Why the right's attempts to appropriate Chauri-Chaura are unjustified
February 4th marked the centenary of the Chauri-Chaura case.
The historic significance of Chauri-Chaura- 100 years war of farmers’ movement: the haste of Hindutva forces to claim the leftovers of Congress in the freedom movement and the inability of the Left to affirm their claim on the legacy
February 4th marked the centenary of the Chauri-Chaura case. In an event organised to celebrate the same, PM Modi delivered a speech and connected the incident with his policies and details. Calling it ‘unfortunate that the martyrs of the historic incident have not been discussed as much as they should have been’ he asserted that ‘they have not been given significance in the pages of history. Being close to the town of Gorakhpur, the constituency of his to be successor Yogi Adityanath, the event was made to underline the contribution of the idols of Hindutva as Madan Mohan Malviya and to claim the martyrs in the aftermath of the case.
Mahatma Gandhi had announced that if the British government does not accept his demands, he would launch a civil Disobedience movement from 7 February 1922. On February 4th, a mob burnt down a police station in a place called Chauri-Chaura in Gorakhpur. Twenty-two policemen were burnt alive in the fire. Pained by the violence, Mahatma Gandhi halted the non-cooperation movement on the national level on February 12th, 1922, as a direct result of this incident.
In spite of Gandhi's decision, 19 arrested demonstrators were sentenced to death and 110 to imprisonment for life by the British authorities. The Sessions Court at Gorakhpur tried 225 persons for arson, looting and causing death, and returned a verdict sentencing 170 persons to death. Thus, many historians accuse Gandhi for the same, with no exception from right-wingers who are eager to claim the martyrs as Hindus leftover by Congress. However, close analysis of the incident and aftermath narrates a different story.
The town of Chauri-Chaura was never supposed to be noticed and documented in the history of India. There was no such place as 'Chauri-Chaura' in existence before British. There were two towns in District of Gorakhpur, Chauri and Chaura near each other. British officers established a rail station in between these towns and named it as 'Chauri-Chaura'. February 4th of 1922, this town turned the pages of history.
Gandhi's non-cooperation movement was in full swing at the time, reaching its peak of popularity. The end of the First world war had already struck the British economy and Gandhiji asked Indians to distinguish between what was Indian and foreign economy. His popularity from South Africa continued and his ideas in Congress were held high after the death of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1920.
Taking a sharp turn from a progressive party, he asked Indians to demand Purna Swaraj or complete independence from the British within the year and announced plans for a 'non-cooperation campaign'. The campaign took shape of a movement where Indians were asked to withdraw their labour from work, school, and administration – anything that sustained the British government and economy in India.'
The nationwide agitation after the incident of Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, the non-cooperation movement had scattered the Indian bureaucracy and took labour out of the main struts of the British Raj. It was a great move of Gandhiji where the main resources of British power were drained off by active participation of the labour movement.
The documents of the farmers and peasantry from the era show a horrific picture and agitation in minds of farmers. One of the recorded statements in the movement states the misery of the agrarian crisis, “Though we live under such protection and prosecute our labour free of any apprehension of oppression, yet our families are reduced to a miserable condition, so much so that their ordinary wants cannot even be supplied.”
The other strata of the active students and young political leaders who were looking forward to the post-war efforts in colonies as an instrument against imperialism, but they were concerned about the stance of Mahatma Gandhi and his over-emphasis on moral values. They were aware of the sentiments of the working class and peasantry in the movements.
There were riots in many small villages against British officers against taxation and oppression of moneylenders, The realisation of two distinct classes as 'Vani' i.e. moneylenders and 'Kunbi' i.e rural peasants was trigger force behind the agitations of the farmers shown in Deccan riots of Pune and Ahmednagar. (Kumar, Ravinder. “The Deccan Riots of 1875.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 24, no. 4, 1965, pp. 613–635)
The Congress of Nehru led youths were able to manifest the idea of free India was far away, the efforts of Congress party were significant in stating their stance as the "All-India Congress Committee 'firmly believes in the policy and practice of non-violence, not only in the struggle for Swaraj but also, in so far as this may be possible of application, in free India.' (The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Pg. 446)
The articulation of the concept of non-violence was unclear and still, the term was deep-rooted in the movement led by Congress. So when the rising movement took a violent turn, it disturbed the emblem of non-violence as proposed by Mahatma Gandhi.
But the sudden withdrawal was a shock for many youths. 'The withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement after Chauri Chaura in 1922 had disillusioned youth and revolutionaries all over India (...) and could never trust Gandhiji', as noted by historian Chaman Lal. (Lal, Chaman. “Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 42, no. 37, 2007, pp. 3712–3718).
The incident of Chauri-Chaura and its aftermath are the leftovers of the freedom movement that were not claimed by Congress even then. Thus, the credit for supporting the martyrs was left vacant as per the supporters. Thus, such loopholes of the movements in history are repeatedly cited by xenophobic forces. Unfortunately, it is just an inability or unwillingness of the bearers of the red-flag organisations, especially by the Indian left.
Incidentally, the reports of the participation of youth and rural peasantry in the incident of Chauri-Chaura was highlighted firstly by a Communist leader. When every other political discourse was criticising the incident as a 'barbaric act' and the people involved in the movement as 'terrorist', the reporting and analysis of the left was holding the banner of the movement and advocating for the same.
