While Indian revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Chandrashekhar Azad are well-known names in the Indian freedom movement, decades before them, it was Jatindranath Mukherjee, popularly known as Bagha Jatin, whose exploits set British India on fire. Journalist Saswat Panigarhi looks at how Bagha Jatin, met the German Crown Prince and roped him in, for an audacious assault against the British and how it all ended on a small stretch of coast, in Odisha.
Historically, there were two attempts to use Germany, at two different periods of Indian history, for the liberation of India from the British.
In fact, Germany was the first country among the Axis Powers, visited by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose after he had smuggled himself out of India. The Berlin years of Bose – from 1941 to 1943, during the World War II period, were witness to the strategic attempt by the great Indian revolutionary to use Nazi Germany against the British imperialists for India’s independence.
It was in Germany that Subhas Chandra Bose was first known as ‘Netaji’ (Leaders’ leader). He was granted a full-fledged diplomatic status by Germany. He founded the Free India Centre in Berlin and also set up the Azad Hind Radio during his stay in Berlin. In Germany, Bose had raised a military unit called the Indian Legion out of the Indian prisoners of war who had previously fought for the British in North Africa prior to their capture by the Axis forces.
It was in Germany that Subhas Chandra Bose was first known as ‘Netaji’
Thirty years before Bose’s move, there was another attempt by another great Indian revolutionary to win independence for India in cooperation with Germany. Against the backdrop of the outbreak of World War I, Bagha Jatin had conceived an armed insurrection against the British in cooperation with Germany. Incidentally, this chapter is missing from popular history.
Bagha Jatin famously declared, ‘India has to rise with her own strength’
That was an era of rising nationalism not only in India, but also in various countries which were essentially opposed to British imperialism. The Indian freedom movement was taking a new turn as the then Viceroy of British India Lord Curzon effected the partition of Bengal in 1905. The nation was seething with discontent against British Raj. A young Bagha Jatin, who co-founded the Anushilan Samiti to carry forward the teachings of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, later launched a secret society named Jugantar Party. This was a decentralised federated body with scores of autonomous regional units. In fact, it was Sri Aurobindo who had entrusted Jatin with the crucial task of creating the ‘network of secret society’ for training dedicated youth for the revolution against the British. Soon Jugantar became a pan-India movement as lakhs of young revolutionaries rallied behind Bagha Jatin, who famously declared, ‘India has to rise with her own strength.’ His clarion call – ‘Amra morbo, jagat jagbe’ (We shall die to awaken the nation) , evoked the new spirit of Indian nationalism. That was the beginning of the ‘Agni Yuga’ (Fiery Age) in India’s independence struggle.
The Jugantar Party galvanised the spirit of strident nationalism. To raise ammunition, Bagha Jatin had secretly set up a bomb factory in Deoghar (situated in present day Jharkhand) after importing bomb making literature from Germany. The Jugantar Party reportedly masterminded several assassinations of British officials. It raised funds from its well wishers across the country and overseas; and also organised a series of robberies of British banks.
To raise ammunition, a bomb factory had been secretly set up in Deoghar
Jatin was arrested in the Alipore Bomb case, but released soon. Alipore Bomb case was a famous trial in which a number of prominent Indian revolutionaries such as Aurobindo Ghosh, had been arrested in a conspiracy to assassinate the Governor of Bengal. Then he was again arrested in connection to the Howrah-Sibpur Conspiracy case and locked in Howrah jail. After spending 11 months in jail, he was acquitted in 1911 and released. It was at that time, that Jatin started believing that sporadic attacks on British officials were insufficient and the time had come for an 1857 like all India uprising.
Steering towards the theory that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Bagha Jatin looked towards Germany for help. At that time Germany was already an engineering power.
