Militants Strike, Britain Out:  The 1946 Naval Indian Mutiny

The Naval Indian Mutiny (RIN) mutiny, which ‘erupted’ on February 18, 1946, has long been overshadowed by the political trials of INA (Indian National Army) officers and soldiers which commenced in November 1945 and captured the nation’s attention. What was, of course, behind the INA was the charismatic figure of ‘Netaji’ Subhas Bose, whose storied exploits had been the talk of India and won him the affection of tens of millions of his countrymen and women.  In 1939, running for the Presidency of the Congress for a second time, against the express wishes of Gandhi, Bose had triumphed only to discover within weeks that the Congress machinery was behind the Mahatma and that he could not function effectively as President of the Congress.  In 1941, while placed under house arrest, Bose staged a daring escape from his Calcutta home from where he made his way to Afghanistan and eventually to Germany where he managed to get an audience with Hitler.  All this was theatrical enough, but merely icing for the cake:  in 1943, he took over the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) and in October that year he formed the Provisional Government of Free India.  The INA would see military action, most famously at Imphal and Kohima, and in Burma, but months before the war ended the INA had been decimated.  Bose’s own immediate future was uncertain at best, considering that Britain triumphed at the end of the war and that he had fought for the enemy, but providence had something else in store for Bose.  He is reported to have been killed in an air crash near Taiwan in September 1945.  Many in India refused to believe reports of his death; some still do so. It seemed a bizarre, certainly an unfair, death for one anointed ‘Netaji’, the hero of the nation.

The country was still reeling from the death of Subhas Bose when the British decided to initiate legal proceedings against some of its officers on charges of sedition, murder, and waging illegal war against the King-Emperor. That may explain, in part, why the RIN mutiny went into near obscurity, but oddly enough it was the saga of the INA that was, again in part, the catalyst for the RIN strike.  What cannot be doubted is that the naval mutiny was, as Sumit Sarkar, one of India’s leading historians, wrote, ‘one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten, episodes in our freedom struggle.’  The rebels themselves underscored the importance of what they had achieved: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation.  For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause.  We in the Services will never forget this.  We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget.  Long live our great people!  Jai Hind!’

The enlisted sailors (or ‘ratings’, as they are known in naval jargon) had grievances galore. They were recruited under false promises of a decent salary, prospects for some advancement, good food, and a steady uniformed job in the defence of their nation.  What they got in return was rotten food, poor working conditions, and the racial insults that Indians were expected to bear chin up, even in good humour, with the alleged stoicism of their English officers.  It is not only conventional to think that subalterns cannot think for themselves, but also that they cannot look beyond their own little worlds to the world outside. Yet, the words of the ratings, and the pronouncements of the Naval Central Strike Committee, formed to represent the demands of the rebels, unequivocally suggest that they had other concerns as well.  The end of the war meant that men would be released back into civilian life and prospects for employment for demobilized men were poor.  Moreover, the ratings objected to the fact that they were being deployed in Indonesia, where the Dutch were determined to restore the colonial order after the Japanese interregnum, to stifle the genuine political aspirations of Indonesians. Besides all this, there was also the brute fact that there was a yawning gap between the treatment of British and Indian sailors.

On February 18, the ratings at the HMIS Talwar, a signals training establishment, struck.  The groundwork, one might say, had been laid weeks before.  The Commanding Officer of HMIS Talwar was given to vile racial abuse and contemptuous treatment of the ratings and had earned notoriety among them.  He commonly addressed them as ‘sons of bitches’, ‘sons of coolies’, and sons of bloody junglees’.  On 1 December 1945, the HMIS Talwar and other naval ships and shore establishments were expected to be displayed to the elites of the city, but early that morning British officers found the parade ground sprayed with signs, among them ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, and ‘Down with the Imperialists’.  This was later determined to be the handiwork of Balai Chand Dutt, a senior telegraphist who had served with the navy for five years, and whose published memoirs furnish one of the key expressions of subaltern dissent.  Pramod Kapoor, whose book on the RIN mutiny is being released as this essay is being written, has shared precious and little-known details which suggest that, however spontaneous the uprising, the mutineers worked with the design of precipitating the revolt.  As one instance, the young journalist, Kusum Nair, later the author of such classics on Indian agriculture as Blossoms in the Dust and In Defence of the Irrational Peasant, engineered crushed stones to be placed on the evening of February 17 in the dal that was dished out to the ratings.  The food was customarily inedible; more so would it be on the day of the uprising.

