Chimur, located 90 km from Nagpur in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, is a nondescript village today. But it made national news in August 1942 with the kranti (revolution) that took place here during the Quit India Movement. The revolt lasted just three days but it reverberated through the hearts of all Indians and gave Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ call a powerful impetus – albeit at a terrible cost to the villagers.
In the early 20th century, Chimur was a large village surrounded by dense forests. It was also an important political centre during the reign of the Bhonsla Rajas of Nagpur in the 18th-19th century. It was home to well-to-do families of Maratha Sardars – the Naiks and Begdes – who owned huge ancestral wadas or homes and who were closely associated with the court of the Bhonsla Rajas. Owing to its fairly advanced political thought and proximity to Nagpur, Chimur became a politically active centre for the Congress, Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is little wonder that this village rose in revolt against the British Raj after the arrest of national leaders on 8th August 1942.
It was on this historic day that Mahatma Gandhi raised the ’Quit India' slogan from Bombay’s Gowalia Tank Maidan, an announcement that had powerful repercussions across the country. The British government responded by freezing the Congress’s assets and arresting most of its leaders, including Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The press was totally muzzled.
Following the arrest of prominent Congress leaders, the country was effectively leaderless. There was widespread violence across the nation as a protest against the British government's oppressive measures. Violence also shook many places in the Central Provinces and Berar, which had been a centre of political revolt and mass rebellion since the Revolt of 1857. The region witnessed political uprisings and massive campaigns in various places like Chimur, Ashti, Yaoli, Ramtek and Nagpur.
The trigger of the Chimur Revolt was a call from Sant Tukdoji Maharaj, a revered spiritual leader from Vidarbha, on the night of 15th August 1942. He performed a ‘Khanjari Bhajan’ (a devotional song sung using the instrument Khanjira) in Chimur and urged the people to demonstrate their patriotic fervour in these difficult times. The very next day, on 16th August 1942, exactly a week after Gandhi's arrest, riots broke out in Chimur. The police opened fire on a public demonstration organised to protest the arrest of Congress leaders. They continued to fire till they had exhausted their ammunition. Many lost their lives, many more were injured.
Enraged, the public attacked the police, killing a Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Circle Inspector, Naib Tahsildar and a Police Constable. Ten forest depots were set on fire. Some unarmed policemen were also thrashed by the mob. Others were humiliated by having their uniforms burnt and being compelled to wear Gandhi caps and carry Congress flags in processions. The agitated mob also demolished a road bridge leading to Chimur, thereby severing possible means of communication with the village.
When the District Magistrate K N Subramaniam got news of what had happened in Chimur, he reported it to the Provincial Government, saying the rebellion could not be quelled without the help of the army. Thus, on 19th August, a special train with 200 European soldiers and 50 Indian constables arrived at Wardha, 100 km north-west of Chimur. The soldiers and sepoys barged into homes in Chimur and unleashed unspeakable atrocities on the people.
– They thrashed men and boys, destroyed household goods and furniture, and raped women, young and old.
These were the means used to suppress the popular uprising. The Government, after ruthlessly quelling the riots, arrested and detained around 400 men.
Despite the threats and bayonets of the police and the military, an old woman in the village, Dadibai Begde, managed to urge the District Magistrate K N Subramaniam to show some mercy. He gave in and ordered the military to stop the violence. The rampage, rape and pillage in Chimur stopped but the people lived in mortal fear until 26th August, when the military finally left the town.
A collective fine of Rs 1 lakh was imposed on Chimur and almost all the men who were held responsible were put behind bars. The long and painful process of investigation of the people’s ‘crimes’ followed, causing untold hardship to the villagers.
In the last week of August 1942, the Bar Association of Chanda district, of which Chimur was a part, passed a resolution demanding an inquiry into the Chimur atrocities and sent it to the government. Their demand was not only turned it down, but the authorities also refused to lift the restrictions on the town.
The Nation is Shocked
Women rights activists from Nagpur – Vimlabai Deshpande, Dwarkabai Deoskar, Vimal Abhyankar, Ramabai Tambe and Durgabai Wazalwar – visited Chimur on 19th September and conducted an inquiry into the atrocities on the women of Chimur by conducting a ‘lane-to-lane’ survey of the village. They revealed the ghastly nature of the crimes committed by the military and, as word spread, political leaders in Nagpur were furious. Hindu Mahasabha leader Dr B S Moonje and his associate and activist Mr M N Ghatate visited Chimur on 25th September and inquired into the incidents that had taken place the month before.
They placed their findings before the Government and requested it to conduct an inquiry into them. Instead, the Government of the Central Provinces and Berar issued a lengthy statement on 16th October, saying that all the complaints about Chimur were fictitious and the women of Chimur had deliberately made up these accusations to defame the army.
But the political leaders were determined not to give up. Usha Mehta, a Gandhian and freedom fighter who ran an underground radio station in Bombay called Secret Congress Radio, broadcast the news of the rape of the women at Chimur, on 28th October. The news shook the nation and was subsequently broadcast by the Azad Hind Radio of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose from Berlin.
Red-faced and left with no defence, the Government of Central Provinces and Berar clamped down further, and banned the publication of any news about Chimur under the Defence of India Rules. This made it virtually impossible to get any justice for the people of Chimur and the victims of the atrocities. The October communiqué of the CP and Berar Government tried to dispose of the complaints in the gross, while the New Year communique tried to dispose of the complaints by defaming the complainants, one by one.
Professor Bhansali’s Fast
The Chimur case gained greater public attention when Professor J P Bhansali, a close disciple of Gandhi, went on an indefinite fast at the Wardha residence of industrialist, Gandhian and freedom fighter, Jamnalal Bajaj. Bhansali demanded an impartial inquiry into the excesses committed by soldiers in Chimur. In response, the government further tightened restrictions on the press, banning not only news or mention of Bhansali but even any reference to it. The press in India declared a one-day strike by suspending all publications on 6th January 1943, to protest the Government's despotic order.
