Retrieving a forgotten history

Do And Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

by Manini Chatterjee

Penguin Books India, New Delhi. Pp. xvi+ 356

ISBN 0 14 029067 2, INR. 285

In the period when Indian historiography was dominated by the nationalists there was an overwhelming tendency to chronicle the Indian freedom struggle almost exclusively as achievement of the Indian National Congress (INC) under M.K. Gandhi's guidance. Even the so-called Cambridge school of Indian history, whose agenda was to critique the Indian nationalist perspective, by and large focussed on INC activities and personalities. This created for long the impression that at a crucial period of Subcontinental transition, forces other than the Congress and its leadership were of little consequence. The actual history of independence from British rule is somewhat more complex, as the other schools of history writing that rose to prominence in the last two decades or so amply testify. Under the influence of these new perspectives, a number of political tendencies and events that helped erode imperial self-confidence in holding on to India began to get the attention they warranted. Even so, such outstanding contributions as Bhagat Singh's gallant sacrifice, to use but one example, have not yet received due recognition. The Chittagong uprising of the 1930s is another such event which has been relegated to the footnotes.

Fortunately, there are signs that a beginning is being made in reversing this decades old attitude, and the proof lies in works such as Manini Chatterjee's Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34. From the voluminous documentation at the National Archives of India and sources scattered elsewhere, the author has unearthed the details of this adventure, pieced together its fragmented story and restored it to history in its fullness. The book is a fascinating account of the Chittagong revolutionaries who, in the words of the Bengal Government's official report, "had done what had never been attempted before— what must have seemed to be an unrealisable dream".

It all began with Surjya Sen, a Chittagong school-teacher, inspired by the 1916 Dublin Easter uprising against the British, collecting a band of local youth and infusing them with the spirit of supreme sacrifice for the country. These youngsters were mostly drawn from Chittagong's established, professional class families with a fair sprinkling of recruits from the adjacent rural areas. They were young, some of them in their early teens. Even the sole girl from the group who survived, Kalpana Dutt, was only 15 when she joined the group. The few older members of the group provided the collective leadership in organisation and training. Surjya Sen, known as "Masterda", was indisputably the leader, commanding the group's complete confidence and loyalty. He inculcated a strong sense of discipline and co-ordination and trained the group's members in handling firearms. All these activities were carried out in Chittagong, the district headquarters, under the very nose of the police, which was constantly on high alert for plots against British authority. The group's discipline was such that not a word of the preparations or the objective leaked out. In fact, after it was all over, the British conceded that the armoury raid was a colossal intelligence failure on their part.

On the night of 19 April 1930, a Good Friday, as it had been 14 years earlier in Dublin, Masterda led the band of 64. Divided into four groups, they had four targets—the Telegraph Office, the armouries of the police and the auxiliary force and the European Club. The group assigned to attack the club found it deserted as the Europeans were observing a Christian day of mourning. As a result the club escaped damage. The Telegraph Office was torched, and with the railway track being disabled, Chittagong was cut off from the rest of Bengal province. The police armoury was attacked and captured, yielding a large volume of small arms and ammunition. The auxiliary force armoury was captured and its stock of arms taken, but the much-needed ammunition for the heavier weapons could not be found. The armoury was then burnt down. The District Magistrate, the Police Superintendent and other Europeans fled to the port and took shelter on one of the ships. The whole district was at the mercy of the young freedom fighters.

Because of communication problems, the four units could not regroup after their respective operations and therefore had to carry on their activities separately. Chatterjee's work traces the activities and travails of the groups in their wanderings through the province. Masterda led his boys into the hills. The British called in the army, and contingents of the Eastern Frontier Rifles, the Surma Valley Light Horse and the Gurkha Regiment began to comb the area. Three days later, there was an engagement at Jelalabad where the youths with their light arms could not cope with the army's heavier Lewis guns. Ten of them were killed while the rest managed to escape. Neither Gandhi nor Nehru had any word of tribute for the young martyrs or even an acknowledgement of their efforts. On the contrary, on 26 April, Gandhi found the time to pay tribute to a Gujarati Congress volunteer who had died while cutting down a toddy palm! He said, "Vithaldas would live in the memory of the country for ever."

More lives were lost in several other encounters with the army and the armed police. The groups, though separated, continued the fight against the British. They were always on the run, and although the entire countryside knew their identity, no one betrayed them. Though terribly poor, most of the rural folk shared whatever little they had with the young revolutionaries. There was a touching little incident involving an old widow who had given shelter to one group. She had heard that town folk use tea and she sent her son to a faraway village to fetch it. Having never seen or tasted tea, she cooked the leaves the only way she knew—like a dish of spinach. Kalpana Dutt did not have the heart to tell the widow how bitter it was and she ate the cooked tea with rice.

A unique feature of the wanderings of the revolutionaries in the forests and the countryside was that Muslim farmers very often gave them shelter, acted as lookouts, guided and transported them across the various water bodies. They never gave them away and often had to face the brutalities of the police pursuing the fugitive revolutionaries. A year later, a small group led by a senior, Ananta Singh, made its stealthy way to Calcutta to seek help. Eventually got to the French enclave at Chundernagore, where they were encircled and arrested. The remaining groups, however, carried on the struggle. They hatched a plot to blow up the jail where the arrested persons were lodged, but this was foiled. A notorious police inspector was targeted and killed in 1931. The following year, in an armed encounter, one of the leaders was killed. But Surjya Sen managed to stay on the run and carry on with his remaining troops. Some prominent British establishments like the Pahartali Club was attacked later in the same year. For more than three years, the young band of revolutionaries, led by a school teacher, had evaded the British empire's armed might. Their last encounter was in May 1933, in the course of which Surjya Sen and Kalpana Dutt were arrested.

Surjya Sen and another leader were sentenced to death by hanging. Kalpana Dutt, on account of her youth, was sentenced to transportation for life. Several others also spent the rest of their lives in solitary isolation in the infamous Cellular Jail of the Andaman's.

Chatterjee's book brings out extraordinary features of the Chittagong group that enabled them to carry on despite the odds. It was clearly their indomitable spirit and unflinching ideals that sustained them for so long with so little support. Similarly, their faith in the leadership seems to have kept the group intact, so that even under difficult circumstances, there were no acts of betrayal. Of the two girls in the group, one killed herself rather than surrender. They well knew that their adventure would only end in their deaths—"arnra morbo kintu desh jagbe" (we will die but the country will arise). The Chittagong uprising was the last act of classical terrorism in the Indian freedom struggle.

From the dry tissues of official reports and documentation, Manini Chatterjee has added flesh and blood to those shadowy but heroic figures of so long ago. Her work will do much to restore the balance in the account of India's independence struggle and perhaps induce more scholars to retrieve and rehabilitate other neglected heroes of the independence struggle.

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