“Rioting on the Streets in Bombay”, Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 18-23 February 1946.

Just how widespread was the disaffection became clear soon enough:  in less than three days, at the height of the strike, the revolt had spread to over 75 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26.  The British were inclined to respond with force, more particularly because, as Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India, put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the ‘example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.’  The alarm in the establishment can be gauged from the fact that, astonishingly, Admiral John Henry Godfrey declared that he was prepared to see the navy decimated but that he would not tolerate insurrection.  What is not less remarkable is the widespread support the striking ratings received from workers and the residents of Bombay who responded to the Naval Central Strike Committee’s call for a city-wide hartal with enthusiasm.  Though, as shall be seen shortly, neither the Congress nor the Muslim League, the two main political parties of the day, were supportive of the strike, common people engaged in uncommon acts of fraternization. Many of the ratings had been on a hunger-strike; others, besieged by British troops, had run out of food; but, as the newspaper accounts and other testimonials suggest, people freely distributed food to the ratings and shopkeepers even encouraged them to take whatever they needed and refused payment.  Meanwhile, the strike spread to naval establishments over the country, and in Karachi the HMIS Hindustan was subdued after a gun battle.  The state of affairs in Bombay is suggested by the headlines, generally spread across the entire length of newspapers, that appeared on February 23, the day after Bombay no longer seemed under the control of the colonial state: ‘Bombay in Revolt: City a Battlefield’ (The Hindustan Times); ‘Nightmare Grips Bombay’ (Dawn—then published in Bombay); and ‘Rioters Machine-Gunned in Bombay (The Statesman).

HMIS-Hindustan after the British reasserted their control.

Around 400 people would be killed in the conflict.  Yet, after all this, the strike came to an end on February 23—suddenly, all too suddenly. The capitulation of the Strike Committee is said to have been forced by the fact that, barring Aruna Asaf Ali, none of the political leaders were behind the strike.  One might reasonably expect that Gandhi, who at least took a principled stand against violence, would throw in his weight to persuade the ratings to give up their arms.  Just how much influence he could still exercise in such an affair is a question that few have asked.  It is, nevertheless, the position of the other principal political figures that has in the historiography of the naval mutiny come under scrutiny and sometimes withering criticism. Nehru is said to have wanted to rush to the sailors and lend his support to them, but the conventional narrative states that Patel, who had been authorized by the Congress to converse and negotiate with the members of the Strike Committee, dissuaded Nehru from doing anything so rash.  It is on Patel’s assurance to the ratings that their grievances would be addressed, and that equally they would not be punished if they surrendered, that they are said to have called off the strike.

As Kapoor has detailed in his book, 1946—The Last War of Independence:  Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, the story of the betrayal of the ratings is one of the more wretched chapters in the history of Indian nationalism and the failure of political leadership. The sailors were imprisoned, put into camps, dismissed without payment of past dues, and sent back to their villages.  They would be lost to history. Yet ‘failure’ is an anodyne word to describe the hard-boiled realism that prompted Patel, Azad, Nehru, and Jinnah to throw the ratings to the wolves.  That is a reasonable interpretation, especially from the standpoint of those who have always been inclined to view the Congress as a bourgeois organization that was only interested in the trappings of power.  Independence was on the horizon and an insurrection in the armed forces of the nation—a nation that was about to be parceled out between the Congress and the Muslim League—was not to be tolerated.  As Patel (in)famously wrote in defence of his action to persuade the ratings to surrender, doubtless with the steely pragmatism and determination for which he is now admired by the country’s political leaders, ‘discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with. . . . We will want the Army even in free India.’