Even in the international journal, the left-leaning journalists were reporting for the detained peasants. Manavendra Nath Roy, known as M. N. Roy, often known as the founder of the first communist party outside Russia, was writing for 'The Communist.' The Communist identified itself as 'An Organ of the Third Communist International', was the weekly organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain launched July 29, 1920. During the Bolshevization period, it was renamed as The Workers’ Weekly. V. I Lenin had himself written articles for ‘The Communist’. MN Roy, as his historic legacy being a delegate to congresses of the Communist International and vocal advocate of masses in the third-world against colonialism.
He defended the detainees of the Chauri-Chaura incident in his article published on 'February 3, 1923', just after the proceeding of the court. He correctly articulated the movement and underlined the inherent meaning of the chantings that were used then by stating 'all over the province rose in revolt to overthrow the British Raj, which to them was Landlord Raj, and to establish Swaraj, which they called Gandhi Raj.'
The parallel between the establishment as not only 'Britishers' but their equivalence with Landlords was firstly identified by MN Roy. His analysis of the movement was first of its kind that was recognising the role of Congress in mobilising the masses to agitate against the government but he followed the story even when Congress had abandoned the discourse of non-cooperation movement and documented the aftermath of the same. Unlike the statement made by PM Modi, the martyrs of Chauri Chaura were not ignored.
They were noted by the ideologues of the left and were advocated overseas. The space that was vacant and unrepresented by Congress was filled by the youth who had their ideology in favour of Socialism. The political awakening of Punjab after the withdrawal of Non-cooperation movement and the emergence of Bhagat Singh's stand in favour of Independence was significantly distinct from the concept of Congress. Unlike the claim made from right-wing and by PM Modi, the discourse of these Non-Congress ideologies was not fundamentalist but Socialist.
Thus, the anger in the Non-cooperation movement was not always fueled by Congress but merely a way of the expression of dissent as no other political platform was available to them. From the aftermath of Deccan Riots, the lumpen peasantry was well aware of the outcomes of unorganised expression of anger. Thus Congress performed the role of the institution that can accommodate the sentiments of the farmers. As MN Roy has described it, 'the entire [united] province was like a volcano and the authorities were extremely alarmed.' Many Muslim peasants were detained in the case.
One of the cases was of ‘Abdullah And Ors. vs Emperor’ that was before the Allahabad High court on 30 April 1923 is a reflection of the current situation. As many of Muslim facing aggressive police and judicial brutality, Abdullah was detained for ‘damage inflicted on the Railway line and on the telegraph wires’. Main convicts ‘Nazir Ali, Lal Muhammad, Shyam Sunder and Abdulla alias Sukhi’ were trialled in the case where their being ‘Musalman’ or ‘Muhammadans’ is specifically mentioned for numerous times.
The increasing attacks against the minorities and Muslims were not so foreign to the imperial rule. Though Madan Mohan Malviya had defended the accused in the Sessions Court at Gorakhpur, the international pressure was made by the writings and reports of left media.
In the police action after the fire at the Police station, the reports from Chauri-Chaura were brought to the attention of the Journal ‘The Communist’. One may find the reports from 1922 a copy of the realities that are happening at Singhu border. The Communist has reported that ‘armed police and military forces were used freely to “protect life and property,” and scores of lives of the expropriated peasantry were sacrificed.’
According to the local reports, hundreds of arrests were made; 228 of whom were finally sent up for trial. They were charged with “murder, arson, and being members of unlawful assembly.” MN Roy has described the judiciary of British Raj as 'bourgeois justice'. All documents of this history were made by a Marathi scientist, who was part of the German Communist Party and arrested by Government in Meerut Conspiracy Case. Dr Gangadhar Adhikari. Dr Adhikari is known for his Marathi translation of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto’ which was published by the Kamgaar Vangmaya Prasaraka Mandala in 1931.
To release Dr Adhikari, famous physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter to British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald seeking his release. (Rao, M B and M Sen, ed. (1968): Our Doc: Tributes to Comrade Gangadhar Adhikari on his Seventieth Birthday (New Delhi: Communist Party of India)
It is even unfortunate that the brutality of the regime in the last 100 years has remained unchanged. The state operation, unlike the commentary of PM Modi in support of farmers, has been exactly the same. The match between the imperialist government and a democratically elected government of a sovereign nation-state is disturbing. As British authorities were mentioning the agitated farmers as 'terrorist', BJP led government officials are taking the same stance and painting the agitating farmers as 'Khalistani'.
Here, after a hundred years, farmers can still be attacked and killed n the streets. It is even disturbing that just as Congress's sudden withdrawal from the movement after the Chauri-Chaura incident, the mainstream political parties are distancing themselves from the mainstream discussion of the topic. The forces other than the mainstream political and opposition parties are leading the farmers' protest at Delhi.
The reporters who are covering the farmers' protest are getting arrested and facing several charges against them. A freelance journalist, Mandeep Punia, was detained with such charges. While reporting the 'Chauri-Chaura case', MN Roy himself was facing similar threats and issues. Even at a very personal level, as any other journalist of our times, he was suffering from the financial crunches. In his memoirs, he has repeatedly underlined the fact. Even while organising lecture series in the USA, he has noted that 'being financially not better off'.
Thanks to the service of such journalists, there are traces of the ideas and a reflection of truth in the air in times of state repression and censorship, on both ends of the century.