(Sanjeev Sanyal, who describes himself as a writer, economist and collector of old maps, is also a very keen student of Indian history. Below is the transcript of his talk he did for Sangam, diligently done by Bhumika Arora. The full talk could be viewed here.)
I’m going to talk about India’s freedom struggle—not of the heroes that everybody loves talking about but about the collaborators who sided with the British to perpetuate their rule. We may call it nationalist vs loyalists.
But how do we define loyalists. At some stage a large number of population must have had dealings with British. We can’t call them collaborators. That is government teachers, doctors, businessmen etc. Then there is someone like Girija Shankar Vajpayee, an administrator, who was our effective ambassador called then the agent-general of India of the British government to the US, who in the early 40s represented or if you prefer misrepresented India to British colonial ends in America. At a time when the US was particularly keen on supporting the Indian cause and so in some ways he became an instrument of the British colonial administration.
It is often argued that many of them were simply following orders. Now that in my view is not a really strong defense after all the Nazi officials who ran Auschwitz were also following orders so I do not consider that defense at all. I will let you judge what shade of grey many of them fell in.
And then there are political collaborators which again is various shades of grey. Remember always that the when the Indian National Congress was started in 1885 it was not started as a nationalist movement it was started as a safety valve by the British themselves they understood that nationalist feelings were bubbling up they wanted to create a safety valve and some of the early leaders of the Indian National Congress were certainly some very almost embarrassingly subservient to British.
I mean they would at best raise some minor issues. It’s only really towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th-century thanks to the coming forward of leaders in the such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal and obviously Aurobindo Ghosh who basically gave the Congress a much stronger bite.
The story of their tussle in the first decade of the 20th-century which was written as the battle between extremists and moderates, tells you a lot about who wrote that history from those terms themselves because you get the impression that the extremists were an unreasonable bunch of people and the moderates were nice chaps who are being reasonable but what were the extremists asking for?
Extremists vs Moderates
Well, the Lal-Bal-Pal trio were basically asking for full freedom- Purna Swaraj– that is what was considered so unreasonable that they were called the extremists whereas the moderates were basically at best asking for dominion status but most of them actually wanted very minor concessions in the early decades. Later on they became a little stronger in their words.
So, it if had not been the British and their moderate friends who had written the history the better wording would’ve perhaps been nationalists vs loyalists. Indeed that’s the terminology which Aurbobindo Ghosh himself used.
I’m not even going to talk about them because even here there are shades of grey even amongst the loyalists. So I’m going to talk about the more black and more white characters because there are so many of them.
So let me take you back to the year 1897, Tilak has finally begun to raise the sort of tempo on the political movement side but there was also a new armed resistance to British rule. The turning point is usually the assassination of Walter Rand who was the plague inspector in Pune. He was being fairly draconian and unreasonable in exercise of his powers under the epidemic’s control act. So two brothers, Chapekar brothers, decided to kill him. So on Ganesh Chin road, they walked up to his carriage and shot him dead. But that’s not the story here. What is interesting is that two of their close relatives, the Dravid brothers, who were the ones who actually gave the information to the British. Thus the Chapekar brothers were arrested and they would later be hanged.
There was another brother a third brother of the Chapekar brothers who found out about that what the Dravid brothers had done and he and a friend then hunted down the Dravid brothers and shot them dead. This is incidentally something that the revolutionaries quite regularly did to those who had informed on them.
At least the revolutionaries did not take it lying down and there were many instances where they would hunt down informers. Now thanksto the incident of the Chapekar brothers a young boy called Vinayak Savarkar was very inspired and he swore to his family deity Bhavani that he would stand up and pick and take up armed revolt against the British and after many adventures this young man ended up in 1907 in India house in London which was a hostel for students studying there and he began to create a network across Europe, not just in London, but also in the mainland, particularly in Paris a network of revolutionaries to take on the British. Among the radicalized young students at that time were the likes of VVS Iyer and of course famously Madan Lal Dhingra and so on.
Now even here there were collaborators. Scotland Yard and the advisor the secretary of state for India basically managed to infiltrate India House. For instance they got somebody inside India House in the form of a Maharashtrian student call Krithkar. Now since he spoke Marathi, he quickly struck up a friendship with Savarkar. He was evidently there to study dentistry. However, both Savarkar and his key lieutenant VVS Iyer after a while began to get a little suspicious. There were a variety of reasons.
First of all, he hardly ever went to class. Then they found out that nobody in his dentistry class knew who he was. Then Krithkar began to have an affair with an English maid and he was clearly spending a lot of money. So they managed to get rid of the maid. But Krithkar set her up in a house not far from India House so they students, already suspicious, began wondering how does he have so much money.
