From the Kakori Conspiracy to the Chittagong Armoury Raids, there are many heists that mark the long fight for independence. However, buried deep within the annals of history, mostly undocumented and almost forgotten, is another daring robbery that could have literally provided ammunition for a spate of revolutionary activities in Bengal and other parts of India.
The year was 1914. The British, stressed by World War I in Europe, were being kept on their toes in Bengal by the new breed of revolutionaries. The young freedom fighters had a steady flow of cash to fund the revolutionaries, but procuring arms was proving difficult.
It was in this context that a group of Bengali revolutionaries pulled off a daring heist on August 26, 1914 in the heart of Calcutta and stole 50 German C96 Mauser pistols along with 46,000 cartridges — imported for the British from Germany by R B Rodda & Co. — without anyone even realising what had happened. In fact, it was only after three days that the British came to know of the heist at one of the biggest arms dealers in the city.
The incident had serious consequences. The Calcutta Gazette of July 7, 1915 reports, “An Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police was placed on special duty for a few months in connection with a serious theft of arms and ammunition belonging to Messrs. Rodda & Co.”
The impact the heist had on the British can also be gauged from the manner in which it was mentioned in the contentious 1918 Sedition Committee Report drawn up by Sir Sidney Arthur Taylor Rowlatt, appointed by the British Indian government to evaluate rising cases of revolutionary activities. In the report, Rowlatt mentions: “The theft of pistols from Rodda & Co., a firm of gunmakers in Calcutta, was an event of the greatest importance in the development of revolutionary crime in Bengal.”
The Rodda Arms Heist was probably one of those few revolutionary activities that was carried out by a joint team of the Mukti Sangha of Dacca (Dhaka), now in Bangladesh, and Attomnati Samiti of Kolkata.
Amitabha Gupta, a Kolkata-based heritage enthusiast, who extensively researched on the heist, tells indianexpress.com what brought the two groups together. “In 1908, after Khudiram Bose was arrested, his colleague Prafulla Chaki fled. An officer of Calcutta Police, Nanda Lal Banerjee, grew suspicious of Chaki when he was travelling in a train to Mokama. Once there, a cornered Chaki killed himself when Banerjee tried to arrest him. In order to ascertain his identity, Chaki was decapitated and his head sent to Calcutta. This enraged the revolutionaries.”
“To avenge Chaki’s death, the Sangha leadership ordered Shrish Chandra Pal, who had been living in Calcutta for a year under the alias of Naren, to eliminate Banerjee. They sent another revolutionary, Ranen Ganguli, along with him. On November 9, 1908, the duo managed to assassinate Banerjee,” says Gupta. “Pal had already come in contact with Attomnati Samiti in Calcutta and Banerjee’s assassination paved the way for collaboration between the two outfits.”
In her book ‘Two Great Indian Revolutionaries’(1966), historian Uma Mukherjee calls Pal the “chief actor” in the Rodda Conspiracy. “Shrish Pal, alias Naren, found valuable collaborators in Haridas Datta of the Mukti Sangha as well as in Anukul Mukherjee, Harish Sikdar, Bipin Ganguli, Bhujanga Dhar and Srish Mitra alias Habu of the Attomnati Samiti,” she writes.
Gupta says that though rarely in the forefront, the backbone of Attomnati Samiti was the firebrand revolutionary Bipin Bihari Ganguli, who was also tasked with the job of procuring arms. “One of Ganguli’s friends, Kalidas Mukherjee, was an employee of Rodda & Co. In 1913, Ganguli asked Kalidas to get one of the Samiti’s members into the company’s employment,” he adds. Habu, who was already trained for the job, was selected to execute the task and was appointed Customs Sircar following an interview by manager F B Prike.
Gupta says, “Habu was so dedicated, that he was promoted to the post of jetty clearing clerk within a year.”
Eventually, sometime in August, Habu, Mukherjee writes, passed on some information of importance: “…a large consignment of German Mausers had arrived at Calcutta for Rodda & Co.”
The book says Pal and Anukul Mukherjee summoned a secret meeting of the various groups of revolutionaries on August 24, 1914 at a small park in the Chatawala Gali. Gupta says the meeting went beyond the Mukti Sangha and Attomnati Samiti. “Naren Bhattacharya was a member of Jugantar Party, Naren Ghosh Choudhury and Suresh Chakravarty were associated with the Barisal Party.” However, Bhattacharya and Choudhury did not like the idea and left the meeting, adds Gupta. However, the others went ahead with the plan.
From Mukherjee’s book, it is learnt that Pal assigned each of the conspirators specific roles in the heist. “Suresh Chakravarty, Biman Ghose, Jagat Gupta and Ashu Roy were entrusted with keeping watch over the IB personnel in the vicinity of the Dalhousie Square…,” and if any danger was sensed, they were to immediately inform Ashu Roy who would communicate the warning to Srish Pal, Khagen Das and Haridas Datta by singing, the book says.
She writes, “The role assigned to Anukul Mukherjee was to supply a cart driven by a stout upcountry bullock. Haridas Datta, assuming the role of a dumb Hindustani Garwan, would take the cart to the Dalhousie Square at about 12 noon wherefrom Srish Mitra would catch it after scolding the Garwan for his delay…” The book says, it was planned that Mitra would then escort the cart to the Customs House along with six other carts, and take delivery of arms and ammunition in their cart.
Gupta adds, “Rodda & Co.’s godown was on Vansittart Row and it was decided that while six carts would leave the Customs House (present day RBI Building) and enter the godown, the seventh would slip away into the dingy lanes of Central Calcutta and reach Malanga Lane near what is now Hind Cinema.”