The year was 1912 and Jatin called on the German Crown Prince who was on a trip to Calcutta. He discussed with him his plan for a massive armed insurrection for dislodging the British and subsequently creating a socialist government in India. Impressed by his plans, the German Crown Prince assured him his help and offered the delivery of arms, ammunition and funds, for the proposed armed insurrection, at a suitable time.
In 1912 Jatin met the German Crown Prince who was on a trip to Kolkata
The year was 1914 and World War I had broken out. A large contingent of soldiers of the British Indian Army were sent to fight the battle with the soldiers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Just an estimated 15,000 soldiers were left to guard India. Jatin saw that the time was ripe to trigger an uprising against the British forces.
Bagha Jatin by now had built connections across the world. By that time, several Indian revolutionaries in exile had been working in Germany, Europe and the US against the British. Jatin brought them together.
Shortly after World War I broke out, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, brother of the famous poet Sarojini Naidu and one of the pioneers of the Indian communist movement, formed the Berlin Committee in Germany which in turn formed an alliance with Bagha Jatin’s Jugantar Party. They also gained the support of the German Intelligence and German Foreign Office. The Berlin Committee, which was coordinating the transfer of arms, ammunition and funds from Germany for the armed insurrection in India, further convinced the German government that the able leadership of Bagha Jatin certainly had the potential to deliver a crippling blow to the common enemy – the British.
Bagha Jatin was secretly working on winning over the India soldiers posted at Fort William, Calcutta
By now the coalition of revolutionaries was widening. Lala Har Dayal, who was sent by the Berlin Committee to the US, formed the Ghadar Party by successfully bringing together Indian origin intellectuals in New York and the Punjabi labourers there. The Ghadar Party established ties with Jugantar. Simultaneously, the Jugantar Party established ties with Shyamji Krishna Varma’s India House in London.
Back home in India, Bagha Jatin was secretly working on winning over the India soldiers posted at Fort William, Calcutta – the nerve centre of British Indian Army – in favour of the proposed armed insurrection against the British.
In August 1914, Jugantar Party members smuggled a large consignment of guns and ammunitions from Roda Company in Calcutta, a British-owned gun manufacturing firm. In February 1915, Jugantar Party members looted huge amount of cash from Bird & Company in a daring dacoity in broad day light at Garden Reach area, situated on the neighbourhood of Calcutta.
Following this, Bagha Jatin was on the constant radar of the British Police. At that juncture it was difficult for him to operate out of Calcutta so he fled to Kaptipada in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, situated at a distance of 30 kilometers from Balasore town, for his next course of action. He set up two ancillary syndications of Jugantar – a business enterprise in the name of Universal Emporium at Balasore and a company called Harry & Sons in Calcutta. The aim of these two frontal operations of Jugantar were to facilitate transmission of information from Jatin to his fellow revolutionaries overseas and vice versa.
Bagha Jatin had plans to sever communications between Madras and Bengal and ultimately seize Calcutta
Meanwhile, Bagha Jatin entrusted the task of obtaining armaments and funds from Germany upon his key lieutenant MN Roy. Odisha’s Balasore coast was selected as the place where a shipload of arms consignment from Germany was supposed to be delivered for the proposed armed insurrection. The German ship named SS Maverick was supposed to sail through, from the West Coast of Mexico to Java to reach the Indian coast at Balasore later. The cargo was said to include as many as 30,000 rifles with 400 rounds of ammunitions each; and a huge amount of cash.
The plan was indeed fantastic. Bagha Jatin had plans to sever communications between Madras and Bengal and ultimately seize Calcutta. The date of the insurrection was set for December 25, 1915.
In April 1915, MN Roy left India and proceeded to Batavia in Indonesia in search of the German consignment which was believed to be en route somewhere in the Pacific. After making all the arrangements for the delivery of the cargo, he returned to India in June that year and arrived in Madras. On his arrival, Roy sent a telegram to Jadugopal Mukherjee of the Jugantar Party in Calcutta which read, “…arrived here, starting tonight for Balasore, expect to meet someone there.” Unfortunately, the telegram was intercepted by the British intelligence.
