Bombay’s freedom trail: August Kranti and Cows’ Maidan
This month marks not only the 70th anniversary of India’s independence but also the 75th year of the Quit India movement. The series of events in the first half of August 1942 were rooted in less than half a kilometre area in south Bombay, on the street connecting Grant Road station to Kemps Corner.
The All India Congress Committee had begun its session on August 7 that year; Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was the president. It would stretch into the midnight of the following day. The venue was the Gowalia Tank Maidan where a specially erected pandal hosted Congress leaders. The Maidan lay only about 250 metres away from Goculdas Tejpal House where the Indian National Congress had been established in December 1885. Mahatma Gandhi had arrived in Bombay on August 3 and had stayed at the Birla House.
For the historic session on August 7, about 10,000 people had gathered at the Maidan and not less than 5,000 people had heard the proceedings outside through loudspeakers specially installed for the occasion, according to police records. The numbers swelled the following day. There was a melee to see and hear Gandhi; he had to be escorted to the pandal by “half a dozen hefty Sikhs linking their arms and forming a human fence” around him, historians noted.
“…have made it clear that the immediate ending of the British rule in India is an urgent necessity, both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of the United Nations,” read the key part of the resolution passed on August 8. The call to “Quit India” had been given. The mantra for the masses was “Do or Die”. The Congress expected that it would not be allowed to function. The resolution, therefore, called upon “every Indian who desires freedom to be his own guide” within the ambit of non-violence.
A flag salutation was scheduled at the Maidan for the morning of August 9. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was to address the meeting. Gandhi was to speak at a public meeting at Shivaji Park that evening. However, in the wee hours, the key leaders had been arrested and jailed. Curfew had been imposed, Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code enforced in Bombay, especially at Gowalia Tank Maidan, and the police had taken charge of the pandal and Tejpal House.
Into this highly-charged atmosphere, braving police lathis, walked in the feisty Aruna Asaf Ali. With a few words to the crowd, she unfurled the tri-colour. It was a symbolic triumph. “I pulled the cord…hardly had the flag been unfurled when the police lobbed tear-gas shells into the crowd,” Ali reminisced later. The police tore down the flag. Those gathered protested this and the arrest of their leaders, they raised slogans. In the melee and firing, eight died and nearly 170 lay injured. Blood mixed with the earth as volunteers stole in to rescue torn flags.
Schools, colleges and markets remained closed for two weeks after, agitated crowds attacked government property and railway lines, cut telephone and telegraph wires, threw stones and soda water bottles at the police, according to archival material. Violence had infused the movement, after all. Amidst this, a courageous group of five Congresspersons including Usha Mehta, then a student, set up and ran the underground Congress Radio for four months, baffling the police about their locations.
The Gowalia Tank Maidan would no longer be used for its original purpose: To wash cows of south Bombay. Indeed, the name “go-walla” had come from that activity. Decades later, the city’s civic authority would turn the historic site into a landscaped garden, rechristen it August Kranti Maidan but with barely a nod to the momentous events that it had witnessed. The Tejpal House became a venue for weddings.
As the civil disobedience movement created history, two sections of the polity stayed aloof – the communists and the Hindu Mahasabha-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The latter’s ideologue, VD Savarkar, had, in fact, called for “responsive cooperation” with the British.