There are far too many other interesting questions that emerge from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 that cannot be addressed here, but two points may, in conclusion, be raised for further reflection on the part of the reader.  The communists alone are credited with having given the ratings their full support, but one must recall that communists had lost ground owing to their failure to support the Quit India movement.  They had now found an opening for redemption that they were scarcely likely to give up.  What is of course in many ways distinctive about Indian communism is the fact that there are many strands within it, and that most Indian communists have long been reconciled to working within the constitutional framework.  One suspects that a more nuanced reading of the communist support of the mutiny is needed, more particularly because in most countries communist regimes have been ruthless in suppressing dissent within the armed forces.  Secondly, nearly every commentator has pointed to the fact, highlighted by the ratings themselves, that Hindus and Muslims found themselves joined in a common cause and exhibited what appear to be feelings of brotherhood. If that was indeed the case, then there is all the more reason, given the fact that some within India would like to move the country towards the path of a Hindu rashtra, to celebrate the ability to transgress the religious divide.  It is a pity that this act of insurrection, coming at the tail end of the long struggle for freedom, has remained hidden from history considering that in its course and outcome it has something in it for nearly everyone, not least for those who think that it hastened the end of the British Raj.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in.

For a Gujarati translation, 1946નો ભારતીય નૌસેના બળવો: ક્રાંતિકારી હડતાલ, બ્રિટન ધરાશાયી, click here.

See also a companion piece, substantially different, published in The Indian Express in February 2018 and republished at this site called “An Inconvenient Insurrection“.

Our Very Own ‘Nightingale’:  Lata ‘Didi’ and her Enduring Popularity

(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)

Vinay Lal

There has never been any question that Lata Mangeshkar, who passed on at the age of 92 on February 6 in Mumbai, was the most popular singer in India.  There have been endless number of affirmations of her popularity, but just why she may have been so popular, to which I shall turn in the second half of this essay, has been much less frequently explored.  Lata certainly never had any equal among female playback singers, though it is sometimes argued that her sister, Asha Bhosle, held her own for at least a period of time, and among male playback singers Muhammad Rafi alone quite possibly rivaled her in popularity. If Lata was the ‘Melody Queen’, he was the ‘Melody King’.  But Lata had the advantage over Rafi Sahib, who was a mere 55 years old at the time of his death, of longevity.  Asha has a large following, to be sure, and many claim that she was more versatile than her older sister. Apart from the question of whether Lata was deservedly more popular than Asha, this ‘debate’ is unlikely to be ever resolved and is best left to those who are avid about their partisanship and who have the time and inclination to press their passionate conviction upon others. 

As a testament to Lata’s popularity, many in the media have since her passing four days ago mentioned her apparently unrivaled repertoire of songs.  Some say that she sang in thirty-six languages, while others are content to mention ‘only’ around 15-20 languages.  Considering that most people cannot sing well in one language, unless they have had some training, a handful of languages would be enough to point to her extraordinary gifts. The huge commentary in the established media and the even greater outpouring of thoughts and sentiments on social media have all coalesced around the staggering number of songs Lata is thought to have sung.  Some have mentioned as many as 25,000, or 30,000, and as far back as 2004 the BBC, in introducing an article by Yash Chopra on the occasion of Lata’s 75th birthday, mentioned ‘50,000 songs’.  The obituary in the New York Times speaks casually of ‘tens of thousands of songs’ that Lata reportedly sang.  Indians have long clamored to get into the Guinness Book of Records for one record or another, and to many Indians it was a matter of pride that the Guinness Book acknowledged her as early as 1974 as ‘the most recorded artist in music history’, though the claim was disputed by Muhammad Rafi.  Just how this dispute was handled is a long story, but in 2011 the Guinness Book acknowledged Asha Bhosle for holding the world record for the largest number of ‘single studio recordings’.  Neither sister holds the record today, that honor having passed on in 2016 to Pulapaka Susheela Mohan who is a veteran playback singer in Telugu films, though she also sings in other languages including Tamil. 

