History

‘It is With These Men Alone that the Gates of Heaven Shall Open for Me’

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the pan-continental attempts by Indian revolutionaries to launch an armed revolt against the British

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Indian soldiers from the 5th Light Infantry were shot by a firing squad after they revolted against the British as part of the abortive uprising of 1915. Credit: Unknown

September 10, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the martyrdom of ‘Bagha’ Jatin

One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is that he led a military campaign, with German and Japanese support, to free India from British subjugation. While Bose’s attempt was better-organised, a group of less-remembered freedom-fighters tried to use the international turmoil caused by World War I some 30 years before to their advantage and throw the imperialists out of India. Their efforts – spanning across Asia, Europe and North America – are today known by a host of names such as the ‘February mutiny’, the ‘Jugantar-German and Christmas Day plots’, the ‘Hindu-German conspiracy trial’, the ‘Lahore conspiracy case’ the ‘Zimmerman plan’, the ‘1915 Singapore mutiny’ and the ‘Annie Larsen arms plot’. Yet, perhaps because they failed in their immediate objective, the tales of this epic battle have remained restricted to scholarly studies and are not part of our popular history. On the centenary of their heroic struggle and sacrifice, it is time India remembered those outstanding patriots.

The Swadeshi revolutionaries

Rash Bihari Bose

Rashbehari Bose

Protests against the partition of Bengal gave rise to clandestine groups, notably Jugantar and Anushilan Samiti, which attempted several assassinations of colonial officials. In spite of the government’s repressive measures, they persisted and, in 1912, Rashbehari Bose attempted to kill Viceroy Hardinge himself. However, under the leadership of the iconic Jatin Mukherjee (better known as Bagha Jatin), they realized that sporadic attacks on officials were insufficient. The new plan was to mastermind an 1857-style, well-coordinated, all-India uprising that would strike a lethal blow to the Empire. To this end, Jatin recharged the bases in Calcutta and also spread his branches across Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and the United Provinces. He and Naren Bhattacharya (M.N. Roy) also met the Crown Prince of Germany when the latter was on a trip to Calcutta in 1912, and were promised supplies of arms and ammunition at a suitable time.

The opportunity presented itself rather quickly for, in 1914, the German and British empires went to war. As the guns boomed across Europe, a large fraction of the British Indian Army was sent off to fight for their colonial masters, leaving barely 15,000 soldiers to guard the Indian empire. To the revolutionaries, the scenario was a ‘blessing from God’. But, it was obvious they would need help from beyond the borders. Fortunately, several exiled and self-exlied Indian revolutionaries had been building extensive contacts in Europe and North America from around 1905. It was this network that would approach the German Foreign office in the hope of convincing Berlin that an ‘enemy’s enemy is thy friend’. The German high command agreed that the Indians certainly had the potential to deliver a crippling blow to the common enemy.

India House and the Ghadar

V.G. Pingle

V.G. Pingle

India House at London, founded in 1905 as a lodge for visiting students, soon became a hotbed of nationalist activities. Similar organisations were established by Md. Barkatullah and SL Joshi in New York and Japan. Hounded by the British police, many India House activists, including V N Chatterjee and Har Dayal, fled to continental Europe. Around the time that World War I broke out, Chatterjee, Bhupendranath Dutta (younger brother of Swami Vivekananda), CR Pillai and other ex-members established the ‘India Independence Committee’ at Berlin. They were supported by Max Von Oppenheim, chief of German intelligence for East Asia, and Arthur Zimmermann, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Contacts with Bagha Jatin were renewed and a rapport was built with Irish revolutionaries.

In another converging development, a large number of Punjabi immigrants had found employment in western Canada and the United States in the early 20th century. As their numbers swelled, the governments tried to restrict further influx. The humiliating repression and racism, best exemplified by the Komagata Maru incident, led to simmering anger. Anti-British sentiments among the overseas Indians led to the formation of political groups. At this time, Har Dayal (sent by the Berlin committee) worked with university students such as Kartar Singh Sarabha, Tarak Nath Das and VG Pingle, and was successful in bringing intellectual activists of New York and Punjabi labourers to a common platform – the Ghadar Party. Established in 1913, its weekly magazine, Ghadar (published in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Bengali and Gujarati) became hugely popular. Ghadar’s stated-objective was to orchestrate an armed rebellion to dislodge the British, and they wanted to convince Indian soldiers to revolt. They were strongly secular and declared, “We were not Sikhs or Punjabis. Our religion is patriotism” and ‘No pundits or mullahs do we need’. By 1913, the Ghadarites had also built an alliance with Jugantar. Thus, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Indians had achieved an unprecedented alliance between themselves. It was time to strike.

The 1st plot, February 1915

Kartar Singh Sarabha mural designed by Nisha Sembi, Berkeley. Credit: Kearney Street Workshop

Kartar Singh Sarabha mural designed by Nisha Sembi, Berkeley. Credit: Kearney Street Workshop

With the outbreak of war, the German consul in San Francisco promised the Ghadarites that shipments of weapons would be sent to India. In turn, to build up support, forge stronger links with the Jugantar and win over Indian soldiers, around 8000 Ghadarites returned to India by January 1915. The German supplies were yet to arrive and some attempts to import rifles from China and Japan failed. Also, there was no central Indian leadership as yet. In spite of these difficulties, the Ghadarites won sympathisers within the garrisons of Lahore, Ferozepur and Rawalpindi.

