Wednesday, August 10th, 2022 20:06:10

India’s Revolutionary Extremism and the Kolkata-Poona Axis

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: September 15, 2021 10:18 am

The incident of a bomb being hurled by two Bengali youths at Muzaffarpur in Bihar at some point of time over 100 years back is perhaps known to many. However, the build-up to that cataclysmic event, which marked the cult of the bomb and pistol in eastern India is worth examining. Interestingly, the British Records of Revolutionary Movement in India (Vol. I, p. 11) by James Campbell Ker states:

“In the account of the AnushilanSamiti of Dhaka (capital of today’s Bangladesh) it is seen that the ‘physical force’ movement in Bengal (then comprising West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha) owed a great deal to the cult of Shivaji, which agitators from the west of India attempted to introduce into Bengal.”

Archivist at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, Peter Heehs in his by now magnum opus ‘The Bomb in Bengal’ writes that youth clubs like AnushilanSamitiwere founded in Maharashtra, in places like Kolhapur. These centres, informs Heehs, developed pro-Hindu and anti-British feeling. In 1895, one such club was founded in Poona by the patriot brothers, Damodarand Balkrishna Chapekar. Talking about their disciplined approach towards physical development, Heehs tells us that the Chapekar brothers did about 1200 Suryanamaskarsa day. Furthermore, they recruited youths and aggressively attacked Indian Christians and British missionaries. Once, they garlanded with shoes a statue of Queen Victoria.

At the Poona session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1895, the Chapekar brothers had smashed one reformist editor with an iron pipe. In his autobiography written in Marathi, DamodarChapekar was extremely critical of the working of the Congress:

“The resolution passing of the self-styled educated men of the INC could best be compared to the ceremonies of girls playing with dolls”.

As if to repudiate the later day Marxist historians that India’s early revolutionaries terribly lacked ‘mass connect’, the Chapekar brothers used to communicate with the people through the Katha – traditional story-telling performances – during the Ganapati and Shivaji festivals.

On the other hand, in the eastern part of the Indian sub-continent, as a sort of Shivaji’s reflection, the Bengal revolutionaries appealed tothe character of Pratapaditya of Jessore, who had revolted against the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (Ker, p 11) – something very similar that Shivaji had done in the 17th century. In fact, Barindra Kumar Ghose, brother of the celebrated AurobindoGhose, vainly attempted to find one of the descendants of Pratapaditya so as to make him the figure-head of the rebellion in Bengal. Ker further mentions that the Bengal revolutionaries had intended to hold an annual Pratapaditya festival ‘on the lines of the Shivaji celebration,’ which however could not materialize because most of the rebels were arrested by the British police.

It is a well-known historical fact that the Marathi extremist leader Bal GangadharTilak was a proponent of Shivaji and Ganapati festivals. And Ker mentions that in 1906, Tilak delivered a speech on the concept of Swadeshi ‘at the Shivaji festival in Calcutta.’

The Chapekar Effect

“Listen, we shall risk our lives on the battle-field in a national war,” the Chapekar brothershad affirmed. Plague broke out in Bombay and Poona. Tilak’sKesariand other Indian newspapers reported house-to-house searches by soldiers and their insensitive approach in ensuring quarantine during plague. In the wake of this callousness by the British administration, Chapekar brothers planned to kill W. C. Rand, Chairman of Poona’s Plague Commission.

Taking the blessings of

Bhawani (goddess Durga, as worshipped in Maharashtra), Damodar Chapekarshot Rand, who was travelling in a carriage. His brother Balkrishna shot Lt C. E.Ayerst, in the next carriage and witness of the incident. After the daring action, the brothers escaped. However, on information given to the police by the Dravid brothers, DamodarChapekar was arrested in Bombay (Mumbai) in October 1897. Damodar confessed to the incident and was hanged on 18thApril 1898. In 1899, Balkrishna and the third brother Vasudeo were hanged.

