What we must remember about Chittagong rebellion - the forgotten uprising

It coincided with another revolutionary episode, the historic Salt March to Dandi, undertaken by Gandhi from March 12-April 6, 1930.

 |  5-minute read |   19-04-2017
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April 18 marks the anniversary of the Chittagong uprising of 1930, when a group of boys and girls, many still in their teens, led by their “Mastar Da”, Surya Sen, captured the British Armoury.

This remarkable, anti-imperial revolt remains relatively little-known, if not quite forgotten, even though two films were made on it.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se (2010), starring Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, and Debabrata Pain’s small-budget but awardwinning Chittagong (2012), featuring Manoj Bajpai and Vega Tamotia, both, unfortunately, flopped at the box-office.


Earlier, Manini Chatterjee, the daughter-in-law of communist leader PC Joshi and Kalpana Datta (1913-95), wrote a gripping account Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 (1999).

She was well placed to do so because her mother, Kalpana, had been one of the insurgents who took part in the uprising.

Kalpana, along with Bina and Kalyani Das (who were sisters), Santi Ghosh, Suniti Choudhury and Pritilata Wadeddar, all belong to the Chhatri Sangha, an organisation of famed female revolutionaries, many of who studied in Bethune College. 

Pritilata (1911-1921) was shot and wounded during the uprising. Apprehending her capture, she swallowed a potassium cyanide capsule, dying at 21.

The leader of the uprising, Surya Sen, the soft-spoken schoolmaster, had been elected president of the Chittagong branch of the Indian National Congress in 1918.

But he was disillusioned with Mahatma Gandhi’s calling off the Civil Disobedience movement following the violence in Chauri Chaura in 1922.

He and several other Bengal revolutionaries were members of the Anushilan Samiti, which had two branches, the Jugantar group in Calcutta, and the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti, in the then East Bengal.

The original founders were Sri Aurobindo and his younger brother, Barindra. Both, along with 47 other accused stood trial for the Alipur bomb blast case or the Manicktolla bomb conspiracy. The trial continued for a year (1908-09).

When the verdict was announced, Barindra was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation for life, and Aurobindo, ably defended by Chittaranjan Das, acquitted.

After Aurobindo left for Pondicherry in 1910, the activities of the revolutionary groups suffered a setback.

The colonial government created the Special Branch of Calcutta Police, passed the notorious Defence of India Act (1915), which allowed preventive custody, internments, arrests, even executions, followed by other repressive measures such as the Rowlatt Act (1919).

The Anushilan Samiti became active again between the two World Wars; its boldest, possibly finest, moment was the Chittagong uprising.

Sen’s teen forces captured two armouries, burned down the European club, cut off communications with the rest of India by taking over the telephone, telegraph, and railway, even hoisting the national flag to declare the independence of Chittagong from British India.

Though a large cache of arms fell into their hands, they had no information that the ammunition was stored elsewhere.


Beaten back, looking for a place to hide, the revolutionaries eventually retreated to the Jalalabad Hills. There, for three years, they carried on a guerrilla fight with the vastly superior British army, armed with machine guns and rifles.

Sen managed to escape, going into hiding, but was eventually betrayed by one of his comrades, Netra Sen. He was tortured for days, his teeth knocked out, nails ripped, limbs broken, before he was dragged about, hanged, and given a burial at sea. In today’s Bangladesh, Islamists have no interest in remembering Master-da; they dismiss him as a Hindu dacoit.

surya_sen_before_193_041917085956.jpg'Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of the patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom.'

We may not consider it preordained, but the Chittagong uprising coincided with another revolutionary episode, the historic Salt March to Dandi, undertaken by Gandhi from March 12-April 6, 1930.

These were two sides of the same coin, the nonviolent struggle led by the Mahatma and the desperately brave, if unsuccessful sporadic acts of armed ferocity by the revolutionaries.

This dialectic has to be accepted if we were to write more informed and accurate histories. In fact, the approach of the armed overthrow of the Raj culminated in Subhas Chandra Bose’s spectacular assault on the Eastern Front, which he planned to follow by the victorious march of the Indian National Army from Kohima to Delhi.

Alas, that was not to be; instead of a grand march, there was a gloomy retreat, ending in Netaji’s death in a plane crash.


But like the latter, still the subject of many incredible legends, the whole history of India’s revolutionary movement is marked by grandiose myths and halftruths.

Because we are sympathetic to their cause and glorify their sacrifice, we tend to overlook harsh facts. Our revolutionaries, though brave, were usually badly organised and misinformed.

Missing their intended targets often, they ended up injuring or killing the wrong, sometimes innocent, persons. The bottom line: they were no match for the British. They also ended up executing their own as punishment for treachery.

Was Godse’s self-righteous, allegedly Savarkar-inspired, assassination of Gandhi, the “father” of the nation, the culmination of this?

Even so, this does not mean that we should neglect or erase the revolutionary contribution to our Independence struggle, as the earlier regimes tried.

In his last letter, Master-da exhorted us, “Never forget the 18th of April 1930, the day of the Eastern Rebellion in Chittagong... Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of the patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom.”

Indeed, that is the least we owe to the memory of Surya Sen and his band of fearless fighters for India’s freedom.

(Courtesy Mail Today)

Also read: How a new book on Chittagong revolt keeps the forgotten war alive


Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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