Revolt and Freedom Struggle

‘Chauri Chaura’ Revisited

Chaman Lal

It was by sheer chance that the author read this *book. Bhagat Singh and Chandershekahr Azad both had got disillusioned with Mahatma Gandhi due to his withdrawal of mass Satyagraha or non cooperation movement on excuse of Chauri Chaura incident of violence, where a police station was burnt by Satyagrahis and 23 policemen were burnt alive. It was a turning point in Indian freedom struggle, as it gave birth to alternative revolutionary movement. So it becomes necessary for a student of history and of revolutionary movements to study this event more keenly. Shahid Amin's book has also impressed this writer at the time of reading it in 2009 or so. But Subhas Kushwaha has perhaps done even more labour and has more concern with the struggles of those people and he has brought to notice even the afterlife of the event and the movement. This new book is a more elaborate study of the movement, area and after effects of the movement. Motivation of writing over this event for both writers has been to be part of that region. Shahid comes from Devria and Kushwaha from Kushinagar, both close to Chauri Chaura. Professionally Shahid is historian and Kushwaha a Hindi writer, references to both writers become imperative, if one has read both the books.

Kushwaha has divided the book in 3 parts and 23 chapters with 12 appendices, references and foreword. Writer has acknowledged Manager Pandey's call as motivation for him to study this subject, as Kushwaha has written books on peasant movement and literature based upon it. For material collection, he faced lot of problems, took recourse to Right to information also, and got many documents from British Library, London.

In first part of the book, writer has focused upon background of the struggle by delineating Indian freedom struggle since 1857, particularly its impact in Gorakhpur region. Chauri Chaura movement was fought by peasantry of the region, so writer has also given description of pre-Chauri Chaura political activities and peasant conditions. Writer has described the impact of Mahatma Gandhi's visit to the area almost a year earlier. After giving this background writer has concentrated on the epical struggle of Chauri Chaura in second and main part of the book. In his foreword writer has challenged official description of the struggle, which is inscribed on black granite on Chauri Chaura memorial. This inscription has mysteriously obliterated the real nerve centre of the movement-Dumri Khurd village, from where all the activities of movement took place and from where Dalits, Muslims and other backward classes people revolted in a big way. In 1857, Bandhu Singh of Dumri Kala or Dumri Khas village of Gorakhpur region took big part and he was hanged on a tree, many other people of the region were also victimised for revolting in 1857. In second chapter, writer has described the peasant revolts during 1918-22 and also riots in UP. Quoting from largely unknown book of Jaichander Vidyalankar, teacher of Bhagat Singh, writer has underlined the fact that even Nehru did not support Avadh peasant struggle on the excuse that 'they don't want class struggle in country'! There has been talk of Bolshevik revolution of Russia, happened in 1917 among peasant activists, which has even been referred in Premchand's novel Premashram of 1922. In third chapter writer has discussed Gandhi's idea of Satyagraha and his views on non-violence. Writer has also underlined the magnetic impact Gandhi had among masses, so much so that a 104-year-old woman came to see Gandhi after visiting many religious places to look at him as incarnation of God! People had immense faith on Mahatma Gandhi! Mahatma Gandhi had become undisputed leader of Congress party after the demise of Lokmanya Tilak in 1920 and since then some kind of Satyagraha was being conducted by Congress party, first on Khilafat issue, then on issues of peasants etc. But whenever there was little of violence, Gandhi reacted rather strongly. Thus when Prince of Wales visited Bombay on 17th November 1921, 20 thousand strong masses became uncontrolled and in resulting violence, 53 including 45 Satyagrahis were killed in police firing. Mahatma Gandhi condemned the incident and not police repression and withdrew the movement and proceeded on fast.

From January 1922, there were lot of disturbances in the country and in United Province (UP) also. Writer has argued that it was wrong to say that Chauri Chaura incident happened out of blue, it had background and was culmination of that process. He has given data of arrests of 1921-22 peasant movements; there were 18120 arrests out of which 16719 were convicted for various offences. On the other hand M N Roy in Soviet Union was trying to use his influence to radicalise Congress programme of agitation against British colonialism by sending many pamphlets for Congress sessions.

In 1921 Mahatma Gandhi toured UP with Ali brothers-Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar and Maulana Shaukat Ali Johar. On 8th February 1921, they had reached Chauri Chaura. Traveling on train, on all stations large crowds gathered to have a look at him, 30 thousand people came on Devria station, on Chauri Chaura station he received a gift from a Marwari. Gandhi stayed for 6-7 hours in Gorakhpur and addressed a meeting of about two lakh people. To enrol for non-cooperation movement Satyagarhis had to sign a pledge to remain non-violent in face of even brutal attacks by police. Gorakhpur area was politically very active, 15000 people had protested against Jallianwala Bagh massacre here and when Avadh peasant movement leader Baba Raghav Das was convicted, 50 thousand people gathered at court to protest.

