Saturday, February 4th, 2023 01:11:45

Udham Singh was Not Alone

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
Updated: October 18, 2021 10:48 am

The Second World War had very much commenced. On 13 March 1940, SardarUdham Singh shot Michael O’Dyer. The man at the helm of affairs in Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in 1919, Dyer had to be assassinated. However, Udham Singh was not alone in this war against imperial brutality. He was accompanied by a series of revolutionaries over a long stretch of time, especially since the First World War.

Professor of South Asian History in the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg, Kama Maclean in her book A Revolutionary History of Interwar Indiamakes it appear rather intriguing as she writes that when 22 policemen were being burnt alive by the peasants in February 1922 at Chauri Chaura of today’s Uttar Pradesh, the crowd had raised the slogan: Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai.

Nonetheless, this was not a single aberration. Similar incidents of chanting Gandhi’s name on one hand and resorting to extreme violence on the other had occurred during India’s freedom movement. Historian Sumit Sarkar too mentions such instances during the Civil Disobedience Movement of the early 1930s, among the tea plantation workers in north Bengal.

As Gandhi brought down the curtains on the Non-Cooperation Movement [NCM] because of the aftermath of violence at ChauriChaura, a major group sprung up in north India that professed the ‘philosophy of the bomb and gun’ to snatch freedom from an imperial power. It was the Hindustan Republican Association or Army (HRA), formed in 1924.  Interestingly, HRA’s constitution was written by two Bengali revolutionaries Sachindranath Sanyal and Jogesh Chandra Chatterjee.

HRA, based in Benaras, initially had around 100 members. On 09 Aug 1925, in Kakori, the group seized 4,500 rupees belonging to the state treasury, being carried in a train. In the fracas, one passenger was killed. These were political dacoities that the revolutionary groups were engaged in to gather finances. Nevertheless, a large chunk of HRA’s leadership was arrested after police investigations pertaining to the Kakori incident. And in 1927, four members of HRA were hanged – Ashfaqullah, Ramprasad Bismil, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri.

The revolutionary groups had in fact granted time to the NCM led by Gandhiji. The radical activities, which had gained momentum during the First World War due to German collaboration, were largely suppressed due to the incarceration of the militants under the Defence of India Act. 1,262 persons were imprisoned in Bengal alone, writes Debabrata Majumder in his 1984 thesis Revolutionary terrorism in Bengal from 1920 to 1937.  However, some of the leaders escaped the police net and went overseas. Notable among them were Narendra Nath Bhattacharya (alias M. N. Roy and founder of the Communist Party of India) and Abani Mukherjee. Seven leaders of the Jugantar group – Dr. Jadugopal Mukherjee, Amarendra Nath Chattopadhyay, Atul Ghosh, Nalini Kar, Satish Chakraborty, Manmatha Biswas and Panchugopal Banerjee, each carrying a reward of Rs.5000, went underground.

Naturally, after a long period of imprisonment, the revolutionaries on their release faced a serious problem. Their organisations had been dismantled. Many of them did not have any shelter or means of livelihood. With the help of a well-known contractor R. Raha, and two well-known barristers of Calcutta B.C. Chatterjee and S.R. Das, the government opened a free kitchen-type mess in Calcutta for the released political prisoners. The leader of Anushilan Samity Nalini Kishore Guha became its chief organiser. The inmates of this mess were mostly members of the Anushilan Samity. On the other hand, the Jugantar workers, stayed away from this arrangement and drew closer to the Indian National Congress (INC), writes Majumder.

What was to be Done?

The released revolutionaries were suffering from a dilemma. They could not make up their minds about their future path of struggle. Should they return to the old method of violence? Or, should they explore new paths of struggle? However, during the Nagpur session of the INC in December 1920, an attempt was made on behalf of Jugantar to withdraw the warrants against the seven absconders. Atul Ghosh and Bhupendra Kumar Datta met and requested Madan Mohan Malaviya to use his good offices in this regard. Thereafter, Bhupen Datta approached Gandhiji. His advice for the revolutionaries was to surrender all their arms and stay in his ashram at Sabarmati. This certainly appeared unfeasible to the rebels. So, they approached Surendra Nath Banerjea, who initiated dialogue with the government for the absconders. It was due to Banerjea’s intervention and perhaps also of Motilal Roy, a revolutionary of (West Bengal’s) Chandernagore, that Atul Ghosh met the then Chief Secretary of Bengal and the Chief of the Intelligence Branch.

