten, but without whose supreme sacrifices our independence would have remained an aborted fetus! What have we done in all these years to remember them or enquire, even if by way of courtesy, into their circumstances after Independence and the fate of their families, who have been discarded by us all, like old newspapers or rags? I know, personally, for a fact, that Baba’s associate, who we called ‘Lakhan-da’ (Lakhan Maulik) , was employed as an usher at the ‘Dipti; cinema hall at Kadamtala in Jalpaiguri! In his youth,’ Lakhanda’ had taken on the might of the British, like a tiger. But, sadly, he, along with thousands in worse conditions, were overlooked by the wily politicians, regardless of the hues they sported, in their quest for power and acquiring lucre, albeit largely illegally, and at cost of our Nation and its people!
TO THE UNKNOWN MARTYR
The heavens blazed with glory.
God opened his eyes.
A man had broken captive chains;
and, so condemned to die.
His sixteen years were tempered well
in liberty’s immortal flame.
His heart had leapt phoenix-like;
that heart chains could not tame.
When he saw his people
bound like beasts
to the imperialistic halter,
as incense, he had brought his blood
to Freedom’s sacred altar.
Unafraid, he faced the hangman’s noose;
a god condemned to die.
A smile played on his tender kips;
a tear rolled down his eye.
The noose was placed around his neck;
the crowd was silent ad grim.
The prisoner knew he had lost today,
but, someday, he knew he would win!
Note:I wrote this poem in my early teens dedicated, particularly, to Pradyut Kumar Bhattacharya, who was hanged inside Midnapore jail on 12th January 1933 for gunning down a European Magistrate, Robert Douglas, on 30th April 1932. Douglas had pronounced death sentences on many revolutionaries, out of hand, which were instantaneously carried out, even without the benefit of a sham trial. Pradyut was sixteen. He was a friend of my Baba, who was then fourteen. Baba, along with other ‘freedom fighters’ incarcerated, were brought out at dawn to witness the execution, as a deterrent. But Pradyut’s last words: “I shall return to set my Motherland free!” had the opposite effect! So much for British justice and atrocities committed against minors, including, arbitrarily, awarding capital punishment to them. Of course, the actual tasks were carried out dutifully; with great enthusiasm and vigour, by their Indian lackeys. I was at that time, I think, an agnostic and not an atheist!
Amit Kumar Bhowmik is a lawyer. He is based in Pune (India)