Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Politics of ‘sedition’: middle-class youth and colonial repression in Kolkata during First World War

Suchetana Chattopadhyay


During the years of First World War, as they experienced economic desperation and racism, middle-class young men in the urban public sphere of Kolkata, posed a problem to the colonial government and to their guardians. Most students were migrants to the city and studied in institutions without any government support. During the war, escalating prices of food and the diminished income of middle-class families directly affected them. Over-crowding in the colleges, dearth of student accommodation, high prices of paper and infectious diseases, such as the small-pox epidemic of 1916, obstructed study.  Emerging as a political constituency during this period, a fact picked up by nationalist and pan-Islamist newspapers that campaigned for student welfare, they could not be expected to offer ‘unflinching’ loyalty to the Empire. Students and youth were officially viewed as potentially seditious and criminalized.

While the social base of the Bengal revolutionaries was narrowly Hindu and middle-class, during the early years of the war, they tried to establish links with Pan-Islamist and Ghadar activists. Sharp rise in a ‘new form of crime known as motor dacoities’ to forcibly collect funds, arms and ammunitions by robbing European and Indian businesses and wealthy individuals for nationalist revolutionary activity involved bhadralok revolutionary youth and Sikh chauffeurs linked with the Ghadar Party during 1914-15. The bhadralok revolutionaries assassinated Bengali police officials engaged in counter-insurgent operations and attacked constables in the streets. Witnesses often refused to identify those paraded before them by the police.

The state and its opponents alike identified the area stretching from the university district of College Street to the city centre comprising of Chowringhee and Dalhousie, the citadel of colonial governance and colonial capital, as the chief geographic zone of ‘seditious activities’. While the revolutionary groups recruited students from the College Street neighbourhood in the north, the ‘operations’ against the Empire often brought their young members to the heart-land of imperial political authority and economic power. The Chowringhee-Dalhousie-Esplanade area at the centre of the city embodied the peculiar ‘normalcy’ of the colonial circumstance: this was where the prosperous members of European community amused themselves in the shops and cinema houses when not engaged in running the colony; timid lower middle-class Bengali clerks were casually assaulted by drunken white soldiers; chaotic ‘over-crowding’ could not be avoided during the rush hours;  and young men from a bhadralok background, in torn clothing and dripping with blood, fled the police  or wrestled with them and were arrested in full view of the public.

Even Presidency College, a show-piece of colonial pedagogy and the well-funded among government-run institutions, displayed contrary pulls among its student body. In the first issue printed in November, 1914, Pramatha Nath Banerjea, editor of the Presidency College Magazine (and decades later a Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University), declared: ‘We make our first appearance amidst the excitement of a crisis unparalleled in the experience of anyone now living. Far away from the scene of strife we hear only the echoes of what is likely to prove the greatest war in the world’s history.’ The editorial combined the hopes of a future ‘partnership’, based on autonomy within the Empire with the contemporary support for imperial war-effort: ‘The peoples of India accept the British cause not only as subjects of the British Empire but as comrades in a struggle for existence…The dispatch of Indian troops to fight on European soil for the first time in history, the voluntary grant of all the expenses of the Indian expeditionary forces from the Indian exchequer are significant facts. They give happy assurance of the steady development of better fellowship throughout the British Empire.’   Professors, members of the office and the library staff agreed to make monthly contributions from their salaries at a fixed rate as long as the war lasted. Student representatives were asked to raise subscriptions in the class-rooms. Ambulance classes were planned to train student volunteers. Despite this ‘wave of loyalty’ and ‘deep sympathy’ towards the government ‘as dutiful citizens of the British Empire’, a sense of disquiet was present from the beginning. That war meant privation for the common folk was recognized in the measure ‘to join the movement that has been set on foot for the relief of the people who are likely to be thrown out of employment in consequence of the stagnation of business during the present crisis.’ Certain ambiguities could be deciphered in the attitudes of the European academics as well. The Principal, H. R. James, in his address before the students, spoke against the perils of ultra-nationalism; he asked them to stand above party politics, regional parochialism and only display patriotism in extreme cases such as the contemporary crisis. Cautioning against becoming too involved in the war-effort, he wanted his pupils to concentrate more on college-level activities. A liberal upholder of the ideological state apparatus and a reluctant advocate of the war, he may have felt unsettled by the conflict-ridden implications of ‘patriotism’ in the colony. His sympathetic review of H. G. Wells’ anti-war science-fiction novel The World Set Free-The Story of Mankind was printed in the college magazine:

‘The great war is put in the year 1956 or 1957, it is not quite clear which, and its occasion and origin resemble pretty closely those of the war which broke out in August this year…It is the moral ideas put forth that are the real subjects of this book. There is an overwhelming demonstration of the atrocious folly of war between nations and incidental exhibition of the irrationality of the political and legal systems holding sway at the opening of the 20th Century. …Mr. H. G. Wells’ ‘Story of Mankind’ repays somewhat more careful reading than an ordinary novel.’