Ultimately the charges were withdrawn and the seven absconding leaders could come out of their hidings towards the end of 1921. Gandhiji said:

“…….the devoted sacrifice and sufferings you Bengalees have endured are beyond any parallel. I myself would not have dared”.

Datta told Gandhiji that his programme of Non-Cooperation by itself would not make the country independent, but it would nevertheless provide a revolutionary frequency for the people. Dattahowever gave Gandhiji the word of honour that during this period of NCM the revolutionaries would not resort to any violence and give Gandhiji’s plan a definite trial. Nonetheless, Dutta remained firm in his understanding that the country would not be liberated without armed struggle.

Gandhiji replied that if the people took up the responsibility of administration, the British would have no moral right to rule the country. Datta replied that the British bothered little about any moral right as their rule in India was founded on military prowess. Though the debate ended in a stalemate, Datta promised Gandhiji that his party would not indulge in any act of violence during the next one year. C. R. Das too, on his return to Calcutta from Nagpur, contacted the revolutionaries and persuaded them to join the NCM. In the meantime, Gandhiji himself came down to Calcutta and made an exhaustive tour of Bengal to win over the people in the province.

He made an ardent appeal to the self-sacrificing Bengali youth:

“You have more imagination, more faith and more emotion than the rest of India. You have falsified the calumny of cowardice on more occasions than one. There is, therefore, no reason why Bengal should not lead us as it has done before”

Gandhiji’s appeal worked. Dr. Jadugopal Mukherjee, then in hiding, met Gandhiji and had a long conversation with him. According to the advice of Aurobindo Ghose (by then in Pondicherry in spiritual pursuit), the Jugantar group started setting up ashrams in different parts of Bengal. Accordingly, ashrams were established in Sankarmath in Barisal (present Bangladesh), Satyashram in Khulna (in Bangladesh), Vidyamandir in Uttarpara (in West Bengal) and Sarnyashram in Chittagong (in Bangladesh). These soon became centres of action for the revolutionaries.

Well, why did the Jugantar support Gandhiji’s movement? The reasons were clearly stated by Dr. Jadugopal Mukherjee in his memoirs. Dr Mukherjee stated that by aligning with Gandhiji’s open mass movement, the word Swadhinata or Freedom, so long chanted like mantra (hymn) in secret, could now be uttered in public. Moreover, mass mobilisation could also take place overtly. Furthermore, Gandhiji’s words provided them with a sound logic for switching over from violence to non-violence. Finally, the revolutionaries and Gandhiji had the same end in view – the end of the British Raj.

However, Pulin Das, the unquestioned leader of the Anushilan Samity attended the Nagpur Session of the Congress (in Dec 1920) along with C.R. Das and opposed the idea of Non-Cooperation. After the Nagpur Session, Gandhiji came to Bengal and expressed his desire to meet Pulin Das.


Das-Gandhi Debate

Das, accompanied by two prominent barristers, Subodh Roy and Himangshu Bose, met Gandhiji at the residence of C.R.Das. Majumder mentions that Pulin Das has described this interview in detail in his autobiography.Gandhiji talked to Das in secret and told him that either he would convert him (Pulin) to his ideas or he would accept Pulin’s ideas. However, as things turned out that neither happened.

The deliberations continued for three days. Gandhiji told Das that his movement had proved ineffective and insisted upon Pulin’s acceptance of non-violence as the only and surest means to achieve independence. Das countered by saying that the government had no doubt been perturbed by the revolutionary movements: that is why the partition of Bengal had been annulled and the Montagu-Chelmsford constitutional reforms of 1919 had been ushered in.

Gandhiji calmly argued that an attempt at revolution would bring war and cause the death and torture of many people – which surely was not desirable. Das retorted:

“…under the fetters of slavery, India is witnessing hundreds of such cruelties, innumerable people are dying from starvation and malnutrition, and poverty is on the increase. We began our revolution to achieve independence as a means to end all these shameful cruelties and killing.”

In fact, Das expressed his belief that no country could achieve freedom without a revolutionary war. Gandhi in turn replied that if only the Indians could remain non-violent and make adequate sacrifices, the imperialists would be compelled to free India. According to Gandhi, the real meaning of independence was spiritual freedom and if one could keep one’s spirit free in spite of economic, political and social problems and physical torture, then alone could one be truly free. Pulin argued that such spiritual freedom might be pertinent to sanyasis(monks), but what he wanted was political and material freedom which many other countries enjoyed. In that sense, he did not think that Gandhiji’s path would lead to such freedom.

Suddenly, as reported by Das, Gandhiji lost his temper and the discussion came to an abrupt end.

