August 13, 2017

Indian Independence Movement as seen by the Revolutionaries

According to the conventional narrative, the British were gently and non-violently requested to leave India and they politely left. This fits the British world-view that after their successful civilizing mission,they almost willingly gave freedom to their most important colony. It also fits the Congress party’s version of events as it excludes the contributions of all other groups. The story of India’s independence, however, is very different when seen from the perspective of the revolutionaries – those who waged an armed struggle against colonial rule.

There were several armed revolts against the British in the 19th century but here I will focus on the revolutionaries of early 20th century. During this period,a new group of people, often from the emerging, educated middle class, began to question British rule. Many chose the path of armed revolt. In the initial phase, this movement was led particularly out of Bengal by individuals like Aurobindo Ghosh and his brother Barin Ghosh, but individuals from other parts of the country soon joined in such as Veer Savarkar. At this stage the movement involved small groups. However, over time it would develop into a large-scale network that did not only operate in India but also in Europe, North America and the Far East. It involved large numbers of people, had links with foreign governments and movements and had a big impact in the popular thinking of the times.

The scale of the revolutionary movement is important to note because the mainstream narrative deliberately minimizes its contributions. On several occasions when I have made the point about revolutionaries’ contribution to the freedom struggle,the mainstream responses were that there may have been some brave (but misguided) individuals like Bhagat Singh but their efforts did not really contribute much to the wider cause or eventual outcomes.Such discourse completely leaves out the fact that this was a long drawn-out movement involving thousands of people organized across the world, with diplomatic links with foreign governments, and sustained through the First World War,through the interwar period, through the Second World War and then ultimately culminating in the Royal Indian Navy revolt of 1946.

In the very initial phase, the movement was made up of individuals trying on their own to instigate armed revolt but then Veer Savarkar made an important intellectual contribution that gave the movement a certain long-term strategic goal. Even though he later drifted away from this movement, he contributed the idea that India’s freedom ultimately lay in causing a revolt in the armed forces. He argued that India was held down by virtue of the loyalty of the Indian soldier and undermining this loyalty and instigating a revolt was the key to getting Indian freedom. This had nearly happened in 1857 but he saw it merely as the “great rehersal”. The next four decades of revolutionary efforts should be seen from this lens.

The first big opportunity to carry out such a revolt in the Indian armed forces came with the First World War. It is often forgotten that India was one of the largest contributors of soldiers and material to the war effort. Many Congress leaders including Gandhi actively campaigned and worked towards recruiting Indian soldiers into the British Indian Army. There volutionaries had a different plan. Led by Rash Behari Bose(one of the most important characters in India’s freedom struggle but now mostly forgotten), they came up with a plan to use the war to cause are volt. They began to organize what later would be called the Ghadar movement. Rash Behari had collaborators across the world.For example,Lala Hardayal who started out in England but then moved to California.Along the west coast of North America he began to instigate the Sikhs who had settled there in large numbers.

Back in India, this group began to infiltrate the Indian regiments. They planned to get a major revolt rolling across India from the middle of February, 1915. It was to start in North west Frontier Province and Punjab, then roll across India to the Indian regiments fighting in the First World War.Unfortunately, just few days before the revolt was supposed to take effect, a traitor informed the British authorities. Overnight all the Indian soldiers were removed from guarding the armouries and European soldiers were placed in lieu. At this stage Rash Behari Bose and his lieutanant Sachindra nath Sanyal escaped to Varanasi and then the former escaped to Japan via Calcutta. There was a major purge in the Indian army. However in Singapore a revolt did take place in February 1915 and for one week the Indian regiments in Singapore held the city. It failed because rest of the revolt did not take place and the mutineers were dragged out to Outram Street in Singapore, lined up against the wall, and shot.That was the end of the Ghadar effort but that didn’t end here.

The revolutionaries who remained back in India after Rash Behari Bose left,continued to be in touch with the German authorities and managed to get an embassy running in Berlin with full diplomatic status. Germans even managed to get a small Indian delegation smuggled through British lines to Kabul where they were trying to instigate the Afghans also to revolt. In the midst of all this,the German Embassy in Washington acquired thousands of guns and planned to ship them via the Pacific and Bay of Bengal to land on the coast of Orissa. Here the revolutionaries had already trained large number of young people to use guns. The idea was to infiltrate Calcutta on Christmas Day.A big Christmas dinner used to take place in Calcutta at the Governor-General’s house where all the most senior British officials gathered.The plan was to take over the senior management of the colonial administration and then declare independence. Sadly this plan too went awry because a German agent in Singapore, who was a key part of the operation, switched sides and informed the British authorities in return for money and immunity.The guns never reached and many revolutionaries were captured. Sachindra nath Sanyal was sent off to the notorious prison in Port Blair, Andamans (Kala Paani). Many others were incarcerated across India or killed.

Although there were two major failures in the First World War, the reason to tell this story is to emphasize the fact that this movement was not some isolated individuals carrying out random acts. This was a major international operation involving thousands of people and, with a bit of luck, may well have succeeded.A similar operation by Lawrence of Arabia instigating the Arabs against the Turks worked and is celebrated in film and literature.

After the First World War, when the Indian troops began to comeback home, there were fears that there volutionaries would again revolt. This is the context in which Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened. After the massacre, many of the key leaders of the revolutionary movement were released in an amnesty in 1920 in order to mollify growing public anger.For a while they participated along with the Congress in the Non-cooperation movement but after Chauri Chaura, when Gandhi unilaterally suspended the movement, there volutionaries decided to go their own way.