In the second part of the book, writer has focused on the actual events happened on 4th February 1922 leading to the burning of police station that day resulting in the death of 23 policemen. There are two villages near Chauri Chaura-Dumri Khurd or Chhoti Dumri and Dumri Kala or Dumri Khas or Badki Dumri, which are at a distance of five miles from each other. Dumri has the only Zamindari of Sikh settler Surat Singh, who was awarded this Zamindari due to his loyalty during 1857. His two sons-Umrao Singh(father of Amrita Shergill) and Sunder Singh Majithia acquired this after his death, on whose behalf their relative Harcharn Singh took care of it for two decades. In Saraya, they had established sugarcane mill in 1900. The feudal lords lived in Badki Dumri or Dumri Kala, whereas poor people, mostly Dalits from Chamar caste lived in Chhotki Dumri, which became the centre of the movement, which later came to be known as Chauri Chaura movement due to 4th February happenings there. There was lot of Muslim population in the region and generally there was peace and amity between Dalits and Muslims of the area, except for minor tensions here and there once in a while. Chauri and Chaura were two villages nearby, but railway station was named Chauri Chaura, police station is in Chaura village, which is bigger of the two. Dumri was also a big village with 2500+ population in those days. The meeting of Satyagrah committee had taken place on the morning of 4th February at this village and Satyagrahis had marched from this village to Chauri Chaura, where peasants and other people have joined from other villages too. Nazar Ali and Lal Mohammad were main leaders of the movement in this area; other prominent persons were Bhagwan Ahir, Abdulla, Inderjit Koery, Shyam Sunder and one unidentified Sanyasi were also in the lead. Shikari also played leading role in the beginning, but he turned approver during trial. Lal Mohammad aged forty was from Chaura village, Nazar Ali aged 30 and Bhagwan Ahir aged 24 were from Dumri Khurd, Abdulla Sai, 40 years old was from Rajdhani village. They were all known activists and sometimes office bearers of local Congress committees. Chaura police Inspector and In charge of police station beat up Bhagwan Ahir without any provocation, that created a tension in the area, which was otherwise conducting peaceful Satyagraha in the area. The local Zamindars or their agents were siding with the police, v/hich included Harcharn Singh and Santbux Singh, who had big business interest in the area. By noon 3 to five thousand people had gathered in Chauri Chaura, the Police Station incharge had already got armed police unit from district headquarters, they were also in police station. There were many Chaukidars in police station, who had come to collect their salaries on that day. The heated exchanges between Gupteshwar Singh and processionists perhaps led to attack from police side, resulting in the death of at least two Satyagrahis, but some say it could be 26, this provoked Satyagrahis, which could not stick to their pledge of not attacking back and the earlier police repression contributed to their pent up feelings, so they burnt the police station, killing 23 persons inside, but they spared wives and children of policemen.

Writer has described the events of 4th February in great detail, which confirms the firing straight on Satyagrahis resulting in the death of at least two volunteers-Kheli Bhar and Budh Ali, after this it became difficult to control the anger of Satyagrahis and they collected kerosene and other such inflammable items from the market itself and put the police station on fire. Their prime target was Gupteshwar, the brutal DSP of police, another senior police officer to get burnt alive was armed police inspector or DSP Prithvipal Singh, other 21 policemen were either constables, one or two Head constables and many Choukidars, who were used by Gupteshwar to attack Satyagrahis. Another Chaukidar Surajbali Singh died of wounds, making the figure to 24. On the other hand, the number of Satyagrahis killed is recorded as two, but there were references to 26 or at least many more than the recorded number, as due to non-communication times of those days, many dead bodies may have been taken to villages by the volunteers. All the feudal lords or their agents sided with British police during the clash as well as afterwards to get Satyagarhis hanged from British courts. Total of 225 persons were charged with murder, conspiracy and many other offenses. Interestingly there were very few high caste persons in this list. 90% were from Dalits, backward castes and Muslims. Not only British Government treated it as grave crime, even Mahatma Gandhi, on whose name Satyagrahis offered themselves for sacrifice and shouted all the time slogan in his name, called this incident as 'Crime of Gorakhpur' and 'Crime of Chauri Chaura' and the non-cooperation was immediately suspended on the excuse of this incident, as it violated the 'pledge of non violence'!