The Chapekars became the heroes, records Ker, and the Chapekar Clubs of Poona and Kolhapur ‘carried on the tradition of assassination.’ Ker further writes that this incidence of assassination had ‘one curious link with the Bengal Conspiracy of 10 years later.’ The father of the Chapekar brothers, Hari Chapekar travelled to Amravati (in Maharashtra) in December 1898 and had meetings with a well-known friend of Tilak, G. S. Khaparde. Interestingly, Khaparde would later accompany Tilak in the Shivaji festival in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1906. Ker is of the opinion that Tilak’s presence in the 1906 Shivaji festival in Calcutta ‘gave a strong impetus to the cult of the bomb in Bengal’.

Born in the momentous year of the uprising of 1857, Khaparde went on to become an LLB in 1885, the year in which the INC had its first session. And as if to buttress the Maharashtra-Bengal revolutionary link, in 1908 – the year of throwing of the bomb at judge Douglas Kingsford (at Muzaffarpur) by two young Bengalis, one of the accused of the bomb conspiracy case admitted that he had visited Khaparde at Amravati to intimate that the revolutionary party in Bengal were prepared to make bombs. Moreover, Khaparde had sent a young man to Calcutta, B. H. Kane of Nagpur to learn the art of bomb making.


Secret Societies

Commencing his journey in the Occident at the tender age of seven, and having later studied at the King’s College Cambridge, AurobindoGhose qualified the prestigious Indian Civil Services (ICS) examination. Nonetheless, he was disallowed in joining the ICS, his involvement in the secret society ‘Lotus and Dagger’ at Cambridge was perhaps the underlying reason for his rejection whereas on paper his failure to take the horse riding test was put forward as the legitimate cause. He however got an administrative job in the princely state of Baroda and returned to India in 1893.

Ghose wrote a series of critiques on the INC, under the title ‘New lamps for the Old’. He was influenced a great deal by Bengal’s first rated novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Bankim’s novel Ananda Math (published in 1882) depicted sanyasis who worshipped Mother-Goddess / Motherland and brought relief to the famine stricken poor people of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha; by looting government treasuries and convoys. In fact, Bankim’s ‘BandeMataram’ [I Bow to the Mother] became a war cry for would be revolutionaries.

Aurobindoand his three Marathi friends in Baroda – Keshav Ganesh Deshpande, MadhavraoJadhav and Keshavrao Jadhav worked in the civil service of the Baroda state under the Gaikwad. The ‘four musketeers’ even spoke of armed rebellion. As Peter Heehs notes, Aurobindo found no revolutionary temper in Bengal at that point of time when an average Bengali was perceived as a coward. As if to refute this perception of an average potato-fleshed, sweet-toothed Bengali, arrived from Burdwan district, a tall, well built gentleman, who was fluent in Hindi and had an alias ‘YatinderNathUpadhyay’.

Well versed in the Italian Risorgimento, French and American revolutions, this man was Jatindranath Banerjee, who had a definite purpose in mind when he joined the 4th Baroda Infantry as a soldier and then rose to become the bodyguard of the Gaikwad king. Banerjee later claimed that he persuaded Aurobindo ‘that it was only by force’ that a ‘more suitable government…could be obtained’. Nevertheless, he and Aurobindo planned to set up Secret Societies in Bengal and remove British rule altogether.

In this venture, foreign personalities too contributed their bit. Japanese art historian KakuzoOkakura– who revived traditional Japanese art in the midst of westernization of Japan post Meiji restoration of 1867, visited India in 1902. In a meeting at the Indian Association Hall in Calcutta, he addressed the city intellectuals:

“You are such a highly cultivated race. Why do you let a handful of Englishmen push you down? Do everything you can do to achieve freedom, openly as well as secretly. Japan will assist you.”

Secret Societies were however not a new phenomenon in Bengal. Extremist leader of the Lal-Bal-Pal trio, BipinChandra Pal tells us that during the 1870s, Calcutta student community was involved with these organisations – which were influenced by the Carbonaris (that is,’charcoal makers’, which was an informal network of secret revolutionary societies active in Italy from about 1800 to 1831), and also inspired by Mazzini’s Young Italy (a political movement spearheaded by Italian youth under the age of 40 and founded in 1831). In fact, Pal himself had joined such a group founded by the Brahmo leader ShivnathShastri. That group boldly asserted India’s right to self-government and placed importance on cultivating physique.

