Bateshwar, 1942

Published : Feb 07, 1998 00:00 IST

IT was August 1942. Mahatma Gandhi had given his 'Do or Die' call, unleashing the last mass struggle for freedom from British rule. On August 9, all the Congress leaders attending the Bombay session of the All India Congress Committee were arrested. In towns and villages all over the country, Congress activists were rounded up and put in jail. The arrests ignited popular sentiment, particularly among students and youth who came out in the streets to picket, violate prohibitory orders and take out protest marches demanding that the British "Quit India".

Atal Behari Vajpayee and his elder brother Prem Behari Vajpayee were students at the Victoria College in the princely state of Gwalior. Their father, Krishna Behari (whose family name was Gauri Shankar) was a school teacher who later became an inspector of schools and disapproved of the involvement of students in any movement against the authorities. In an article written in Hindi which appeared in Madhya Pradesh Sandesh on May 12, 1973, Prem Behari Vajpayee claimed he and his younger brother were among the students who were influenced by the Quit India call, though he did not specify whether they were involved in any actual subversive activity.

According to Prem Behari's memoir, a certain Mr Pawar who was the home, political and army Minister (in the Gwalior state administration) kept track of students' activities and informed Krishna Behari of what his sons were up to. The father admonished his sons and, on some pretext, sent them to his ancestral village in Bateshwar, some 60 kilometres from Agra under Bah tehsil in Agra district.

The statement issued by Atal Behari Vajpayee on January 21, 1998 conveys much the same flavour: "It was my involvement in the Quit India Movement and my imminent arrest at Gwalior that I was sent to my ancestral village, Bateshwar, about 60 miles from Agra. But I got involved in the Quit India Movement at Bateshwar too." Atal Behari too fails to explain what exactly was this "involvement" in Gwalior. There is no record of his being involved in any anti-British activity in Gwalior; if he makes this claim, it requires amplification.

In any case, the accounts of both brothers emphasise that they were sent to Bateshwar to keep them out of trouble in Gwalior. But Bateshwar was not a quiet backwater. It is a picturesque village at the edge of the Chambal ravines on the banks of the Yamuna, famous as a pilgrimage centre for its Jain and Shiv temples. Bateshwar also had a history of revolt against British rule dating back to 1857. The authorities had marked it out as a Congress stronghold from 1927 to 1939 (as was noted in the final case report in the village register) and it was no surprise that the village flared up again in 1942.

What happened in Bateshwar is not particularly dramatic in itself. In the course of India's freedom struggle -- and in 1942 itself -- far more rebellious or militant actions took place against British rule. But in retrospect, the events in Bateshwar in August-September 1942 are significant, chiefly on account of Atal Behari Vajpayee's role.

On August 27, a large crowd gathered in the village square/bazaar to celebrate the "bhujaria ka mela" -- a popular festival the day after Rakshabandhan in Brahmin-dominated villages of Uttar Pradesh. Ala (ballads recounting the valour of ancient heroes) was being sung. Taking advantage of the occasion, a few young boys in their late teens raised slogans against the British, read out Gandhiji's pledge, and exhorted the crowd to march to the Bateshwar forest office and liberate it from British rule.

Atal Behari and Prem Behari went along in the procession. The procession moved to the forest outpost at Bateshwar, a 10-minute walk from the square. There, according to the official account, the post was attacked. The tricolour was hoisted and the leaders of the procession declared that they were now free from British rule. The crowd then went to the forest outpost at Bichkoli some distance away, chanting slogans and singing patriotic songs. Caught up in the spirit of liberation, they released en route the animals which the authorities had routinely locked up, on the ground that they had strayed into forest land.

Though it turned out to be a fairly minor incident by the standards of the day, the local police informed Agra that a revolt had broken out in Bateshwar, and reinforcements were sent to the village.

On August 29, the arrests began. Altogether 37 persons were named in the First Information Report (the police estimate of the agitating crowd was around 200 while the judgment by the Special Judge eventually placed it at 125), of whom only 11 were arrested. These 11 included Accused No. 29 and 30, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Prem Behari Vajpayee. Accused No 2, Kakua alias Liladhar, was absconding. He was later arrested in Agra.

The brothers Vajpayee and the rest were arrested in Bateshwar by sub-inspector Attar Singh. Since Atal Behari and Prem Behari were in the procession and had been recognised by a number of villagers, there was a ready-made case for their arrest. Participating in a procession, especially a militant one, against the British rulers was a criminal offence; they could easily be prosecuted under Section 149 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for "unlawful assembly" and also under other penal sections, not to mention the draconian provisions of the Defence of India Rules.

