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Kakori martyrs and the British Raj


Shahid Siddiqui

The resistance to the British Raj in India came from different ethnic groups which converged on the objective of liberating India from British control. The resistance took many forms, employing methods ranging from discourse to coercion.

The Kakori incident is an important milestone in the history of the freedom struggle when a group of young revolutionaries successfully challenged the might of the British Raj. In the post-world war scenario some important developments, including the unsure future of the caliphate in the Ottoman Empire, the massacre in Jalianwala Bagh and the promulgation of the oppressive Rowlatt Act had already taken place and the people of India were in the grip of grief and rage. The situation was ripe to launch a movement at the national level to mobilise the people against the British rule.

Two important movements were launched in response to the political situation, the Khilafat movement and the non-cooperation movement. The Khilafat movement was started by Muslims to save the symbolic caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. This movement was led by Muhammad Ali Johar, Shaukat Ali Johar, Hakeem Ajmal, and Majaddad Sarhindd. The second important movement, non-cooperation, was launched by Gandhi. Muslims and Hindus decided to work together and support both the movements. Gandhi showed his support for the Khilafat movement and Khilafat leaders committed their allegiance for non-cooperation movement announced by Gandhi.

The non-cooperation movement gave a call to all Indians to quit government jobs, pay no taxes, leave government educational institutions, boycott foreign products and use locally made products. This call was the voice of the people that led to the mobilisation of the masses. A large number of people, irrespective of their ethnic affiliations, joined this movement.

The movement starting threatening the British Raj until the Chauri Chaura incident took place on February 4, 1922 involving violent clashes between the local police and the protesters, killing more than twenty policemen. Gandhi, who believed in a pacifist approach to the struggle against the British, was stunned and called to end the movement, which had become a serious threat to the British Raj.

The sudden halt of the movement disappointed the masses in general and the youth in particular who could not reconcile with the idea of putting an end to the movement. A number of young men got together and decided to carry on the struggle more aggressively by use of force. This led to the formation of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in 1924. Some pioneer members of the HRA included Ramprasad Bismil, Jogesh Chatterjea, Ashfaqullah Khan, Chandrashakher Azad and Sachindranath Sanyal.

Ramprasad Bismil belonged to the Arya Samaj and Ashfaqullah Khan was a devout Mulsim but they became close friends. Both of them came from Shahjahanpur and shared two passions: love for poetry and love for the country. They were young and passionate about liberating India from foreign rule. They were also among those who felt let down by the sudden end of the non-cooperation movement. They were eager to see a speedy exit of the British from their homeland.

To expedite the process of liberation the newly established HRA needed human and physical resources and that involved a huge budget. To arrange the required money they decided to take the desperate step of robbing the train that carried the government treasurer. This daring challenge to the authority of the British Raj could lead to dire consequences – and they were ready for it.

It was on August 9, 1925, that Bismil, Ashfaqullah and their comrades boarded the train that was carrying the money. At Kakori, a small village near Lucknow, they pulled the chain and stopped train. They grabbed the guard and got hold of the treasury box of the British government. Bismil, Ashfaq and Lehri broke open the box and emptied it. This money would help them organise the revolutionary activities to liberate their country from foreign rule. After the successful execution of the plan all of them managed to escape the scene.

This incident rocked the country, and was significant in three important ways. First, it provided the HRA the financial sources required for its organisational structures and acquisition of weapons. Second, it challenged the despotic rule of the British Raj amidst an atmosphere of tremendous fear. And third, it brought the HRA to the lime ight and people started talking about the new organisation formed by young people.

The police were under remarkable pressure to catch the revolutionaries but they could not arrest anybody involved in the Kakori train robbery for about one month. Ramparsad Bismil was arrested on September 26, 1925. Ashfaqullah Khan, who was still at large, moved to Banaras and then to Bihar where he managed to get a clerical job in an engineering firm. He worked there for a few months before leaving for Delhi where he planned to leave the country. It was there that he came across a friend of his, who secretly informed the police about his whereabouts. On this lead Ashfaqullah Khan was arrested by the police about ten months after Bismil’s arrest.

