The story of our independence: Six years of jail for Tilak
In a series of articles in his Marathi newspaper Kesari, the nationalist Congress leader and journalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak condemned the use of violence, but wrote, "The rulers who always exercise unrestrained power must remember that there is always a limit to the patience of humanity". And so, "violence, however deplorable, became inevitable".
An article by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in his Marathi newspaper, Kesari (May 12, 1908), titled The Country’s Misfortune. This and other similar articles by him led to his arrest for sedition. (Photo courtesy: Shailesh Tilak)
The Swadeshi and Boycott movements faced severe repression by the British. As the movement subsided by 1908, much of the frustration and anger got channelled into a new revolutionary strand in the freedom movement.
Tilak was defending two Bengali men who, in April 1908, had thrown a bomb at a carriage to kill an unpopular British judge, but instead accidentally ended up killing two Englishwomen.
Just a year before, at a session in Surat in 1907, the Congress was split between the Moderates (led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who believed in working on reforms and dialogue with the British) and the Extremists (led by the firebrand trio Lal-Bal-Pal).
The trio Lal-Bal-Pal: the ‘lion of Punjab’ Lala Lajpat Rai; Bal Gangadhar Tilak, whom the British called the "father of the Indian unrest"; and ‘the father of revolutionary thought’ Bipin Chandra Pal, who believed in more aggressive agitation. (Photo: Raj K Raj; Location: Swatantrata Sangram Sanghralaya, Red Fort, Delhi)
Tilak was arrested and tried on the charge of sedition. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, then an up-and-coming lawyer, defended him. The nine-member jury found him guilty – its two Indian members opposed the verdict – and Tilak was sent to prison for six years (he spent most of it in a prison in Mandalay, Burma). Tilak is only one of the thousands of freedom fighters who spent years in British prisons. (Jawaharlal Nehru himself spent more than nine years in jail).
Massacre At Jallianwala Bagh
This one quarter anna coin (left) was issued in 1835. It is older than the First War of Independence. And it survived to tell the tale of one of the most horrific crimes committed by the British.
On the afternoon of April 13, 1919, more than a thousand people had gathered peacefully at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. They were protesting the Rowlatt Act, which allowed the government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism for up to two years without trial.
It was the festival of Baisakhi – many from neighbouring villages had come to visit, and joined the gathering. The crowd included men, women and children. They were unarmed. This coin belonged to one of them.
That evening, the local commander, General Reginald Dyer – angry that his order prohibiting public meetings was being violated – blocked the only entrance to the Bagh. And without even issuing a warning, he commanded his soldiers to open fire. There was a stampede, people tried to escape, some by jumping into a well. But the shooting didn’t stop. Not until the ammunition ran out, when Dyer exhausted his supply of 1650 cartridges.
This coin, pierced and chipped by bullets, was found in the pocket of one of the martyrs. The British claimed that 379 people had died. An Indian National Congress inquiry revealed the death toll was 1,000 people.
(Photo of the one quarter anna coin: Sameer Sehgal; Location: Jallianwala Bagh memorial)
The Martyrdom Of The Mappilas
In this photograph dated 1925, Mappila prisoners go on trial at Calicut in Kerala, charged with agitation against the British rule. (Mappilas were Muslim peasants of Malabar.) Some years ago, on November 19, 1921, 101 people from the region were arrested by the British. And because the jails of Malabar were full of prisoners, they were sent to a prison near Coimbatore.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Usually, prisoners were sent by open wagons. This time, they were squeezed into an air-tight wooden railway freight wagon. By the time they reached the next morning, 64 were dead, seven died on their way to the hospital. And the remaining were tried and sentenced to prison for seven to 14 years.
A survivor of the tragedy was quoted saying, “We were perspiring profusely and we realised that air was insufficient and we could not breathe. We were so thirsty that some of us licked the perspiration from our clothes. I saw something like gauze over the door with very small holes so that no air could come in. Some of us tried to put it away but we were not strong enough”.
The Wagon Tragedy, as it came to be known, resulted in the following people’s punishment: the wagon manufacturer, the transport officer and the sergeant. The British officials in Malabar who were responsible for this massacre, went unpunished.
The Mappilas were rebelling against high taxation and opressive landlords. By December 1921, the rebellion had ended: 2,337 Mappilas had lost their lives. Unofficial estimates say the death toll was about 10,000. Around 45,404 were captured or had surrendered.
The British government announced the formation of an all-white commission to recommend whether India was ready for further constitutional progress. Starting in February 1928, when the commission’s chairman John Simon landed in Bombay, all major cities observed hartals and black-flag demonstrations. At this time, a new generation of youth – including many students – protested against the Commission. They were often led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose, who emerged as popular leaders.
A demonstration in Madras against the Simon Commission in April 1929. The protestors are carrying black banners with the slogan ‘Simon Go Back’. A clash with the police resulted in the death of one person in Madras. (Photo: HT Archives)
Protestors – including senior leaders – were beaten up by the police. In Lahore, the protest was led by Lala Lajpat Rai, the heroic leader of Punjab. He was brutally beaten on the chest with lathis. He never recovered, and less than a month later, died of heart failure. Doctors discovered that he had, in fact, succumbed to his injuries.
And so, to avenge his death, the revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and Rajguru killed Saunders, a police official involved in the lathi charge at Lahore, on December 17, 1928. They justified the assassination in a poster: “We regret to have had to kill a person but he was part and parcel of that inhuman and unjust order which has to be destroyed”.
Next year in April, Singh and BK Dutt threw a harmless bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, not to kill but “to make the deaf hear”. And then, offered themselves up for arrest.
They, along with many other revolutionaries, were tried by a three-judge Special Tribunal. (They refused to attend the proceedings, and instead shouted Inquilab Zindabad! and sang Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai and Mera rang de basanti chola). In captivity, they demanded to be treated like political prisoners – and went on a hunger strike complaining about their harsh treatment. It led to the death of revolutionary Jatin Das.
Left: Bhagat Singh (in the picture), Rajguru and Sukhdev were sentenced to be hanged in the Saunders murder case; Right: From the front page of The Hindustan Times (dated November 19, 1928): The death of Lala Lajpat Rai, after a brutal lathi charge at Lahore for protesting against the Simon Commission (Photos: HT Archives)
The revolutionaries were written about in newspapers all over the country. They had become household names – and even those who believed in non-violent resistance sympathised with them.
When Das’ body was transported to Calcutta, thousands of people paid homage to him at every station. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were tried in the Lahore Conspiracy case and were sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on 23 March 1931.
By then Chandrashekhar Azad had been shot dead in Allahabad (in February 1931), bringing to an end the revolutionary movement in north India.
From HT Brunch, August 9
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