But to be on the safe side, Attar Singh decided that the accused, including potential witnesses for the prosecution from among those he had arrested, must be brought before a magistrate and given a chance to make statements on what actually happened. Hence, on September 1, the accused were brought before Shabbir Hassan (spelt Husain in the final judgement), second class magistrate and tehsildar of Bah. Several confessional statements relating to the August 27 events seem to have been recorded under Section 164 CrPC before Hassan.

Eventually, the Special Judge who tried the case ruled that Hassan, being a second class magistrate, had no authority to record confessions under Section 164 of the IPC; that in any case these confessions were "not strictly in accordance with the manner laid down"; and that therefore "these confessions cannot be admitted in evidence."

The brothers Vajpayee gave virtually identical confessional statements on that day. These were taken down in Urdu and signed by Atal Behari and Prem Behari in English. While Atal Behari gave his father's name simply as Gauri Shankar (the name by which the schoolteacher was known in the family and in the village) Prem Behari gave both the official name, Krishnan Behari, and the locally familiar one, Gauri Shankar in his confessional statement (copy available with Frontline).

Atal Behari and his elder brother were kept in jail for less than a month as accused named in the F.I.R. Then, on September 23, 1942, they were released under Section 169 CrPC. Three others were released before the trial. Although the documentary evidence suggests that the police had other ideas for at least some of them, these five originally accused were not fielded as prosecution witnesses in court.

Six of the accused remained in jail as undertrials. The trial began in the Court of the Special Judge, Agra, (Sessions trial No. 3 of 1943) in March, 1943. The Special Judge was K.N. Wanchoo who, after Independence, became Chief Justice of the Rajasthan High Court. Of the six brought to trial, three were let off for lack of adequate evidence while the remaining three were sentenced.

Kakua alias Liladhar was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment (RI) under Section 147 IPC and to three years RI under section 436/149 IPC and three years RI under Rule 35(4) of the Defence of India Rules. The sentences were to run concurrently. He too had made a confessional statement but since the magistrate had not taken it down properly, in accordance with the prescribed procedure, the Special Judge ruled that it could not be admitted in evidence. Further, the Special Judge observed in his judgment, "in this confession Liladhar practically exculpates himself." However, he found that the only use of this confession was "that it negatives the alibi of Liladhar."

There were several witnesses whose evidence was used against Liladhar but he was essentially convicted on the evidence tendered by two forest guards, which the Special Judge found "sufficient to prove that Liladhar took part in this affair."

Bhawani Prasad and Sobharam were given a sentence of seven years R.I. in all. Liladhar was awarded the lesser sentence of three years R.I. since he was "a young lad of about 18 years of age and might have been led away into joining the crowd."

But that was not all. A collective fine was imposed on the village for its act of revolt. Mahuan, the other "leader" named by the brothers Vajpayee and several others, whose real name was Shiv Kumar, was among the three acquitted. Shiv Kumar was acquitted essentially because his name did not figure in the original FIR and the evidence tendered against him was questionable.

In determining the sentences, the Special Judge observed that "the damage done (to the forest posts) was not of a serious nature. But the spirit of lawlessness behind the crimes was serious." It was for this reason that the three, including Liladhar, were sentenced to draconian terms of rigorous imprisonment.

The facts show that Vajpayee was not an "approver" (he was an accused in the early phase of the police investigation, who was never brought to trial) and not a witness fielded by the prosecution in court. Nor did he tender an "apology" to the British authorities, as some political opponents have alleged.

However, Vajpayee's assertion that it is "equally baseless that some persons were convicted on the basis of my evidence" is not quite as simple as it sounds. The fact is he did make a confessional statement exculpating himself and implicating two others -- Kakua alias Liladhar Bajpai and Mahuan alias Shiv Kumar, who according to the statement "came to the Ala and delivered a speech and persuaded the people to break the forest laws."

The essential fact is that Vajpayee, whom saffron hagiography attempts to portray as a fearless and self-sacrificing freedom fighter, did not merely disclaim involvement in the Bateshwar incidents. He gave a "truthful" and exculpatory confessional statement where many other spirited young people, including boys and girls in their early or mid teens, drawn into the swirl of freedom struggle events might have, at the least, remained silent.

Vajpayee was an accomplished debater and orator in school and college. He was also politically inclined, having joined the RSS at least three years before the Bateshwar incidents. Did not that have something to do with his role in the freedom movement happenings in Bateshwar in August-September 1942?