Considering that India is a country obsessed with records and also renowned as a powerhouse of statistics, and that Indian film music aficionados number in the millions, it may be surprising that no one really knows how many songs Lata performed.  However, in other respects as well there is something askance and quaint in the widespread approbation of her as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Growing up in India in the late 1960s, the ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) book assigned in school ensured that we knew that the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was Lajpat Rai, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lokamanya (‘Beloved of the Nation’) was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and ‘Deshbandhu’ (‘Friend of the Nation’) was C. R. Das—and that the ‘Nightingale of India’ was Sarojini Naidu, not Lata Mangeshkar.  Sarojini Naidu was, of course, a feisty freedom fighter, a close associate of Gandhi and, after independence, Governor of the United Provinces.  It is a lesser-known fact that she was also an accomplished poet, indeed celebrated by more than one English writer as India’s best poet in English.  Sarojini Naidu was, however, no singer, and it was the expressive, lyrical, and emotive quality of her poetry that earned her, from Mohandas Gandhi, the sobriquet ‘Bharat Kokila’. 

Here Gandhi was following the English tradition that has long associated literature and poetry with the nightingale.  The English romantic poets, in particular, were enchanted with the nightingale, most famously among them John Keats whose ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ remains a staple in English poetry classes. It is perhaps this verse which captures the Indian public’s view of Lata’s ‘full-throated’ voice for the ages: 

                        Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

                             No hungry generations tread thee down;

                        The voice I hear this passing night was heard

                             In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

His friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous ‘Defence of Poetry’, did not doubt that the nightingale commanded the world—as did the poet:  ‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.’  Gandhi knew, however, that the nightingale is not an Indian bird; thus, he refers to Sarojini Naidu by the word ‘kokila’, the indigenous bird that most closely approximates the nightingale. More tellingly, though perhaps few in India at all care for such matters, only the male nightingale sings.  The female does not sing at all; the male nightingale, which has a vast and astonishing repertoire of over 1000 different sounds, compared to around 100 for a blackbird—the bird celebrated by the Beatles with the lines, ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—serenades the female, and that too mainly at night.

Still, even as one takes the measure of Lata’s popularity, a more enduring question remains to be understood.  What made her popular to the extent that she became practically the voice of the nation, and how did she remain at the top for decades?  To many, the answer is obvious:  she had a ‘golden voice’.  By this it is meant that her singing was flawless and her sur was perfect; her singing, it is claimed, was uniquely expressive and she could even get into the skin of the actress for whom she was singing.  Her biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir, states that Lata also had the gift of capturing the mood of the song and the meaning of the words.  Lata had grit and determination—and discipline, too.  To sing in films in the late 1940s and into the 1960s one had to know Urdu, and Lata had to learn it; and the story is famously told of the time when Dilip Kumar rubbed it into Lata that her Urdu had a little too much of dal-chawal in it!  Lata worked on her Urdu, to the extent that, as Javed Akhtar has related in a recent interview, he did not once hear her mispronounce an Urdu word.  But he suggests that none of this was sufficient to produce the magic that one associates with Lata, and he points out that within fifteen minutes of getting the lyrics for the first time, and not having heard the music either, she had virtually mastered the song.  There was some other quality Lata possessed that was uniquely her own, and Javed Akhtar attributes this to her ability to penetrate to the subtext, the meaning of a song that lay beyond the words.

Beyond even this, I would argue, there is something else that made it possible for Lata to become the heartthrob of the nation. She emerged on the national scene with a bang in 1949 by establishing her presence as a singer in several films, many of which became hits:  Mahal; Barsaat; Andaz; Bazaar; Dulari; and Patanga.  The historical context that saw her take the country by storm is critically important.  India had acquired its independence in 1947 and one of the many questions before the country had to do with the status of women.  Gandhi’s noncooperation movement of 1920-22 had brought women out into the streets for the first time and the trend accelerated with the Salt March and subsequent satyagrahas.  But, in most other respects, women were not part of the public sphere, and though the Constitution that was being drafted by the Constituent Assembly envisioned an equal place for women in Indian society, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged mainly in the domestic sphere. To take one illustration, though women played an important role in the communist-led Telengana Rebellion (1946-51), studies have shown that even their male compatriots expected women revolutionaries to give up their rifles and return to the kitchen once the rebellion was over. 