The trial of the Kakori incident lasted for about two years. A defence committee was formed to defend Bismil, Ashfaq and their comrades. Appeals were sent to the Privy Council as well but the British government was determined to give a death sentence to the revolutionaries. Ashfaqullah Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, Roshan Singh, Rajendra Lahiri were hanged in December, 1927. Four others were sent to the Andamans for life and seventeen others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

The journey of the freedom struggle, however, did not stop with the hanging of the Kakori martyrs. Rather they inspired many more young people of India. The torch of freedom was now taken by another set of young men – Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru – who marched ahead with the same courage and commitment and shook the British Raj with their revolutionary activities. They ,like Bismil and Ashfaq, went to the gallows with a smile on their face and a deep sense of satisfaction that they did the best they could for the freedom of India.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades were also hanged to death in 1931 but they had done their job by weakening the British Raj and awakening the masses, furthering the unfinished agenda of Bismil and Ashfaq and their colleagues.

The writer is an educationist.


Bhagat Singh and Freedom Struggle


Shahid Siddiqui

In the story of the struggle for the liberation of India from the British Raj, Bhagat Singh and his friends deserve a prominent mention. Bhagat was born in a small village of Lyalpur (now Faisalabad) in 1907 in a family of freedom fighters – which became his first source of inspiration. He was also stimulated by the brave stance of the Ghadar party. Though the Ghadar party was crushed in India through the brutal force of the British Raj, it inspired a large number of Indian freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat was only twelve years old when, on the order of Brigadier-General Dyer about 400 innocent people were killed in Jalianwala Bagh, Amritser. Young Bhagat missed his school and went to the massacre site the next day. This incident remained with him for the rest of his life.

Bhagat, imbued with patriotism, could not have gone to a better place for the development of political intellectualism than National College in Lahore which was established by Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhai Parmanand. It was here that Bhagat met Jay Chandra Vidyalankar who acted as his mentor. It was also in National College that Bhagat met Sukhdev. Here Bhagat, along with his friends, established Naujwan Bharat Sabha, a militant organisation, to intensify the struggle for freedom. Bhagat also joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in 1924.

Bhagat and his friends wanted to play an active role at the national level. The opportunity came soon when the Simon Commission announced a visit to Lahore on October 30, 1928. Thousands of people gathered at the Lahore Railway Station to protest. The procession was led by Lala Lajpat Rai an eminent leader of the Congress. The charged crowd was baton-charged by the police. Superintendent Scott ensured a physical attack on Lala Lajpat Rai until Rai started bleeding and fell on the ground. This humiliating incident provoked young Bhagat and his friends.

Following the provocative incident of torture on Lala Lajpat Rai the members of HRA held a meeting where two important decisions were made. First, on the recommendation of Bhagat Singh the name of the organisation was changed to the Hindustan Socialistic Republic Association (HSRA). Second, the meeting unanimously decided that Scott must be killed. Lala Lajpat Rai sustained inner wounds and finally succumbed to death on November, 17 1928.

Killing Scott would avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, and bring the HSRA into the limelight as a major force of resistance. The team that was assigned the task to kill Scott comprised Chandra Shekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Jai Paul. However, due to a case of mistaken identity another assistant superintendent of police, Saunders, got killed. Bhagat and his team managed to escape the murder scene and reached their hideout on Mozang road.

The killing of the British police officer rocked the whole province of Punjab and Lahore was besieged by police but Bhagat Singh and his friends managed to reach Calcutta with the help of Durga Devi, another revolutionary member of the HSRA. In Calcutta Bhagat met a number of revolutionaries including Jatinder Nath Das, a bomb expert.

The British government was cognizant of the growing restlessness among the masses together with the increasing voices of dissent and decided to bring two bills to the assembly – the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Dispute Bill. Both these bills were aimed at curtailing human rights. Bhagat Sing and B K Dutt volunteered to drop homemade desi bombs in order to draw the attention of the lawmakers to the excesses of the British Raj. It is important to note that bombs were of low intensity and were deliberately dropped at an unoccupied place to avoid any injury.