The revolutionaries pointed out that just a few months earlier Gandhi had been recruiting into the British Indian Army,and sending hundreds of thousands of Indians to the front in France and the Middle East. If the use of violence had not be a constraint then, why was it now when India had come so close to becoming free. The revolutionaries withdrew and there was a very acrimonious debate between Sachindranath Sanyal and Gandhi in the pages of Young India.At about this time Ireland became free. The revolutionaries argued that when a tiny country right next to Britain can become free why cannot a large country so far away also do so.

They organized themselves again under the umbrella organization called Hindustan Republic Association set up by Sachindranath Sanyal and others. Under it, the Hindustan Republican Army was formed. The names are important because they are clearly inspired by the Irish Republican Army. The Irish contribution to the Indian freedom struggle has also entirely been forgotten. Through the 1920s this group recruited the likes of Chandra Shekhar Azad,Bhagat Singh and so on.Again one can see that this movement was not a case of individuals doing random acts but an organized group who had a clear agenda which ultimately was to cause a revolt in the Indian Armed Forces. Through the 1920s various operations were carried out, but many revolutionaries were also hunted down and killed. This was also a time incidentally when the British managed to infiltrate this movement with a lot of collaborators. So there was a serious problem with informants from here on. The Hindi writer Yashpal was widely suspected by revolutionaries of being a collaborator. He became a very famous writer after independence and tended to play on his revolutionary credentials but in fact the revolutionaries themselves were very suspicious of him.Through the thirties this movement continued to fester despite the killing of Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Rajendra Lahiri.

In the late thirties, it began to look that there was going to have another major war. There volutionaries saw this was yet another opportunity to do what they had failed at the time of First World War. Sachindranath Sanyal contacted Rash Behari Bose who was still in Japan. They began to think about how would they organize themselves in Asia if there was war in Europe. Netaji Subhash Bose met Japanese agents on several occasions in the late 1930s. So it was not just the failure to elicit help from Hitler that made him go to Singapore in 1943 to work with the Japanese during the Second World War. This was always a possibility from the beginning given the links of the revolutionaries, via Rash Behari Bose, to the Japanese. There are still people alive who witnessed Netaji meeting the Japanese in Sachindranath Sanyal’s home in the late 1930s.

The critics of Netaji tend to present his escape to Germany via Russia as some newfound love for fascism, but that is not the case. If one recalls the history of the First World War,the revolutionaries had establishments in Germany and in Japan for a long time before the rise of fascism. What Netaji was doing was following up on those old leads. Once Japan entered the war and took over Singapore,Rash Behari Bose came to Singapore and organized the Indian National Army. The INA was not founded by Netaji as many people think but was founded by Rash Behari Bose, the old revolutionary who had attempted to do the same thing with the Ghadar movement in the First World War. Netaji famously came by submarine and landed in Singapore and took charge as Rash Behari was very old by now. As is well known, this episode too ended in failure in the military sense that the Japanese lost, but one could argue that it directly led to Indian independence.

From the perspective of revolutionaries, the Second World War was essentially a great battle between two evil Empires. Churchill, for instance, deliberately withdrew all food from Bengal in a scorched earth policy that starved to death three million people in order to defend his empire.So, from the perspective of many Indians there was little to distinguish the Allied from the Axis. This was seen essentially as a war between two equally evil empires,and Netaji and other revolutionaries felt that they could utilize the situation to free themselves.

Once the Second World War ended, the surrendered soldiers of Indian National Army were brought in chains to Delhi. There were demands for having them all summararily executed but the colonial authorities realized that this would cause a revolt so they were tried in Red Fort. During those trials there were a number of rumblings of unhappiness in the Indian Armed Forces which ultimately culminated in the Royal Indian Navy revolt of 1946 in Bombay where about 20,000 battle-hardenedsail or stook charge of about 70 warships in the Bombay harbour. These were Navy ships and the battle-hardened sailors knew how to fire the guns. At this point, they were in a position to have declared independence. British authorities repeatedly asked Indian army soldiers to act against the sailors but they refused.

Many argue that this is the key event that led to Indian Independence as it is the point at when British realized that they could no longer hold India.British Prime Minister Atlee himself is supposed to have admitted to this point. There is a talk by BR Ambedkar on BBC in which he also makes the same point explicitly. The revolutionaries had finally succeeded!! They had intended all along from before the First World War to try and cause a revolt in the Indian armed forces and,with the Royal Indian Navy Revolt of 1946 in Bombay, they had finally succeeded.For the revolutionaries, the attainment of freedom had little to do with making salt.

( Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist and writer. These are his personal views.This article is a summary of the address made by him at the national seminar on “Revisiting Indian Independence Movement” organised by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017.)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your excellent article.

    The real worry of the British people was that it would be impossible to rule India with such a few British Soldiers and during first World war Indian revolutionaries got the work almost done by plotting to bring German weapons in the country and causing mutiny ..

    One of the Key leaders at that time was Jatindranath Mukherjee ( Bagha Jatin)… he was closely associated with Aurobindo Ghosh and Barin Ghosh before .. and took up the leadership of the revolutionary movement after the former two

    There is a recently published great book named: Bagha Jatin: The Man Who Slew Tiger ( available in Amazon)

    The book tells a great story on how the revolutionaries ( including Barin Ghosh and Aurobindo Ghosh, Khudiram ec. ) worked and great read

    I am sure your readers will like the book

    Here is a link

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