With the death of England’s Queen Elizabeth II and India’s recent celebration of 75 years of Independence, a debate has been raging on social media: was the British Empire actually a force for good? The jury has been out for a while now.
I would like to share my family’s experience of life under colonial rule and the deadly consequences of challenging the empire.
My grandfather, Probodh Chandra Das, and his elder brother Nibaran Chandra, lived in a joint family in the Rajar Deori area of what is now called Old Dhaka in pre-Partition India. Nibaran Chandra, a senior government employee died young, leaving behind his wife, Kironbala Devi and four children – Anil, Sunil, Parimal and daughter Latika.
My grandfather, a well-to-do lawyer, took responsibility for them. All the children were bright. Anil and Sunil, both went on to do a Masters in Chemistry at Dhaka University and studied under the guidance of Professor Gyan Ghosh, who headed the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 1939. At 23, Anil even wrote a textbook on chemistry, which started selling well.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Bengal – like many parts of India – was in a state of revolt against British rule. Every year, more than 100 armed attacks were recorded against the colonial government between 1930 and 1933.
Dhaka, Midnapore, along with Kolkata, were the centres of this revolt in Bengal. It was difficult for courageous young men like Anil and Sunil, in their early 20s, to remain aloof at a time of nationalist upsurge. They eagerly joined the underground revolutionary movement in Bengal.
Anil Das, by then a social worker who taught poor students, joined one of the two organisations the British administration dreaded – Sri Sangha, founded by revolutionaries Anil Roy and Leela Roy. Later, Leela Roy became a part of the Constituent Assembly that framed the Indian Constitution. The other Party was Bengal Volunteers.
The year 1930 was eventful. Inspector General of Bengal FI Lowman was assassinated by revolutionaries while Superintendent of Police E Hodson was injured. The British police raided the homes of known party members. They came looking for Anil and our home in Dhaka was raided. Luckily for Anil, he had gone to see off a visitor. Tipped off about the raid at home, he disappeared underground. Since Bengal had become too hot for him, he took shelter in Benaras and then in Lower Assam.
Death in custody
Constantly on the move, Anil remained underground for two years and surfaced on May 13, 1932. To secure funds for the Revolutionary Party, he and his associates stopped a moving train in broad daylight at the Nilkhet level crossing in Dhaka and seized the cash on board.
Anil was arrested on June 7, 1932. My grandfather, Probodh Chandra Das, was his defence counsel. When Anil was produced in court on June 11, 1932, it was clear he had been subjected to such brutal torture that he could barely stand in the dock. Under the governorship of the “Right Honourable” Sir Stanley Jackson, the Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Act was in place.
The law had annulled all basic human rights – including habeas corpus, to release a person imprisoned unlawfully..The British judge agreed to the prosecution’s demand to extend Anil’s custodial remand despite clear evidence of torture.
Anil was kept in jail without food and tortured on the orders of Superintendent of Dhaka Police Cyril Grasby. But he refused to talk and even threatened to bite off his tongue and spit it out rather than sign the confession the police wanted. The police then shifted him to the dreaded Lalbagh Prison on the outskirts of Dhaka.
According to Ganesh Ghosh, another prisoner of the Chittagong Armoury Raid fame who was lodged in the neighbouring cell, on the night of June 17, 1932, terrible cries of pain could be heard from Anil’s cell and then a deathly silence descended on the prison. That night, Anil died of cerebral haemorrhage. The next morning, a police van came to our house and left Anil’s body in the courtyard. He would have turned 26 that day.
As his body was taken for the cremation, there were city wide demonstrations. But in colonial India, there was no recourse, no reprieve.
Protest in colonial India
My grandfather, who had been very fond of his nephew, was unable to walk for a few weeks. But as a well-known lawyer, he would not let the administration go unchallenged. He reached out to the prominent legislator Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to raise a question in the Bengal Assembly on the death of Anil Das.
Mukherjee did, but he was immediately threatened with expulsion from the assembly if he alleged that Anil Das had died in the custody of the British government. My grandfather pushed to have similar questions raised in the Central Legislative Assembly – today’s Indian Parliament – and even in the British Parliament. He wrote a series of editorials in the Ananda Bazar Patrika over the role of the British police in the custodial murder of Anil Das.
One of Anil’s students decided to display his dissent differently. On August 22, 1932, while Superintendent of Dhaka Police Grasby’s car was at a railway crossing, Benoy Bhushan Roy shot at him. Grasby escaped with minor injuries and 18-year-old Benoy Bhushan Roy was sent to life imprisonment in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans.
The afterlife of revolt
The British administration was deeply vengeful. Anil’s younger brother Sunil was arrested without formal charges and kept in one of the many specially constructed detention camps across India at Hijli Jail – part of the campus of the Indian Institute Technology, Kharagpur, today.
At 23, Sunil’s research on the properties of light had been published in the American Journal of Physical Chemistry. But he was imprisoned for more than a decade. Anil’s youngest brother Parimal was too young to be arrested, but was followed around by police informers.
One day in September 1933, tired of plainclothes policemen trailing him, Parimal, a budding writer and first-year student of English Honours at Dhaka University, tried to give the police a slip. He raced across a railway track, but his dhoti got stuck and while trying to extricate it, a speeding train ran over his legs. Pariman died.
My father, the younger son of Probodh Chandra Das, and the rest of his family lived through the harrowing Bengal Famine of 1943. My father was forever changed by the unspeakable trauma he witnessed of residents writhing in hunger and starving children dying in the streets, too weak even to cry.
Madhushree Mukherjee’s pioneering study has shown that the 3.5 million deaths in the last big famine of British India could have been prevented, but the “defender of Democracy”, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chose to let the residents of Bengal perish.
Then came Partition in 1947 and overnight, my family became foreigners in their ancestral land. Anil Das’s youngest sibling, Latika, who founded the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti of the Communist Party of India, died while leading a women’s demonstration which was fired upon by the Police.
The shadow of the colonial master was a looming presence over the major events in my father’s life, be it the death of his cousins, the famine and then Partition. A family that had challenged the might of the empire had paid for it dearly.
The ruler and the ruled
The British rule over India was different from the Spanish and Portuguese colonisation, of South America for example. There was less random violence. Instead, exploitation was systemised through excessive taxation and other modes of expropriation of Indian money, what freedom fighter Dadbhai Naoroji called the “drain of wealth”.
It was fine-tuned into a process that systematically killed millions in a succession of man-made famines, and according to a study by economist Utsa Patnaik, siphoned off approximately $45 trillion from India.
The brutalities of British administration were painted over by the rule of law and justice, supported by the global propaganda of essential British goodness aided by the Western media. Freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose called the BBC the “Bluff and Bluster Corporation”.
But this was so only as long as the colonial subjects quietly acquiesced to the asymmetry of power between the ruler and the ruled.
Those who objected were dealt with a medieval fury not different from other autocracies in history. Be it the brutal suppression of rebellions such the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, the Santhal Rebellion of 1857, or the uninhibited custodial torture in the 20th century.
What differentiated British rule was its claim to being a force for good, while being otherwise – it was the yawning gap between what it preached in Britain and what it practised in the colonies that lay in the heart of its darkness.
Dipankar Das is the nephew of Anil Das. He is a former UGC Research Fellow in Modern Indian History. He was affiliated to the Centre for Historical Studies, School for Social Sciences, JNU. His Twitter handle is @Sirdipankar and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.