In early 1908, the Dhidhiria Mountain on the outskirts of Deoghar in what is now Jharkhand reverberated to the sound of a terrific explosion, and the body of a young Bengali man was found at the scene. He had been killed by a bomb, but no one realised that this was only the beginning of a plot that would echo through the annals of history.
The epicentre of the plot was a garden house in an area in North Kolkata known as Muraripukur. The house belonged to civil surgeon Krishnadhan Ghosh. Convinced that an English education would secure the future of his children, Ghosh took them to England in 1879, and enrolled them in St Paul's School in London. Among them was his son Aurobindo, who 14 years later joined the Baroda Raj Service and returned to India in 1893. Back in his homeland, Aurobindo developed a keen interest in Sanskrit and began studying the language.
In 1905, Lord Curzon, the then Governor-General of India, decided to Partition Bengal into Hindu and Muslim majority areas. This outraged a large section of the Bengali population and there were mass protests against the British. Inspired by revolutionaries in Europe, a number of young Bengalis took up arms to overthrow the British in India through violent means.
It was when political protests erupted against the partition of Bengal that Aurobindo made his debut to politics in 1905. With the growth of an educated middle class in India in the 19th century, there had been a rising sense of Indian national identity, which had fuelled a political movement.
In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded, which lobbied for greater autonomy and liberalisation. However, the movement took a violent turn in Punjab and Bengal, with secret organisations springing up. These aimed to altogether topple British rule in India through the use of violence. One such organisation was the Anushilan Samiti in Kolkata, and among its members was Aurobindo’s brother, Barin Ghosh.
Slowly, the Muraripukur garden house turned into a place where Aurobindo and like-minded young men began to meet and plot an armed revolution. Their plan was to manufacture bombs. The Muraripukur garden house soon turned into a bomb-making workshop. While these activities were taking place in the rear of the property, religious songs were sung loudly in the front rooms, to confuse curious passers-by.
Along with manufacturing bombs, the youth also decided to collect arms and ammunition, especially revolvers, which they obtained through stealing, looting and smuggling. When the first lot of bombs was ready, there was a need to test them. Thus, a group of five men – Ullaskar Dutt, Barin Ghosh, Bibhuti Bhusan Sarkar, Nalini Kanto Gupta and Prafulla Chandra Chakraborty – travelled to Deoghar.
In his book The Alipore Bomb Case: A Historic Pre-Independence Trial (2008), Nurul Huda writes that the bomb worked beautifully, but Prafulla Chakraborty, who had hurled it, failed to take cover in time and was instantly killed by the blast, while Ullaskar Dutt was seriously injured.
Meanwhile, another young Bengali, Hemchandra Kanungo Das, had sold his house in Kolkata and arrived in Marseille, France, at the end of 1906, to learn bomb-making. Here he hooked up with well-known Marathi revolutionary Pandurang Mahadev Bapat, known today as ‘Senapati Bapat’, and the duo studied explosive chemistry and revolutionary organisation under a mysterious Russian anarchist known simply as “Ph D”. When Das returned from Europe, he was carrying with him a 70-page manual on bomb-making. He joined the Muraripukur gang.
Their first target was the Governor of Bengal, Sir Andrew Fraser. Barin Ghosh, Ullaskar Dutt and Narendra Goswami led the attempt. In October 1907, the group reached Chandranagar village near Giridih. Fraser was travelling to Ranchi by a special train and the bomb was to be placed on the railway tracks. However, the group missed their chance and the train passed without incident.
A second attempt was made a few days later. This time, Dutt placed the bomb under the railway line but the Governor cancelled his programme. A third attempt was made on 6th December 1907. The Governor had a scheduled visit in Kharagpur and a mine was placed under the railway tracks. This time, the explosion did hit the train but the Governor escaped unhurt. A fourth attempt was made using a pistol at a public meeting in November 1908, but the pistol jammed and the Governor was saved. The assassin, Jitendranath Rai, was caught and jailed.
The second target of the group was British Magistrate Douglas Kingsford, the district judge of Muzaffarpur, infamous for his harsh sentences. Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose were sent to Muzaffarpur to assassinate him. They reached the Motijhil area of Muzaffarpur and took up residence in the dharamsala of Kishorimohan Bandyopadhyay.
On the evening of 30th April 1908, the duo waited in front of the gate of the European Club for Kingsford’s carriage to emerge. When the carriage left the gates, the duo hurled a bomb and hit their target. But instead of Kingsford, the carriage was occupied by the wife and daughter of barrister Pringle Kennedy, a leading pleader at the Muzaffarpur Bar. While Miss Kennedy died within an hour, Mrs Kennedy died a couple of days later.
This time there was no escape. Khudiram Bose was arrested the next morning at Vaini station, now known as ‘Khudiram Bose Pusa Station’, Prafulla Chaki shot himself at Mokamaghat when the police tried to arrest him. Based on tips from informants, the Muraripukur garden house was raided along with seven other locations, including the Grey Street residence of Aurobindo Ghosh. Khudiram Bose was tried, convicted and executed on 11th August 1908. C P Beachcroft, the judge in Aurobindo’s case, was his former classmate from his ICS days.
The case was formally known ‘as Emperor versus Aurobindo Ghosh and others’ or the ‘Alipore Bomb Case’ as it was tried in the Alipore Sessions Court in Calcutta. There were 49 people accused, 206 witnesses, 400 documents and more than 5,000 exhibits produced in court. One of the accused, Narendranath Goswami, decided to turn witness for the prosecution, and was assassinated by the revolutionaries in the prison hospital.
The historic trial took a year to complete and came to a close on 6th May 1909. Aurobindo Ghosh and 16 others were acquitted. Barin Ghosh and Ullaskar Dutt were sentenced to imprisonment and eventually released in 1920. Hemchandra Kanungo Das and a number of others were sentenced to transportation for life and forfeiture of all properties. The trial made a hero of the defence attorney, Chittaranjan Das, who sacrificed his own health for the sake of the trial.
Aurobindo was incarcerated during the trial and, during this time, is said to have had a series of revelations that made him turn away from active politics and towards spirituality. He would go on to found an ashram in Pondicherry, then a French colony, which exists to this day. At barely 18 years of age, Khudiram Bose became one of the youngest freedom fighters to be hanged, and enormous crowds gathered along the streets and showered his body with flowers as it was taken for cremation. He was reported to have climbed the gallows with a smile.
Most of the accused in the Alipore Bomb Case had been a part of the clandestine revolutionary group, Anushilan Samiti. Following their arrests, revolutionary activities in Bengal were taken over by the Jugantar group, led by the firebrand Jatindranath Mukherjee, aka Bagha Jatin. In 1909, they assassinated Ashutosh Biswas, the prosecutor in the Goswami murder case. The following year, Shamsul Alam, investigator in the Alipore Bomb Case, as well as Naren Banerjee, Khudiram’s arresting officer, were both assassinated.
Undeterred by more arrests and prosecution, the group would go on to attempt the assassination of Viceroy Charles Hardinge, and try and to execute a nationwide mutiny in 1914, which came to be known as the Hindu-German Conspiracy. The Alipore Bomb Case first put the public spotlight on the Anushilan Samiti. Right from its founding in 1902, to its dissolution in the 1930s, almost every act of ‘revolutionary terrorism’ in Bengal was linked to this organisation. While police repression put an end to the revolutionary moment in Bengal in the 1930s, the Alipore Bomb Case remained a landmark in Bengal’s revolutionary struggle.