Friday, March 18, 2011

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising: 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee.

Author's note: To read my take on the movie version of this book, click here.

A forgotten chapter of Indian history brought alive.

Meticulously researched and skillfully narrated, the story of the young idealists, heady with patriotism and ready to die, emphasizes the role of the revolutionaries as an important part of the freedom struggle in India. Manini Chatterjee has presented perhaps the first comprehensive history of the uprising based on a large corpus of original source material. British records and official publications form just one part of this. She has made extensive use of India-centered sources in both English and Bengali: the writings by participants of the uprising, interviews with survivors, newspaper reports, and contemporary political records. Using the skills of a journalist to ask the right questions, Chatterjee uncovers the riveting saga of an intrepid band of men and women who engaged the might and wits of a mature and entrenched colonial state for four long years. Surjya Sen, Kalpana Dutta and their comrades, historical figures whom we have encountered but do not really know, acquire real-life stature in Manini Chatterjee's telling.

Throughout British India, independence movements began to gain strength during the 1900's. The revolutionaries (of colonial Bengal) were organized into two major groups: "Calcutta Jugantar" and "Dacca Anushilan Samiti". These revolutionaries had to face British torture, rigorous imprisonment, the hangman's noose and deportation to the dreaded Andaman cellular jail. The 'Anushilan-Jugantar' merger provided a new impetus to the freedom movement with the revolutionaries making a federation of all groups to launch a new offensive. Niranjan Sengupta of the 'Barisal Anushilan', Satish Chandra Pakrashi of 'Dacca Anushilan', Jatin Das of the 'South Calcutta Anushilan' led the federation along with 'Masterda' Surjo Sen and Ganesh Ghose of the 'Chittagong Jugantar Party'. They adopted in 1929 a programme of hitting government establishments... all at a time. Biplobi Surjo Sen made a series of attacks on government establishments from 1929 to 1933... including the most sensational 'Chittagong Armoury raid'... in 1930. The textbook cliche that Gandhi’s 'Ahisma' forced the British to quit India is not merely trivializing of undivided India’s revolutionary heritage but also an ignorant historical reductionism.

The 1930 Chittagong Youth Revolt, which the British colonialists denigrated as the loot of the Chittagong Armoury, was one of the glorious chapters of the anti-colonial movement of the subcontinent and a valiant example of armed struggle. The exploits of the revolutionaries, whom the British denounced, brutally tortured, tried and hanged as "terrorists", have entered our folklore of people's struggle for independence from colonial oppression. The legendary 'Masterda' Surjo Sen, the leader of the revolt, has ever remained an icon of revolution and patriotism... in Bengal. The rest of India barely knows this heroic revolutionary... whom the British sought to portray as a midnight terrorist.

On a day (April 18, 1930) that is a landmark in India's struggle for Independence, the fearless Freedom Fighter 'Masterda' Surjo Sen with his comrades-in-arms Ganesh Ghosh, Lokenath Bal, Nirmal Sen, Ambika Chakrobarty, Naresh Roy, Sasanka Datta, Ardhendu Dastidar, Harigopal Bal (Tegra), Tarakeswar Dastidar, Ananta Singh, Jiban Ghoshal, Anand Gupta, Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Datta and many others, and a boy barely into his teens... the 14-year-old Subodh Roy, took control of two armouries in Chittagong, raised the Indian National Flag, and declared independence under a Provisional Revolutionary Government operating under the Indian Republican Army. They achieved a siege of remarkable magnitude, against the fully trained and equipped British military.

It took an inordinately long period for new research and interpretations of Indian history to percolate into the school textbooks of independent India. The Uprising of 1857, for example, continued to be referred to as the "Mutiny" of 1857 (a term the British chose in order to minimize the spread and impact of a people's uprising that enveloped large parts of the subcontinent) in Indian classrooms and textbooks till the early 1970s. An event that however never got upgraded in school textbooks from the status of an "armoury raid" to the popular anti-colonial uprising that it really was, is the Chittagong Uprising of 1930-34. The British used the word "raid" to wish away a challenge that shook their administrative apparatus, and morale, to the core. Wonder why, though.