One day VVS opened his door with a master key. They discovered Krithkar was sending a half-finished report to the British intelligence and Scotland Yard. By this time they had some guns inside India House. So when Krithkar came back, VVS put a gun on his head and he confessed everything.
So what to do with Krithkar now. They told him he could continue living except they would dictate his weekly reports. So after dinner, the whole hostel would sit around the dinner temple and write all kind of bizarre things into the report.
Of course this didn’t last long. A couple of years later Madan Lal Dhingra would go on to assassinate an intelligence officer and Savarkar, of course, would be arrested and sent off to Kala Pani.
Meanwhile back in India, the revolutionary movement was bubbling up. By 1910, the key leader of this movement was a gentleman called Rash Behari Bose. He was originally from Bengal but he was working out of the forestry research institute in Dehradun. This is not the one that you see when you go today because that one opened only in 1922. There’s a smaller set up near Tibet bazaar there’s still some red-colored brick buildings which were there where Rash Behari Bose (see image below) used to work as a lab assistant.
In 1912, he planned to carry out a major assassination attempt on the Viceroy Hardinge in Chandni Chowk. If you go to Chandni Chowk you will see where this attempt happened. There was a place that they identified where they were going to throw the bomb so he went and got a young boy called Basantha Biswas from Bengal.
Now Biswas came from a small village near Krishna Nahar in Bengal in the Nadia district. He was brought he was given a lot of training and then on December 23rd, 1912, when the formal inauguration of Delhi as the national capital happened. Biswas dressed as a woman and Rash Bihari little behind in one floor up, watching the whole proceedings.
They managed to throw a bomb on the elephant and on Viceroy Hardinge and it exploded. It killed his attendant and it very badly hurt the viceroy, so much so that he was hospitalized for some six months. He didn’t die but he was very badly hurt. It naturally became a major outrage In the confusion after the bombing, there was so much chaos and running around. Biswas, dressed up as a woman, took off his saree and both of them went to what is now Purani Delhi railway station. They took the train: Biswas went to Lahore and Rash Behari to Dehradun. Here, interestingly, he did a big meeting and strongly condemned the dastardly act of attacking the Viceroy.
Biswas then stayed in Lahore for some time and he carried out one more attack which didn’t work out nevertheless, he stayed there but people were now suspicious. Sadly, what happened is that Biswas’ father died a year later and he decided to go back to his village. Rash Behari repeatedly asked him not to do so but he still went ahead to carry out the last rites of his father.
Now guess what. Biswas’ own uncle identified him and he was captured. Not only was he hanged, many of his team in Delhi, including master Amir Chand, all of them were hanged. (Basanta Kumar Biswas’ image below).
One of the saddest parts of this story is that their family too were punished. Zamindars once, they were reduced to extreme penury. However, the family of the uncle became very rich and powerful, politically too, because obviously British supported his cause. To this day, the uncle’s family continues to be the most powerful political family of that area.
Now after this incident happened, there was a lot of buzz going on about the revolution not just in India but also in the Indian diaspora all over the world, particularly among the Punjabis Sikhs in North America along the west coast which is in California, and in British Columbia in and around Vancouver. One of the disciples of Savarkar had ended up in San Francisco. He began to now organise them using a newsletter “Gadar”, meaning revolution. It was being spread through the network of gurdwaras, all along the west coast of North America. Very quickly they connected through the to Sikh communities in Hong Kong, Singapore and even reached back to Punjab.
Now the British were entirely aware of this radicalization happening in 1912 and so they began to infiltrate the gurudwaras.They put a police officer who had grown up in India, a British police officer who had been born and brought up in India and had gone to Canada. His name was Hopkinson and he was given a significant amount of money to essentially find a loyalist Sikhs and infiltrate all the gurudwaras.
He began to do this very very systematically and he was given a huge amount of resources to do this. Basically what they were trying to do was one– diminish all this nationalist feeling that the gatherings were fanning and very systematically separate out the Sikhs from the Hindus.
This was a very important thing they wanted to do because that was one clear way in which to divide the Hindu and Sikh community of North America. Now not surprisingly, there were many people in the gurudwara who figured that this was going on, so very quickly the community the Sikh community in North America became completely divided.
The majority were with the ‘Gadar’ but there was this strong and well-fed community of British collaborators and it’s important to name them there was a gentleman called Bella Singh and there was another one called Arjun Singh—the two key collaborators.
Now the Gadar “Rights” knew this and in the years 1913-14, they began to systematically kill these collaborators. In one such incident Harnam Singh and Arjan Singh, two of them were shot dead in very mysterious circumstances.
Now as can be imagined, the collaborators panicked. Bella Singh, one of Hopkinson’s key informants, went into the main gurudwara in Vancouver with a revolver and all those he suspected of having carried out these killings, he shot them dead. Bella Singh was captured and naturally the British couldn’t pretend that nothing had happened. They put him on a mock trial. It was soo very clear that he would be absolved of all charges despite dozens of people having seen him kill people in gurudwara.
On the last day, the trial was going on. Hopkinson was supposed to come and give his testimony. When he was just about to enter the courtroom to give his testimony, one of the Gadar Rights called Mewa Singh pulled out a revolver and shot him dead. He then surrendered. Mewa Singh was put on trial and subsequently hanged.
Almost nobody today in India remembers Mewa Singh but at that point in time, the atmosphere in the Sikh community in North America was such that 400 gathering Sikhs turned up outside the jail when he was hung and to this day in theory at least there are still nationalist Sikhs who celebrate his death anniversary but almost nobody else other than the small group in North America and certainly not in India have ever heard of Mewa Singh (see image below).
How Indian soldiers were recruited for WW I
British government took a very strong view of how to get recurits. They managed to get a whole bunch of people who were in their favour, including the chief of the golden temple who was then called the chief Khala Diwan.
By the way, Mahatma Gandhi at this point had just returned to India. He went around villages in a bullock cart, trying to recruit Indians to fight in the First World War. But even this exhortation didn’t have much effect on the ground. At this stage the British got hold of a bunch of contractors. They were given the job of raiding the villages, enslaving people.The poorer segments who were labourers or whatever, able-bodied young men, drag them off and put them in the army.
Many of these contractors became very rich. Later, from that point in time, much of the Punjabi elite were these contractors and to this day, their descendants are Punjabi elites. Now there are very horrific stories about what had happened. Many of those whose names are carved in the India Gate is who died in the First World War, fighting for the British, were not volunteers as sometimes is portrayed. They were essentially village kids who had been dragged off by these contractors for a fee and forced to fight the War, somewhere in Europe, in the trenches. It was the Indian contractors who made a large amount of money : It was essentially like selling a slave and sold them to British to die in Europe.
Now, of course, the revolutionaries knew that there was a lot of murmuring of unhappiness amongst the Indian troops so they were trying to instigate a revolt in the Indian army, and Rash Behari who had still not been captured, and his assistant and lieutenant Sachin, they began to now collaborate with the Gadar Rights and they began to now infiltrate many of these Indian battalions and regiments to try and instigate a mass revolt.
They decided there was going to be a mass revolt in the Indian army, sort of inspired by 1857, and this would start in the northwest of India and roll its way across India till it fed through to all the Indian regiments, even those who had been posted abroad and this was supposed to happen on the 21st of February 1915. It was all set up; already large numbers of Indian soldiers had been primed, Rash Behari himself had moved and gone to Lahore there was a gentleman called Pingley who was in Meerut and Kartar Singh, young Gadar Right, 18-year-old.
When Rash Behari noticed that there was this fellow called Kirpal Singh who was seen suspiciously on Lahore railway station talking to somebody who he knew was an intelligence officer so he immediately knew that things were going to go wrong and what he did is he then tried to push the revolt forward a few days from 21st. But this information got through to Kirpal Singh and he conveyed this to the British what the British did immediately was changed all the Indian guards at the armoury with European ones.
So immediately the Indian soldiers had no access to guns as long as they were in India. When they went outside it was different.
The revolt on that day collapsed.The only place where this reward actually happened is Singapore where this information hadn’t reached. For about a week, a Muslim regiment in Singapore held sway before it was put down. Interestingly, the British had collaborators in the Japanese.
Now many of these characters were shipped off by the British many of course were hanged but those who survived from many of these episodes were shipped off to Kala Pani. Now one of the interesting things that happened in Kala Paniis that of course there were a few senior officials who were British but it is important to remember that the cellular jail in katakana on a day-to-day basis was largely run by Indians. They were the jail wardens and it is the jail wardens who in fact carried out most of the cruelty so it is very important to remember and many of their names are still known. So I would like you to read many of the books for example the book of Aurobindo Ghosh’s brother,;he’s written a very nice book where he mentions some of their names.
The first world war ended in 1918, In 1919 all the soldiers began coming back now remember these soldiers had fought in the trenches, they had already been unhappy when they were recruited, they had been then radicalized by Rash Behari Bose and now they had lost their fear of killing white men, having fought in the First World War. They were coming back and the British were extremely scared that these guys were going to now carry out that revolt that they had planned in 1914.
