Tahrir Square and India’s forgotten rebellion

On February 11, after ruling for nearly thirty years, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as President of Egypt. What form of government Egypt will have in the near future remains to be seen, but the toppling of the dictator was widely hailed as a victory for protesters, who had converged on Tahrir Square in Cairo making it symbolic of their struggle for freedom. Many armchair pundits commented that this was a struggle the likes of which had never been seen before. Closer to home, cynics snidely remarked that these kinds of leaderless grassroots protests which harnessed the power of social media would never work in India.

Earlier, on January 28, 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters had gathered in Tahrir Square to mark the “Day of Rage”. In the absence of a defined leadership, many protesters had been using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to connect with one another. On that day, Hosni Mubarak pulled the plug on the internet and on mobile phone services in the country. Newspapers around the world cried foul.

On that same day, The Statesman of Kolkata published a short obituary. You are forgiven if you missed it: it was only a small column with five short paragraphs of text relegated to an inside page. Here is the first paragraph of the obituary:

Veteran freedom fighter and founder of the erstwhile Tamralipta National Government ~ which kept the British at bay for about two years (1942-44) in undivided Midnapore ~ Sushil Dhara died at his residence in Mahisadal today following a prolonged illness.

I have not found a single website with comprehensive account of Sushil Dhara’s contribution to the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar (Tamralipta National Government) and the only book that I have come across in English that comprehensively describes this chapter in India’s freedom struggle in accessible terms is Local Politics and Indian Nationalism: Midnapur, 1919-1944 by Indian historian Bidyut Chakrabarty.

Consequently, I feel that it is necessary to briefly outline this fading episode of our shared history. First, let me apologize if any factual errors that creep in. I am not a historian. Neither am I an unbiased observer: I hail from the part of India where these events occurred, and certain relatives and acquaintances of mine, who are now deceased, were involved. However, I feel I need to share this information, just as I felt that should be more information on Matangini Hazra in English when I wrote the Wikipedia entry because there was nothing about her five years ago.

My home district, Midnapore was a hotbed of revolutionary activity during British rule, and perhaps only rivaled by Chittagong in fervor. In one aspect we may have had the upper hand: according to Chakrabarty, Tamluk holds the distinction of being the only place in British India where the natives successfully sustained a parallel government without any support from the top Indian National Congress leadership.

Tamluk is a sleepy town in East Midnapore district. It corresponds roughly to the ancient seaport of Tamralipta, which was well-known during the time of Emperor Asoka, and at one point may have even been the capital of Vanga – the forerunner of Bengal.

On August 8, 1942, the Quit India Resolution was passed by the Congress starting major civil disobedience  protesting British rule. At that time, Sushil Dhara was a student activist in Tamluk. During the month following the passing of the Resolution, he and others mobilized the rural populace by meetings and the distribution of pamphlets. During this period, the revolutionaries followed the principles of Gandhian civil disobedience.

On September 29, 1942, there was a major concerted attack on six police stations in Tamluk and Contai subdivisions by Sushil Dhara and his associates. Many activists were killed in the attacks, the most famous of which was Matangini Hazra. The movement went underground immediately afterward.

On December 17, 1942, the provisional government, Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar was inaugurated with Satis Chandra Samanta as Sarvadhinayak. The branches of the government included a Justice Department, a Relief and Public Heath Department, and a Law and Order Department.

Sushil Dhara headed the War Department. He believed that the establishment of an independent zone outside of British India would help Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj if they chose to launch their liberation of India by sea. Dhara who was responsible for the provisional government’s militia, established the Vidyut Bahini (Lightning Squad) and the Bhagini Sena consisting of women volunteers.

The British Indian police retaliated using torture, arson, and rape as their chief weapons. In the midst of the oppression and a devastating famine, the government held on for two years. Dhara recounted that the rebellion succeeded longer in Tamluk and Contai than at the national level, because the women cooperated wholeheartedly.

The revolutionary newspaper Biplabi was the Facebook of the day which was used to successfully mobilize the populace. Chakrabarty writes that the message of the Biplabi was very simple – “organize for the last battle against the British”.

The last battle came for many who helped the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar keep the British at bay for nearly two years. In 1944, after the Quit India Movement had died down almost everywhere else, at the behest of Gandhi, the government was disbanded. There had been no assistance from national-level Congress leaders who disapproved of the government’s counterattack tactics.

I am informed that there is an ongoing debate on what role the Quit India Movement played in India’s Independence struggle on a national level. By late 1945, Britain was well on the path to transferring power.

But the forgotten story of Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar is relevant today since many of the themes are common with those from the mass revolutions currently occurring around the world.

Presumably, they will be core components of successful revolutions on the future too.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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8 thoughts on “Tahrir Square and India’s forgotten rebellion

  1. Fanatstic post. I for one never knew who Hazra in Calcutta was named after before this.

    P.S:

    …Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauz…

    Given the INA’s lacklustre record, naming themslves ‘Fauz’ (which means success/victory) might have been a a good idea but in actual fact they did stick with plain old ‘Fauj’ (army).

  2. I’m reading this now while Anna Hazare leads an army of Indians in the war against corruption, the government, and everything else that he sees wrong. The movement started with social media, and then it was taken up by the mainstream media as well. I’ve seen, more or less, with my own eyes, the power of a mass movement shaking the powerful (like politicians, the government, etc).

    I’ve also seen the social media and mass movement give birth to a movement whose direction appears to rest in the hands of just one man. He is the captain of this ship and everyone’s aboard.

    Anyway, to an extent, I could relate your post to the current situation here in India.

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