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Friday, April 16, 2021

IIT-Kharagpur’s link to the freedom struggle and an infamous detention camp

IIT-Kharagpur classes were started in Hijli detention centre. The government choose the site as a fitting memorial to the martyrs

Written by Neeti Nigam | New Delhi |
Updated: April 22, 2020 10:08:15 pm
independence day, IIT kharagpur, iit history, hijli detention camp, pm modi Shahid Bhavan complex of Hijli Detention camp that has been changed to Nehru Museum of Science and Technology at IIT Kharagpur. Express photo by Partha Paul-Kolkata

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said IITs have built brand India globally and the nation is proud of them. But did you know that the country’s first IIT was initially started in a detention camp built by the Britishers to detain freedom fighters?

In 1950, IIT-Kharagpur, one of the top engineering colleges of India, started functioning from 5 Esplanade East in Kolkata, but later it was decided that they needed a bigger and peaceful location. So they choose a complex at Hijli that was about 150 km far from Kolkata.

But then Hijli was no ordinary college campus. It was one of the two detention camps built by the British to hold freedom fighters and revolutionaries — the other one was at Buxa.

In the mid-30s, revolutionary activity in Bengal was at its peak. From the Chittagong Armoury raid to the invasion of Writers’ Building, the British Raj was feeling the heat. The massive police crackdown that followed results in many being detained at the two camps.

According to Robert Douglas, the then district manager of Midnapore, “The jail compound measured 140 yards. This majestic double-storied structure with a lone tower in the centre – 140 ft high bore resemblance to the Byzantine style of architecture. The entire campus was secured by double gates and a 10-feet high wall and barbed wire fencing running on both sides of it made it a veritable fortress.”

Since it was a detention centre, the inmates were allowed to participate in games and plays and also, they could move freely within the campus. During the night, they were locked inside their rooms. Even as escape was considered impossible, three did manage to run away. This made the authorities tighten the security.

independence day, IIT kharagpur, iit history, hijli detention camp, pm modi Freedom fighters Tarakeswat Sengupta and Santosh Mitra and (below) the prison cell of Hijli camp. (Photo credit: IIT-Kharagpur website)

However, on September 16, 1931, a group of guards opened fire and cracked the skulls of some prisoners with their rifle butts. Freedom fighters Tarakeswat Sengupta and Santosh Mitra were shot dead in the melee. The inmates were shocked and one of the detainees, Himansu Basu, made a pencil sketch of both the victims and sent it to the editor of Ananda Bazar Patrika. After the report came out, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose went to Hijli to take over the dead bodies. They organised a big procession at Calcutta on their way to the crematorium ground. Disappointed with the deaths, poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore composed the poem Prashno.

Tagore said, “The outrage that is both tragic and cowardly in its brutality, as the shooting of Hijli proclaims itself to be should engage our attention solely for the sake of tortured humanity.”

Prominent political prisoners like Trilokya Chakraborty, Arun Guha, Jiban Lal Chatterjee Das had spent their jail terms here. In 1936, the then home minister of Bengal, Khwaja Nazimuddin, allowed the prisoners to sit for the university exams. Later, in 1938, Mahatma Gandhi agreed to intercede to the British government for the release of the prisoners.

In 1942, the army and the eastern frontier rifles took control of the complex. The army withdrew at the end of World War II. During World War II, the campus served as a base for US troops between 1943 and 1945.

Even before Independence, the Indian government had realised the need for technical education. Under the chairmanship of Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, a report was submitted in 1946 that recommended four higher technical institutions to be set-up in India. They suggested that the first institution be near Kolkata.

Post freedom, India needed rapid industrial development. Some Congress leaders from Midnapore urged BC Roy to select the Hijli jail as the site of the new college as a fitting memorial to the martyrs. Moreover, the site was also important as it was close to Kharagpur railway workshop, Fuel Research Institute in Dhanbad and the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works.

Following Sarkar Committee’s recommendation, IIT-Kharagpur was set-up in Hijli camp in 1950. On April 21, 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru formally opened the campus. He said, “Here as I stand in this place and my mind inevitably goes back to that infamous institution, for which this place became famous, not now but 20 or 30 years ago – the Hijli Detention Camp.”

At present, the institute functions at a new campus and the old building is now known as Hijli Shaheed Bhawan and houses Nehru Museum of Science and Technology.

— Inputs are taken from the IIT-Kharagpur's official website

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