Young Man Vajpayee quickly backed away from trouble. He was part of an "unlawful assembly" under the provisions of a draconian law. After forming part of a crowd which went on to break forest laws and stage some kind of attack on forest outposts (by his own statement), he was quick to dissociate himself from the militant action. His statement categorically states: "I did not cause any damage."

It is true that several other participants in the Bateshwar drama of August 27, 1942 made similar exculpatory statements. But Vajpayee was not an innocent, illiterate villager. He was a college going student who, according to his own claims today, was on the point of "imminent arrest" in Gwalior for his unspecifed involvement in the Quit India Movement.

Kakua alias Liladhar Bajpai -- the 18 year old identified in Vajpayee's confessional statement as a sort of instigator of the militancy, who was tried and sentenced to three years' rigorous imprisonment -- eventually retired as a Gwalior Municipal Council employee. He lives quietly in the heart of the Sarafa Bazar in Gwalior town. The irony is that he is a nobody today and the man who claimed to be a nobody in the Bateshwar incidents of 55 years ago is campaigning to become the country's Prime Minister.

In the course of a lengthy interview, Liladhar presented the details of the case without any trace of rancour towards Atal Behari. He made it clear that the Vajpayee brothers had not falsely implicated him -- he had indeed been one of the leaders of the Bateshwar revolt. As a matter of fact, Liladhar's account shows that the outburst on August 27, 1942 was not a spontaneous revolt but a planned incident.

He too was studying in Gwalior at the Morar High School when the Quit India movement broke out in early August. He was actually involved in freedom movement student activities in Gwalior. Liladhar recalls: "After August 9, all the schools and colleges were closed down. On August 20, I reached Bateshwar. Many other students had also come back to the village at the time. Two freedom fighters from our village -- Amar Nath Dikshit and Bagla -- were arrested. We were all agitated. A group of us decided we must do something. We knew there would be a big mela on August 27. We decided to use the occasion to read out Gandhiji's pledge and take some action."

The choice of the Bateshwar Forest Office to hoist the flag was also strategic. The area around Bateshwar had been declared forest land and villagers were fined for gathering firewood or if their cattle grazed in the forest area. An appeal to "liberate" Bateshwar from the forest laws would be effective, they reckoned.

On August 27, as Vajpayee's confessional statement truthfully states, Ala was being sung when Liladhar and others arrived on the scene. According to Liladhar, "I went there and said why are you singing alas of the dead, sing about those who are alive. Fight for the freedom of our country. Sing the ala of the Congress which is leading this struggle."

The crowd then followed the group of leaders. "We reached the forest office," Liladhar recalls. "It is not true that we tried to demolish it. Our intention was to hoist the tricolour. The building had no staircase. So a couple of us clambered up to raise the flag. It was an old building. A couple of bricks may have fallen. But all we did was raise the flag and sing -- jhanda uuncha rahe hamara. Then we declared we were free..."

Liladhar, escaping from the village, fled to Agra. There he contacted friends. They suggested that since an arrest warrant was out for him in any case, he might as well violate Section 144 and get arrested. So on September 4, 1942, he went to the town centre, shouted some slogans, distributed freedom movement pamphlets and was arrested. After his arrest, he was identified as the same Liladhar who had been named in the Bateshwar incidents.

How far was Atal Behari Vajpayee's confessional statement responsible for Liladhar's arrest? Liladhar feels that the statement was not the clinching evidence that led to his conviction, nevertheless it helped shape the prosecution's case.

Liladhar also believes that the prosecution's case largely echoes Atal Behari's confessional statement. Even if this is true, the fact is that the prosecution did not field Vajpayee as one of the witnesses in the trial. However, this does not take away from the fact that Vajpayee named two persons who led the revolt, knowing fully well that in the repressive conditions of the time, his statement might be used as evidence against them.

The reason behind the release of Atal Behari Vajpayee is also mired in controversy. "Deficient evidence" does not appear to be the only reason because, in fact, there was evidence that the brothers Vajpayee participated in the procession. All those who were brought to trial in the Bateshwar case were prosecuted essentially for the same reason -- taking part in an "unlawful" procession that broke the forest laws, attacked forest posts (not very seriously) and challenged British rule.

