Around his 14th birthday, the injustice of British imperialism was first brought home to Jadugopal Mukherjee. The year was 1900, and an Indian woman who had been assaulted on a train by a European was brought to his home for treatment. “Our family helped him to nurse her to recovery. The European who had assaulted her was tried on grave charges, but though he was found guilty, he was sentenced to pay a fine of a hundred rupees. A brown woman’s virtue was worth only that much to the European…this turned the course of my whole life, though I was not aware of it at the time,” Jadugopal is quoted as saying in his brother Dhan Gopal Mukherji’s book, My Brother’s Face (1924).
But it would be a few years later, when he was a student at the Calcutta Medical College, that the teenager would become an active participant in India’s freedom struggle. He had joined the Anushilan Samiti when it was formed in 1906, encouraged by a teacher during his time at Duff College. Though ostensibly a bodybuilding enterprise, the Samiti, active in the early 20th century, believed in adopting revolutionary means to end British rule in India. It was an umbrella body for a large number of youth clubs spread across Bengal. It provided training in martial arts and weapons to the local youth. It had two main branches — the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar, which counted among its members Aurobindo Ghosh, MN Roy, and Jatindranath Mukherjee, who was better known as Bagha Jatin. Jadugopal, who was a good orator, was particularly close to Bagha Jatin, who inducted him into the movement.
One of the last surviving elegant bungalows on Ranchi’s bustling Circular Road was once the residence and workplace of one of the tallest leaders of the freedom struggle, Dr Jadugopal Mukherjee. He shifted here in 1927 and spent many years quietly treating patients and conducting research on tuberculosis. In the years since Independence, the story of the man who once carried a reward of Rs 20,000 on his head and was believed by the police to be the “brain behind Jugantar”, the secret revolutionary society in Bengal, has dropped out of public memory, but it is a story of selfless bravery and an unwavering commitment to the cause of the nation.
Jadugopal was born on September 18, 1886 at Tamluk in Bengal’s Midnapur to Kishorilal Mukherjee, an advocate. Of the nine siblings, three — brothers Jadugopal, Khirodgopal and Makhangopal — were freedom fighters. The youngest brother Dhan Gopal, to whom Jadugopal was particularly close, went on to become a well-known author and scholar in the USA. He is the only Indian to have won the prestigious John Newbery medal for contribution to children’s literature.
His son, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician in his early eighties, says his father’s life inspired Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay to model his protagonist Sabyasachi of his novel Pather Dabi (Claims of the Path, 1926) on him. “Sarat Chandra was a friend of my uncle Khirodgopal when the two were based in Rangoon. The central character of Pather Dabi was said to have been inspired by my father Jadugopal, and his elder brother, Khirodgopal,” he says.
In his autobiography Biplabi Jibaner Smriti (Memories of a Revolutionary, 1956), Jadugopal mentions that soon after joining Jugantar, he grew to be one of Bagha Jatin’s most trusted aides. His oratory skills were already well-established. In an article written in 1966 to commemorate Jadugopal’s 80th birthday, historian RC Mazumdar wrote that the spread of revolutionary ideas among the youth, recruitment of new members to the revolutionary movement, providing shelter to fugitives hunted by the British police, securing arms and their safekeeping were his key responsibilities. He emerged as a leader of the party and played a key role as its strategist and international relations expert, establishing contact with Indian leaders in exile. He was in touch with leaders across the political spectrum, and worked closely with MN Roy (who founded the Communist Party of India in Tashkent), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Masterda Surya Sen and, later, Mahatma Gandhi.
“In 1915, the day before his pathology exam, Bagha Jatin came to meet him in secret at his Beniatola residence in north Calcutta. MN Roy had gone missing and he asked my father for his assistance in tracing him. Without batting an eyelid, my father went with him,” says Siddhartha.
