In March 1924, an 18-year-old Bengali boy named Gopinath Saha was hanged for the sensational daylight murder of a British businessman in Chowringhee Street in the heart of Calcutta, then the imperial capital of the British in India. But it was a case of mistaken identity. The man he had shot dead was a businessman by the name of Ernest Day, who he had taken to be Charles Augustus Tegart, a high-profile, senior police officer notorious for his brutal methods.
The Gopinath Saha Case, as it came to be known, not only sent shockwaves through the city’s fairly large European community but it almost resulted in a second split in the Indian National Congress.
Police Chief: Enemy No 1
In the 1920s, revolutionary violence in Bengal was at its peak and Tegart was Enemy Number One in revolutionary circles. Opinion on Tegart was sharply divided. The Irishman had headed the newly formed Special Branch or Intelligence Bureau of the Calcutta police since 1906.
He was regarded as a hero by British imperialists, who even built a legend around his fearlessness and of his mastery over the art of disguise, which enabled him to pose as a Bengali Bhadralok to collect intelligence.
Tegart was so nonchalant even in the face of danger that, it was said, he drove around Calcutta in an open car with his bullterrier seated on the bonnet. Tegart served in Ireland as well in 1920. He was knighted in 1926.
It is easy to understand why Irish Republicans and bomb-throwing and gun-toting Bengali revolutionaries, inspired by their Irish counterparts, regarded him as an arch villain. They accused him of using the most brutal methods of interrogation to extract information from suspects, a charge that was confirmed by some of his colleagues in the police force. Although some Irish dismissed him as an incompetent officer, one of his superiors identified Tegart’s strength being able to recruit informants and penetrate revolutionary organisations.
This was evident in the large numbers of men rounded up in Bengal over the 30 years that he served in India. Tegart was credited with shooting down legendary Bengali revolutionary Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin) in an encounter in 1915.
It cannot be denied that the danger to his life and the lives of other key British personnel in India was real, with incidents of political violence being widespread. Political assassinations had claimed the lives of one Viceroy and several senior officials, including a close Bengali associate of Tegart, across half a century.
Strictly speaking, it cannot be said that Tegart survived an attempt on his life in the Saha incident since he was nowhere near the scene of the shooting and, in any case, it was another man who fell to the assassin’s bullets.
There was only one real attempt on his life, in 1930, when a couple of men threw a bomb at Tegart’scar in Dalhousie Square (now BBD Bagh), in the centre of Calcutta, when he was the city’s commissioner of police, a position to which he had been elevated in 1923. He escaped miraculously and only died of natural causes in 1946.
However, it was not the European community of Bengal alone that was shaken by the daring murder.
Principle of Non-Violence Challenged
The incident stirred a serious nation-wide debate within the freedom movement itself. It triggered the first serious challenge to the novel doctrine of non-violence introduced into the national movement for the first time in 1920 by Mahatma Gandhi.
With the help of non-violent non-cooperation, Gandhi had succeeded in breathing new life into the national struggle, which had flagged in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. This spell of success, however, was short-lived and the movement was called off by Gandhi in 1922, following the Chauri Chaura violence because it violated his cardinal principle.
He admitted he had made a“Himalayan miscalculation”, and was tried and awarded a six-year jail term which, in effect, removed him from the active political scene. This served only to strengthen the rival group within the Congress. The Saha incident perhaps foreshadowed the much more high-profile controversy that wracked the Congress during the early ’30s, over the execution of Bhagat Singh although by that time, Gandhi’s leadership was unquestioned.
Congress Split Down The Middle
In 1920, the Congress was already divided between two rival factions – one wanting to work the popular councils announced under the Montagu-Chelmsford Award of 1919, and the other following the Gandhian path wanting to altogether boycott the legislatures.
The first group, led by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Motilal Nehru, wanted to contest elections to these councils while the other group, led by Mahatma Gandhi, wanted an outright boycott of legislatures along with other official bodies like the courts and government-run schools and colleges. In 1920 the Gandhi group won the day and their entire programme of non-cooperation was accepted by the Congress.