The review emphasized the theme of Atomic warfare, of bombs dropped from airplanes that destroyed entire cities.  The reviewer was shaken by the idea that the bombs ‘go on destroying within the area of their activity’ and as a result of radiation ‘Paris, Berlin, London, every capital city in Europe, are wholly or partially ruined’.  The ‘average’ person’s attitude to the war as a sphere of divisions between the social imperialist and anti-war left in the West was also represented before the students. E. F. Oaten humorously ‘recalled’ a public debate he supposedly witnessed on May Day at Melbourne in 1910. At a meeting ‘emblazoned’ with a ‘red flag’ and the slogan ‘We demand the Social Revolution’, a former MP of the Australian Labour Party, towards whom Oaten felt sympathetically inclined, had put forward a social imperialist position. He was confronted and outstripped by an anti-militarist figure, ‘the collarless one’, in a ‘very old and dirty coat’. The latter argued: ‘Why should you working men fight? What’s the good of saying you are fighting for Australia, when not a flower-pot in Australia belongs to you’? ‘Suppose I get a rifle and shoot my fellow creatures. I ain’t fighting for myself; I’m only fighting for the capitalist.’  Since similar disagreements were taking place in Britain, it would appear that Oaten, representing yet another shade of imperial liberal opinion, was confused by the debates on the legitimacy of an inter-imperialist war. The positions of James and Oaten went on to show that even within its ‘subjective’ arena, imperial patriotism bred contrary responses. 

On the surface, the students continued to remain ‘loyal’. The college library acquired maps of Belgium and the North-East of France, eastern and western theatres of war, as well as ‘Thacker’s Military Map illustrating the War in Europe’.  The discussions in the corridors and the common room paved the way for academic debates in the seminars, and ‘a great gathering in front of the War maps set up in the Common Room by Mr. Peake’.  The Eden hostel library became ‘the rendezvous of all the boarders since the outbreak of the great war’; it was regularly visited by those ‘anxious to get the news’ and ‘the dailies are read, re-read, handled and re-handled a hundred times, with the result that only relics remain for curious eyes.’ The secretary of the library, Anangomohan Dam, popularly known as ‘Dummy’, was praised in 1914 for ‘doing his work satisfactorily.’  Next year, ‘Dummy’ was expelled from Presidency College alongside Subhash Chandra Bose and Satish Chandra Dey. The trio was identified as ringleaders of an attack by masked students on Oaten, accused of racist misbehaviour.  While Dam later became a Congress leader in Sylhet, Dey joined the ranks of nationalist revolutionaries.  The Eden Hostel, despite its outward and formal commitment to ‘loyalty’ was not spared and suspected of harbouring enemies of the state. A visit by the police on a Saturday evening in September 1914 was perceived by the boarders as ‘unexpected and the invitation did not come from our side; but the function passed off very pleasantly and with, we trust, the result of an increase in mutual respect.’  Students belonging to other institutions were neither extended nor expected the same level of interaction:

‘…an explosion took place at 30-1 Dixon’s Lane, resulting in serious injuries to a Chittagong student, Nagendra Nath Chakrabarti, who lived there. On enquiry it transpired that the youth was injured while experimenting with materials for the preparation of bombs, remnants of which were recovered from his room. He was prosecuted under section 5 of the Explosives Act and sentenced to 4 years’ rigorous imprisonment on 8 May 1916.’

The wider climate of colonial repression was unleashed in response to a surge in revolutionary nationalist activity during the initial years of the war. State repression was organized through old and new legal measures enabling searches, arrests, detentions without trial and press censorship. The Viceregal declaration on 5 August 1914 that drew India into the war was immediately followed by the Indian Naval and Military (Emergency) Ordinance of 1914 which effectively muzzled the press. On 18 March 1915, Defence of India Act was passed, without any proper discussion in the Imperial Legislative Assembly. This law vested the government with enormous repressive powers in the name of upholding security. The state, alarmed by the ‘serious outbreak’ of ‘political crime’ in the city during 1915, came down heavily on all strands of revolutionary activity. From July 1916, the dragnet was spread over bhadralok revolutionaries as well as the Ghadar and Pan-Islamic networks; this action was ironically labeled the ‘July Revolution’ by its targets and followed the earlier suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin. Charles Tegart, a British policeman of Irish origin, who directed the counter-terrorism operations through the Special Branch of Calcutta Police which he had set up, was officially praised for suppressing revolutionary activity by 1916. Admiration was also showered on ‘the tenacity with which the Special Police has fought what at one time looked like a lost cause’ and ‘never be forgotten by their brother officers in less adventurous branches of the service and ought to compel the admiration of all right-thinking men.’

