Updated: February 5, 2021 2:31:00 pm
On February 4, 1922, a large group of nationalist volunteers had gathered on the streets of a small, obscure hamlet in the Gorakhpur district of the United Provinces. More than a year had passed since Mahatma Gandhi had launched the non-cooperation movement with the aim of attaining ‘Purna Swaraj’ (full independence). The volunteers marched through the streets shouting slogans of Gandhi and the Khilafat. Soon they walked into the police. Sticks and stones were thrown from one end in return for bullets from the other. As the crowd grew larger and fiercer, the cops retreated inside the police station. The protestors doused the building in kerosene and set it on fire. Twenty-three policemen perished. A total of 228 people were brought to trial in the incident, out of which 19 were sentenced to death.
The village was Chauri Chaura, and the moment went down the pages of Indian history as one which marked the end of the non-cooperation movement. It is interesting that while the Chauri Chaura incident was abhorred by Gandhi, under whom the national movement practically took shape, in the memory of post-Independent India, it has been commemorated with two memorials and a train being named after it. This year PM Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Chauri Chaura centenary celebration on February 4 through video conferencing. The Uttar Pradesh government has organised for all of the state’s districts to record a video singing Vande Mataram in a salute posture from February 3 to 4 to pay homage to the martyrs of the Chauri Chaura incident.
“‘Chauri Chaura’ is a tale of how the celebrated condemnation of a riot by Gandhi paradoxically entitles it to national importance,” writes historian Shahid Amin in his celebrated book on the incident, ‘Event, memory, metaphor: Chauri Chaura (1922-1992).’ As he explains, “the unforgettable event was largely forgotten in nationalist lore; it came to be remembered only as the episode which forced Gandhi to call off his all-India movement of non-cooperation with the British.” “The ‘true’ significance of Chauri Chaura in Indian history lay outside the time and place of its occurrence.”
The unfolding of the incident at Chauri Chaura
In September 1920, at a special session of the Congress, Gandhi was able to push through a radical programme of non-cooperation with British rule. “The programme provided for surrender of government titles, boycott of schools, courts and councils, boycott of foreign goods, encouragement of national schools, arbitration of courts and khadi (homespun cloth),” writes historian Sekar Bandopadhyay in his book, ‘From Plassey to Partition: A History of modern India’. Further, Gandhi assured that the movement would bring swaraj within a year. In case that did not happen, or if the government resorted to repression, a civil disobedience movement would be carried out.
But Gandhi also realised that the nationalist sentiment of people was in need of a disciplinary reform. Consequently, he put forward a 20-point programme for controlling the ‘mobocracy’ of the crowds. It was mandatory for everyone to obey the instructions in the programme. As written by Gandhi and reproduced by Amin in his book, “Before we can make real headway, we must train these masses of men who have a heart of gold, who feel for the country, who want to be taught and led. But a few intelligent, sincere, local workers are needed, and the whole nation can be organised to act intelligently, and democracy can be evolved out of mobocracy.” By the winter of 1921, thousands of volunteers had turned up to pledge non-cooperation.
A few days before the incident, a few police officers beat up a group of volunteers at Chotki Dumri, a village one mile west of the Chauri Chaura police station. The leaders of the Chotki Dumri volunteer group sent letters to others in the neighbouring villages about the oppression by the local police. They decided to congregate at Dumri on February 4, where the volunteers took an oath and marched to the Chauri Chaura thana to demand an explanation from the officer there and mass picket the Mundera Bazaar nearby.
Gupteshwar Singh, the thanedar, was expecting the crowd and had arranged for more policemen to be sent from Gorakhpur. In the battle of abuses, stones and bullets that followed, three from the crowd were killed and several injured. Seeing the crowd more agitated now, the police retreated into the thaana. The crowd locked it and set it on fire, killing 23 policemen.
By the time of this incident, a year had gone by since the non-cooperation movement had started and independence as Gandhi had promised was still as distant as ever. Gandhi had planned on starting a civil disobedience movement in February 1922, in the taluks of Bardoli and Anand in Gujarat. Peasants were to be asked to stop paying taxes and refuse all cooperation with the government. If it succeeded, Gandhi had hoped to replicate the movement elsewhere in the country.