In order to look like a garwan, Haridas Datta was given an overnight makeover by young Marwari revolutionary Prabhu Dayal Himatsingka, who later joined Congress and was elected MP from Godda in undivided Bihar.
In the morning, after a last-minute meeting at a house in Malanga Lane, the conspirators left for their individual tasks and Habu reported to the office. Mukherjee writes, “According to Sri Haridas Datta…the cart driven by him followed the six other carts from the Customs House to Rodda’s office at the Dalhousie Square and then proceeded through Mango Lane, British Indian Street, Bentinck Street and Malanga Lane and safely unloaded the wooden boxes in the waste iron stock-yard of Kanti Mukherjee, a friend of Anukul Mukherjee, at Malanga Lane… Habu hurriedly joined the party midway after having given delivery of six cart-loads of arms to the office, and then left Calcutta in company of Srish Pal that very evening by the Darjeeling Mail.”
The conspirators had decided that from Malanga Lane the pistols would be shifted to revolutionary Bhujanga Bhushan Dhur’s house at Jeliapara Lane in Bowbazar in Kalidas Basu’s car. However, when Basu’s car didn’t arrive on time, the revolutionaries hired two horse-drawn hackney carriages to ferry the loot.
“It was this desperate move that cost the revolutionaries and blew the lid off the plot,” says Gupta. “The drivers of the carriages, Noor Muhammad and Sheikh Abdul, were paid eight annas each to ferry the loot to the destination. Such a high amount raised suspicion when the police started their investigation on August 29.”
On August 29, Prike alerted the police after growing suspicious of Habu’s absence. A team was set up under Sir Charles Augustus Tegart, Head of the Detective Department.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Dhur’s son, 91-year-old Purna Chandra Dhur, says, “The pistols reached our house in boxes and before the investigation started on August 29, my father and others had already distributed them. After the pistols were unboxed, the boxes and their covers were burnt in small pyres all day long so that there isn’t much smoke to draw suspicion. The only things that could not be destroyed were some 6-inch and 8-inch nails but they were kept in such a place that police could not find them.”
Dhur adds, “The raid started at 4 am on August 29 and went on till 3pm and although police found nothing, they arrested my father and tortured him in the jail for seven years.” He adds: “Once my grandfather paid a visit to my father in the jail. When he saw he was kept inside a cell with water up to his waist and not allowed to shave, his heart sank and from that day, he stopped speaking.”
Bhujanga Bhushan Dhur was a final-year student at Presidency College when he was picked up and the incident affected the family badly. “But nobody opened their mouths… such was the grit,” reminisces the son.
During the investigation, several revolutionaries were picked up and over the years many of the stolen Mauser pistols recovered. Some of the conspirators also served jail terms but most were released due to lack of evidence.
In his sedition report, Rowlatt also mentions, “It may indeed safely be said that few, if any, revolutionary outrages have taken place in Bengal since August 1914, in which Mauser pistols stolen from Rodda & Co. have not been used.”
Gupta says the Mausers were used in several revolutionary actions. “The first prominent incident was the Ghadar Mutiny of 1915 under the leadership of Rash Behari Bose in North India, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle in Maharashtra, and Sachindranath Sanyal in Benares. They also powered the armed robberies in Calcutta. Before Bose fled the country in May 1915, he gave away one Mauser C96 to Sachindranath Sanyal. In September 1915, Jatindra Nath Mukhopadhyay (Bagha Jatin) fought his last battle on the banks of Buribalam river in Odisha with one of these guns in his hand.”
Sanyal later founded the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), which after 1928 became the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Members of HRA, including Chandrashekhar Azad and Ramprasad Bismil were involved in the Kakori Conspiracy in 1925 where the pistols were used. “Prominent researcher Satyendranath Gangopadhyay mentions in his book that at least one of the guns in possession of HRA was from those looted during Rodda Arms heist. He also mentions the use of the Mauser C96 in the Chittagong Armoury Raid in 1930. This is supported by the narrative of Ananta Singha, a prominent participant of the raid, who mentions that the arms used in Chittagong Armoury Raid were procured from Kolkata using the help of Anukul Mukherjee,” adds Gupta.
Gupta’s claims are corroborated by the fact that Rowlatt’s report mentions a list of dacoities carried out in the years after the heist and says, “All the above were cases of dacoity but they present no very special features, except that in the dacoity at Mamurabad on the 7th November, two Mauser pistols were used by the revolutionaries which were stolen from Rodda & Co., together with 48 other pistols of the same description and a large amount of ammunition, on the 26th of August in the same year.”
The report also lists at least 54 other cases where the stolen Mauser pistols were used.
Despite the importance of the heist in giving firepower to the revolutionaries of Bengal, the incident is not well-documented. At present, a memorial of four busts of Anukul Chandra Mukherjee, Girindranath Banerjee, Bipin Bihari Ganguli and Haridas Datta stands at the entrance of Malanga Lane but fails to attract anything more than passing glances. The busts, erected by Anukul Chandra Mukherjee’s nephew Gopal Mukherjee (famously known as Gopal Pantha in Kolkata), are now garlanded once a year by Gopal’s grandson Santanu Mukherjee.
“We have a committee called Jatio Artotran Samity which looks after the memorial. We garland all the busts on August 26 and every other special occasion and pay our homage to the great souls,” Mukherjee says. “The revolutionaries engaged in the heist were so committed to the idea of freedom that they never bothered to join any political party or take any kind of help from the government after Independence for their contribution. Naturally, nobody remembers them.”