Meanwhile, Bagha Jatin had established contacts with the 16th Rajput regiment stationed at Fort William, Calcutta. In order to raise funds, Jugantar carried out a dozen robberies and, in August, 1914, looted 50 revolvers and thousands of cartridges from the Rodda company, a big firm of the city. An umbrella group was formed with with Bose (North India), Pingle (Maharashtra), and Sachindranath Sanyal (Benaras) as leaders and Bagha Jatin as the commander-in-chief. February 21, 1915 was set as the date for the uprising. It would be initiated in the cantonments of Punjab. A successful uprising in the North would invariably lead to cancellation of trains, including the Punjab mail. If the train did not arrive as per schedule at the Howrah station, it would be a ‘signal’ for Jatin’s men to capture Calcutta.

Headline from the San Francisco Chronicle reports the capture of weapons aboard the Annie Larsen

Headline from the San Francisco Chronicle reports the capture of weapons aboard the Annie Larsen

Poor coordination, however, led to disaster. Firstly, the Germans had planned to send the ships Annie Larsen and SS Maverick, carrying an arsenal of more than 12000 firearms, in November, 1914. However, the ships sailed only in April, 1915. And, even then Annie Larsen’s cargo was seized, resulting in the Hindu-German conspiracy trial in a US court in 1917. Secondly, the Punjab CID successfully infiltrated the movement, notably through Kirpal Singh, a sepoy who had a Ghadarite cousin. Aware of the leaks, a desperate Rashbehari advanced the schedule to February 19, but unfortunately, even this was revealed. Rashbehari, disguised as a manual scavenger escaped, but most of his comrades were arrested and many garrisons were disarmed. Braving all odds, Kartar Singh and Pingle attempted a mutiny by the Meerut regiments but were also arrested, tried and hanged at Lahore in November 1915. The ‘Defence of India Act, 1915’ was used to execute 46 Ghadarites while another 200, including many mutineers, were sentenced to life-imprisonment.

The Singapore-based 5th Light Infantry and the 36th Sikh Battalion, however, successfully revolted on February 15. The revolt lasted a week, resulting in the deaths of 47 British soldiers, and could be crushed only when French, Japanese and Russian reinforcements arrived. The British shot 37 mutineers in public executions at Outram Road, while 41 were transported for life to East Africa. The first attempts had failed.

The Christmas Day plot

Bagha Jatin

Bagha Jatin

Undeterred, Bagha Jatin planned a second uprising. Jugantar, the Berlin committee and German agents in Siam (Thailand), Burma and Batavia (Java) came together in March 1915. The SS Maverick and SS Djember ­– the latter carrying a second consignment of approximately 9000 firearms – originally bound for Karachi, were redirected to unload at Chittagong, Sundarbans and Balasore. Jatin had contacted the Calcutta garrison and hoped that a joint uprising by Jugantar and the mutineers would seize Calcutta, sever communications with Madras and liberate Bengal. The operation would be launched on December 25, 1915 (hence, the name ‘Christmas Day Plot’). Ghadarites in Burma and Siam would simultaneously rise in rebellion, making it difficult for the British to focus entirely on Calcutta, thus giving Jatin’s men enough time to secure their objective.

To facilitate coordination with Berlin and Batavia, Jugantar established an office called ‘Universal Emporium’. However, a German spy, known only by the pseudonym ‘Orien’, defected thereby exposing the plans, yet again. The ships were seized and the Bengal police went on the offensive.

Unaware that the ships would not arrive anymore, Jatin had already reached the rendezvous spot at Balasore coast, only to find that the British hot on his trail. Since Jatin had operated largely in secret groups, the local population was unaware of his patriotic goal. This social isolation was a serious drawback and the police capitalised on it, announcing a reward for ‘five dacoits’. Cornered, Jatin and his four comrades had to face a large British contingent on September 9, on the banks of the river Buri Balam. The 75-minute encounter ended with death of Jatin’s lieutenant Chittopriyo, while the others were captured. Mortally wounded, Bagha Jatin breathed his last at Balasore hospital on September 10, 1915. He was only 35.

Photograph of the wounded Bagha Jatin at Balasore hospital, September 10, 1915, shortly before his death.

Photograph of the wounded Bagha Jatin at Balasore hospital, September 10, 1915, shortly before his death.

True to his own words – ‘Our deaths will awaken the nation’ – Jatin has continued to be a revered icon, at least in his native Bengal. Mahatma Gandhi considered him ‘a divine personality’ and he even won the admiration of police chief Charles Tegart who equated him to the legendary British admiral, Nelson.

There were a few more abortive attempts by the remnants of the Ghadar and by Rashbehari Bose (who had escaped to Japan), but the backbone of the movement had been decisively broken. The 1915 uprising thus failed. But the revolutionaries had struck the first all-India chord and had forged a unity between the various Indian classes and communities against imperialism. The bonding would be reflected in the last words of Abdullah, a mutineer of the Ambala cantonment. When asked by the British to betray his ‘kafir’ comrades, he famously replies, ‘It is with these men alone that the gates of heaven shall open for me’. Sachindranath Sanyal’s memoirs, titled ‘Bandijeevan’ would become a must-read for all future revolutionaries. And 19-year old Kartar Singh Sarabha’s parting statement, ‘If I had to live more lives than one, I would sacrifice each of them for my country’s sake’ would influence Bhagat Singh and thousands of others during the latter phases of the freedom struggle.