However, before the movement could take off, he received news of the Chauri Chaura incident. On February 8, he wrote to the Congress Working Committee. “This was the third time he had received a rude shock on the eve of embarking on mass civil disobedience,” notes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book, ‘Gandhi: The years that changed the world: 1914-1948’. “The first occasion was in April 1919, when his fellow Ahmedabadis rioted after he had been stopped from entering Punjab. The second was in November 1921, the violence in Bombay ensuing from the boycott of the Prince of Wales’ visit. Now again he had been violently agitated by the events in Chauri Chaura,” adds Guha.
On February 10, when Gandhi spoke to the Congress workers in Bardoli about whether the non-cooperation movement should be suspended in view of Chauri Chaura, the majority of them responded disagreed. As Guha notes, Gandhi was “dismayed by the response which showed that even the ‘best workers’ of the Congress had failed to understand the message of non-violence.” He immediately resolved to suspend non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Peasants were advised to pay land revenue and not hold public demonstrations.
As a means of penance, Gandhi went on a five-day fast. Even when informed about the ruthlessness of the police, he remained unmoved. As he noted in the Young India, “no provocation can possibly justify the brutal murder of men who had been rendered defenceless and had virtually thrown themselves on the mercy of the mob.”
“There was a lot of discussion and debate within the national movement after this incident. There were people who were very disappointed and felt that the movement as a whole could not be held responsible for the actions of a few people. However, even the critics understood later on that there were problems in the movement, and that it was losing steam,” says historian Mridula Mukherjee.
“Nevertheless, before the next phase of mass struggle, which is the civil disobedience movement of 1930s, they discussed with Gandhiji and he too agreed that there could be isolated acts of violence in such a big country, and that would not become the cause for suspending the movement,” she adds.
Mukherjee says there were many other issues for suspending the movement in 1922, violence at Chauri Chaura being one of them. “My understanding is that the non-cooperation movement had already passed its peak by the middle of 1921 and that the popular enthusiasm of people was declining. After all these were ordinary people who had a limited capacity to sacrifice and struggle. Gandhiji understood this and when this incident occurred he took the opportunity of unilaterally withdrawing the movement rather than letting it fizzle out or being suppressed,” she says.
The memory of Chauri Chaura
Despite the unfortunate fate it brought upon the national movement, the incident at Chauri Chaura has been assiduously incorporated and almost ‘celebrated’ within the collective memory of India’s freedom struggle. In 1924, the British erected a memorial for the dead policemen adjacent to the railway station at Chauri Chaura. Amin notes that this monument too was nationalised post the Independence of the country. “The legend the colonial masters engraved on it was gouged out by Baba Ramghav Das, the prominent Gandhian of East UP, On August 15, 1947. This noble worthy was followed by the post-colonial government, which did more than just smoothen the rough cutting edges of nationalist chisels. It chose to inscribe ‘Jai Hind’ on the police memorial,” he writes.
In 1973, the Chauri Chaura Shaheed Smarak Samiti, in their effort to commemorate the 19 people tried and executed in the incident, built a 12.2-metre high triangular monument near the lake at Chauri Chaura. On each side of the monument, a figure is depicted hanging a noose around his neck.
In 1982, the Indira Gandhi-led government built another monument, opposite to the one commemorating the police. It contains the names of the 19 executed engraved upon it. A library and museum containing information on the freedom movement were also built next to the memorial.
Later, in 1990, the Indian railways named a train in honour those executed — the Chauri Chaura Express runs from Gorakhpur to Kanpur.
“Chauri Chaura is a reminder that if certain unfortunate incidents happen, then it can impact the movement as a whole. Gandhiji took responsibility for the incident and in order to protect the people from the wrath of the British who would have used that incident of violence in order to crush the whole movement,” says Mukherjee.
Speaking about the way in which the incident has come to be commemorated a century later, Mukherjee says, “we can observe this incident, but we can’t celebrate the killing of 22 policemen… The freedom struggle does not allow us to glorify these acts of violence.”
Event, memory, metaphor: Chauri Chaura (1922-1992) by Shahid Amin
From Plassey to Partition: A History of modern India by Sekar Bandopadhyay
Gandhi: The years that changed the world: 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha
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