Police challenged initially 273 persons in lower court on 25th March 1922, out of 273, 54 persons were challenged even in absence, who could not be arrested. Later trial was conducted on 228 persons, out of whom few died during trial, few became approvers. These persons were from 30+ villages of the area. After the trial, 47 were acquitted due to lack of evidence and 172 persons were convicted to death! This created furore in the whole world. News of the revolt was carried in the world media as well. Australian newspapers carried the news, Communists world over stood for the convicted poor peasants and other rural labourers. M N Roy, wrote letter to British Labour Party on behalf of Indian Communists from Zurich on 2nd February 1923 demanding revocation of the sentence of death, focusing upon the condition of Indian 'hungry peasants'. On 14th March 1923, Executive of Communist International and Red International of Labour Unions while condemning the sentence appealed the working class world over to oppose the sentence. In India, protests came in Calcutta, peasant leader Baba Raghav Das protested and he was imprisoned for some months for protesting. But the illiterate convicted peasants were not disturbed by the sentence, they used to say that after 'ten months' they will return on earth to continue the struggle, meaning getting 'rebirth' after death! After lower court conviction order in January 1923, an appeal was filed by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya in High Court in third week of January itself and hearing started from 6th March 1923. Some labour members of British Parliament raised the issue in Parliament and demanded revocation of death sentence. Communist Saklatwala also raised the issue. On 30th April 1923, High Court gave its verdict and death sentence was limited to 19 persons, 38 were acquitted, few were released with short sentences, but many got long term jail sentences! Mercy petitions formality was done without any result and 19 persons were hanged from 2nd July to 11th July 1923 in different jails of UP. All the major leaders of the movement were hanged-Nazar Ali, Lal Mohammad, Abdulla, Bhagwan Ahir etc.

Those who got life sentences, their condition was pitiable, because of poverty, even Congress Government did not release them, when they came to power in 1938 for some time. Many political prisoners, including those of revolutionary movements like of Kakori were released, but Chauri Chaura prisoners waited till 1942-3 to get released. Government provided all help to killed policemen’s families, including giving jobs and pensions, whereas no one took care of Chauri Chaura convicts. Their women's condition in homes was much worse. Only two persons of high castes out of 170 convicted got some social position after 1947. Dwarka Pandey became MLA from 1952 to 1957. Dwarka Gosain got pension in 1949 and was honoured in 1972. Poor participants of Chauri Chaura struggle had to struggle a lot to get cleared from the tag of Goondas, Looteras etc. and their recognition as freedom fighters came as late as in 1993, when 110 families from this event started receiving pensions. For this also only Communists like Jharkhande Rai MP and CPI MLA’s in UP assembly fought and not the Congress! Memorial to the killed policemen was built in 1924 itself inside police station, whereas memorial to Chauri Chaura martyrs could be inaugurated only in 1993, with many false inscriptions in names of high caste persons, who never took part in movement. Irony is that even in police station memorial salami is given, but not to 19 martyrs!

Subhas Chandar Kushwaha has written the book with labour of love and with concern for the victims of Chauri Chaura movement. Earlier major publication was of Shahid Amin's Event, Metaphor, Memory—Chauri Chaura written from subaltern angle. Shahid Amin's book and research is also appreciable, but Subhas Kushwaha has done much more elaborate research and hard work. He got even the photographs of police station with dead bodies scattered and many other documents from British Library, London. He had to struggle hard to get the copies of documents from Indian offices, often through RTI. Subhas Kushwaha's 12 appendices carry documents of tremendous historic value, which include names of all policemen killed in police station, Gandhi's confidential letters to Congress party, Dates and details of execution of 19 convicts, List of 225 accused, extracts from judgements, names of different jails, where the convicts were sent.Book is very rich in historic documentation. To say in brief, writer has produced a commendable volume. Yet he will not get much credit from Indian academicians, as the book is written in Hindi, even though published by an international publishing house-Penguin books!

Indian academicians/historians never acknowledged Pandit Sunder Lal's great two-volume history—Bharat Men Angrezji Raj, despite being proscribed by British colonial authorities, nor Chauri Chaura is likely to be recognised as work of great significance, just because it is written in Indian language. Many major works in Bengali on revolutionary movement history have still not been translated in either Hindi or English, though these are the source books of Indian history. Yet hopefully this book will perform its primary task of spreading awareness about the reality of Chauri Chaura, which has remained obliterated due to Indian politicians, particularly of Congress variety's deliberate avoidance as Gandhi has condemned the movement as 'violent' movement. Fact of the matter is that poor peasants with hatred for oppressors led Charui Chaura movement. Because of Mahatma Gandhi's withdrawal of this movement, both Bhagat Singh and Chandershekhar Azad got disillusioned with Mahatma Gandhi and Congress party and decided to chart a new path of revolutionary movement. Chandershekhar Azad had 30 lashes on his back in 1921 non-cooperation movement in Banaras by every time shouting 'Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai'! In a way, Chauri Chaura proved to be a catalyst for revolutionary movement for India or one may say that had there been no Chauri Chaura, there would have been no Bhagat Singh, Chandershekhar Azad and his comrades.

*Chauri Chaura, Vidroh aur Swadhinta Andolan (Revolt and Freedom Struggle) by Subhas Chandar Kushwaha, Penguin Books, 1st Ed. 2014, Pages 360, Rupees 225.00

Vol. 47, No. 3, Jul 27 - Aug 2, 2014