In fact, the three who were let off (Mahuan alias Shiv Kumar, Godha alias Gordhan Das, and Kokaiyan) after trial were acquitted only because the Special Judge was not satisified that they were present on the occasion at all. Although there was enough evidence to show that the last named, Kokaiyan, was present, the Judge acquitted him basically on the ground of being a "halfwit". To quote from Wanchoo's judgment: "Lastly I come to Kokaiyan. He is not mentioned in the first report and has not been named by the two forest guards. It however appears that he was in that crowd...He is however (a) halfwit and probably did not understand what he was really doing by joining the crowd. He is also a young lad of about 12 or 14 years. It seems to me that he joined the crowd more out of curiousity than with any intention of taking part in any crime committed by the crowd. I would therefore give him the benefit of the doubt even though he was in the crowd that attacked the two forest outposts."

This part of the judgment is crucial in understanding the loopholes in the release of the Vajpayee brothers. It is clear that the police authorities brought to trial even "12 or 14" year old boys merely because they were part of the crowd that attacked forest posts. The Vajpayee brothers, by their own admission, were part of the crowd; they were much older (Prem Behari was 23 years old); and whatever else they may have been, they had their wits about them. Yet, they were released before trial for "lack of evidence" when the only evidence necessary for prosecution was investigative confirmation that the accused knowingly participated in an "unlawful assembly".

Vajpayee, in his interview to Frontline, says his release was "unconditional" and he did not give any surety. This assertion must be set against the seriousness with which the British viewed the 1942 movement -- in the midst of the Second World War. At one point in the interview, Vajpayee himself alludes to the seriousness of the case by explaining, "But nobody could interfere in a case like this." (The point is that his father, not he, is reported by others, including Prem Behari, to have sought the intervention of higher authorities. Atal Behari might not even have known about such behind-the-scenes efforts.)

Another defence has been offered for what Vajpayee did in 1942: he was too young, too naive, unaware of the implications of his confessional statement, so why make a song and dance around it? In 1989, when strident Congress(I) elements with the approval of Rajiv Gandhi sought to highlight the Vajpayee 'character issue' by overstating their case, making factually inaccurate statements and calling him unpleasant names, some influential newspapers took the line that what a man did as a teenager should not be used against him in later life.

There is, incidentally, some confusion about Atal Behari Vajpayee's age. In the confessional statement, his age is recorded as 20 years. His official date of birth is December 25, 1926, which means he was under 16 in 1942.

In the freedom struggle, boys and girls much younger than 16 performed deeds of sterling courage and sacrifice. Leave alone the heroic role played by youth and students in the stream of revolutionary terrorism in India's freedom struggle, there are numerous cases of young college students who faced harsh persecution and penalties in 1942, yet remained steadfast in their conviction. For instance, Ahilya Rangnekar, later to become a Communist leader and CPI(M) MP, took out a procession of students from Ferguson College, Pune, soon after August 9, 1942. The college demanded that she apologise -- or face rustication. She refused to apologise, her belongings were thrown out of the college, and she spent several months in jail.

Was Vajpayee really too naive and apolitical to understand what he was doing in 1942? His background suggests not. He was already, at the time of the Quit India Movement, a dedicated and active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and well versed with politics. In an article appearing in his name in the Organiser of May 7, 1995, Vajpayee recalled that he had come in contact with the RSS in 1939 and had regularly attended the shakha. In 1940, he went to see the first year Officers' Training Camp (OTC) at Nagpur where promising RSS cadres were trained for leadership. "In 1941 when I was in High School I did my first year OTC. In 1942 when I was in intermediate class I did my second year OTC and I did my third year in 1944 when I was doing my BA."

While there is no evidence to suggest that the RSS had any direct hand in Vajpayee's confessional statement, it appears that the movement's ethos, which was certainly not congenial to the freedom struggle, was in some measure responsible for the young man's mindset that led to the exculpatory statement of September 1, 1942. After all, the RSS had never organised a single protest against the British government and the nationalist feelings it sought to inculcate among its cadres targeted the Muslim community -- not British colonial rule.

One other -- personal -- explanation might be offered by Vajpayee's sympathisers: fear of his father, a school inspector who frowned upon any political activity. But this explanation is not persuasive since we know that Vajpayee, who seems to have known the direction of his life at a very early age, had no problems in defying his father when it came to joining the RSS.

The most charitable explanation of Atal Behari's role in 1942 -- if one were to discount his confessional statement and its implications, and his yet-to-be-convincingly-explained release from a 23-day incarceration -- is that he did nothing much. He was more or less a bystander, an observer, a passive "person in the crowd". Surely, this does not warrant any hagiographic mention of "participation in the Quit India Movement" or any kind of serious role in the freedom struggle.

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