Chauri Chaura Centenary: Rescuing History From Saffron Misrepresentation
[ Subhash Kushwaha is the author of Chauri-Chaura: Vidroh Aur Swadhinta Andolan (Chauri-Chaura: Rebellion and the Freedom Struggle), Penguin 2014. His book had pointed out the glaring errors in the memorial erected for the Chauri Chaura martyrs, and has since then repeatedly asked the UP Government to correct the errors. In preparation for the big centenary event at the memorial attended by PM Modi, the Yogi Government refurbished the memorial on the outside, but even so has failed to correct the factual errors and incomplete or misleading names on the busts of the martyrs. When a superficial refurbishing exercise is undertaken but the errors allowed to remain, then one must assume these are now errors of commission not omission. Do the errors serve a misleading narrative that helps the BJP, and have they thus been allowed to remain?]
The centenary year of Chauri Chaura began on 4 February 2021. The ruling powers' efforts are on to escalate jingoist nationalism through advertisements worth crores. Under the excuse of the Chauri Chaura rebellion, upper caste narratives are being established. Some historians gave also been roped in present hearsay as evidence to erase the sacrifice of the poor at Chauri Chaura, and instead establish the event as the contribution of feudal bigoted forces to the freedom struggle.
These deceptions began through the memorial and celebrations. The Chauri Chaura memorial foundation stone was laid by Indira Gandhi on 6 February 1982 and inaugurated by Narasimha Rao on 19 July 1993. Five years later a museum was established in 1998 but nothing was done to collect material for the museum.
There is another memorial in Chauri Chaura to honour British soldiers who fired the shots, inaugurated by Governor William Morris in 1924. Two “Chauri Chaura” memorials raise the question – why memorialise soldiers who killed Indian freedom fighters? It would be better if the latter is shifted to the museum with a description of the British efforts to memorialise those who committed atrocities.
In preparation for the centenary the Memorial has been painted outside but the condition inside remains bad. The library on the ground floor is on its death bed. The statue of a Sanyasi adorns the entrance to the staircase but it is unnamed. No one is able to tell who this Sanyasi is and what is his connection with the Chauri Chaura rebellion.
Playing Politics With Names of Chauri Chaura Martyrs
19 martyrs were hanged in the Chauri Chaura rebellion. There should only have been busts of those 19 martyrs in the Memorial, but instead there are about 40 statues. One of the statues is of Bandhu Singh who was part of the 1857 revolt. This raises the question whether this Memorial is dedicated to the martyrs of Chauri Chaura or to the memory of the entire freedom movement. It should be specified here that it was atrocities committed by a family relation of Bandhu Singh, Zamindar Babu Bandhu Singh Bishunpura, that led to the Chauri Chaura peasant upsurge. If it was necessary to put up statues of 1857 martyrs at the Memorial, they should be put up in a separate room, separate from the Chauri Chaura martyrs. In Chauri Chaura’s context, Bandhu Singh’s presence could give the wrong impression.
Most of the Chauri Chaura martyrs were from the oppressed and backward castes. 16 out of the 19 martyrs were from OBC/SC communities. Names of martyrs have been tampered with in order to erase the identity of the martyrs from these castes. For example, the name on the bust of Bhagwan Ahir (Yadav) reads just 'Bhagwan'. The caste surname has not been added in any of the names of oppressed/backward caste martyrs. Moreover, two busts (with surnames Pandey and Dubey) found a place among the martyrs’ busts, when actually there is no record of these two among the Chauri Chaura martyrs. There is a method to these “mistakes”.
One of the busts at the Memorial is of Rampati s/o Mohar. There was no such martyr in the Chauri Chaura revolt. A list of 225 persons who participated in the revolt has been recorded in the Sessions Court verdict.
Another bust is of Lal Ahmed s/o Hakim Kota. No person of this name was martyred. British archives record the name of Lal Mohammed, s/o Shri Hakim Shah as one of the chief rebels. In other words, mischief has been played by wrongly recording the name of one of the leading martyrs.
The bust of Dwarika Prasad Pandey s/o Shri Nepal Pandey has been put up at the Memorial. The Sessions Court verdict lists 'Dwarika Prasad s/o Shri Nepal' at Number 48 in the list of 225 names. He was awarded not death sentence but life imprisonment and he died on 27-2-1981. Fourteen persons were sentenced to life imprisonment. When none of the other 13 have statues put up to them, the question is bound to arise whether, by selectively erecting busts to one of them, complete with caste surname, the aim is to highlight Brahmin identity at the cost of hiding the sacrifices of OBCs and dalits. The reality is that efforts are being made to belie the fact that Chauri Chaura was a revolt fought under the leadership of lower castes.
