I-day Recall: Soil of resistance

Several places across India bore witness to the voices & actions that worked towards freeing the country from colonial clutches. Go on a location-based journey to revisit the long road to Indian independence

About 70-odd years ago, when India’s first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his Tryst with Destiny speech at the “stroke of the midnight hour” hailing India’s new “life and freedom”, it signified an end to the long struggle of our countrymen against British colonial rule. It was, as Nehru articulated, a moment “which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

At that moment, for many veterans and freedom fighters, the images and moments through this long journey must have had flashed by like moving pictures in celluloid. Even though the freedom movement had spread to the nook and corner of the country, one can recall some particular places and moments in the long journey towards the goal of shaking off the yoke of foreign rule.

The Red Fort in Delhi, for example. It is from the red sandstone rampart above the Lahori Gate that every August 15 the Indian national flag is unfurled. Rightly so. The fort-palace that Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built around 1638-1649 calling it Shahjahanabad, while opting to shift his capital from Agra, played a significant role even in the Independence movement.

Taking advantage of the Mughal empire on the wane, the British captured Delhi in 1803 and started taking control of the fort and the city. During the Sepoy Mutiny, Red Fort acquired a new identity again as the most important symbol of resistance with its occupant, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, becoming the symbol of the rebellion.

The Mutiny, called the First War of Independence, which led to a full-blown movement later, failed eventually for different reasons, but, as historian K N Panikkar points out, even in failure, Red Fort served as a source of inspiration for the freedom struggle in later decades.

One must not forget too that in the 1940s, the Red Fort again came into focus, thanks to ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose. He had set up the headquarters of the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA) provisional government in Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma (Myanmar).

He reportedly visited the shrine that had come up around the unmarked grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had been exiled there by the British, and his legendary call ‘Chalo Dilli’ (March to Delhi) invoked both the departed emperor of India and the Red Fort, proclaiming that the task would not end until “our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on the graveyard of the British empire, at the Lal Quila, the Red Fort of ancient Delhi.”

After the end of World War II, the captured officers of the INA were put on public trial at the Red Fort in December 1945. Three officers, namely Colonel Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon were housed there for the duration of the trial.

The hoisting of the national flag on the Independence Day from the Red Fort seems almost like poetic justice — re-establishing an independent India’s claim to its capital after 200 years of subjugation.


Painting Governor General’s House & Park at Barrackpore. (1808) Courtesy: British Library

Barrackpore: Seeds sown earlier

But the seeds of the freedom movement were sown much earlier in the army barracks of Calcutta (Kolkata), then centre of power for the British, courtesy the East India Company. After the 1857 mutiny was suppressed, Queen Victoria took over the custody of the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, as India was referred to.

At the parade ground of Barrackpore cantonment near Kolkata, a soldier named Mangal Pandey fired at his British superiors on March 29, 1857. A native soldier prevented the fatalities. A court-martial followed and Pandey was hanged to death on April 8. His uncle Issuri Prasad was also hanged on charges of complicity.

Mangal Pandey was born in 1827 in Nagwa, Uttar Pradesh. The mutiny by the soldiers, which Pandey gave lead to, has been interpreted as a reaction to the loss of privileges due to the soldiers. Woven into it were allegations of hurting religious beliefs.

A rumour went around the barrack that the new bullet cartridges used in Enfield P-53 rifles were greased with animal fat (pig and cow fat), taboo for Hindus and Muslims. The cartridges had to be bitten off to remove the cover. Aamir Khan’s film Mangal Pandey: The Rising is based on this event in history.

However, there are debates among historians whether Mangal Pandey rebelled against his white bosses or fired the shots in a state of inebriation. Whatever be the jury’s verdict, it has been widely believed that Mangal Pandey’s defiance acted as an inspiration for the mutiny that followed. Today at Barrackpore, by the river Hooghly (Ganga), you come across a commemorative park on the Mangal Pandey ghat. The cantonment area is now under the Indian army.

A little-known fact is that Pandey’s rebellion at the Barrackpore cantonment is the ‘second’ one. Earlier in 1824, sepoy Binda Tiwary led a mutiny and the cantonment was under siege for two days. The British had ordered the 26th, 47th and 62nd battalions of the Native Infantry of Bengal to march to Chittagong Port (now in Bangladesh) to board ships to Rangoon to fight in the First Anglo Burmese War.

Firstly, at that time, it was taboo for caste Hiat to sail across the seas (kala-pani); secondly, there were no bullocks — the usual means of transport — to carry the belongings of the soldiers till Chittagong. The British authorities did not listen to the complaints. So the soldiers of the 47th battalion, led by Tiwary, refused to follow the instructions. They did not give in to the order to surrender either. They were overpowered by the British soldiers, and Tiwary was executed. Accounts say that his body was chained and hung from a peepul tree to rot, and for all to see. About 200 Indian soldiers were also killed. The peepul tree is still there as a witness to that sad event. Under the tree is a temple, Binda Baba Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman.


Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Andaman: Jail in the sea

Freedom fighters and people in general called the Cellular Jail in Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands ‘kala-pani’ (black waters), echoing the ancient belief that once a person crossed over the sea, he was either forgotten or not accepted into the community. Once exiled there, the prisoners too never expected to see their homeland again, or face sure death. Such was its reputation for harshness. It was meant to be a place ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

The gargantuan three-storey structure had at its centre a tall watch tower, from which seven long concrete wings, like spokes on a wheel, spread out. Each wing had rows of single cells, 693 in total, gated and isolated from each other so that the inmates could not communicate with each other. Such was the isolation that freedom-fighter brothers Babarao Savarkar and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar did not know for two years that they were both in the same jail.

The prison started functioning after the suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny but built as the present structure much later between 1896 and 1906. Those who were not executed were transferred here for lifetime exile. If anybody was brave enough to attempt an escape, he was caught and executed. As the Freedom Movement took off speedily, more and more patriots were convicted and deported here from British-controlled India and Burma.

The news that tricked out, of torture and inhuman treatment meted out to the prisoners here, sent shivers down the spine of people in the mainland. In 1930, Mahavir Singh, an associate of Bhagat Singh, went on hunger strike in protest against the conditions in the prison. The authorities tried to feed him milk forcibly, but it blocked his lungs and he died. His body was thrown into the sea. In 1937-38, following an intervention by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, the British government decided to repatriate the freedom fighters to their homeland.

During World War II, Japanese took over the Andaman Islands from the British. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose visited the place during this period. The Provisional Government, presided over by supreme commander Bose, was formed in the Japanese-occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Bose hoisted the Indian flag in British-free Indian territory for the first time at Ross Island on December 30, 1943. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were renamed Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the British regained control of the islands. 

A memorial commemorating Netaji’s visit has been erected near the present-day Netaji Stadium in Port Blair. The jail is now open to public as a national memorial. The museum attached to it reminds once again the sacrifices made by India’s freedom fighters.


Jallianwala Bagh Memorial, Amritsar. 

Jallianwala Bagh: Massacre of the innocents

Today, the massacre of innocents has a sobriquet: Jallianwala Bagh. And a hated perpetrator is symbolised by a person named General Dyer.

The day was April 13, 1919, when the people of Punjab celebrated Baisakhi, heralding the coming of spring and the sowing season. Many of them assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh to protest against the confinement of Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, two leaders fighting for Independence, as well as against the implementation of the Rowlatt Act, aimed at arming the British government with powers to detain any person without trial.

The protest was peaceful, but brigadier-general Reginald Edward Harry Dyer thought otherwise. Out of the blue, he ordered his soldiers to open fire at the gathering after shutting down all the exit routes. Caught unaware, people ran helter-skelter.

A stampede followed. Many tried to escape by scaling the walls, but in vain. In desperation, many jumped into the well inside the park. Officials reportedly dug out close to 120 bodies from the well. The official death toll of the massacre stood at 379, with 192 wounded, but sources suggested that more than 1,000 people had lost their lives, while 1,200 people were wounded.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore returned the knighthood conferred upon him by the British Empire in protest.

Called ‘The Butcher of Amritsar’ in the aftermath of the massacre, General Dyer was removed from command and exiled to Britain, but not without receiving a handsome settlement. Six years later, he died of a heart attack.

Today, Jallianwala Bagh is a beautifully laid out park with memorials to the departed. It is a must-visit spot in Amritsar for those who value freedom from servitude.


August Kranti Maidan, Mumbai 

Call to ‘Quit India’

The Quit India call was pronounced at what is now called August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai. It was here that on August 8, 1942, Mahatma Gandhi called upon his countrymen to launch the Quit India Movement or Bharat Chhodo Andolan. It was the world’s largest civil disobedience movement, which was later replicated by leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

In March 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to India to negotiate the terms for some kind of dominion status for the country. It was rejected by the All India Congress unceremoniously. The members assembled at the Maidan to discuss the future course of action. Thousands of people including the top leaders of the Indian National Congress were arrested immediately after Gandhi’s speech at the Maidan, where he proclaimed ‘Do or Die’, a call to the masses to maintain passive but determined resistance against the British.

Before its historical reference, it was known as Gowalia Tank as the locals bathed their cattle at the field. Today, it is a popular venue for cricket matches.

Remembering and commemorating the places of significance in the map of India’s freedom struggle is perhaps an apt homage to those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom today.

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I-day Recall: Soil of resistance

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