At the same time, the struggle for freedom was also built on the idea of service to, and sacrifice for, Bharat Mata.  The nation in most parts of the world is construed as a feminine entity, but in India this had resonance beyond the ordinary for many reasons, among them the fact that Hinduism, in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, has still retained a space for the feminine in various ways.  This can be seen in the attachment to goddess worship that is still found in nearly all parts of the country, though it is more pronounced in some parts of the country, such as Bengal, than in others.  Indian art during the freedom struggle from the 1920s until the attainment of independence is suffused with invocations to Bharat Mata.  In the aftermath of independence, the idea of Mother India had to be given a new incarnation—and then, fortuitously, Lata came along.  She represented the idea of the feminine principle in its least threatening form.  Where the prominent female singers of the previous generation had heavy, contralto voices, often having to sound almost like a man, as is evidenced amply by Malika Pukhraj and Zohrabai Ambalawali, Lata started off with a voice that was somewhat girlish and somewhat desexed.  The contrast is all too apparent in the very first film, Mahal (1949), where Lata and Zohrabai, both uncredited, first appeared together:  Lata sang ‘Aaayega aayega aanewala, which blew everyone away, but the intoxicating mujra, ‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi’, is performed by Zohrabai.  Lata’s was a voice that domesticated women, so to speak, and put them in their place as keepers of the hearth and custodians of the nation’s morality.  This placed Lata at a considerable remove from the generation preceding her, some of whom also had to struggle against the stigma attached to female singers.

As historians of the Hindi film song have argued, but more importantly as every listener who has heard Lata and Asha Bhosle at some length knows, there is a marked difference in the artistic trajectories of the sisters in one fundamental respect which has a bearing on the argument that Lata speaks for a certain kind of femininity which places her in a different relationship to the idea of the nation.  If Lata’s singing was more soulful, Asha’s singing had more body to it and exuded a kind of raw sensuousness—in part because Asha sang for actresses who had taken up roles where the heroine could to some degree project her sexual identity.  It is common knowledge that Lata would not sing the songs of the vamp, but Asha gave a sexual feel to feminine identity in ways that went beyond simply being reduced to a vamp or someone who did mujra songs. The womanliness that Asha’s voice embodied hinted at sensuousness, a comfort with one’s own sexuality, but only occasionally did it border on the salacious. 

If we had to put this in simpler terms, we can find the source of Lata’s popularity not only in everything that has been ascribed to her—perfect sur, flawless pronunciation, expressive soulful singing, and a genius for comprehending the mood of every song that went beyond the words—but also in the fact that she came to embody the idea of a virginal womanhood almost at the very inception of the nation.  (Some may find the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘virginal womanhood’ do not easily sit together, unless one was invoking some Indian conception of the ‘Virgin Mary’.)  No one, after all, speaks of ‘Asha Didi’.  Much work needs to be done to understand the magic wrought in India, and over India, by Lata Didi.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published under the same title on 10 February 2022 at abplive.in.

Chauri Chaura and the Destiny of India

What is Chauri Chaura?  It is the name of a dusty market town not far from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, where on this day, 100 years ago, the destiny of India may have been decided—and quite likely in ways that we have yet to comprehend.  Chauri Chaura boasts several martryrs’ memorials, in memory of those who allegedly gave up their lives to secure the country’s freedom from the yoke of colonial rule, and some years ago the Indian railways named the train that runs from Gorakhpur to Kanpur the Chauri Chaura Express.  Nevertheless, Chauri Chaura does not sit well besides the Champaran Satyagraha, the Salt March, or the Quit India Movement in the narrative of ‘the freedom struggle’ as a place that is to be remembered for the glory that it brought upon the country.  It is both present and absent in the national memory.

Shaheed Smarak [Martyrs’ Memorial], Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur District, Uttar Pradesh.

In early 1922, India was in the thick of the noncooperation movement (asahayoga) that Gandhi had launched in 1920.  The Khilafat movement had also taken hold of north India.  The Gorakhpur Congress and Khilafat committees had taken the lead in organizing volunteers into a national corps, and volunteers had branched out into villages to secure pledges of noncooperation, persuade people and traders to boycott foreign cloth, and help in picketing liquor shops.  The police sought to crack down on such political activity, occasionally wielding the baton on a volunteer, and there was tension in the air. 

