Work in Progress : 3
Rajendra Prasad : A Political Biography
By Dr BSM Murty
The book is divided into seven parts. Part I covers the first 30 years of Rajendra Prasad’s life from early childhood till completion of education and beginning of his law practice at Patna. With Part II begins his political life with Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. Part III takes the story upto the Lahore Congress (1929) where ‘Poorna Swaraj’ was declared as the ultimate objective of the freedom movement.Part IV covers the ‘Strife and Tumult’ of the 30s. Part V takes the story through the Second World War till the tragedy of India’s partition. Part VI brings the narrative from independence right upto 1952 when the first General elections were held. Part VII deals with the decade-long period of Rajendra Prasad’s two consecutive presidencies. The final Chapter ‘Conclusion’ brings the story to a close with Prasad’s death at Sadaqat Ashram, Patna from where his political career had started. Three earlier extracts from Part II (‘The Indigo Story’ and ‘A Planter’s Murder’) and Part III (‘The Butcher of Amritsar) are already available earlier on this blog. The following 4 extracts are from: 1. Part V, Ch.3 ‘Quit India’; 2 & 3. Ch. 4 ‘Freedom Divided’; 4. Part VI, Ch. 1 ‘The Midnight Saga’. Part VII is now being written.
The first extract deals with the firing near the Patna Assembly gate on 11 August, 1942. A seven-statue Memorial stands today where the seven students had fallen to the British bullets. The plaque on the memorial has an inscription which was drafted by Acharya Shivapujan Sahay. Both can be seen in the photographs.
3.1 The Seven Martyrs
Matters reached a flash-point the very next day, on 11 August, when the Patna District Magistrate, Archer, ordered a totally indefensible firing near the Legislative Assembly building killing seven teenaged school students and grievously injuring another two dozen protesters. The crowd of protesters had assembled there in the late afternoon, after marching for hours peacefully through the main thoroughfares of the town, with the singular intent of hoisting the national flag on the Assembly building. It was essentially a crowd of peaceful protesters out to demonstrate their anger and resentment against the wholesale arrest of their leaders and the stubborn repressive attitude of a hostile government.
In a public meeting held in Patna Lawn on the previous evening, it had been decided to march in a procession the next day with the intent of hoisting the Congress flag on the Legislative Assembly building. Demonstrators had started gathering in different areas of the town since early in the forenoon of 11 August, but the main body of the procession had reached around the Secretariat premises where the Legislative Assembly is located by around 2 p.m.. Apprehending breach of law and order, all the top officers, including the D.M., I.G., D.I.G., A.S.P.,S.D.O. and others, with regular constabulary, Mounted Military Police and armed Gurkha Military force were already there near the south east gate of the Assembly building, by around 2.30 p.m. The crowd had gradually swelled to about 5000. The events as they unfolded there during the next three hours can best be reconstructed from the official reports of the local administration.
It was at the main east gate of the Assembly building where the centre of the mob was collected. Some of the protesters had succeeded in sticking up a Congress flag on this gate which had subsequently been removed. The DM was parleying there with such of the demonstrators who appeared to be leaders. Most of the men in the front of the crowd at this place appeared to be students who had worked themselves up into a state of frenzy shouting Congress and anti-Government slogans. There was also much shouting of slogans of Europeans to quit India and police to be disloyal to Government. The crowd was too dense to be cleared by foot police… The rioters wanted to stick the Congress flag up on some building within the Secretariat grounds. They made it clear to the DM that they intended to hoist a Congress flag over the Assembly building.