A few days later, a settlement was reached between the CP Government and Bhansali, who was at the time on the 63rd day of his fast. Bhansali broke his fast on 12th January 1943, and the very next day, the CP Government according to the terms of the settlement, lifted the ban on newspapers writing about Chimur and allowed activists and journalists to visit the village. The CP Government also promised to ‘respect the dignity of women and protect them from any kind of molestation’. In July 1943, Dr M S Aney, a political leader from Vidarbha and also a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council, paid a visit to Chimur along with Bhansali.
After sustained protests across India, a commission was finally appointed to investigate the case. The inquiries made by the government revealed that 13 women had been raped, some of them by more than one European. Four minor girls had also been sexually assaulted. Women were robbed of all their jewellery and other possessions. The wife of the sarpanch or village head, who was pregnant, had also been raped.
The 400-odd people detained in Chimur were charged with violence and put on trial, and pleading on behalf of them were renowned activist-lawyers like K M Munshi, Balvantrao Deshmukh, Madhavrao Chendke, Ramchandra Siras, Raghunath Dewaikar, Dadaji Kovale and Baba Amte. In the end, death sentences were awarded to 29 people, 43 were sentenced to life imprisonment while several others suffered rigorous imprisonment and fined.
Lakhs of people across India signed a joint statement, urging the Government to commute the death sentences of the Ashti-Chimur accused. Among the prominent petitioners were members of the Congress, Muslim League, Communist Party, trade unions, workers unions, women’s organisaitons, student federations, Sikh organisations, Muslim organisations, journalists, doctors, writers, artists, businessmen, etc.
Of the 29 people awarded the death sentence, 14 had their sentenced commuted to life imprisonment. Finally, on 29th January 1945, the Central Provinces Government commuted the death sentences of eight of the 15, to life imprisonment and sent them to the Nagpur prison.
On 3rd April 1945, Gandhi issued a statement against the death sentences in the Chimur case, asking all Indians to make a united demand for the commutation of the death sentences of the remaining seven accused. Gandhi’s appeal received a spontaneous response from the working class of Bombay. A mass rally was held at Kamgar Maidan in Parel in Bombay, where around 1.5 lakh workmen of the Girni Kamgar Union, Railway and Tramway Union and BEST Workers' Union came out in protest. Together, they staged one of the biggest protests in the history of Bombay, marking 3rd April 1945 as ‘Chimur Day’. To shouts of “Commute the death sentences,” a resolution was passed condemning the death sentences and demanding that they be commuted.
On 9th April, Gandhi wrote a letter to Bhulabhai Desai, a prominent and influential Congress leader, expressing his concern over the Chimur's issue, saying, "If the prisoners of Chimur are hanged, how can we hope to form a nationalist government?" Gandhi requested him to "try to get something done with the agreement of the Muslim League, while the prisoners are still alive".
In the meantime, the British Crown, which then governed India, rejected the mercy petition on 31st March 1945. Gandhi issued a statement to the press in Bombay that same day, calling it “a cold-blooded, calculated murder as it will be done ceremoniously and under the name of so-called law, which will leave behind nothing but a great increase in the already existing woeful bitterness”.
Death Sentences Commuted
Following the Chimur trials, a Capital Punishment Relief Society (CPRS) had been set up on 7th February 1943 in Nagpur, to help the families of those given the death sentence in the Chimur and Ashti case. Dr N B Khare, first premier of CP and Berar in 1937, was its founder-president and its founder members were: G T Madkholkar, Veer Harakare, Advocate Rambhau Manohar, Advocate P K Tare, E S Patwardhan and A N Udhoji. It was formed to also help the accused who were not able to defend themselves.
In May 1943, Dr N B Khare was appointed as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, in lieu of which he had to step down from the presidency of the CPRS. Anasuyabai Kale, former Deputy Speaker of the Central Provinces Legislative Assembly, then became the president of the CPRS.
Towards the end of 1943, the Society appealed in the Nagpur (Bombay) High Court on behalf of the Chimur accused, against the capital punishment awarded to them in the lower court. When the High Court dismissed their appeal, they preferred an appeal before the Privy Council in England. But that too was refused in December 1944. Therefore, to put off the day on which the death sentences were to be executed, they submitted a mercy petition to the British Crown, King George VI, on behalf of the Chimur accused.
In this connection, Anasuyabai Kale, president of the CPRS, visited Delhi to meet the private secretary to the Viceroy of India. But even before the mercy petition was decided, the CP Government fixed the date of execution as 5th April 1945. Upon learning this, Dr N B Khare intervened and was successful in getting the date postponed. Later, Kale’s tireless efforts bore fruit when the King of England himself commuted the sentences of the seven persons on death row on 16th August 1945, to life imprisonment.
The news was announced publicly and these men – Gopalrao Korekar, Vinayak Bhope, Ganpati Channe, Domaji Kote, Baburao Kote, Dadaji Kirimkar and Dadaji Tannirwar – came to be known as the ‘Seven Immortals’ or ‘Saptarshi’ (Seven Rishis) of Chimur Kranti.
To mark the pivotal role played by Chimur in the freedom struggle and the heavy price paid by its villagers, a martyr's memorial was erected in Chimur and a ‘Shahid Library’ opened in memory of the martyrs. Every year since India’s Independence, 16th August is celebrated as ‘Kranti Diwas’ in Chimur, a tribute to its fearless freedom fighters and to the unforgettable memory of their glorious revolution.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amit Bhagat is an independent researcher. He is currently working on the Megalithic and Stone Age culture of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra.