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

The Last of the Rebels: Ananda and his Masterda is a teenager's eyewitness account of the 1930 uprising.

 |  8-minute read |   09-09-2016
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The Chittagong revolt of 1930 has been one of most important revolutionary movements during the freedom struggle. It exploded on April 18, 1930 and, by 1934, it had given the country many a martyr, the last being the leader of the movement Master Surya Sen, who was executed in January 1934.

But several revolutionaries lived long, like the Ghadarite Babas of 1915. Incidentally, both got together in Andaman's Cellular Jail and other prisons for long incarcerations. Survivors of both movements - Chittagong and Ghadar - mostly joined Communists and few affiliated with the Congress party, but none embraced the so-called "nationalist" RSS!

ss_090916045942.jpg A teenager's eyewitness account of the Chittagong Uprising.

Many survivors of the movement wrote their memoirs, helping historians analyse the movement with authentic documentation. Anant Singh, Kalpana Dutt and a few more had memoirs, though some remained untranslated. But Kalpana Dutt's memoirs were translated to English and few other languages. Two films, Chittagong and Khelenge Ji Jaan Se were based on the memoirs and other works.

Ananda Gupta's memoir is the latest addition to works about the Chittagong rebellion. Gupta, who joined the movement as a teenager like the others, had lived abroad - mostly in the UK - to get treatment for the illness that followed a prolonged jail term. He had spoken to his family members, who gave the memoirs shape in the form of a bilingual volume written in English and Bengali - a rarity in the publishing world.

It is co-authored by the mother-daughter duo of Nivedita Patnaik and Piyul Mukherjee. While Patnaik has wrought the Bengali text, her daughter Piyul has reproduced it in English.

The Foreword of the memoir is written by Subrata Bose, the nephew of Netaji Subhas Bose, who carried forward Netaji's ideas of a Forward Bloc and remained member of Parliament from the party.

Subrata Bose quotes Sir Samuel Hoare, British secretary of state for India between 1931-35, in the Foreword: "In the battle for India's freedom, the Chittagong uprising of 1930 turned the tide, and brought in its wake a rising and a clamour for immediate Independence."

Subrata calls the Chittagong heroes as "youthful revolutionaries, who in their love for the freedom of their nation, allowed their own lives to be put at stake, facing the most vindictive torture imaginable without complaint. Their sacrifice has just no parallel anywhere. They are the unvanquished children of Mother India."

The English text offering an insight into Ananda Gupta's struggles describes him as one among the "clutch of teenagers" who participated the Chittagong armoury raid in 1930.

Chittagong is called Chattogram in Bengali and falls in present-day Bangladesh. A young Ananda Gupta was caught in the French territory of Chandannagar by the notorious police commissioner Charles Tegart with noted leaders of the movement like Ganesh Ghosh and Loknath Bal, while one of their youngest comrades and Anand's closest friend Jeebon Ghoshal lost his life to British bullets.

Ananda was sentenced to transportation for life to the Andamans after two years in 1932, though he was not even an adult then. He spent 16 years in jail and was released in 1946, just a year prior to Independence.

During the jail term, asthma had wrecked his body from inside and he was forced to move to England for treatment, supported by his wife, who had laboured hard to get her husband treated. Gupta later recovered from his serious ailments.

Born on September 26, 1916, the revolutionary was just 14 when he joined Masterda Surjyo Sen's army. He passed away in December 2005 and the volume was brought out on his birth centenary as a dedication to his many struggles.

The memoir's Introduction describes the Chittagong revolt as "A Forgotten Chapter" and Ananda Gupta as disciple of Masterda - Surya Sen.

Fifty years after Independence, Gupta had visited the Andaman prison, a second time in his life, at the invitation of then president KR Narayanan. Only now, he was an "honoured prisoner"!

The memoir opens with an account of Ananda Gupta's meeting with Master da. He was interviewed by Surya Sen after his recruitment to the revolutionary group in 1929 at the age of 13 years! Surya Sen is said to have explained to the young rebel the world vision of revolution, inspired by Irish nationalists and the Easter uprising.

