Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an uprising in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule
The golden anniversary of the Quit India Movement of 1942 had occasioned another wave of animation. There was an urge to do something spectacular. Newspapers vied with one another to write about it. Leaders exercised their jaws over speeches to ‘inspire’ the masses, eighty percent of whom had not witnessed the sacrifice and unity of the people then and could not feel the passion.
The significance of August 9th 1942, lies in the spontaneous outburst of fury and wrath in the minds of every indignant citizen. It was a peerless uprising that spread like forest fire, engulfing cities and towns, hamlets and provinces, suburbs and mohallas, causing a crack in the very foundation of the British Raj. To control the unarmed citizens the colonial rulers had unleashed armed soldiers in large numbers. Viceroy Linlithgow even issued orders to fire from the air!
There’s a big difference between those days and now. The patriotic values that suffused even the poorest of the poor in the land under foreign rule have not been passed on to independent India. People then equipped themselves physically and emotionally, to rid the land of imperialism. Those mortals had the dedication, will power and courage to sacrifice their lives at the altar of motherland. From a tender age the parents and schools inculcated in them a sense of belonging to the country. And they had inviolable faith in their leaders.
Five decades have lapsed but I can vividly recall the dance of destruction in Patna of August 9 and 11, 1942. I must have been fourteen then, a student of class IX in the Government Girls High School Bankipur. We stayed in No 8 Mangles Road, an endearing spacious government bungalow to the left of the Secretariat. Outside it, a well-pitched road and across it was the vast quadrangle of the Secretariat. The thoroughfare was lined on both sides with rows of banyan and mango, jackfruit and jamun trees. Morning, evening, companies of parrots would flock in.
To the right was Hardinge Road, again with rows of government bungalows with expansive premises. From the intersection of Hardinge and Mangles Road, a smooth road ran up right through the iron gates of the Secretariat. The ambience was stately, solemn, as favoured by the British administration. On August 11, this very road witnessed the daring adventure of unarmed multitudes, awash with the life blood of eighteen young men.
There was no television then, there was only the radio. But there was a wide gulf between what was broadcast and what actually transpired. The pride and hope of every Bengali, Subhash Chandra Bose, had hoodwinked the British government and escaped the country. He was determined in his resolve to overthrow the imperialists with the help of the Japanese. Occasionally we – all of us in the family of gazetted officer Phanindra Nath Mitra – would gather behind closed doors and listen with bated breath to Aami Subhash Bolchhi (I am Subhash speaking), his nightly broadcast from Berlin on Free India Radio which Bose had set up in 1941 with German funds. I was anguished and deeply hurt by the thought that the INA chief’s dream could have come true if all our political elders had joined forces with him.
Sir Stafford Cripps of the Left-wing Labour party (traditionally sympathetic to Indian self-rule), a member of the coalition War Cabinet under Churchill, had come to negotiate an agreement with the nationalist Congress leaders. His Mission was to secure full Indian support for the British efforts in World War II – in exchange of a promise of elections and self-government as a Dominion once the war was over. The mission was unacceptable to both, the Indian leaders and Churchill. No midway was found, the mission failed and on August 9 the country resounded with the war cry of ‘Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India!’
Gandhiji gave out the historical call of ‘Quit India’ but the responsibility for the success of the movement rested on every single Indian who now vowed, “Karenge ya Marenge! We shall do or die!” The leaders were well aware that the desperate call would lead to incarceration, but the oath armed every Indian with the resolve to carry on the andolan (revolution) if push came to shove. The fear was not unfounded: overnight all the Congress leaders were stuffed into far flung prison cells. This simply set fire to a pile of gunpowder.
On August 9, as usual I took bus no 14 but on the way to school, I noticed people agitatedly assembling in groups or heading for some place with the tri-colour in their hands. The famous Golghar was opposite our school and the Patna Maidan was close by. People were breaking into brief runs to reach the Maidan. There were countless heads right outside the school. With great difficulty the buses manoeuvred their way into the school compound and the enormous iron gates were locked.
Principal Charushila Rosa and a few other teachers stood at the door. The minute we got off the bus they directed us to go to the prayer shed at the back of the school. On the other hand, the seniors, standing with flags on the first-floor veranda, asked everyone to join them. Taradi – Tarkeshwari Sinha, who was elected to the first Lok Sabha at the young age of 26 — normally donned khaddar. That day she was attired in a red border white Khadi sari. Her eyes red and swollen from shedding tears, she was pleading with everyone, “Come on dear, Do or die! We shall force them to quit!”
All of Golghar resounded with the cry of ‘Vande Mataram! Hail Motherland!’ The senior girls echoed the slogan from the first-floor veranda. The minute that reached my ears, a strange motivation drove out every shred of fright or inhibition. We ignored Mrs Rosa and stomped up the stairs. The senior expostulated, “By arresting our leaders the British government has betrayed us. We must avenge this. We do not want the Englishmen to rule over us. Today none of us will attend classes. In the Prayer Hall we shall raise the slogan of Vande Mataram andwe will hoist our tricolor on the flag pole. We must all remain united.”
