Walk down Kalbadevi Road and look around. Chances are, you’ll see the same harmonious scene every few metres — children waving little flags, shopkeepers chatting, and the odd customer bargaining at the cloth, metal and imitation jewellery stores that crowd the busy lanes.
But written into the ground beneath your feet is drama, tragedy and an unrelenting cry for freedom.
It was on Kalbadevi Road that mill worker Babu Genu Said stood in front of a truck carrying cloth imported from Britain, in December 1930. He was demanding that the colonial government allow Indian industry to thrive, and stop flooding the country’s markets with expensive products made overseas using inexpensive Indian raw material.
That was the original swadeshi or Make-in-India movement. And it was railing against an exploitative empire.
A British officer ordered the truck driver, an Indian, to keep going. The driver refused. So the officer took the wheel and ran Genu over.
The protests that followed his death were part of a groundswell of rebellion that eventually led the British to hand India over to an Indian government, on August 15, 1947.
Across the city, buildings that now seem to blend into the background, were the scenes of dramatic action through the freedom struggle.
This was a time before selfies and Twitter, so you will have to recreate in your mind what it must have been like when women in saris and men in dhotis and topis sat within, discussing the democracy they dreamed of, or crowded the streets to topple an empire.
This Independence Day, celebrate that democracy with a freedom walk through Bombay/Mumbai.
1858: A royal proclamation
It was on the grand steps of the Asiatic Library at Fort — which was then Town Hall, an administrative office of the Bombay government — that Queen Victoria’s proclamation was read out in 1858, transferring the governance of India from the East India Company to the British monarch. What sparked this change? The mutiny of 1857, also called the first war of independence.
1885: The Congress is born
Fate played a hand in making the Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College in Gamdevi unforgettable.
The meeting of 72 delegates that would end in the creation of the Indian National Congress was set to be held in Pune. “It was moved to Bombay after Pune was struck by the plague,” says historian JV Naik.
So, in December 1885, Dadabhai Naoroji, Justice Ranade, Pherozeshah Mehta, KT Telang, Dinshaw Wacha and WC Bannerjee met to form a committee of Indians that could take part in governance, within British rule. “This event marked the birth of one of the strongest political forces of the freedom struggle,” says Naik.
1909: Injustice at the high court
There are dark histories hidden in the stone carvings of the Bombay high court. These spiralling staircases, with their statues of Justice and Mercy, are where you now head when you feel no one else is hearing what you have to say. But, in its colonial avatar, it offered no such refuge to freedom fighters such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
An artist’s impression of Tilak’s trial at the Bombay high court
It is here that the journalist, teacher and lawyer was sentenced to six years for sedition in 1909, because of speeches he made defending other freedom fighters and demanding swaraj or self-rule. While in prison, Tilak’s wife died in Pune, news that reached him only after a week.
Tilak, incidentally, died not far from the Bombay high court, at his home in Sardar Griha, Crawford Market. He was 64.
1930: Making salt by the sea
There are always crowds at Girgaum Chowpatty, families and groups gathered for the fresh air, the chaat and some splashing about in the sea.
It wasn’t always fun and games at this beach. In 1930, women gathered here every day to make salt from the ocean water, in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to break the salt tax.
“As Gandhi marched for 24 days and 390 km, all the way from Ahmedabad to Dandi, to protest the tax, women freedom fighters dressed in white would throng Girgaum Chowpatty to make salt,” says Manjiri Kamat of the department of history at the University of Mumbai. “A large number of women from the city participated in the movement.”
It was also here that 2 lakh people gathered in silent mourning as Tilak was cremated by the sea, in 1920. You can pay your own tribute at the Tilak statue nearby. Just stop to remember, or to buy a little tricolour.
1946: A navy up in arms
On the bustling Colaba Causeway, opposite the Taj Wellington Mews, stands a dramatic statue of a naval officer steering the wheel a ship. It’s a tribute to the largely forgotten Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946. The initial protests began in Bombay, with sailors demanding better working conditions and food. The protest was subsequently joined by sailors in Calcutta and Karachi. The white ensign was taken down, and replaced with three flags tied together — those of the Congress, Muslim League and Communist Party of India, underlining the absolute unity of what they were now calling the Indian National Navy.
(With inputs from Carola Binney)