The second chapter recounts the details of April 18, 1930, the day of Chittagong armoury raid. Ananda remembers how he would drive revolutionaries to the target, who destroyed a telegraph machine led by Ambikada. Ganesh Ghosh was designated as "Field Marshal" at the time. Then begins the famous Jalalabad battle, which Gupta recounts as another historic event in Masterda's life. Most touching is the description of the young revolutionaries' martyrdom, the first to fall was Hargopal (Tegra) Bal, then the youngest martyr Nirmal Lala, his young voice calling out "Vande Mataram" before it fell to silence. There were many others.

In "Feni Encounter", Gupta recounts how Ganesh Ghosh escaped the police by posing as rural folk - "dehati log". Another chapter describes the savage killings at Chandernagar, close to Calcutta, where Gupta and the others had sought refuge.

Among the four revolutionaries - Ganesh Ghosh, Ananda, Lokenath Bal and Jeebon Ghoshal, the last fell to bullets, while the rest were arrested by Charles Tegart on  September 1, 1930 for illegally attacking foreign territory.

Gupta details life in incarceration and how brutal torture could not break the spirit of freedom in Ganesh Ghosh, Anant Singh. How, at such a young age, Ananda refused to eat the food offered by jail authorities, unless his comrades were afforded the same.

He also narrates the corruption inside the jail's walls. The rigorous imprisonment meant the revolutionaries were made to do hard labour - from morning till evening and served a tasteless coarse meal. Gupta describes the 1933 hunger strike of prisoners following which conditions changed for the better; how Karl Marx's Das Capital reached the jail also comes with a humorous take.

The news of Masterda's hanging in 1934 grips the comrades with sadness. The humanist nature of Irish doctor Colonel Fischer is also underlined, the same doctor who sent him to England after his release, as he had set up private practice in Calcutta after he left Andamans.

The overwhelming personality of Netaji Subhas Bose and how it somewhat overshadowed his elder brother Sarat Chander Bose's role in freedom struggle also finds a mention in the memoir. Sarat was stronger than his younger brother in many respects and a more committed socialist.

It was he who defended Chittagong revolutionaries in courts, and helped them in various other ways, by liberally funding them, even offering to help them escape prison.

Sarat was member of Bengal legislative Assembly at the time of Partition and he stood for a united Bengal with the then chief minister of Bengal, Suhrawardi. Their resolution of United Bengal was defeated by the Congress and the Communist party at the time as they voted for the division of Bengal on communal lines, against the principles of language and culture and the unity of people.

In fact, Jinnah was prepared to accept Bengal and Punjab as unified independent nations. Punjab's chief minister Khizr Hyat Khan Tiwana and Congress leader Gopi Chang Bhargav too were in favour of a united Punjab. Had the two nations come into being at that time, the political climate in South Asia would have been different!

The communal cauldron in South Asia would not have gained steam. Had Subhas Chandra Bose been present in the political scene, the history of Bengal would have been different today.

Another interesting chapter focuses on a meeting with Charlie Chaplin, who had met Gandhi in London. Gupta was so impressed by the showman that he arranged for a private audience with him during one of his journeys.

The meeting proved to be pleasant and much longer than the fixed five minutes, as Chaplin was keen on listening to the Indian revolutionary!

After release from jail, Gupta joined Jyoti Basu and the others in a prisoner release movement. All his life, Masterda's flame was kept alive by Gupta and, at the age of 81 years, he is said to have said that given the chance, he would join the rebellion. Gupta harboured no regrets in the aftermath of the failure of the Chittagong movement.

Along with moving accounts of his family, the book's appendices trace the history of Bengal, starting from the 7th Century AD, focusing more on twentieth century and renaissance movement, as well as the role of radical nationalists in successive rebellions. The third appendix is a sketch of Master Surya Sen.

Another focuses on the American war of Independence and Irish rebellion, which impacted the Chittagong revolutionaries. The book also underlines the differing views of Gandhi and Tagore on social issues and the latter's concern for revolutionaries.

In bringing Gupta's witness of the rebellion to life, the translators have done a commendable job of preserving the memories of their kin, which are crucial to understand the participation of teenagers in India's revolutionary movements, which continue to this day.


Chaman Lal Chaman Lal @profchaman

The author is a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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