The entire plot of armed insurrection was leaked to the British intelligence
Jatin and his followers, who took shelter at Kaptipada, were supposed to receive the German ship SS Maverick – loaded with consignments arms, ammunitions and cash – at Balasore Coast. Destiny, however, intervened. SS Maverick never reached the Indian shores as the entire plot of armed insurrection was leaked to the British intelligence.
In fact, the British intelligence had begun to track the activities surrounding the plot in Bengal and Punjab, the two nerve centres of revolution for a possible armed uprising as early as early as 1911. A Punjab CID team, tasked to follow Lala Har Dayal and his Ghadar Party’s activities infiltrated into the plot of the conspiracy through a sepoy who had a cousin in the party.
In the US, the plot of the conspiracy was intercepted by a British intelligence officer named WC Hopkinson through his Irish and Indian channels. Moreover, in the US, an Indian operative, codenamed ‘C’, also passed on the details of the conspiracy to British Indian intelligence. Further, a Czech spy named EV Voska operating in the US, accessed the plot of the conspiracy and sold the information to the British. In addition, the very German agent, named Oren who was tasked to oversee the arms consignment turned out to be a double agent and revealed the information to British.
German ship SS Maverick was seized on its way to Balasore coast. Connecting the leads, the British Police raided Universal Emporium at Balasore and Harry & Sons in Kolkata. At Universal Emporium, the police found a small handwritten note in which ‘Kaptipada’ was mentioned. A team of British Police rushed to Kaptipada in search for Bagha Jatin. By the time the British search party reached Kaptipada, Jatin had left the place as he was kept informed about the British raid beforehand. Bagha Jatin, along with his followers, reached Balasore walking through the tough terrain of Mayurbhanj for two days. A large contingent of British Police, headed by the then Police Commissioner of Bengal Charles Tegart, and reinforced by army unit from Bhadrak’s Chandbali approached the revolutionaries in a pincers movement at the secluded rural hamlet of Chasakhand in Balasore suburb on September 9.
The gunfight lasted for around two hours. While the British side was armed with highly sophisticated rifles, Jatin and his followers fought with basic Mauser pistols.
Bagha Jatin, who was seriously wounded in the battle, succumbed to his injuries at Balasore Hospital on September 10. There were significant causalities on the British side also. Jatin’s associate Chittapriya Roy Choudhury died on the battle ground. His two other associates – Manoranjan Sengupta and Niren Dasgupta, were captured and later executed in Balasore Jail. His fourth associate Jotish Pal was sent to Andaman Jail.
Minutes before Jatin breathed his last in Balasore Hospital, the great nationalist-revolutionary said he was so was happy that ‘every drop of his blood has been shed in the worship of Mother India.’
Bagha Jatin shook the colonial administration till London. Charles Augustus Tegart, the British police head, wrote, ‘Bagha Jatin, the Bengali revolutionary, is one of the most selfless political workers in India. His driving power (…) immense: if an army could be raised or arms could reach an Indian port, the British would lose the war.’
Veer Savarkar is perhaps the connective link between the two different periods of history (of revolutionaries)
Although the armed uprising, conceived by Bagha Jatin, could not be materialised, it influenced future armed struggle by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Hindu Mahasabha president Veer Savarkar, who was closely associated with the Berlin Committee and India House in London during Bagha Jatin era, is perhaps the connective link between the two different periods of history. In fact, Savarkar, during his meeting with Netaji Subhas Chandra on June 21, 1940, at his Dadar residence, had advised the great Indian revolutionary to “smuggle himself out of the country, reach out to the axis powers and raise an Indian Army of liberation out of Prisoners of War” to launch a 1915-type armed struggle against the British.
Saswat Panigrahi is a Delhi based journalist. He is a political writer, policy observer and a researcher on cultural history. He tweets at @SaswatPanigrahi.
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