Incidentally, the philosophy of secret socities of this genre was propagated in Hindu Mela started by NabagopalMitra in 1867 – with financial assistance from the famous Tagore family. Mitra was in turn influenced by the writings of Rajnarain Bose, Aurobindo’s grandfather. And Rajnarain was the head of a secret society founded by Jyotirindranath Tagore – elder brother of Rabindranath. At that juncture, the secret societies represented organized cultural nationalism, opines Heehs.

The arc of the secret societies took a militant turn with the arrival on the scene of Sarala Debi Ghoshal. She was the grand-daughter of Debendranath Tagore (father of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore). In 1890, Sarala Debi qualified BA (Hons) in English. And here too the Maharashtra connection very much existed. During a visit to Sholapur, Ghoshal was impressed by a physical-culture demonstration that included a play with swords and lathis.

Dazzled by it,she opened an Akhara (open air gymnasium) in Calcutta in 1897. Moreover, she engaged a circus performer Murtaza as the instructor. Furthermore, she was associated with the establishment of AtmonnatiSamiti or Self-Development Society in Bengal. The revolutionary seeds in Bengal were being sown.


Anarchism and Europe

The Narodniks(Populist in Russian) was a 19th-century movement in Russia which believed that political propaganda among the farmers would lead to the awakening of the masses and, through their influence the oppressive Tsarist regime would fall. Since Russia was a predominantly agricultural country, the farmers represented the majority of the people (narod) and hence the name of the movement. However, when the Narodniks failed to obtain popular support, some of them formed the BarodnayaVolya(People’s Will) and dedicated themselves in carrying out acts of terror. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The fervent hope was that by such acts of the bomb and gun, they would at last incite the masses to rise against the Tsarist regime.

Though the exploits of the Narodniksdid not foment any mass mobilisation as such, but they did attract young Indian revolutionaries. A number of Russians involved in acts of terror, and so often called Nihilists or Anarchists, took refuge in Paris. Their expertise in weaponry could now be available to Indians coming in search of it in Europe. In his Memoirs, Peter Kropotkin, the leading Russian anarchist, defined Nihilism as the symbol of struggle against all forms of tyranny, and hypocrisy and stood for individual freedom.

Present in Okakura’s talk in Calcutta, barrister P. Mitrawas selected by those present to be commander-in-chief of the group that was to be formed for liberation of India from the British Raj. Thereafter, Mitra got in touch with Sarala Debi. At the same time, a student named Satish Chandra Bose had set up a modest Akharain north Calcutta in about February-March 1902. An advisor to the Akharawas Narendra Chandra Bhattacharya, who suggested the name AnushilanSamiti, influenced by Bankim Chandra’s idea of DharmatattwaAnushilan or selfless service and all-round development.

Meanwhile, Jatindranath Baner-jee also arrived in Calcutta from Baroda. And with him, came Aurobindo’s message for the movement:

“…young recruits were to be trained in activities which might be helpful for ultimate military action, such as riding, physical training, athletics, drill and organized movement..,” whereas, “the older men were to be approached for sympathy and financial and other assistance.”

Banerjee on the other hand, set up another Akhara and began a recruitment drive. Banerjee, Ghoshal andMitra came together. Finally, Satish Bose’s and Banerjee’s clubs merged and on the 24th of March 1902, on the auspicious occasion of Dol/ Holi, the expanded Anushilan Samiti was officially opened.

Scholar Keka Dutta Roy, in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 69 (2008), pp. 574-586, writes that Anushilan Samiti expressed the philosophy of ‘emancipating the motherland through a nationwide armed revolt.’ The Samiti encouraged its members to undertake relief work among the masses in times of calamities in order to come into close contact with them. This is another validation of the fact that earlier Indian revolutionaries had very much in mind the notion of ‘mass connect’. In that regard, they developed a revolutionary press, in the process publishing newspapers, pamphlets, and books.