Arbitrary arrests as well as torture and maltreatment of prisoners generated controversy in the public sphere. Rabindranath Tagore, as the leading voice of the Bengal intelligentsia, opposed the harsh measures adopted to discipline students who were no longer willing to put up with imperial authoritarianism. In ‘Chatroshason Tantra’ (Student-repression System), an essay published in Sabuj Patra (The Green Leaf), he argued European teachers who undermined the growing sense of liberty and self-respect among their pupils were inviting contempt and insult. In April 1916, ‘Indian Students and Western Teachers’, the translated version of ‘Chatroshason Tantra’, appeared in Modern Review, where Tagore compared the ongoing war in Europe with the conflict between ‘our students and their European teachers’. He felt punishment meted out for opposing racist abuse often amounted to revenge and sent a copy of his article to Lord Carmichael, the Bengal Governor; there was no response.

After the Lucknow Pact of 1916, when Hindu-Muslim unity was in the air at the leadership level discussions between the Congress and the Muslim League, political meetings and protest rallies demanding freedom of political prisoners and civil liberties, with significant student and youth participation, came to be regularly organized in the city.  Criticisms were directed at the operation of the Defence of India Act by the Hindu and Muslim press for implicating and persecuting the ‘innocent’. The Hitavadi mentioned ‘the case of Debendra Nath Sarkar as illuminating the dangers with which many Bengali youths are now beset because of the activity of the political criminals.’ The young man was thrice arrested within three months by the police and felt ‘steps should be taken to prevent innocent men from being harassed on unfounded suspicion.’ The Tarjoman accused the security apparatus of abusing the emergency laws: ‘People are deprived of their liberties on the report of the detective police. Times without number requests have been made that at least the nature of the crime committed by these people should be made known, but these requests have not been granted.’ The Bengalee reported: ‘A distinguished University student and a poor man, also a graduate of the University, the bread-winner of his family, have recently been interned. It is a very serious matter to deprive a man of his liberty without a trial.’ The Amrita Bazar Patrika  held state terror responsible for generating social anxiety: ‘The application and operation of the Defence of India Act has of late been so wide and indiscriminate that it is natural that it should cause a panic in the community, for no one can feel quite secure from falling into its meshes. It is perhaps now known that it is not the Defence of India Act alone that is at work, for Regulation 111 of 1818 has also been brought into play.’ The Dainik Bharat Mitra summarized the regime of harassment and persecution embedded in the emergency policing measures directed at the alleged ‘political criminal’:

‘Now-a-days home searches and internments are the order of the day in Kolkata. Hardly a day passes when such events do not happen. Whenever the police wants to intern a man it gets out a warrant for searching his house from the Magistrate on some ground or other…When a house is searched, the police take the man they suspect along with them, so that they may “ask him something”. After that he is placed before high officials who tell him that he has been arrested under section 54, of the nature of which 99 per cent of the people are ignorant. But this does not prevent arrests being made: there ends the first chapter in the internment of an individual. After this the second chapter begins. In Kolkata, immediately after a person is arrested, he is sent to Kyd Street or to the Police Court and sometimes to the lock-up. The police then attempt to get out information from him according to their methods, and if he does not say anything or pleads not guilty, he is sent to the Dullanda House. If this place happens to be overcrowded he is sent to the Alipore Jail. His relatives have then to wander about from place to place without success. After 10 to 14 days, when an application for bail is made, the reply is given that though he has been acquitted of the charge of murder yet he has been arrested under the Defence of India Act. Those who are wealthy supply food to their arrested relatives but those who are poor cannot do so and many arrested persons, though not declared guilty in a law-court have to subsist on jail fare. After this follows the order of internment …’