But by the end of 1922, with the Mahatma in jail, Das and Nehru tried to press home their advantage by proposing a resolution to permit contesting elections. They lost the first round being outvoted by Gandhi loyalists on this issue. The two (Das and Nehru) resigned and formed the Swaraj Party. But within a year (September, 1923) the two groups, agreed on a compromise that averted a complete split by allowing Congressmen to contest elections to the new councils. Propaganda on boycott of councils would remain suspended.
The Gopinath Saha incident added a new dimension to the rivalry, as the opinion on non-violence further divided the two groups. The principle of non-violence was clearly violated when the Bengal unit of the Congress, prompted by Das, praised what it called Saha’s self-sacrifice, setting, as it were, the cat among the pigeons. The Bengal unit’s action threatened the Mahatma’s dominance over the party organisation.
Mahatma Gandhi was released from jail early, in February 1924, due to poor health. During his two-year absence, the reins of the Congress had passed into the hands of Das and Nehru, who had become the two most influential members of the party. Das ruled supreme in Bengal, then the largest province in the country, while Nehru kept the Swarajist flag flying in the central legislature.
The Saha Resolution
As Gandhi returned to active politics, Das threw down the gauntlet by getting the Bengal Provincial Congress to pass the Saha Resolution in June, barely two months after his execution. It praised Saha’s “self-sacrifice” but did not condemn the murder, as a party that subscribed to non-violence should have done.
The resolution not only galvanised the administration into action but stirred up indignation in Mahatma Gandhi. As author and journalist Nirad C Chaudhuri has pointed out, never before had an open political organisation expressed sympathy with violent deeds even if they privately sympathised with them.
After that, the controversy over violence spilt over outside Bengal. For his part, Gandhi introduced a number of resolutions at the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in Ahmedabad at the end of June 1924, seeking to reassert his authority, including a resolution unequivocally condemning the murder of Ernest Day by Gopinath Saha.
The tussle became more absorbing as Das sought to nullify the effect of the resolution by moving an amendment, which more or less-stated the Bengal Congress’s sympathy for Saha, thereby tacitly endorsing violence and posing a direct challenge to the Mahatma’s first principle of non-violence.
He backed it up with the emotional card that if the Congress had any sympathy for the sentiment of Bengal, its members should unanimously vote for his amendment. As the biggest province, Bengal in those days played a critical role in national politics, somewhat analogous to today’s Uttar Pradesh. In other words, Das was asking the party leading the nationalist movement to choose between him and Gandhi.
The Power Struggle: Who Won, Who Lost
Das lost by just eight votes. While the main resolution was passed, the amendment was rejected by 78 votes to 70. By the narrowness of the margin, Gandhi realized that he could not obtain a walkover over his rival group and, as one rival put it “ram his saintliness down the throats of his less saintly countrymen”.
So he decided to take a step backwards and by the end of the year entered into a truce with the Swarajists for a second time. But he accurately put his finger on the main point at issue, which was that “Das and his followers had room for political murder in their philosophy”, something that violated the bedrock of his own fundamental beliefs.
Mahatma Gandhi’s decision to bide his time and allow the opposition to lose steam paid off in the long run, not by design but by the course that events took. By October 1924, the government had rounded up many followers of Das, including Subhas Chandra Bose, to check the rising tide of violence in Bengal.
Fate also lent a hand to Gandhi as the Das faction received a great setback with Das’s death in June 1925. From then onwards, it was left to Subhas Chandra Bose to carry the battle into the Gandhi camp. In the words of Nirad C Chaudhuri, who was closely associated with the Bose brothers, Subhas was “prone to think in terms of militaristic as well as terroristic violence.” Both of these inclinations were diametrically opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence. After a brief truce between them, Bose was hopelessly outmanoeuvred and eventually ousted from the Congress by 1939.
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