In March 1906, in Bengal’s Midnapore region, a 16-year-old boy was charged with sedition for distributing the pamphlet Raja ke (Who is the king?). He was none other than the great Khudiram Bose who would later throw the bomb at Muzaffarpur and cause an explosion which was heard far and wide and still being discussed. Khudiram in fact belonged to a secret society formed by Aurobindo’s uncle SatyendraNath Bose. He was taken into custody, but his case was later withdrawn by the government. The pamphlet ‘Who is the King?’ accused the ruling regime of destroying the country’s commerce and industry and ruining cultivators and landowners through over-taxation. The pamphlets also urged both the Hindus and Muslims to come together against the common enemy, the British Raj – thereby challenging another historical theory that the early revolutionaries did not attempt to rope in the Muslims. In this context, it is worthwhile to recall that Sarala Debi had employed a Muslim to teach the Bhadralok Bengali revolutionaries the art of wielding the sword and lathi.


The Schism

In 1906, BarinGhose (Aurobindo’s brother), Debobroto Bose, Abinash Bhattacharya and Bhupendranth Dutta (Swami Vivekananda’s brother) launched a Bengali newspaper Jugantar or The New Age. Jugantar was a name of a novel by ShivnathShastri. The paper however raised the tenor of revolutionary outburst. It wrote: “India is oppressed. So, people should not be loyal, rather rise.” This group, highly militant and pro-violence, was joined by Upendranath Banerjee and Ulhaskar Dutta. Since P. Mitra was not pro-violence and Saral Debi was against the practice of dacoities in order to raise finances for the revolution, a schism in the AnushilanSamiti was bound to occur. Gradually on the other hand, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) began keeping a vigil on the spread of societies across Bengal. The CID even started to infiltrate the societies.

In one of its first attempts at violent revolution, BarinGhose, along with Hem Chandra Das, PrafullaC haki and Narendra Goswami made an unsuccessful attempt to kill Lt Governor of Eastern Bengal, MrFuller. But soon Hem Das became disgusted with the method of working of Barin Ghosh since the latter was prone to divulging secret information in a spurt of emotion. Moreover, Barin did not show the mettle of a seasoned revolutionary, lacked proper training and mindset for waging targeted assassinations. Neither the Bengal groups were experts in making bombs.

Das returned to his native place Midnapore, sold a part of his property, and flew to Marseilles, France. After spending months in Switzerland and Paris, informs Heehs, he went to London to meet Shyamji Krishna Verma, a friend of Tilak. Verma had also patronized young Indians in his ‘India House’ in London and supported them with scholarships. But Das was not that fortunate. Since Verma did not support the cult of violence, Das had to find another shelter. As if to continue with the Marathi dalliance, Das came in touch with PandurangBapat, who had reached Europe at grossly the same time for a similar purpose.

Das and Bapat went to Paris and luckily received financial help from MrRana, a Kathiawari Rajput, and the two young revolutionaries enrolled to study Chemistry – the subject which would provide them with the expertise on explosives. In July 1907, Das and Bapat got work in the newspaper of a French Anarchist party. At the same time, an American anarchist, possibly Emma Goldman, introduced them to the leader of a French Socialist party – a figure who was known as ‘Ph D’.

The two enthusiastic rebels learnt history, geography, economics, socialism, communism, bomb making, explosives and related subjects from the Russian anarchists in Paris. One of their teachers was Nicolas Safransky – erstwhile Russian Army officer, who was then in exile in Paris. Interestingly, AnushilanSamiti could properly embark on the cult of violence only after Das returned from Paris in January 1908. Later on however, Bapat took to Gandhian philosophy and social work.


The Bomb

After some petty incidents, writes Irfan Habib in his ‘People’s History of India’, the Bengal revolutionaries carried out the major act at Muzaffarpur. Calcutta’s Chief Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford had convicted various people guilty of sedition and was hated by the revolutionaries for sentencing a teenage boy to be flogged. According to Barin, Aurobindo, SubodhMallick andCharu Chandra Dutt took the decision to kill Kingsford as retribution. The first attempt to kill Kingsford was in the form of a book bomb constructed by Hem Das.

An empty tin of Cadbury cocoa was packed with a pound of picric acid and three detonators, writes Heehs. This was further packed into a hollowed section of Commentaries on the Common Law and delivered wrapped in a brown paper to Kingsford’s house by PareshMallick, a young revolutionary. Kingsford nonetheless placed the unopened package in his shelf to examine later.

