Friday, 18 May 2018

Do and Die

Do and Die. The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Manini Chatterjee

Picador. First published in 1999

In the early 1930s, in the coastal hill district of Chittagong, in what is now Bangladesh, a small band of fiercely motivated young men and women banded together and carried out a series of raids on various authorities of the colonial British government. They were lead chiefly by the young teacher Surjya Sen, who was known respectfully and affectionately as 'Masterda'. Apart from the ongoing Independence struggle lead by Mahatma Gandhi, they were inspired by the Irish revolutionary movements against the British. They planned an armed uprising against the government in their district hoping to be able to take charge of the administration for at least a few months, and thus demonstrating the possibilities of such uprisings all across the country. They recruited a small army of volunteers, numbering about a hundred. After months of planning and preparation, which included the gathering of firearms and uniforms for disguise, the men split into four groups and simultaneously attacked the Telegraph Office, the barracks of the British volunteer armed force, the Police Armoury and the European Club. The first three attacks were successful and the revolutionaries were able to easily overcome any resistance they encountered. However, the attack on the Club did not happen. Even the advantages arising from the first three successes were not driven home. The attacking force did not take away the arms and ammunition that were available at the barracks and at the Armoury. Also many mistakes of communication were made, with the result that the British Police were able to mount a counter attack and drive the revolutionaries away into the hills. Lacking food and water, the revolutionaries survived on watermelons and biscuits for a few days, until the British reinforcements arrived and laid siege to their position atop the hills of nearby Jalalabad. Here the back of the uprising was broken. Many of the revolutionaries were killed. Many others escaped into the hills and forests, living to fight another day. A few were arrested, tried and sentenced to death or imprisonment. 

The revolutionaries who escaped, including Masterda himself and some of their other leaders, carried out a few guerrilla raids, and planned another major uprising in Chittagong, this time attempting to involve the general populace. After a year or two of this, they were all  hunted down and captured one by one. Many of the revolutionaries survived and rejoined civilian life.

This minor, but intense, war of independence was hardly noticed by the mainstream freedom movement lead by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Though the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted tactics which were far different from the methods of Satyagraha, they were motivated by the same fierce desire to overthrow the yoke of colonialism. The leaders of the revolutionaries were almost all of them upper-middle class Hindu youth, but their outlook was secular, their politics were socialist, with some of them joining the Indian communist movements later on in life. It was perhaps these two facts, more than anything else, that account for the failure of the rest of India, the media and the other leaders of the Independence movement to accord sufficient attention and admiration to the heroic exploits of the these young men and women. For perhaps similar reasons, a recent (2010) Hindi movie with top stars and based on the uprising, failed to excite the audience as much as it should have.

Manini Chatterjee's book is a gripping one. It is divided into three parts. Part I is a brief survey of the conditions and precedents that engendered the uprising. Part II is a detailed description of the entire uprising, from the initial planning and secret gathering of strength by the movement, to the actual battles, to the final arrest, imprisonment and punishment of many of the key revolutionaries. The final part is again brief, an analysis and a retrospect. The facts appear well-researched and they are presented almost in the form of a novel. The book never descends, however, to any form of fictionalisation, such as for example, inventing any dialogue. Thus it remains a scholarly work, though nonetheless very readable. The title is a deliberate counterpoint to Gandhiji's famous call to 'Do or Die'. 

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