The singing rose faintly over idling truck engines. A merciless summer sun bore down on khaki-clad men as they climbed out of their trucks and formed lines on Beach Road. The creases on their starched uniforms mirrored the sharp bayonets stacked in the trucks. Jemadar Kumaran Nair ordered his platoon of the Malabar Special Police, known colloquially as the MSP, a dreaded paramilitary force trained by officers of the British Indian Army, to attention. He wheeled around smartly and saluted the Englishman. Almost on cue, lilting voices replaced the harsh rattle of the truck engines.

Commandant H Keane nodded curtly and pointed his swagger stick at the singing.

‘Get rid of them, Jemadar!’ he barked at his platoon leader.

‘Yes, sir!’

Kumar’s eyes followed the swagger stick to a distant group holding black flags and banners. People dressed in white sat in orderly rows across the broad road that separated Madras from the sands that rolled gently for half a mile into the Bay of Bengal.

‘Platoon, lathis out! Follow me!’

Kumar, his athletic frame just short of six feet in height, set a steady pace. Sweat formed slowly on his forehead. His men held truncheons across their chests and began a slow jog. Hobnailed boots hit the pavement in unison; their crump sliced through the tropical mid-afternoon stupor. Waves crashed ashore in a languid rhythm, as if to erase the yards of sand stretching between the ocean and the road.

The platoon approached the lush Marina Cricket Ground, where oblivious to the searing heat, police and demonstrators, the Englishmen played a leisurely game. Huddled in summer whites around the cricket pitch, they echoed the seagulls circling overhead. Women with parasols sat in cane chairs at one end of the ground and sipped at cups of tea. They applauded politely as a moustachioed batsman thwacked a red leather ball, sending a fielder chasing after it.

Kumar glanced at the cricketers and shook his head.

That is supreme disdain for you. Only the English would. . .

A rush of salty air broke into his thoughts. Leaving the ground behind, the platoon crossed Pycrofts Road and jogged past the Presidency College. The majestic building’s pointed arches rose from manicured grounds and skipped across deep red walls, towards a tower capped by a dome. Kumar squinted as he neared the demonstrators. The green lawns, red buildings and blue skies merged like a giant flag challenging the saffron, white and green tricolours of the freedom movement sprouting from the crowd.

A sea of banners swayed gently in the breeze. ‘Long live Bhagat Singh!’, ‘Freedom is our birthright!’, ‘Long live the revolution!’ they declared in English and Tamil. The British had executed Bhagat Singh, a much-loved freedom fighter, the previous day. Black flags rose from among the seated demonstrators like a forest of tall, dark axes. Strains of ‘Vande Mataram’, the Indian freedom anthem, rang out clearly over the murmuring waves.

The demonstrators were now visible. When he listened carefully, Kumar heard only female voices singing. Women wearing white saris sat in rows across the metalled road. He scanned the crowd carefully, from the first row to the last, for male demonstrators. ‘Platoon, slow forward!’ he ordered. The platoon changed pace like an engine shifting gears.

A few singers wavered nervously, and some stopped mid-sentence. Others rallied round and clapped to accompany the meandering tune. The odd serenity puzzled Kumar. Women sat calmly in lines like mannequins glued together. He had always seen protestors flee when the MSP arrived. The unit’s reputation, as the British Empire’s brutal weapon that scattered adversaries with scant regard for life and limb, was well known.

‘Platoon, halt!’

The platoon stopped about twenty feet from the women. They were close enough to see each other’s faces. The men wore expressionless masks ingrained from years of training. The women exchanged hurried looks, fear flashing from one set of eyes to the other like lightning bolts. The seconds stretched into minutes. Sweat dripped hesitantly from chins on to crisp uniforms. The policemen slapped lathis on their open left palms, occasionally falling in rhythm with the clapping singers. A few women made defiant eye contact.

Kumar wanted to order his men ahead. The words rose from his throat, but something stopped him. He suddenly felt cold and shivered violently despite the blazing sun.

I’ve never felt this way in my seven years with the MSP. I’ve done everything they asked me to do. Broken a lot of heads and arms when they sent us in after all else failed. This is just one more order. Obey. That’s what they taught me. He heard three elongated honks from one of the trucks left behind to block traffic.

Commandant Keane is urging me on. My men are looking to me for a decision. I have to make up my mind now or lose their respect forever.

Rap, rap, rap, clap, rap . . . the lathis and claps rang louder and louder in his head. He sucked in a lungful of sea breeze to soothe his parched throat.

No! I can’t do this. I wasn’t trained to break the skulls of unarmed women!

‘Platoon, at ease!’

The men put the lathis back into the loops on their belts and stood relaxed with arms behind their backs. Steady voices rose from the relieved women. Nervous smiles replaced anxious frowns on their faces. Kumar heard three more exasperated honks from the commandant’s truck. He looked back to see a truck racing down the deserted road to his position. Commandant Keane lunged out of the truck before it screeched to a halt. He raced around the men, drew himself to his full height and thrust his face inches in front of Kumar’s.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, Jemadar?’ he roared, as he whipped off his pith helmet. His flushed face matched the red walls of the Presidency College.

‘They’re. . .all women, sir!’

‘I don’t care if they’re bloody fairy queens! You’ve been given a direct order! Get your men to charge with lathis and disperse them. NOW!’

Excerpted with permission from The Swaraj Spy’, Vijay Balan, Harper Collins.