According to the planned programme, Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt volunteered their arrest. A few of their own party members, including Jai Paul and Hans Raj Vohra became approvers who shared the details of Saunders’ murder with the police. Bhagat Singh and his friends used the platform of the trial court to share their message with the masses as the court proceedings were carried by the newspapers.

The trial turned out to be a farce as the British Raj was determined to silence any voices that challenged its legitimacy. As a result of judicial politics Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to death. This news stunned the people of India. Bhagat and his friends did not bow down and staged the longest hunger strike in jail against discriminatory treatment. The hunger strike lasted for 110 days. Again one important objective was to reveal the ugly face of imperialism to the outside world.

On a spring evening of March 23, 1931 Bhagat and his friends went to the gallows singing popular revolutionary lyrics. For the jail officers it was a rare site to see someone standing at the gallows kiss the hanging rope and raised the slogan ‘Inqilab zindabaad’ (Long live the Revolution) at the top of his voice.

Such commitment and conviction does not come with transitory emotional upheaval but is an outcome of total and sustained immersion in the ideology of revolution. Behind this commitment was a long journey. Some of the milestones of this journey included his revolutionary family, the impact of the Jalianwala Bagh incident, mentoring at National College, and interaction with revolutionary organisations.

Another factor that contributed in the formation of Bhagat’s personality was his habit of extensive reading. Bhagat was an avid reader. He could not live without books. His only request to his lawyer and his friends was for a regular supply of books in jail. Most of the books of a radical nature at Dwarka Das Library were read by him.

Bhagat was an intellectual who self taught himself contemporary revolutionary philosophies – like Communism and Marxism. Reading was an addiction that armed him with logical thinking, the power of argument and the skill of persuasion.

On the day he was to be hanged his lawyer brought a book at his request – ‘Revolutionary Lenin’. Besides extensive reading, Bhagat also wrote while in jail.

In the history of the struggle for freedom Bhagat and his friends’ role will always be remembered with respect and appreciation. His courage, intellect, dedication, commitment, sincerity, selflessness, patriotism, non-communal stance, and love for the downtrodden turned him into a symbol of freedom and a source of inspiration for freedom fighters for all times to come.

The writer is an educationist.


Resistance Literature and the British Raj


Shahid Siddiqui

Literature is traditionally considered a means of pleasure and enjoyment that focuses on beauty and spreads happiness in an artistic manner. This thesis is the guiding principle for the school of thought that believes in ‘literature for literature’s sake’.

This school of thought believes in a utopia that is constructed with the help of art, skill, and vocabulary, and is far removed from the real issues and challenges of life. The competing school believes in ‘literature for life’ and expects literature to reflect society and its issues. Yet another school of thought believes in ‘literature for change’. This school of thought derives inspiration from the critical paradigm that claims that literature is not merely a tool of pleasure and enjoyment but an important means to bring change in a society.

According to the critical paradigm, literature is not apolitical but a highly political phenomenon that is linked with power and politics. It is important to note that historically powerful groups used literature as a tool to hegemonise marginalised groups. Literature is also used to construct identities: a glorified identity for powerful groups and a stigmatised one for marginalised/colonised groups.

These identities are constructed in such a subtle way that the marginalised groups internalise them as realities and start believing that everything associated with the powerful groups is superior and everything associated with them (the marginalised) is inferior. This state of mind leads to a defeated outlook which is referred to as ‘spontaneous consent’ by Gramsci.

With this defeated outlook the marginalised groups willingly give the powerful groups the right to conquer the marginalised. How literature has been used to construct unequal identities has been explained by Edward Said in his representative book, ‘Orientalism’, where Said demonstrated that how the Orient (East) is represented by the Occident (West) with intrinsic biases.

The Occident, with its positional superiority, looks down upon the Orient and constructs a stigmatised identity of the Orient. In ‘Orientalism’ Said gives a number of examples of how literature was used by imperial powers to construct identities. This was true in case of India as well where a number of English writers wrote about India with their own biases and constructed an identity of India that was far removed from reality.