According to a veteran leader of the party, the Anushilan Samity was no longer a well-knit organisation after the blow it had received during the First World War. In such a state of disarray, it was difficult for the party to take any collective stand for or against participation in the NCM. Satis Pakrasi, a young Anushilan militant who later on became a communist, recalled that the non-violent NCM that was sweeping the country like a flood tide had strongly attracted him. He along with his friends took active part in the work of the Barisal District Congress Committee. But when they were urged to sign the pledge of non-violence, they left the INC.

Pulin Das, however, took an anti-Gandhi posture after his failed dialogue with Gandhi. He alleged that “Gandhi has turned the country into a land of coolies, and without armed uprising Swaraj or freedom can never be won.”

According to his own testimony, Pulin Das met Satish Ranjan Das, the then Standing Counsel of the Calcutta High Court and later on the Advocate General, at the latter’s residence. S.R. Das proposed that as both of them were against the Gandhian NCM, they should expose the loopholes of the movement by bringing out a journal and all the expenses of the publication would be borne by S.R.Das. Pulin Das then brought out the journalHak-katha. Nalini Kishore Guha, a prolific writer of the Anushilan was entrusted with the editorial responsibilities. To campaign against Gandhiji, an organisation called the Bharat Sevak Sangha was also established.


Violence Resumes

As NCM withered away, there was a cluster of violent actions around Calcutta from 1923 to 1924. Robbery and double murder at Kona, post office robberies, bombing at Mirzapur Street (Kolkata’s Surya Sen Street) targeting a police inspector, and discovery of a bomb factory in the city were some examples. Even in this backdrop, Tej Bahadur Sapru argued that the government should continue with ordinary law rather than enact repressive laws to put down political dissent.

However, from the perspective of some British officials, special and extraordinary repressive legislation was warranted due to attacks on government officials. Two assassination attempts on Calcutta’s Commissioner of Police Charles Tegart and robbery in Assam-Bengal Railway at Chittagong station fuelled this issue further. In 1924, revolutionary Gopinath Saha’s attempt on Tegart failed, instead Saha killed Ernest Day. After Saha was hanged, Bengal Provincial Congress in June 1924 proposed a resolution on Saha:

“While adhering to the policy of non-violence, this Conference pays respectful homage to the patriotism of Gopinath Saha …”

Gandhi however rejected the resolution because of the word ‘patriotism’, tells historian Durba Ghosh in her book Gentlemanly Terrorists. Gandhi rephrased the resolution thus:

“Although rejecting all kinds of violence and accepting the basic principle of non-violence, this Conference realises the high and noble ideal of Gopinath Saha and makes known its respect for him for the noble self-sacrifice he, misguided though he was, has made in the matter of the preservation of interest of the Mother Land”.

Along with this, Gandhi also proposed a resolution to offer condolence to Day’s family and that all political murders should be condemned by the INC. Gandhi’s proposals were passed by 78 versus 70 votes, a close margin indeed.


Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen and more Violence

Toward the later years of the 1920s, in a meeting at Delhi’s Feroze shah Kotla (on 8-9 Sep 1928), Bhagat Singh, Sachin Sanyal’s brother Jatindra  nath Sanyal, Ajoy Ghosh from United Provinces (UP) and Phanindra nath Ghosh from Bihar, founded the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association or Army (HSRA). Major actions by the group included the assassination of Assistant Superintendent of Police Mr Saunders in Lahore in December 1928, bombs thrown in Delhi’s Central Legislative Assembly on 08 April 1929, attempt to blow up Viceroy Irwin’s train near Delhi in December 1929 and26 incidents of revolutionary actions in 1930 in Punjab and UP.

At the other geographical extremity of the then India’s map, on the evening of Good Friday, 18 April 1930, a teacher (or fondly called Masterda) Surya Sen led nearly 60 young revolutionaries to conduct the Chittagong Armoury Raid. The group called itself Indian Republican Army and laid siege to the city of Chittagong for four days. They occupied major colonial sites – European club, police armoury, telephone and telegraph office. The raiders cut-off Chittagong from the rest of India and hoped to terrorise the British while they enjoyed a Friday evening at their club. The movement styled itself as a version of the “Irish Republican Army”. The group members even read ‘My fight for Irish Freedom’ by Dan Breen and relied on his Easter Rising in 1916 as a model of insurgency. Followers of Surya Sen posted flyers titled “Indian Republican Army” at schools in Rangoon, Barisal, Calcutta and Chittagong, urging the youth to follow examples of revolutionaries in Ireland, Germany, Russia and China. Sen and his group continued guerrilla warfare with the colonial constabulary for three more years in the adjoining forests and hills of Jalalabad. Sen finally was arrested and hanged in 1934.