Court judgments upholding capital punishment were indicted as roots of political injustice. The Dainik Basumati philosophically observed: ‘When man cannot give life, he ought not to take it away lightly.’  The treatment of political prisoners became a zone of deep acrimony between the government and the local intelligentsia. The Bengalee claimed, as early as in 1914, that it did not have the ‘smallest sympathy’ with political crimes but appealed to the government ‘for a more humane and considerate treatment’ of political prisoners. Torture and abuse of middle-class detainees became a major issue during the war. The paper alleged Bidhu Bhushan Sarkar, an accused in the Alipur Bomb Case in Kolkata, and interned in the Central Provinces, was whipped for some breach of the jail regulations in ‘violation of Lord Morley’s orders against youthful political prisoners being whipped’.  Bhupendra Kumar Datta, a nationalist revolutionary arrested and interned in 1916 wrote that torture in police custody was routine and drove men to madness and suicide. ‘Sadist’ methods of interrogation, including rape with objects and pulling out finger and toe nails, were considered effective in breaking the resolve of the prisoners and making them reveal secrets of the revolutionary underground. Ultimately, Lord Ronaldshay, the new Governor of Bengal who succeeded Carmichael, was forced to remove Charles Tegart, who had gained notoriety as a torturer in nationalist circles; Ronaldshay also forbade physical abuse. The colonial authorities became sensitive to criticisms and campaigns on the treatment of political prisoners, increasingly strident from 1917; they did not wish to jeopardize the dialogue on behalf of the British Government which Montagu, Secretary of State for India, attempted to initiate through his visit to the colony in 1917-18. Better treatment was offered to political prisoners in certain select jails. Inmates of the Alipur Central Jail in Kolkata were given an improved diet and the Jail Superintendent personally enquired as to their well-being every day. Held without trial, these prisoners along with those in less privileged facilities took advantage of Montagu’s visit and started a long-drawn hunger-strike from December 1917; they were soon subjected to force-feeding since the government refused to be embarrassed by such deaths or give in to their political demands.  Another revolutionary, Satis Pakrasi recalled that though openly sadistic torture had stopped due to the intervention of the Governor, psychological torture and physical abuse in the form of sleep/food/drink deprivation, verbal insults, keeping prisoners stripped and manacled for days in an upright posture were in practice during early 1918; Satis claimed he was subjected to these methods while being interrogated.  In the face of mounting accusations, the colonizers became increasingly defensive on the condition of political prisoners. European opinion-makers felt prison reforms were needed but dismissed complaints of maltreatment as exaggerated. However, they could not fully hide the brutality and despair that often prompted ‘Indian anarchist under-trials’ to commit suicide in holding cells and urged prompt prevention, possibly because such incidents reinforced the allegations of abuse.  In a letter written to a friend in London (18 September 1918) at the end of the war, Tagore expressed the paradox of liberal imperialism during a moment of extra-ordinary crisis of colonial authority and its social impact on the domestic sphere of bhadralok milieu:

‘The constant conflict between the growing demand of the educated community of India for a substantial share in the administration of their country and the spirit of hostility on the part of the Government has given rise among a considerable number of our young men secret methods of violence bred of despair and distrust. This has been met by the Government by a thorough policy of repression. In Bengal itself hundreds of men are interned without trial,-a great number of them in unhealthy surroundings, in jails, in solitary cells, in a few cases driving them to insanity or suicide. The misery this has caused in numerous households is deep and widespread, the greatest sufferers being the women and children who are stricken at heart and rendered helpless…we are justified in thinking that a large number of those punished are innocent, many of whom were specially selected as victims by secret spies only because they had made themselves generously conspicuous in some noble mission of self-sacrifice.’

The British surveillance and policing networks, throughout the war, were accused of manufacturing suspects to justify the repression of political dissent, officially branded as ‘extremism’, ‘sedition’ and ‘terror’. As a practice of criminalizing dissent and opposition, it was to be inherited and continued after colonial authority had formally come to an end.

Primary Sources

A.                Official:
Annual Reports of the Police Administration of the Town of Calcutta and its Suburbs, 1914-1918.
Reports of the Municipal Administration of Calcutta, 1914-1918.
Reports on Native Newspapers, 1914-1918
Bengal Home (Political) Records, 1914-1918.
B.                 Periodicals:
The Presidency College Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1 (November, 1914).
The Presidency College Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 2  (January, 1915).
C.                 Newspapers:
The Statesman, (select dates) 1914-1918.
D.                Memoirs:
BhupendrakumarDatta, BiplaberPadachinha(Footprints of Revolution), Kolkata, 1999.
Muzaffar Ahmad, Amar Jiban o Bharater Communist Party (My Life and the Communist Party of India), Kolkata, 1969, Fifth Edition 1996.
SatisPakrasi, Agnijuger Katha (The Burning Times), Kolkata, Third Edition 1982.

Secondary Sources

John Berwick, ‘ChatraSamaj: The Social and Political Significance of the Student Community in Bengal c.1870-1922’, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 1986.
Prashanta Kumar Paul, Rabijibani: Volume VII (A Multi-volume Biography of Rabindranath Tagore), Kolkata, 2002.
Subodh Chandra Sengupta& Anjali Basu (eds.), SansadBangaliCharitabhidhan(Dictionary of Bengali Biography), Vols. 1 & 2, Kolkata, 1996.

SumitSarkar, Modern India1885-1947, Delhi, 1983.


Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.

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