Freedom trail in Bombay: Chowpatty and Elphinstone
Mumbai city news: The Elphinstone Mill passed into history last decade; the name of the station this week. Only a handful of photographs of that politically significant bonfire remain.Updated: Jul 05, 2017 18:27 IST
India commemorates the 70th anniversary of her independence next month. Celebrations are easily turned into high-voltage spectacles these days, more political and partisan than festive or reflective.
Bombay was, by all historical accounts, the nerve centre of anti-British political activities. Its role in the freedom movement has been well documented in books but the city’s symbiotic relationship with the movement, its socio-political climate which nurtured so many stalwarts of the movement across the political spectrum, and stories of the places which saw stirring speeches and action by citizens through the 19th and 20th centuries are, sadly, fading away from popular urban narratives.
Few Mumbaiites today know about the August Kranti Maidan or its significance; even fewer know where the Congress House, Sardar Grih and RajGruh are situated or why they should be revered. When Elphinstone Road station was renamed Prabhadevi this week, nativists believed the English influence had been obliterated; with it, the importance of two men and a mill named Elphinstone was also erased from public memory.
Chowpatty is today a place for fun-and-frolic, street food and Ganesh immersions but it was witness to political action during the freedom movement and after. A number of protest meetings and public rallies were held on the Chowpatty sands including the large mass protest against the Rowlatt Act in April 1919 — Mahatma Gandhi used the occasion to popularise “satyagraha” and turned into a nation-wide action.
The Rowlatt Act, also called the Black Act, gave the imperial government sweeping powers to try political offenders, arrest people on mere suspicion of subversive activities, and control the press. The protest against it brought freedom fighters of different persuasions on a common platform. Handbills were printed and distributed, and notices published in newspapers for the protest at Chowpatty on April 6, called the Black Day.
That morning, “before the sun had risen, hundreds of thousands poured into Chowpatty to bathe in the sea and begin their 24-hour fast to express national humiliation and sorrow (at the Act). Gandhi was one of the first to arrive with several volunteers at 6.30am, soon a hundred satyagrahis sat around him,” observed the venerable newspaper Bombay Chronicle on April 7, “As the day advanced people kept pouring in on the seashore…The crowd kept swelling into a huge mass of people…The Sandhurst bridge swarmed with 0.15 million people of all communities.”
From the seashore to Madhav Baug nearby “was a solid mass of humanity, gathering strength on its way. The houses on both sides were crowded with women and children…At French Bridge, the crowd was so great that the speakers could not make themselves heard and two overflow meetings were held”, the Bombay Chronicle reported. The following year saw another vast congregation at Chowpatty when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was cremated on the sands.
The Swadeshi sentiment and the boycott of British manufactured goods, especially cloth, was gaining currency. Average citizens took to it and organised bonfires of foreign cloth at many locations. The non-cooperation and hartaal (strike) action had spread in 1921 and the All India Congress Committee had decided to boycott the visit of the Prince of Wales in November that year.
On November 17, approximately 20,000 people swarmed the precincts on the Elphinstone Mill to participate in one of the largest bonfires of foreign goods in Bombay, smaller bonfires were held across the city. But empty streets greeted the Prince of Wales that week.
The Elphinstone Mill and Elphinstone Road station took their name from Lord John Elphinstone, who was governor of the island city from 1853 under the East India Company to nearly 1859-60 when the British government took over. The area was a marshland between Mahim and Parel; the East India Company had reclaimed the land and constructed on it. His uncle, Mountstuart Elphinstone, was governor-general from 1819 to 1827; the renowned Elphinstone College is named after him.
The Elphinstone Mill passed into history last decade; the name of the station this week. Only a handful of photographs of that politically significant bonfire remain. (To be continued)