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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Gained in Translation: History in police archives

These were intelligent, highly motivated young people, who had the foresight and the resources, for example, to send one of their teammates to France so he could learn how to make explosives.

Written by Supratim Sarkar | Published: December 2, 2018 2:06:29 am
 India Independence, Kolkata Police, India freedom movement, Civil Disobedience movement, Partition of Bengal, British empire, Indian express (Illustration by CR Sasikumar)

India’s struggle for Independence, in all its multi-layered complexity, is a subject so widely written and talked about that, like numerous fellow Indians, I assumed I knew all about it, and about the people who had turned the dream of Independence into reality.

It wasn’t until I gained access to the Kolkata Police archives that I realised how off the mark I was. As I read through the records of Kolkata (then Calcutta) Police’s activities during the freedom movement, my initial thought was that I had found something worth writing about. Soon, I realised I had found something I absolutely had to write about.

The records that interested me the most were those related to the period of armed struggle between 1905, when Bengal was partitioned for the first time, and the mid-1930s, when extremism gave way to the more mainstream Civil Disobedience movement. During the decades that it lasted, the armed revolution was confined largely to Bengal, Punjab and, to a certain extent, Maharashtra. However, its effect was far-reaching, not just in terms of emotional impact, but the changes that it brought about in the British-Indian administration.

Which is not to deny the emotional value of the uprising. The heavy-handed Partition of Bengal was the catalyst that set it off in this state, and it drew into its fold thousands of young people who were committed and fearless enough to take on the might of an empire, often with telling effect. When I say young, I literally mean teenage girls and boys, whose time on Earth was done at an age when most of us have barely begun thinking about the rest of our lives.

The other fact that struck me was that, for all my assumptions, I had barely heard of most of these rebels, despite the highly significant roles they played in the freedom movement. And it wasn’t just me. Most people I knew even in Bengal, forget the rest of India, hadn’t heard of Kanailal Bhattacharya or Bina Das or Gopimohan Saha. As in all other aspects of life, we have created in this the cult of the celebrity, for want of a better phrase, where history has been kinder to some names than others, and the sacrifice of a few martyrs has somehow remained more memorable.

The desire to let people know what I knew, to make them see how essential it was for us and, most importantly, for future generations to at least know about the vast number of unknown foot soldiers who paid with their lives for our freedom, was the major reason I began writing weekly posts for the Kolkata Police Facebook page. The overwhelming response and the demand for a book validated my belief that more people would like to know about, and be inspired by, the forgotten bits of our history.

The second motivation was professional. There had been no authentic documentation of pre-Independence policing methods in Kolkata, which was odd for a city at the heart of India’s colonial administration for the greater part of British rule. Not only was it interesting for me to learn about the drastic overhaul of the city’s surveillance and intelligence networks, but also what necessitated the overhaul.

The reason is that police weren’t dealing with a bunch of amateurs brimming with patriotism and not much else. These were intelligent, highly motivated young people, who had the foresight and the resources, for example, to send one of their teammates to France so he could learn how to make explosives. The result, a sophisticated IED (improvised explosive device) which today occupies pride of place in the Police Museum in Maniktala. Mind you, this was a good seven-plus decades before IEDs became a regular feature of Indian life, thanks to terrorist activities in various parts of the country.

To take another example, the elaborate planning and detailing that went into the Rodda arms theft would very likely pose a challenge for police even today. Imagine such a thing happening practically under Calcutta Police’s nose, at a time when the bulk of Britain’s resources was devoted to World War I, and the pressure which a nervous administration felt as it tried to crack the case.

Up against such worthy adversaries, Calcutta Police came up with a solid, well-structured intelligence and source network, which made them a formidable opponent, and whose legacy we have inherited. They had no choice but to rethink conventional policing methods, their hands forced by a group of unsung heroes, apparently the ‘also-rans’ of history.

My aim was to merge documentation with a deeply felt respect for the sheer grit and courage of the young rebels, whose actions may have been localised, but the ramifications of which were felt across every layer of the administration, and influenced more famous events elsewhere. I’m sure such obscure heroes existed in every part of the country. It would be wonderful to hear more about them.

The writer is an additional commissioner of Kolkata Police, and the author of Achena Lalbazar (available in English as India Cried that Night). Translation by Yajnaseni Chakraborty

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