Literature, however, is not just used to hegemonise others but also to put up resistance against imperialist powers. This was evident in African literature where writers like Achebe and Ngugi wrote to catalyse the process of decolonisation. There is a rich tradition of post-colonial literature that challenged the hegemonic structures of the empire. In British India we see a long list of writers and poets who used literature to resist the tyrannical British Rule. This article focuses on Urdu poets who used their poetry to resist the tyrannical policies of the British Raj.

The poems written in that period, instead of talking about the mellow emotions of love, contained themes of plundering of cities, bloodshed, exploitations, and call for freedom. Such themes were taboo in the British Raj and talking about them was asking for trouble. But these poets, driven by the passion of freedom, willingly took the risk.

Kamaludin Kamal was a radical poet who severely criticised the tyrannical policies of the British Raj. Muhammad Hussain Azad, a famous critic and poet, wrote a moving poem about the 1857 War of Independence. As mentioned earlier, writing poetry of resistance was full of risks. The radical poets were aware of the consequences they and were ready for them.

Munir Shikohabadi challenged the hegemonic structure of the British Raj through his poetry and was consequently arrested and sent to the Andaman Islands. The shackles of slavery were so stiff that colonised Indians were not allowed to lament even the death of their dear ones. In such a threatening situation, Mufti Sadruddin Azurda took the risk of writing a poem about the death of Imam Baksh Sehbai who fell victim to the savage brutality of the British forces.

Among these poets was also Akbar Alah Abadi who launched scathing criticism on British policies and warned the Indians about the potential consequences of opting for a Western lifestyle. Suroor Jahanabadi, whose real name was Munshi Shri Durga Das Sahai, wrote poems imbued with love for India and critical of the British rule.

Tilok Chand Mehroom, father of Jagan Naath Aazad, a noted scholar, composed poems on the theme of patriotism in British India. Brij Narayan Chakbast wrote some fiery poetry to resist British imperialism. Zafar Ali, Khan, poet and journalist, challenged the British Raj upfront with his hard-hitting poems. Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar and Hasrat Mohani also wrote poems as part of their freedom fighting strategy.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry played a vital role in the process of decolonisation. He attacked the hollowness of the Western civilisation and paved the way for freedom of India by reminding Muslims of their glorious past. All these poets tried at a conscious level to decolonise the minds of the people. This was done by reversing the imperialists’ strategy. The two-pronged imperialists’ strategy aimed at glorifying their own identity and stigmatising the identity of ‘others’.

Indian poets made deliberate attempts to glorify their own soil, people, customs, rituals, and heroes and challenge the facade of the British Raj that was built on the socioeconomic exploitation of the people, economy, and culture of India. The local poets fearlessly used poetry as a powerful political tool to put up resistance against the British Raj and reclaim the freedom of India.

The writer is an educationist.


Media Resistance in British India


Shahid Siddiqui

In my previous article, ‘Discursive paradigm of resistance’ (August 8) published in these pages I discussed two major approaches of resistance: the coercive approach and the discursive approach.

The coercive approach uses force and the discursive approach employs discourse for resistance. The discursive approach makes use of some social institutions including educational institutions and media. Before we actually look at the role of media in putting up resistance against the British Empire in India it is pertinent to realise the significance of media as a social institution.

Social realities are constructed by social institutions. These social institutions traditionally included family, schools, religion, and judiciary and use certain discourse to construct social reality. With the help of these social institutions it is possible to construct stereotypes.

In the past, school (maktab or madressah) was considered the most powerful social institution to construct social realities. In the past, the institution of school used to enjoy the support of two other social institutions – religion and family. With the changing times two important developments took place that changed the whole scenario of power.

First, the institution of school – which used to be the strongest social intuition – lost its strength as the social institutions of religion and family parted ways. This development weakened the strength of the school. The second development was equally important as a new social institution – the media – emerged on the scene and dwarfed all other social intuitions. The strength of the media lies in efficiency that is acquired through the means of access, speed, and palatable mode of communication.

Let me elaborate on these three aspects. A message can be communicated to a much wider audience across geographical boundaries. Similarly, the message can be communicated to a much wider audience in much less time. The third distinguishing feature of the media is that the message is generally communicated in an entertaining manner.