The revolutionary chapter (or what Chatterjee says has been inaccurately called the "terrorist" chapter) of the freedom movement had a complex and not entirely inimical relationship with the non-violent freedom movement led by the Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. This took very interesting forms in colonial Bengal, of which Chittagong was a part. All the six original leaders of the Chittagong Uprising - Surjya Sen, Nirmal Chandra Sen, Lokenath Bal, Ambika Chakrabarti, Ananta Singh and Ganesh Ghosh, were participants in the Congress-led Civil Disobedience movement launched in 1919. They were bitterly disappointed by Gandhi's decision to call off the movement in 1922 in the wake of the Chauri Chaura incident. It was as members of the District Congress Committee and other mass fronts of the Congress that they planned and trained for the armed attack on the Chittagong armoury, police headquarters and European club on April 18, 1930, an attack they hoped would yield them a sufficiently large quantity of arms and ammunition. They hoped it would be the prelude to a general uprising. They built up an 'army' amongst teenage recruits who were given physical training in physical training clubs, and secret training in arms under cover - a parallel activity which the district administration did not get wise to.

Despite an unforeseen hitch at the last minute, the carefully planned operation goes off flawlessly and takes an unprepared administration totally by surprise. "The strategy and success of the uprising," Chatterjee writes, "rested on two conditions: the first was to capture the enemies' armouries and the second was to repulse the attack of the enemy and protect the provisional republican government for as many days as possible". The revolutionaries were however forced to change direction mid-stream owing to a fatal failure of intelligence on their part. While the armoury contained the best collection of weapons in the district, this proved quite useless, as the ammunition to use it was not stored there. A new magazine had been recently built which the revolutionaries did not know about.

Their plans in disarray, the leaders responded to the situation on instinct. Chatterjee describes the events that followed. The original group found itself separated and in two. The bigger group, largely comprising tired but exhilarated teenagers who did not know the extent of the setback they had suffered, retreated with "Masterda" (as Surjya Sen was called), Nirmal Sen and Ambica Chakrabarti into the Nagarkhana Hills that flanked Chittagong. Around four days later, in what came to be known as the "Battle of Jalalabad" - in a showdown with the mighty Queen's army, this poorly armed group of 55 men and boys engaged a fully armed battalion of British troops numbering several thousand at Jalalabad hills. 10-12 of them achieved martyrdom, but not before taking down eighty of the colonizers. Several among the group sustained injuries while Ananta Singh, Ganesh Ghosh and two others had an eventful time, evading arrest and reaching Calcutta with great difficulty.

Striking and graphic accounts of the battle of Jalalabad, the encounter at Dhalghat, the attack at Pahartali and the underground resistance form the core of the book. Chatterjee scores in giving a human face to the dry bones of history. The enigmatic 'Masterda', the irrepressible Kalpana Dutta and the brooding, tragic Pritilata Waddedar all come alive with their zeal and fervour, love and loss.

Chatterjee traces the continuation of the struggle through many a tortuous twist. The official backlash was heavy (by the end of 1931, Chittagong had come under virtual martial law and the administration had special powers to arrest, detain and punish anyone it thought were connected with the revolutionaries). The survivors of Jalalabad broke up into groups to continue the resistance which now spread to the villages; more recruits joined the struggle, including Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Waddadar (who chose to commit suicide in an armed action rather than be caught or surrender); several leaders were captured by the police; and an extensive plan to effect the escape of some of the jailed leaders was discovered and foiled by the authorities. Masterda and his comrades, continuously on the run, were finally caught in February 1933. Kalpana Dutta, Tarakeshwar Dastidar and a group of others were arrested in May that year. Surjya Sen and Dastidar were hanged to death in January 1934 and a number of other leaders deported for life to the Andamans.

The Chittagong Uprising, Manini Chatterjee persuasively argues, marks a new stage in the participation of women in the freedom struggle. While the Gandhian movement drew women into 'satyagraha' in large numbers, the revolutionary movement attracted fewer women but offered them a different quality of experience and involvement, indeed of equality with their male comrades. While Chittagong may have been the first "instance of women decisively crossing the Lakshman Rekha that bound them to home and family" it was not, as Chatterjee suggests, the only instance of this happening. Women continued, at great cost to themselves and to their families, to cut themselves off from traditional support structures and join movements that sought to bring change in radical ways. Women who had cast off traditional roles during a period of struggle found it far more difficult than men to pick up the pieces and reconstruct their lives in "peace time". They found that while they had changed, the societies in which they lived had not.