On February 5, though some sources say February 4, a procession of volunteers sought to blockade the local bazaar at Mundera and made its way past the local police station where the thanedar issued a warning to retreat.  The crowd responded with taunts and jeers; the thanedar in turn fired some bullets in the air.  The apparent impotence of the police further emboldened the processionists; as the historian Shahid Amin has recounted, they rejoiced with the proclamation that ‘bullets have turned into water by the grace of Gandhiji’.  Then came the real bullets; three men died and several more were wounded.  Incensed, the crowd pelted the policemen with stones and pressed on, and the policemen retreated into the police station.  The crowd bolted the door from outside and set fire to the thana with kerosene from the bazaar.  Twenty-three policemen died:  most were burned to death, and those who survived the flames were hacked to death.

The colonial state moved promptly to exact retribution.  In police language, ‘the rioters had absconded’, but the precise identity of those who had partaken of ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ mattered less than the fact that mere association, signified for instance by having signed the pledge of noncooperation, was enough to establish guilt.  Neighboring villages were raided; suspects were ferreted out of hiding and rounded up; and before too long 225 men were charged and brought before the session court for a speedy trial.  Nineteen of the 172 men sentenced to death were eventually sent to the gallows.  They are now remembered as the ‘martyrs’ of Chauri Chaura.

The police station (thana) at Chauri Chaura, now reinstated in national memory as another site of martrydom.

No one, understandably, was as shaken up by the incident at Chauri Chaura as Mohandas Gandhi, already anointed the Mahatma.  Gandhi had pledged to bring swaraj to the nation in one year if the country was prepared to accept his leadership and adhere strictly to principled nonviolent resistance, and the Congress was on the verge of launching a campaign of ‘mass civil disobedience’ for which Gandhi had assigned responsibility to Sardar Patel.  On February 8, Gandhi wrote a confidential letter to members of the Congress Working Committee where he described himself as ‘violently agitated by the events in the Gorakhpur District’.  He also hinted that he was thinking of calling for the suspension of the Bardoli satyagraha: ‘I personally can never be a party to a movement half violent and half nonviolent, even though it may result in the attainment of so-called swaraj, for it will not be real swaraj as I have conceived it.’

Gandhi’s biographer, D. G. Tendulkar, wrote that he was at this time ‘the generalissimo of the Congress’; some others were inclined to use harsher language and would have characterized him as the ‘dictator’. Gandhi was of the view that the ‘mob’ violence at Chauri Chaura had shown that the country was not yet ready for swaraj.  The nonviolence of most Indians was the nonviolence of the weak, embraced not from conviction or even from an understanding of what is entailed by ahimsa, but only because it was expedient to use it among a people who were almost entirely unarmed.  Nonviolence was for Gandhi never merely a policy to be adopted or dropped at will, nor was it even just a mode of offering resistance; it was the only way of being an ethically informed person in the world. The conduct of volunteers pledged to use nonviolence had brought before him the palpable truth that India was far from being ready to embrace nonviolence, and that the continuance of the noncooperation movement boded ill for the country’s future.  Consequently, he prevailed upon the Congress Working Committee meeting at Bardoli, Gujarat, on February 11-12, to suspend the movement; moreover, the committee passed a resolution ‘deploring the inhuman conduct of the mob at Chauri Chaura in having brutally murdered constables and wantonly burnt the Police Thana and tenders its sympathy to the families of the bereaved.’

Headline from The Bombay Chronicle

It was but inevitable that the decision to suspend mass civil disobedience would be met with a storm of criticism.  His critics declared that, though the decision had come down from the Congress Working Committee, there was no question that it had done so at the behest of Gandhi.  The Mahatma was much lesser a person than he was made out to be, some charged, since he could not countenance opposition to his views and had acted unilaterally and with his customary authoritarianism.  The other serious charge was that Gandhi had shown poor judgment:  if he knew the country was behind him, he should also have known that India was on the cusp of freedom and that British administration had in some places been virtually paralyzed.  Jawaharlal Nehru, writing his autobiography in 1941, recalled the mood at the time: ‘The sudden suspension of our movement after the Chauri Chaura incident was resented, I think, by almost all the prominent Congress leaders—other than Gandhiji, of course. My father (who was in jail at that time) was much upset by it. The younger people were naturally even more agitated.’ It is sometimes said that Bhagat Singh, who was all of 15 years old at the time, was shattered by the decision—and that the revolutionary movement was born off the disenchantment with the thinking of the Mahatma.