When the bell sounded, we stood on the first floor upholding the flag, sending out the message that we too were protestors. When the second bell rang, we joined the prayer line where, at the end of every row, one senior girl stood with a rolled flag in her hand. Taradi was a hostel inmate — wonder how they got hold of so many flags! Mrs Rosa, a strict disciplinarian with a temper, looked at us disparagingly, the other teachers also watched anxiously. Moments later, Taradi’s voice rang out, “Angrez Bharat Chhodo! British Quit India! Vande Mataram! We bow to thee, Motherland!”
In a blink the chorus of Vande Mataram filled the air. Mrs Rosa turned red as we walked out in front of her eyes and assembled in the front yard, all the while bellowing ‘Vande Marataram!’ I can’t put into words the emotion that coursed through my being.
Watching our unsuccessful attempt to hoist the tri-colour on the flag post some men tried to jump over the school’s boundary wall. That triggered a bout of screaming and scampering. All of a sudden, the iron gates were opened for armed policemen who mercilessly started thrashing the young men, now flung to the ground. Four trucks of armed police had entered the school compound. Word went out that they were there to arrest some of us led by Taradi. But the teachers demanded police protection to drop us home instead.
So far, we could hear distant noise beyond the compound walls. Now that was pierced by the painful outcry of wounded men. Curious to know what was going on, we rushed back to the first-floor veranda. The sight that met our eyes froze the blood in our veins. White-skinned British mounted policemen! They were wildly thrashing the ocean of human heads, lashing them right and left with iron-laced whips as they strode from one end of the road to the other. The blood-covered men were crashing to the ground, then scrambling back to their feet with raised fist and screaming in choked voices, ‘Vande Mataram! Quit India!’ Later we learnt that this incident at Bankipur Girls School was the first ever charge by the mounted police.
Never before had we witnessed such barbarity. For the first time I also witnessed how the love of motherland makes even unarmed populace lose every fear, even for their lives. We – even Taradi — started howling out of frustration, helplessness, shame, dejection. In that state we were put on the bus. Our teachers explained to us that in view of the circumstances, and in deference to what our parents would be going through, we ought to return home.
The bus moved at snail’s pace, side stepping legions of injured men. Bankipur Maidan was a sea of human heads. Where did so many turn up from? They were not attired for such an ‘outing’ but there was no trace of fear on their visage. At the risk of facing the worst kind of atrocity, thousands of unarmed people were striding forth, towards the Secretariat. We crossed another intersection and witnessed the same sight: clusters of people racing with our bus towards Mangles Road. Repeatedly they were hitting on the glass windows to stop the bus. We panicked when we saw that the Gurkha Regiment of Mounted Police was also galloping towards the city. Until this day we had seen the British only on duty at the Government House: this was the first time they were trotting through Patna’s arteries.
After dropping off Kanak at the Power House, the bus moved slower than an ant but managed to drop Rekha Di and me outside our houses. Our petrified parents were waiting on the verandas for their daughters to come home. Gazetted officers were home for lunch had not returned to their office desk! Father directed us to stay indoors without opening any door or window. But if the men trooped into our compound, we were not to stop them — they might want a drink of water to quench their thirst! And if Ganga Da – Baba’s Hindi speaking adopted son — came home from his hostel, he should stay back: the unrest would surely mount in the school-college areas.
Our pet dog was chained up in the veranda behind the house. The curb on his normal movement was least acceptable to Jack: he let the world know that through ceaseless baying that drove us out of our minds. Next morning his howls rose in pitch as the stream of voices kept rising around the Secretariat. My brothers Nilu, Dilu and I took turns at comforting him. He lapped up all the water in his bowl but since he was not free of his chain, he barked his head off.
There was no news of Ganga Da these three days. We had heard that hordes of people from neighboring regions were streaming into the city. That day, August 11, the air was thick with foreboding. The entire area was packed with people and police. All of a sudden, Jack stopped barking. Through the slatted window I saw him desperately chasing a horse – the whiplashes could not deter him. Impulsively, without a word to anyone at home, I ran out to bring him back and found myself in the thick of the unrest. Near the Secretariat the goras were attacking the protestors with unspeakable aggression. Here and there a horse would neigh loudly and rear on its hind legs — perhaps they were not trained to trample upon live humans! The groans and moans of anguished souls made me tremble. I also saw a few crazed men incredibly holding on to the cracking whips splitting the air with resounding shup-shup!
I managed to grab Jack outside No 5 Mangles Road. Someone had grasped me and pulled me back into the safety of the gap between the trunks of two massive banyans. Holding Jack in a tight embrace I was shivering away. I was stunned to see trepidation in the eyes of the men around me as, hand in hand, an inviolable mass of humans approached the Secretariat, holding aloft the tricolor, ‘Vande Mataram!’ on their lips, head held high.
Their determination showed in their raised fists as the White policemen continually rained their batons to halt them. The Police Commissioner, microphone in hand, commanded, “Stop or you will be shot! Rukk jao, simply halt! Ekdam rukk jao, stop at once!” In response, the human wall came closer. Apparently, Ganga Da was present among them, in the second row, although I did not see him. Again, the snarl: “Rukk jao, halt!!”