This is a book well researched and well told, and certainly enriches our understanding of an important part of our history.

Masterda Surjyo Sen: Surjya Sen, being constantly followed by the police, was once hiding in the house of Sabitri Devi, a widow, near Patiya. A police and military force under Captain Cameron surrounded the house on 13 June 1932. Cameron was shot dead while ascending the stairs and Surjya Sen along with Pritilata Waddedar and Kalpana Datta escaped to safety.

'Masterda' evaded arrest by disguising himself and taking on various odd jobs; as a labourer; as a farmer, or milkman, or priest, as a combined hand/man servant or even as a pious Muslim.

Either because of the lure of money (announced by the British as a reward), or out of jealousy, or due to a combination of both, Netra Sen betrayed Masterda. As a result, the police captured him on February 16, 1933. This is how one of India's greatest heroes was arrested. But before Netra Sen could get his 10,000-rupee reward the revolutionaries killed him.

Netra Sen's wife was a staunch supporter of Surjya Sen, and was horrified by her husband's betrayal.

One evening while she was serving dinner to her husband… a supporter of Surjya Sen came into the house carrying a very big knife (called "daa" in Bengali)… with one stroke of which he chopped off the head of Netra Sen in the presence of his wife… and left as slowly and silently he had come. When the police arrived to investigate, they asked Netra Sen's wife if she had seen the murderer. She said, "I saw with my own eyes, but my heart will not permit me to tell you his name. I am sorry. I feel miserable that I was the wife of such a treacherous man, such an undivine man as Netra Sen. My husband betrayed the greatest hero of Chittagong. My husband betrayed a great son of Mother India. My husband cast a slur on the face of India. Therefore, I cannot tell the name of the person who took his life. He has definitely done the right thing. You can do anything with me. You can punish me, you can even kill me, but I shall never tell the name of the person who killed my husband. Our 'Masterda' will be hanged, I know, but his name will forever be synonymous with India's immortal freedom-cry. Everybody loves him. Everybody adores him. I, too, love him and adore him, for he is the brightest sun in the firmament of Chittagong. Surjya means sun and he is truly our sun."

Tarakeswar Dastidar, the new president of the Chittagong Branch of the Jugantar Party, made plans to rescue Masterda from the Chittagong Jail. But the plot was unearthed and consequently frustrated. Tarakeswar and Kalpana along with others were arrested. Special tribunals tried Surjya Sen, Tarakeswar Dastidar, and Kalpana Datta in 1933.

The British hanged Surya Sen along with his fellow revolutionary Tarekeshwar Dastidar on January 12, 1934. But before the death sentence was carried out Masterda was brutally tortured. It was reported that the British executioners broke all his teeth with a hammer, plucked out all the nails from his fingers and toes and broke every limb and joints in his body. He was then dragged to the gallows unconscious. After his death nobody performed his funeral. The prison authority, it was found later, put his dead body in a metallic cage and dumped it into the Bay of Bengal. No tomb, plaque, or saintly epithets for him and his ilk... in independent India too. Sadly.

Details of the Book: Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising: 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee/ Manini Chatterjee/ pp. 356/ Paperback/ Publisher: Penguin Books India (14-Oct-2000)/ ISBN-10: 0140290672/ ISBN-13: 978-0140290677/ Price: Rs. 295/

Photograph: Pic courtesy: Link.


  1. Nice write up Roshmi. I should try to get my hands on this book. Thanks.

  2. @ Deepa: Go for it!

    P.S. The movie was a big let down though. Which just reinforces the saying, 'don't judge a book by its movie'.

  3. Very Comprehensive review; And an objective appraisal.

  4. @ Sibi: Thanks and welcome to my blog!

  5. Good read , discount of 27 percent available if one buys through fipkart

  6. * Flipkart sorry for typing error

  7. @ Sunilji: Yes... that's an additional incentive to buy this great book :)

  8. Hi!First time in your blog! It's so informative and amazing! keep writing:)

  9. @ Archana: Thanks girl and welcome to my blog :)

  10. Hello Roshmi Sinha , nice blog.Salute to true hero who initiated "Kranti" in bengal.

    Jai Hind