A hundred rebellions and a dream

From the depths of India’s freedom struggle, author Sanjeev Sanyal uncovers untold stories of courage and fire and sacrifice

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A statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Pune. The author talks about the time in India's freedom struggle when there was a renewed fascination with the country’s long history of resistance to invaders by the likes of Shivaji, among others/Express Photo By Pavan Khengre

By Amitabh Ranjan

On April 4, 1914, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru carrying 165 Indians set sail from Hong Kong to Vancouver in British Columbia. It picked up more passengers in Shanghai and Yokohama. Upon the arrival of the ship, the 376 hopeful immigrants were denied permission to disembark. Instead, the ship was forced to return to Budge Budge in Kolkata. When it reached Kolkata, the British Imperial Police tried to arrest the passengers, following which a riot ensued, and the subsequent firing by the police left 22 persons dead.

Last month, a century and nine years later, the City Council of Abbotsford in British Columbia unanimously voted to name a portion of the road ‘Komagata Maru Way’ in memory of the Indians who were denied permission to get off the ship because of the prevalent racist policies of the dominion.

It is unlikely that the City Council would be unaware about the incident’s link to the Ghadar movement as part of India’s armed struggle for independence from the British rule. In a way, therefore, its decision is a tribute to people like Harnam Singh Sahri, Taraknath Das, Lala Hardyal, California’s ‘Potato King’ Jwala Singh, Gurdit Singh and many others who scripted a wonderful chapter in India’s freedom struggle. At the time of the incident, the movement started by Indian immigrants to North America was still in its embryonic stage, but in course of time the Ghaderites would take the revolutionary spirit across India and beyond, remaining umbilically attached to the various such efforts against the colonial hegemony.

Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom by Sanjeev Sanyal weaves multiple strands of rebellious activities to present a word picture of intellectual, personal and organisational linkages between the various revolutionary groups operating within the country and outside of it. India’s armed struggle was not a set of isolated individuals but a well-knit web of people connected in multiple ways to each other.

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The revolutionary movement in India developed and sustained itself from a set of otherwise disparate developments. Printing press, the railway network, steamships, the Suez Canal helped bring distant stories closer home. The universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (now Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai, respectively) opened the window to the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence. Pan-Asianism as a result of Japanese victory against Russia in 1905, the Irish War of Independence, the 1917 Russian Revolution were other international events which inspired an urge to end British occupation through violent means.

All these meant that the middle class that provided loyalists also turned into a minefield of freedom fighters of all hues. The wars of Italian unification and their heroes Mazzini and Garibaldi were a huge inspiration for the first generation of the revolutionaries led by Aurobindo Ghosh and Vinayak Savarkar. The next generation was just as impressed by the Irish War of Independence. It is not surprising, therefore, that Savarkar, inspired by Mazzini’s Young Italy, named his network of Mitra Melas as Abhinav Bharat. A couple of decades later, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, inspired by the Irish Republican Army, would call his umbrella organisation of revolutionaries the Hindustan Republican Association with a military wing named the Hindustan Republican Army.

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This was also a time of religious revivalism and a renewed fascination with the country’s long history of resistance to invaders by the likes of Maharana Pratap, Guru Gobind Singh, Banda Bahadur, Rani Laxmibai and Chhatrapati Shivaji. The nationalist writings in English and Indian languages over the first two decades of the 20th century reflected the dream of a united motherland.

The author builds his narrative around the fact that the armed struggle against the British was no flash in the pan bravado by a handful of desperate and misguided young men. This is what the mainstream narrative will have you believe. Sanyal contends that India’s armed struggle was a concerted effort by a large number of well-intentioned men and women, often with excellent academic credentials. They always had well-scripted plans. The fact that the revolutionaries came from diverse backgrounds testifies to a wide support for them.

Unfortunately, none of them survived to see the dawn of freedom. Most of them died fighting, or perished on the gallows, or breathed their last emaciated and ill in their prison cells. This book painstakingly brings their stories to the fore and is a remarkable attempt to give them their due.

Early in the book, the author says that this is an attempt to look at India’s freedom struggle from the point of the revolutionaries. At the same time, it does not try to make the case that the non-violent stream of the freedom struggle was irrelevant. The idea is to balance the one-sided narrative. The reader will realise that the author has achieved what he had set out to in no small measure.

This book is not something that you will read and forget. For, within the covers are tales of exemplary courage, perseverance in the face of hardships and setbacks, treachery and brutality, and of personal sacrifices. There are intrepid women and men, twists and turns, often difficult to believe, but real. You would have heard of many of them, you will come to know about many others for the first time.

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The reader needs to pick up the book and go through it word by word. The stories are gripping. The real-life heroes who gave their lives for our freedom and remain unsung deserve a heartfelt tribute. This book offers one.

Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom

Sanjeev Sanyal


Pp 364, Rs 599

A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College

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First published on: 26-02-2023 at 00:45 IST
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