One of the martyrs’ busts at the Memorial is of Baldev Prasad Dubey. The date of martyrdom is given as 2 July 1923. This date is shown as the martyrdom date of the Chauri Chaura rebels. This is the only bust which does not carry the father’s name. This has been done in order to hide the accurate identity of the statue, so that no one can identify it as the statue of the Brahmapur zamindar Dubey who gave full help to the British in nabbing the fighters. What message is trying to be conveyed by putting up the bust of a person whose name does not figure in the Chauri Chaura upsurge, and who in fact betrayed the struggle?! Worse still is the fact that a bust of former MLA Shriniwas Mani and one of former PM Indira Gandhi have been included among the martyrs’ statues!
The historical write-up on a granite stone at the Memorial says that Gandhiji came to Gorakhpur in 1920, whereas a board at the cultural department of the Uttar Pradesh State Archives gives the date as 8 February 1921. This board shows Dumri village as the starting point of the rally on 4 February and says that the rally reached Thana gate 1.5 km away on 5 February. This implies that the rally took a full day to cover that short distance. How come 4 February is accepted as the anniversary of the upsurge, yet it is claimed here that the rally reached the Thana on 5 February!
On the other hand, the history inscribed on the granite stone makes no mention of Dumri Khurd village. What is recorded is the name of Brahmapur. The rally is said to begin from Brahmapur, which is nothing but a blatant lie. Page 15 of the Sessions Court verdict gives a map of the rally route which I have reproduced at the beginning of my book. The High Court made it clear in its detailed verdict that the centre of the revolt was Dumri Khurd village and that the lower castes led the revolt.
Why is it then that instead of clearly stating 'Dumri Khurd village' the Memorial and museum both mention just 'Dumri'? Here also the attempt is to delude and misinform. Dumri village signifies Dumri Khas or Dumri Kala which was the village of Sardar Jagirdar. As Dumri and Dumri Khurd are 2 different villages at a distance of 7 km from each other, both villages should have been specifically and distinctly mentioned.
The Memorial gives the date all the martyrs were hanged as 2 July 1923, which is incorrect. The martyrs were hanged in different jails on different dates between 2 and 11 July 1923. There is evidence to prove this. I have supplied evidence for the dates in my book. These errors should have been corrected. A program should have been organized at Dumri Khurd, centre of the revolt, to mark the centenary year. But on 4 February the place was not even swept. Two of the leading martyrs, Nazar Ali and Bikram Ahir (Yadav), hailed from Dumri Khurd. I met the descendants of both these martyrs on 5 February. Both appeared hurt at being ignored during the centenary celebrations. The British government had made more than 30 people from this village accused persons, and this fact itself should have been acknowledged and honoured.
Instead of throwing away money on advertisements for the government, it would have been more fitting if this village had been honoured as a revolutionary centre.
Chauri Chaura Upsurge: Who Were the Real Culprits?
4 February 1923 (date of Chauri Chaura revolt) records a few unforgettable pages in history where poor peasants, defying armed policemen and bullets, set fire to the Thana. 23 soldiers and constables including the Daroga were killed in the fire. The colonial and ruling class narration of history talks of the taint of the 'violent Chauri Chaura crime'. Looking back at the incident in the Chauri Chaura centenary year, we see the role of the then zamindars as the main cause of the revolt. This conflagration flared up after the zamindars - Sant Baksh Singh of Munder, his followers Raghubar Dayal and Awadhu Tiwari, Jagatnarayan Pandey and Harcharan Singh, manager of Sardar Umrao Singh from Dumri Khas – incited the police to fire at protesting farmers.
The Non-cooperation Movement was heralded in Dumri Khurd village on 13 January 1922. The struggle for “Swaraj” that Gandhi had called for, began here with picketing of feudal bazaars by farmers. On 1 February 1922 Bhagwan Ahir (Yadav) was beaten up by the Daroga. On 2 February a letter was sent to summon the farmers of the Division and at 7 am on 4 February volunteers gathered in front of Bihari Pasi's home in Dumri Khurd village. The people remained fearless in the face of threats by followers of feudal dominant sections and marched on towards the Thana. Incited by Awadhu Tiwari, the Daroga ordered bullets to be fired on the crowd about 3000-4000 strong. Many farmers died. The bullets were running short. When the people hit back with stones from the railway lines, the police were forced to take shelter inside the Thana. It was then that the Thana building was set afire.