The DM tried to reach a compromise by asking the students in the front to march forward in pairs with their flags and offer themselves for arrest. Six students with flags were thus arrested, but this solution did not satisfy the agitated crowd. Next it was noticed that a flag, or kurta as some believed, had been stuck up on the lightning conductor of the Legislative building at the north wing. From where the officers were standing the flag appeared to be a Congress one and it was interpreted as being one both by the DM, other oficers and the crowd. It was not known how the flag had been hoisted but it was assumed that some persons had filtered into the compound, gained access to the Secretariat and had thus been able to hoist it. Suspecting this to be a clever trick, the crowd did not break up. It appeared to have had some doubt about the flag and a great deal of rowdyism occurred at this period. The demonstrators were adamant about hoisting the Congress flag on the Assembly building, and with the repeated charges by the lathi-wielding constabulary and the Mounted Police, brickbatting started from different sections of the crowd in the rear.
The I.G. then himself led a charge against those most of whom did not look like students. ..It was then decided to open fire and 7 Gurkha Military Police were drawn up with their rifles ready. The DM and the SDO then again went ahead to give warnings about a possible firing if the crowd did not disperse immediately…Still they did not leave and two in the front lifted their shirts so as to bare their chests at the same time shouting an invitation to firing. One of them in a sort of khaki coloured shirt came into the centre of the road to do this. It was obvious that the rioters knew they were to be fired on. The firing was then first directed towards the left. Two or three men were seen to fall on the left and 4 were killed outright on the right, and some 25 were injured of whom 3 subsequently died in hospital… The rioters scattered for a moment and then returned to pick up the wounded whom they carried away. Firing was commenced about 3 minutes to 5.00 P.M. and 13 rounds ball were fired...It is to be noted that while the firing was in progress, a Congress flag was hoisted on the central flag staff of the Assembly building, obviously by someone who had obtained access to the roof and who has not been identified... He lowered the flag after the firing had ceased and took it away.
It was indeed the most inapt handling of an extremely sensitive situation in which, most certainly, some unscrupulous officers were involved, particularly in view of the stratagem of the suddenly hoisted counterfeit flag! Also, a crowd which had stayed peacefully assembled near the Assembly gate for more than two hours was unwisely provoked repeatedly by charges by the lathi-wielding constabulary and the Mounted Police into retaliatory brick-batting from scattered elements in the crowd, precipitating the firing. And there could be absolutely no justification for targeted shooting of emotionally worked up school-students standing in front of the crowd when the brickbats were being thrown from distant corners in the crowd. If firing took place at 5 p.m., after the crowd had stayed there relatively peacefully for more than three hours, by which time it had got restive and violent following the repeated charges by the police, the authorities could certainly have exercised more patience and better judgment by waiting for some more time for the crowd to slowly disperse, as it had been doing already, and then making arrests of the more persistent in the crowd.
The inevitable turbulence that spread like wild prairie fire throughout the province in the coming days was mainly sparked off by this brutal killing of innocent youth by the military police. The baring of the chests of the youth to the bullets luridly epitomized the highest ideals of non-violence and exemplary patriotism pitted against brutal imperial military violence. It was indeed the same monstrous war machine operating on the one side against the mighty Nazi military power and on the other against a totally unarmed, helpless people whom ‘the Government [had] goaded…to the point of madness’, as Gandhi put it.Wolpert/53
Patna had thus become the epicenter of the turbulence with a ripple effect throughout the whole province. As the authorities reported -
On the 12th [August] there was complete hartal…There were processions in different parts of the town. In the evening a very crowded meeting was held in the Kadamkuan Congress Maidan…The audience was openly incited to bring the Government to knees by cutting all means of communications and by other acts of sabotage paralyzing the war efforts….It had instantaneous effect and a police lorry parking nearby was set on fire and the mob spread in all directions of the town…cutting wires, blocking the roads by felling trees…breaking open the culverts, knocking down the letter boxes and by removing the rails…Cutting of telephone and telegraph wires began all over the district. All important roads were blocked…railway tracks were removed. Railway stations began to be burnt and looted and trains held up. A mob at Fatwah near Patna… dragged two Canadian officers out of a train, murdered them and threw the bodies in the Ganges….Such chaotic conditions continued in and around Patna till a military contingent arrived from Ranchi on the 14th. The saboteurs then retired to villages and the interiors.