With these distinguishing features, the media has an edge over other social institutions – eg family, schools, judiciary, etc. The media, with its significant potential for construction of reality, has always been used as a potent tool to hegemonies others. But historically the media has also been used to put up resistance against hegemonic structures.

Having established the central role of the media in the construction of social reality with the help of discourse, now we will look at the role of the print media in putting up resistance against British hegemony in India.

In the pre-1857 period Grish Chandra Ghosh’s ‘Hindi Patriot’, Dadabhai Noroji’s ‘Rastiguftar’, and Ram Mohan Roy’s ‘Bangadoot’ played an important in inculcating political awareness in the masses.

In 1857 ‘Payam-e-Azadi’ (in Hindi and Urdu) challenged the hegemonic British Empire and was banned because of its radical stance. ‘Sultan-ul-Akhar’ which was a Persian journal published the firman (decree) of Bahadar Shah Zafar, urging the people of India to stand up against the British Empire. ‘Siraj-ul-Akhbar’ was a Persian newspaper edited by Abdulqadir that was banned and its press was confiscated because of its criticism of British policies.

It is interesting to note how editors of journals played their role in active politics. They included Subramanya Iyer, ‘The Hindu’; Chiplunkar, ‘Maratha’; Dadabhai Naoroji, ‘Rastiguftar’; Ferozshah Mehta, ‘Bombay Chronicle’; Pandit Madan Malaviya, ‘Hindustan’; Moti Lal Nehru (‘The Leader’); Jawaharlal Nehru founded ‘National Herald’; Lala Lajpat Rai’s ‘The Punjabi’, ‘Bandematram, The People’; Gandhi, ‘Young India’, ‘Navjeevan’, ‘Harijan’, ‘Harijan Sevak’, and ‘Harijan Bandhu’; Hasrat Mohani, ‘Urdoo-e-Mualla’; Subash Chandra Bose, ‘Forward’, C R Das, ‘Advance’.

The ‘Zameendar’ newspaper, which was founded by Zafar Ali Khan’s father Sirajuddin Ahmed in 1903, was later taken up by Zafar Ali Khan who used it for resistance against the British rulers. Similarly, Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar took out ‘Comrade’ in English and ‘Hamdard’ in Urdu. Mulana Abulkalam Azad founded Alhilal which was a popular magazine with critical analyses.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan edited ‘Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq’ which focused on the sociopolitical awareness of people. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the patron of two publications, Dawn (English) and ‘Manshoor’ (Urdu). Majeed Nizami’s ‘NawaiWaqt ‘and Mir Khalil ur Rehman’s ‘Jang’ were organs of the Muslim voice.

The role played by the print media in challenging the hegemony of British rule was phenomenal. It is important to note that this media resistance was launched by Hindus and Muslims alike. The newspapers and journals were not only published in English but also in the major local languages of India, ensuring their mass access. The primary objective of the media resistance was to challenge some of the stereotypes constructed by the British Raj and to expose the despotic nature of the British rule through editorials, poems, and cartoons.

The British government used repressive tactics including the Gagging Act by Lord Canning and later the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 by Lord Lytton to prevent the vernacular press from opposing British policies. To silence the dissenting voices the British used various tyrannical devices including banning the publications, withholding the securities, confiscating the printing presses, imposing heavy fines, and arresting the owners/editors.

The voices of freedom, however, could not be silenced as the editors/owners would not give up. They would go to jail, pay the fines, bear the loss of security money and printing machines but would restart their publications with a different title or in a different city.

The story of the resistance in British India would be incomplete without the mention of courageous journalists who, at the risk of their lives, upheld the dream of freedom and played a major role in the process of decolonisation, and helped the masses to reclaim their freedom.

The writer is an educationist.


The Indian National Army


Shahid Siddiqui

In my previous articles on these pages I have been writing about various resistance movements against the British Raj in India. These movements varied in nature, scope, and dynamics. One such resistance movement was initiated by the Japanese government in collaboration with the Indian Independence League (IIL) and the Indian National Army (INA).