Now, this is the context in which Rowlett Act was put in place. Do remember the Rowlett Act didn’t happen in thin air it had everything to do with the Gadar Rights and the revolutionaries infiltrating into the Indian army and so of course the Jallianwala massacre happened as a result of protests against this Rowlett Act.
As a result of that many revolutionaries were then released from jail. Some like Sachin Sanyal went back straight back to organizing the next generation of revolutionaries. He set up the Hindustan Republican Army and then he recruited the next generation and also the next the following generation of revolutionaries like Bismil and Rajendra Lahiri and Bhagat Singh Chandrasekhar Azad and so on.
I do want to point out that throughout this period there were continuous moles inside the Hindustan Republican Army and later on when the northern Indian section of it was renamed the Hindustan socialist republican army as well so there were continuously moles in the HRA. it is interesting to note who these characters were so I’m going to just give you the example of one but there were many others.
Who betrayed Chandrashekhar Azad
As you may know that by 1930-31 there was an upsurge of revolutionary activity in northern India. Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad killed Saunders in retaliation for the beating to death of Lala Lajpat Rai. There was a throwing of the bomb in the central legislative assembly in Delhi which is now the parliament and of course, Bhagat Singh and Raj Guru, and Sukhdev was hanged, and so on.
Their other colleague was Chandrasekhar Azad who had not been captured he made his way through Jhansi and other places eventually to what was then called Allahabad now called Prayagraj and he was then famously trapped in Alfred Park in Allahabad. He fought till the last bullet and then he shot himself and killed himself with that last bullet.
Now the question is how did the British know that he was in Alfred park?
The often told story is that there was a gentleman called Virbhadr Tiwari who provided the information but there is a problem with this story because although Virbhadr Tiwari probably did work for the British and provide the information he didn’t actually know where Chandrasekhar Azad was because the latter had not kept him in the loop .
We actually do have some other information on who this person was. The source of this information was a very famous writer called Yashpal. He made a name for himself in independent India as a writer, particularly about the revolutionary movement but do you know that he was actually the most likely source of the information. So much so that even before Chandrashekhar died he already suspected there was something fishy about him. He had instructed several members of his group to look for him and kill him. We know for a fact that Yashpal knew that Chandrashekhar abad was in Allahabad because they had actually together gone and seen Jawaharalal Nehru the previous day.
The best information about this actually came many decades later.
Somewhere in the 1960s a CID officer called Dharmendra Gaud who was in the Lucknow office of CID came across a bunch of letters from the late 1940s, I think from 1946 if I’m not mistaken and this letter is very interesting because it is one British intelligence officer telling another that we are now going to leave this country we need to make arrangements for one of our useful informants a gentleman somebody called Mr Yashpal and he describes the person who is quite clearly the writer and he says he was very useful to us in certain cases and then he names all the dates where he was useful which clearly correlates to Yashpal’s particularly the incident of Azad being killed.
Dharmendra Gaud then of course made a bit and wrote a book about this and most interestingly Yashpal was still alive at that time and a very famous.
Do remember sometimes who these people are. It is very important to remember this.
And then there were Communists
Now the 1930s of course saw a brief lull. Both the peaceful movement and the revolutionary movement by the mid-30s were exhausted. Then only in the very late 30s did they begin to again gather momentum. Rash eihari was then based in Japan and of course the Japanese entered the war and so on but one of the interesting things that happened during this period is what the British were doing in order to infiltrate the revolutionary movement because they were still afraid that this movement may come back.
They did something that is quite curious and not much talked about which is that they actually used Marxism to do this. It’s very very curious but if you read the writings of the younger revolutionaries of the 30s many of them went to jail as nationalists and came back as communists. They were provided with all the marxist literature in jail.
Now we can debate why is it that you would be providing some a dangerous ideology. It is possible they thought that this was a good way to split them. It is certainly true that by the mid-30s, the Russians had lost control of the Communist Party of India. It turns out it was controlled by the British communists, a gentleman called Rajani Palme Dutt. This control of the Communist movement was to prove very useful to the British during the Second World
War. Because the communists completely sided with the British as the Soviet Union was fighting on the side with the allies. They called Netaji the running dog of Tojo, a donkey carrying Tojo etc. These are names by the Communist Party of India for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. If you think why Bose was not more celebrated in Bengal for 35 years of their rule is because his very existence was an embarrassment to the people who were the dominant political ideology in that part of the country.