By March 1908, fearful of the judge’s safety, he was promoted to District Judge and posted at Muzaffarpur, Bihar. And with him went his furniture, library and the book bomb – which however never exploded because of the rust on the detonators. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries planned to eliminate Kingsford at Muzaffarpur itself.

Barinhad to decide the assassins. He chose the 15-year-oldSushil Kumar Sen – the boy whom Kingsford had ordered to be flogged. To aid him however, PrafullaChaki, a 19-year-old young revolutionary was also picked up. Chaki had been part of the secret society since 1906. On 4thApril 1908, the two young boys left Calcutta for Bihar. They undertook few more reconnaissance missions in order to pin point Kingsford’s trajectory so that the final assassination could be smooth. Unfortunately however, Sushil had to go to meet his bed-ridden father and was forced to abort the mission.

But the elimination could not wait. As an alternate, Hem Das suggested the name of Khudiram Bose as the latter was from Das’ native place Midnapore. Moreover, Bose knew how to use a gun and that was an added advantage. This time around, Hem Das and self-taught chemist UlhaskarDutt, prepared the bomb to kill Kingsford. The ingredients used were 6 ounces of dynamite, a detonator, and a black powder fuse.Duttinterestingly was a meritorious student of Calcutta’s Presidency College and supposedly expelled from the college for throwing a shoe at a professor, tells historian Durba Ghosh in her book ‘Gentlemanly Terrorists’. Later, Dutt, Das, and Barinwere exiled to Andaman and all of them penned down their experiences.

Returning to the scene of action, Khudiram andChaki went to Muzaffarpur, and settled down in a Dharmashala. They carried with them some clothing, money, three revolvers and the ‘bomb’. However, information was already leaked to the CID. Kingsford was given two constables as guards and was only allowed to go to the club under surveillance. On 30thApril 1908 Khudiram and Chaki hurled the bomb at the wrong carriage, thereby killing Mrs Kennedy and her daughter, who were in fact playing cards with Kingsford and in the club. Kingsford on the other hand left the club unhurt in another carriage.

PrafullaChaki shot himself by pulling the trigger after placing the barrel of the revolver inside his mouth and in the process severing his head and killing himself. The fearless Chaki used to tell his compatriots that if ever nabbed by the police, he would ensure his death by this process. Khudiram Bose, barely 18, was arrested, tried and hanged on 11thAugust 1908,and thereby finding a permanent place in the annals of history.


The Maharashtra Link

The Muaffarpur blast was nonetheless a culmination of a series of events and actions that preceded it. And if Okakura’s1902 speech was stirring for the Calcutta intelligentsia, then Japan’s 1905 military success against Russia in sea as well as on land made Indians spellbound and injected the revolutionaries with vigour and belief. And as the British Raj declared the partition of the province of Bengal, Aurobindo came out with a pamphlet ‘No Compromise’. Nevertheless, it was another pamphlet by Aurobindo which triggered the emotions and had that interesting Maratha link. Published in Baroda sometime before August 1905, this pamphlet, the immortalised BhawaniMandir – philosophised the revolutionary movement and called for the establishment of a monastic retreat or Ashram for disseminating the revolution, informs Ker.

Ker goes on to assert that invoking the name of Bhawani – or Shivaji’s ‘tutelary goddess’ was nothing coincidental, rather deliberate considering the close connection between the Shivaji movement and the cult of the bomb in Bengal. Moreover, Aurobindo had drafted the pamphlet in Baroda, in the Maratha land. It would not at all be out of context to mention a book in Bengali, Desher Katha (Tales of the Country) by a Calcutta-based Marathi named Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar. Ker intrigues us by informing that the Maratha war cry, ‘Har, Har, Mahadev’ was practised in the AnushilanSamiti and also used in the mock fights in the Bengal secret societies. To find such an intimate connection between the Maratha land and the infamously ‘coward Bengali’ in the creation of the revolutionary base of the cult of violence in the early 20th century India is itself highly fascinating and indubitably indicate the formation of India’s nationhood.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

(The writer writes on history, insurgency, counterinsurgency, physics and foreign policy. Any opinion expressed in this piece is author’s own.)

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