A series of acts of repression were unleashed after that. The zamindars helped the police in the witch-hunt of farmers. They saved their own people and betrayed those they saw as enemies. Sardar Harcharan Singh managed the job of turning one of the main volunteers, Shikari, into a government informer and witness.
Promoted by the zamindars, the cruel Deputy Inspector Gupteshwar Singh was declared ‘Hero of Gorakhpur’ by newspapers like the Herald, eulogising his Vaishya gotra and condemning the oppressed and backward caste men as hateful.
Holding Chauri Chaura to be a violation of the principle of non-violence by the “mob”, Gandhiji stopped the national Non-cooperation Movement and went on a 5-day fast as atonement. Reacting with displeasure, Subhash Chandra Bose wrote, “Backing down when the people’s passion was at a boil is a great disaster for the nation”. Jailed leader Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das bristled with anger and Nehru wrote from jail, “when the agitation was called off after the Chauri Chaura incident, all leaders in the Congress except Gandhiji felt very angry.”
In a debate in the House of Commons, this upsurge that shook the British Empire was likened to the French Revolution.
After the Sessions Court sentenced 172 accused persons to death, the sentences were amended by the High Court (after efforts by Madan Mohan Malaviya): death by hanging for 19 persons; life sentence for 14; 8 years for 19; 5 years for 57 and 3 years for 20 persons.
Leaders of the Chauri Chaura upsurge were Nazar Ali from Dumri Khurd, Lal Mohammed from Chaura, Bhagwan Ahir, Abdulla from Chudihar Tola, and Shyam Sundar Mishra from Ramnagar.
Chauri Chaura In Popular Memory
The upsurge has been poignantly described in folk songs:
Those who fired on us, the white tyrants are burnt up,
The raging fire burned 14 Englishmen,
The youth of Hind escaped from the Thana
The sinful greedy white people died,
Those who are gone never to return.
O mother, your children will go forth to seek justice.
Caste, Class, and Chauri Chaura
The communities that played a main role in the Chauri Chaura revolt hailed from Dumri Khurd and Chaura villages. British archives describe them as low castes: “The persons affected were largely tenants and agricultural, many of them from low castes.” The High Court in para 4 of its verdict in the case Abdullah et al vs Sovereign wrote, “Most of them came from the lowest strata of society.” The High Court judges called Raghubir Sonar “a person of good social position” because of his higher caste in comparison with the other accused persons. Clearly, the “low” caste of the Chauri Chaura fighters was a major factor accounting for their vilification as a violent, barbaric mob.
The following is a caste/class-wise classification of the 225 persons tried by the Sessions Court:
26 Muslims; 21 Chamars; 29 Kewats; 24 Bhars; 21 Pasis; 18 Yadavs; 17 Kahars; 16 Kurmis; 6 Kalwars; 4 & 4 Teli/Barai/Bind/Lohar; 2 & 2 Lunia/Mallah/ Dhobi/ Kundu; 1 & 1 Kamkar/Koiri/Bhuj/Khar/Pathera/Rajbhar and Gusain; and 10 persons from Savarna upper castes.
Thus we see that the Chauri Chaura revolt was a result of anger due to atrocities by local zamindars. The resonances with today’s ongoing farmers' movement can be found in the Chauri Chaura revolt. After World War I, when the poor were groaning under the burden of skyrocketing prices, a war tax was imposed on the people. Farmers were being evicted from their lands because they were unable to pay taxes or offer 'gifts', similar to what can be expected from today's pro-corporate anti-farmer laws. Awareness about the Russian Bolshevik revolution had reached villages through soldiers returning from WWI. The people were looking to the ongoing Non-cooperation Movement to give them self-rule. They were invested in the idea of liberating themselves from feudal and colonial rule, not in any abstract principle of “violence” or “non-violence.”
Centenary Event Insulted Martyrs
If the ruling powers really wanted to honour the valour of these farmers, they would not have displayed cutouts of zamindars' progeny in the centenary programs. Cutouts of the martyrs were not visible anywhere, and the name of Dumri Khurd village found no mention, whereas cutouts of the local MP/MLA, Municipal Chairman, and even petty political office-bearers were put up. No one remembered Dumri Khurd village in the centenary year of the Chauri Chaura revolt. This is the ugly truth of the Chauri Chaura centenary programs.
Till today most of the martyrs' families have not received any pension. Descendants of martyrs have no houses to live in. Abdullah's grand-daughter Suburtun has migrated from the village for lack of means of livelihood. Oppressed caste martyrs' families have been ignored and neglected, while imposters have been given pensions. This is an unfortunate and condemnable state of affairs, especially in the centenary year of the Chauri Chaura upsurge.