Suddenly I saw Durga Prasanna, the 12-year-old motherless son of my private tutor, darting in that direction, ignoring alike the crowds and the mounted police. He simply had to see for himself why all these people had gathered. So, in a jiffy, he climbed up to the topmost branch of the tree closest to the Maidan and perched himself with his feet dangling on either side. Shortly his fear-driven father arrived in search of his only child. He had no time to don his fatua shirt, or tie his dhoti properly, it was scraping the ground.
The human wall was relentlessly tiding ahead. I had no inkling that, at that very moment, seven Gurkhas were waiting in front of the Secretariat with rifles ready to shower bullets. The ageing master must have fathomed the seriousness of the situation. So, the minute he spotted Durga Prasanna atop the tree, he tried to scramble up its trunk.
Again, the microphone roared, “This is the last warning to stop!!” It prompted the human wall to take another step forward. “Fire!” the order flew out, so did the bullets. Eleven young men in the first row kissed the ground – they had been shot in the lower half of their body. Those behind them lunged forward to pick up the injured comrades and ran, crazed, confused, in no particular direction. The rest of the assembled crowds surged ahead.
The second order to ‘Fire!’ triggered simultaneous action on the treetop. To escape his father’s thrashing Durga jumped off his perch. But he did not live to rejoice: a bullet pierced his ribcage and blood gushed out in repeated spurts as the pre-teen body hit the ground. And not just one Durga Prasanna, so many vivacious young lives fell to the bullets. “Durga-a! Durga re!!” – the heart-rending wail was all the old master could let out before losing consciousness. The poor Brahmin’s foolish son had become an unintended martyr.
Had I not witnessed all this with my own eyes, I would never have believed that death can be so instantaneous, and remorseless. Like me, thousand others also did not believe that people on the payroll of the British could fire on their own unarmed countrymen. Two rounds were fired before the fact registered on the dumbfounded lot, driving them crazy. Picking up those groaning in pain, blood flowing like fountain, they carried them to the safety of the bungalows. To provide first aid the grown-ups brought out water, cotton wool, tincture of iodine and rags to bandage the wounds and save lives. Some were tenderly resting the injured in their laps, to infuse warmth in them even as they themselves were bathed in warm blood. All those who had taken the bullets on their chest were students from colleges in and around Patna. So much killing! Such bloodshed! It threw to the winds the last shred of restrain: the frantic crowd went berserk and started hitting the policemen wildly. Again, the rifles roared out in a third round of firing.
With unblinking eyes, I was watching the horrifying turn of events. I was transfixed: the suddenness of the appalling developments had stupefied me. Overcome with fear and fatigue, I stood like a statue on the rocky roots of the banyan. Before my eyes some men were carrying two injured youths with blood spurting out, towards 5 Mangles Road. A streak of red outlined their course on the muddy path. The youths were gasping. I too felt stifled and fell to the ground between the two banyans. In the midst of the mayhem, all around these people were looking for doctors to attend to the dying.
The Gurkhas and the Mounted Police, perhaps daunted by the agitated numbers now blinded with rage, went and stood inside the Secretariat compound. Carloads of local Indian policemen were taking into custody anybody they could lay their hands on. Somewhere a clock hammered three gongs: I realised it was 3 pm and I ought to get back home. I heard people say, “It would serve no purpose to be stuffed into jails, let us get away, run!” They ran helter-skelter cutting through the bungalow courtyards, jumping over the fences. Across the railway line, R-Block Water Tower was chockablock with people. They did not leave their bleeding companions, they carried them even as they fled.
A couple of jeeps with the sirens blazing gave them a chase. Countless shoes, chappals, gamchhas, torn cloth, spectacles, Gandhi topis and caking blood lay on the vast Maidan and Mangles Road to recount the story of debacle.
I have no idea how I reached home – probably the fleeing masses had carried me along. On seeing Maa’s ashen face, I believe I had merely uttered, “Maa, blood!” and then fainted.
That fateful night of August 11 had come to an end but the sacrifice of so many lives desirous of freedom had gone in vain. Fired by hope, we had all started dreaming of living in a golden India free of the yoke of colonialism but only for a brief period. Under the commendable leadership of certain parties a Free Government had temporarily come into force in parts of Bihar, Bengal, UP, Orissa, and Maharashtra. Patna itself had no rule of British law for four-five days. Rebel leader Jaiprakash Narayan had fled to Nepal border and led a guerrilla war from there.
The Quit India Movement of 1942 is the blood splattered tale of outrageous courage of India’s populace, not the ballad of the triumph of a single party. Prior to this, our history had not witnessed such an all-consuming uprising across India’s length and breadth. This was the first instance of a unique wave of emotion overnight seizing the country from one end to the other. In whom does the real power of the land rest? In 1942 people rose above caste and creed and became a force to reckon with. The imperialists realised that Indians can no longer be dominated on the pretext of a World War. Unfortunately, the gains were frittered away. Within months the movement was squashed.
Over the passing decades this date – August 9 – drags me back to the scene of crime. If only all the people and every political party in India had joined hands! Then, in all probability, the history of India would have read different.
Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the permission of the family to translate and publish this piece.
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