‘I see that all of you are terribly cut up’, Gandhi wrote to Jawaharlal, ‘over the resolutions of the Working Committee.  I sympathize with you, and my heart goes out to [your] father.’  But to the argument that Motilal, Jawaharlal, Lajpat Rai, and many others had put forward, namely that it was absurd to let the unruly behavior of a ‘mob of excited peasants’ in some ‘remote village’ permit the outcome of a national movement, Gandhi had a clear and unequivocally straightforward reply that he issued in Young India on February 16.  Tendulkar has been nearly singular in recognizing, quite rightly, Gandhi’s long statement as ‘one of the most extraordinary human documents ever written.’  Gandhi explains why he commenced a five-day fast on February 12 and why he feels it necessary to undergo penance (prayaschit), and then cautions that the violence in Gorakhpur district should not be viewed as an aberration: ‘Chauri Chaura is after all an aggravated symptom.  I have never imagined that there has been no violence, mental or physical, in the places where repression is going on.’  In modern everyday parlance, the violence there was a wake-up call: ‘The tragedy of Chauri Chaura is really the index-finger.  It shows the way India may go, if drastic precautions be not taken.’

It is, in the historiography of Indian nationalism, a settled matter that Gandhi made a catastrophic mistake in calling for the suspension of the noncooperation movement.  His own reputation, on the standard account, took a nosedive; just a few weeks after the incident, he was hauled into jail on charges of sedition and fomenting disaffection against the government, and at a trial on March 20 he was found guilty and sentenced to a six-year term in prison.  For some years, Gandhi even appeared to some to have disappeared from the public view.  It would be another twenty-five years before India would attain independence, and his assassin was not alone in arguing that the supposed architect of Indian independence may have set back the cause of Indian freedom.  It is, of course, a contrafactual to argue that India may well have been free long before 1947 if Gandhi had not imposed his will on the Congress and pressed for a suspension of the civil disobedience movement.  But is another view possible?

In the years after Chauri Chaura and his release from prison, Gandhi would go on to grab the world’s attention with the Dandi march. His tour through strife torn Noakhali and his fast in Calcutta have been mentioned as among the most heroic moments in an epic life.  Chauri Chaura is, when not seen as a blot, largely obscured in the narratives.  I wish to suggest that, in withdrawing mass civil disobedience, Gandhi was extraordinarily daring and took what can be viewed as one of the boldest steps in world history to secure politics on an ethical footing. That colonial injustice was writ large did not allow him, in his view, to exonerate the participants in what he with characteristic bluntness called ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’.  The question of means in relation to ends in politics is inescapably present to those who have aspire to an ethical framework of action, but Gandhi’s much loftier conception of the ethical life did not lead to the calculus where the interests of a nation could be placed before the lives of even a few individuals. Who, he asked, was prepared to wipe the tears from the faces of the widows of the butchered policemen?  It is possible to argue that if India, far more so than most other countries that would be set on the path of decolonization, could persist with democracy and not slide into authoritarian political rule or military dictatorship, it may have had to do with Gandhi’s own principled adherence to nonviolence and the manner in which he took India along with him on that journey.

It is thus not ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ but rather the miracle of Chauri Chaura that we are called upon to think about at this critical juncture in the country’s history when Gandhi is openly derided and the Republic of India is on the precipice of an interminable decline into authoritarianism. We should be haunted both by ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ and the possibilities of redemption that knot nonviolence to violence.

First published at aplive.in under the same title with a truncated last paragraph. Access it here.

The published version at ABP (Gujarati) available in Gujarati as ચૌરી ચૌરા અને ભારતનું ભાગ્ય

Norwegian translation by Lars Olden available as Chauri Chaura og Indias skjebne