When Bagha Jatin died on September 10, 1915, after a pitched battle with the British near Balasore, the leadership of the revolutionary group passed onto Jadugopal. It was around this time that the British announced a reward of Rs 20,000 for him. So from 1915 to 1921, Jadugopal led the life of a fugitive. He was a master of disguise and would wander from place to place, disguised as a Muslim doctor or a mason; a trader well-versed in the Quran, who observed roza and prayed five times a day. He took care never to stay at one place for too long, moving from north Calcutta to Chandernagore, Bihar, North Bengal, Nepal, Assam, and even Lahore, always using a complex web of disguises and aliases to evade discovery and arrest.
In the aftermath of World War I, after a general amnesty was granted to the revolutionaries by the British, Jadugopal returned to Bengal. Nalini Kanto Kar, one of Jadugopal’s closest associates, who had accompanied him during his years in hiding, mentions in an article published in 1966, that Jadugopal sought permission from the Calcutta University board to complete his medical studies and take his MB examinations from Carmichael College, now RG Kar Medical College, in 1921. He was eventually allowed to sit for the examination and cleared it with flying colours.
In 1923, Jadugopal was arrested for the first time under the Bengal Regulation-III of 1818 and sent to Alipur Central Jail, which he describes in his autobiography. He was charged with being part of an armed global revolution, forming revolutionary parties in India and offering clandestine support for the murder of British officials. He was released only in 1927, but was externed from Bengal. That was when he shifted to Ranchi, where he spent the rest of his life.
In his writing, he expressed the belief that for a revolution to be successful, the involvement of students, Indians who were part of the British Military forces, workers, and people from all walks of life seeking independence was imperative. “He gradually came to believe that freedom could not be achieved by a short-lived violent struggle, and started aligning with Gandhian thought and principles,” he says. Explaining the shift, Mazumdar wrote: “The dream of his life (India’s Independence) came very near fulfilment when during the First World War, Indian revolutionaries made a bargain with the Germans for the despatch of arms from USA to India by means of ships which would unload at Orissa coast. Jadugopal with the help of a local zamindar made arrangements to take the delivery of the arms carried by SS Maverick. However, neither this ship nor arms ever reached the destination…this failure wrecked the biggest plan of an all-round armed rebellion. It is reasonable to suppose that this had a great influence upon Jadugopal and many of his associates and induced him later to join the Congress and the policy of non-violent noncooperation launched by the Congress.”
In his autobiography, Jadugopal had often questioned the methods adopted by the revolutionaries. One of the reasons for this, Mazumdar wrote, “For those who planned an armed revolt, acquisition of arms was the first necessity, but that required money. The majority chose to solve the difficulty by organising a series of armed dacoities or as they put it, ‘forced loan’ from rich countrymen unwilling to make a voluntary contribution. Jadugopal did not like this policy, for he thought such acts of violence on their fellow-beings would alienate the general people from the revolutionaries.”
His earliest childhood memories, says Siddhartha, are of his father in jail. “In 1942, my brother and I were studying at Ranchi Zilla School when my father was incarcerated at Hazaribag Jail where Jayaprakash Narayan was his co-prisoner. Conditions in prison were harsh, but he would not buckle under any kind of pressure. He told my mother, ‘Even if you or the children starve, I will not give up’,” he says. Jadugopal’s vision was of a united India, and he was strongly opposed to the idea of Partition. After Independence, he resigned from the Congress party. “He believed that participation in the freedom struggle was not an insurance policy that one could encash upon when times were good,” says Siddhartha.
Even when the first president of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, requested him to serve as the governor of Bihar, he declined, choosing instead to serve the people as a doctor, treating patients free of cost. His work in tuberculosis was particularly noteworthy and he wrote a book called Tuberculosis and its Early Diagnosis and Treatment. Jadugopal passed away on August 30, 1976, aged 90. No commemorative statue or plaque has ever been erected in his memory nor any road named after him in Ranchi, but his family says he would have had no complaints about it. “He never aspired for fame, rather he believed in serving his country till his last breath and that’s what he did,” says his son.
Soumi Das is a Delhi-based teacher.