Bengal was up in flames as revolutionaries had unleashed a series of violent activities. At one end, Gandhi’s non-violent Satyagraha was in full flow in the form of the Civil Disobedience movement, while violent actions went on unabated. In August 1930, Inspector General of Police FJ Lowman was assassinated in Dhaka and his colleague Hodson was wounded. The action was carried out by Benoy Bose – a medical student. He escaped.

Later in the same month, assassination attempt was made on Charles Tegart, in front of some shops in Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square. The suspect Dinesh Majumder was arrested but escaped from jail.In December the same year, Benoy Bose, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta stormed the Writers’ Building in Calcutta and killed IG Prisons Simpson – who had been in favour of preventive detention. Benoy and Badal committed suicide once they ran out of ammunition during the Verandah Shootout with the police inside the Writers’ Building (official secretariat of the government of West Bengal). Dinesh was seriously injured and was executed a year later after a special tribunal convicted him. They were all in their early twenties. As a tribute to their supreme sacrifice, Dalhousie Square has been renamed as Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bag.

Between 1930 and 1934, writes Durba Ghosh, revolutionary extremists assassinated 9 more British officials and attempted to murder numerous government officials as well as informers. On 08 April 1931, James Peddie, District Magistrate [DM] of Midnapore (in West Bengal), died of gunshots while visiting a school. The assassin was never nabbed. In the wake of this violence, government officials panicked and at the same time, acts of political violence multiplied. As a reactionary measure however, state violence against all Indians went up in the early 1930s and a large number of men who had been detained under the Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Act between 1924 and 1928, were again put behind bars from 1930 to 1938 (Ghosh, Gentlemanly Terrorists).

The assassination of Inspector Khan Bahadur Ashanullah – who had prosecuted Chittagong Armoury rebels, took place in August 1931. Unfortunately, however, there were reports and allegations of communal riots following Ashanullah’s death. In March 1932, Douglas, the DM of Midnapore was assassinated by PK Bhattacharyya. A judge called Jnananker De – a member of the three judge tribunal, argued that death sentence was too harsh as Bhattacharyya had probably not fired the total number of shots since the bullets that killed Douglas were of 0.380 bore, whereas Bhattacharyya’s revolver was 0.450 bore.Moreover, Bhattacharyya was not 21 years then.

On 14 December 1931, two high school going girls – Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhary assassinated the DM of Comilla (in present Bangladesh) – Mr. Buckland Stevens.They met Stevens on the pretext of getting support for a swimming competition, gifted him cake and chocolates and then shot him at point blank range. Again, on 06 Feb 1932, Bina Das, an 18-year-old college student, smuggled a gun into the University of Calcutta convocation and shot at the Governor of Bengal, Jackson. The Governor dodged the bullet by ducking and was moved from the scene by then Vice Chancellor H S Suhrawardy.

In August 1932, Grassby, the Addl S.P. in Dhaka, was shot at in his car but was unharmed. In September 1932,a group of followers of Surya Sen, led by Pritilata Waddedar (who studied in Kollkata’s Bethune College) attacked the European club at Pahartali, Chittagong. Wadedar committed suicide when she was at the verge of being arrested.

The series of targeted attacks sent shock waves through the colonial administration. Moreover, attacks by armed women, educated and elite, was a new shift in the strategy of the movement. University educated women joining underground secret societies puzzled officials, opines Ghosh. The general opinion was the belief that higher education would lead women toward liberal politics.

The INC, being the main political party at that juncture, could not remain indifferent to the changed

situation. The radical-nationalist trend that had taken shape in the Congress spearheaded by leaders like Nehru, Bose, Jai Prakash Narain et al. was demanding more militant approach against the British Raj. The

British government was assessing

the new developments with great concern. Government of India Act, 1935 was one of the major fallouts of the series of movements aimed at India’s freedom. Provincial autonomy was given to the Indians. British Raj was feeling the heat. And when in 1940, Udham Singh fired the gun in London, he was definitely part of a long list of illustrious revolutionaries, who on the eve of 75 years India’s independence, deserve to be remembered and respected – in books, films, documentaries, images, memories, stories and of course in history.


By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

(Dr Uddipan Mukherjee, PhD is in India’s Central Civil Service. He writes on history, insurgency, counterinsurgency, foreign policy. Any opinion expressed here is that of the author.)


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