Role of the revolutionaries

Print edition : October 30, 2015


A protest during the Civil Disobedience Movement. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Bhagat Singh. Gandhi faced a real challenge when intelligence reports said that Bhagat Singh was more popular than he was. Photo: By special arrangement

The story of the intersection between the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, the Congress, and the British government in India’s movement for independence is told with a wealth of documentation.

This book breaks new ground in the study of India’s movement for independence. Until 1920, the movement had two strands, constitutional and terrorist. Gandhi introduced a third, civil disobedience. There have been able studies of all the three strands. James Campbell Ker, Indian Civil Service, (retired) wrote an able study for the Criminal Investigation Department titled Political Trouble in India 1907-1917. If the notorious Rowlatt Committee on revolutionary movements in India was able to submit its report in a record time of three months it was because it was heavily indebted to that confidential study, a fact “the Rowlatt Report” did not acknowledge. Whole chapters were reproduced verbatim or in a somewhat altered form. This was exposed in 1973 by Mahadevaprasad Saha in his introduction to Ker’s book (Editions Indian; Calcutta). It is a shame that a judge of the High Court of England Justice S.A.T. Rowlatt stooped to this level. In 1937, the Intelligence Bureau produced a follow-up titled Terrorism in India 1917-1936 written by H.W. Hale of the Indian Police ( Frontline, March 14, 2008).

What distinguishes Kama Maclean’s work, based on stupendous research, is that it explores the zone in which civil disobedience and terrorism met; if not merged. She is Associate Professor of South Asian and World History at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney and editor of South Asia. Many a Congressman rejected Gandhi’s non-violence. Maulana Azad, for example. But, as on other matters, Gandhi’s views on violence were not unambiguous. When he met the Viceroy Lord Wavell on August 27, 1946, “Gandhi thumped the table and said: ‘If India wants her blood bath, it shall have it’.” (Panderel Moon (Ed.); Wavell: The Viceroy’s Journal; OUP, page 341). Wavell was shocked to hear this. In 1942, secret instructions were issued to volunteers to use violence, if need be, if Gandhi was arrested for giving the “Quit India” call (Azad, India Wins Freedom; pages 82-83). Gandhi told Woodrow Wyatt on April 13, 1946, that “he would urge non-violence on Congress but did not expect them (sic.) to observe it. ( Transfer of Power, Vol. 7, pages 261-262). The interaction should, therefore, cause no surprise. There was no triumph for the Gandhian ideology of non-violence.

The author writes: “The contribution that this book makes to the scholarship of this era is both epistemological and methodological. It aims to reconsider the impact of the revolutionaries on nationalist agitation; to deploy oral histories and factor in other ‘un-archived’ materials such as satire, hearsay and rumour in reconstructing a history of nationalism in the interwar period; and to lean on visual cultural artefacts to open a window onto debates about the anti-imperial struggle in British India. …

“In revisiting this period, my aim is to factor in the political impact of the north Indian revolutionaries—the votaries of violence who coordinated attacks on colonial interests in an attempt to undermine British confidence and expedite decolonisation—on the broader nationalist movement. Focussing on the activities of one organisation in particular, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), formed by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, this book draws on new evidence to deliver a fresh perspective on the ambitious ideologies and practices of this short-lived but influential party. I argue that it was no coincidence that then Civil Disobedience Movement —often thought of as the second great campaign directed by Gandhi and the Congress, after the Non-Cooperation Movement —substantially overlapped with the wave of revolutionary action unleashed by the HSRA.”

She has laboured as hard to procure and publish the visuals, which enrich the volume, as to unearth material from several archives. “A substantial body of these poster-montages were produced by presses in Kanpur and Lahore, both important bases of HSRA activity. Their referencing of revolutionary portraits (which, with the exception of Bhagat Singh’s and B.K. Dutt’s, were only circulated underground), and their apparent knowledge of revolutionary praxis belied an active sympathy, if not actual liaisons, with subversive organisations. In this, their highly coded enunciation in allegory and culturally dense tropes allude to a politics pushed underground. Thus, these images echo contemporary narratives and theories —of which there were many in the 1930s—about politics in general and imperial perfidy in particular. Such images murmur hints about what transpired in nationalist circles and in imperial schemes, and how the two came together in clash; they speak of legal travesty, nationalist imbrications, secret pacts, and implicitly understood strategies devised to challenge the empire.”

In a country in which literacy rates were low, posters helped arouse the masses. They support the central theme of the work. “The core argument of this book is that the presence of the revolutionaries on the political landscape during the crucial interwar years served to radicalise the Congress which, in turn, injected a fresh urgency into the slow British projecting constitutional reform.” They influenced the British to speed up the progress of the reforms.

The story of the intersection between the revolutionary HSRA, the Congress and the British government is told with a wealth of documentation. (For the text of the HSRA’s Manifesto vide Biswakesh Tripathy, Terrorism and Insurgency in India; 1900-1986; Pacific Press; pages 271-277.)

Revolutionaries were impatient and the impatience grew as Gandhi’s movements fizzled out, one after another. Gandhi imagined that his satyagraha provided a “safety valve” to divert “the reign of terrorism that has just begun to overwhelm India”.

Historians tended to give centre stage to the Gandhian narrative prompting Manmathnath Gupta, formerly of the HSRA, to call them “hired historians”; an epithet which some of them deserved for other reasons as well. Revolutionary politics had a clandestine nexus with the Congress. It strengthened the latter’s claim to be a barrier against the spread of violence—and also provided auxiliary support should the British try repressive methods. The author discusses the ways in which the two interacted and the interaction between the Congress and the HSRA and analyses the “revolutionary imagery”.

Gandhi faced a real challenge. Intelligence reports said that Bhagat Singh was more popular. Gandhi riveted his control of the Congress. Some interesting facts surface. In 1929 there was a plot to assassinate Mohammad Ali Jinnah. By the mid-1930s, the revolutionary surge subsided. One gets a better understanding of Bhagat Singh’s personality and his outlook. He did not want “a replacement of a white rule at Delhi by a brown rule”. It is a measure of the author’s scholarly modesty that she regards her pioneering work as but the beginning of a larger project. None better qualified to pursue it than the author herself.

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