Chittagong saga retold

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST


Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising: 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee, Penguin Books, 1999; pages 356, Rs. 295.

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 Bri tish chose in order to minimise 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. Indeed, the snail's pace at which school textbooks were written from a l iberal and modern standpoint contrasts with the rapid and purposeful dismantling of the progressive content of history textbooks that is currently under way in several States, and under the direction of reconstituted institutions of education and researc h such as the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

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 t hat shook their administrative apparatus, and morale, to the core. In her recent book, journalist 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-centred 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, Ka lpana Dutta and their comrades, historical figures whom we have encountered but do not really know, acquire real-life stature in Manini Chatterjee's telling.

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 lead ership of Mahatma Gandhi. This took very interesting forms in 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 Ghos h, 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 Cong ress 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 quantit y 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 activit y which the district administration did not get wise to.

With the extensive biographical material that she has put together, Manini Chatterjee fleshes out the characters who play major and minor roles in this real life drama, and reconstructs an almost moment-to-moment account of what happened on the night of the "raid" and the days and nights that followed. 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. A couple of days later, at what came to be called the "Battl e of Jalalabad" this poorly armed group of 55 men and boys engaged a fully armed battalion of British troops, in which ten revolutiuonaries died and several were injured. Ananta Singh, Ganesh Ghosh and two others had an equally eventful time, evading arr est and reaching Calcutta with great difficulty.

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 an yone 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); 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 th e 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 transported 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 w omen but offered them a different quality of experience and involvement, indeed of equality with their men 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.

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