History revisited

From Tamluk to Nandigram: How the Quit India movement brought down the Left Front in West Bengal

A short history of how a small part of Bengal liberated itself from British rule in 1942 – and continued to speak truth to power even after 1947.

Today, 74 years ago, on August 8, 1942, the Congress passed what has come to be known to history as the Quit India resolution. The entire summer had seen Mohandas Gandhi in an unprecedentedly belligerent mood towards the British. Three years earlier, a month before the start of World War II, however, Gandhi had had Subhas Bose expelled from the Congress for advocating a mass movement, preferring instead, along with entire right wing of the Congress, to work with the Raj.

But now things were different and Gandhi was turning increasingly hostile – a change Jawaharlal Nehru attributed to “Gandhiji’s feelings that Japan and Germany will win [World War II]”, a popular sentiment at the time, before the allies turned the tide in Stalingrad.

On July 10, Gandhi spoke vehemently against the Raj’s scorched-earth policy in Bengal, built to deny provisions to Japan should it invade from Burma – a move that would cause a famine killing three million Bengalis. This statement was so incendiary that the British government thought it amounted to the declaration of a “parallel authority acting in defiance of…measures necessary for the prosecution of war.”

Arrest and repression

Then, on July 14, the Congress passed a resolution asking for complete independence and speaking vaguely of a “widespread struggle”, without giving any details how this was to be accomplished. The resolution of August 8, more or less, repeated the points made in the July 14 resolution: independence and a vague reference to mass struggle.

The British reaction this time, though, was different. Taking the Congress off guard, the Raj arrested the entire party leadership and banned the organisation. Historian Sumit Sarkar explains that the August 8 resolution was not a call for a mass movement per se or a complete break with the Raj:

“far from ruling out further negotiations, the whole thing may conceivably have been an exercise in brinksmanship and a bargaining counter.”

The British, facing a life and death struggle of their own, though, were in no mood to negotiate with the Congress. Not only did they arrest the Congress leadership, before they could launch any sort of mass movement, the Raj also unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression with no less than 57 armed battalions deployed against Indian civilians.

Leaderless and under heavy fire, nevertheless, Indians across the subcontinent fought back. On August 31, the Viceroy would write:

I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world.

In fact, so fierce was the Indian response that, for the first time in a century, the Raj actually lost control of some areas. One of them was located on the western coast of Bengal, in Midnapore district, where rebels ran an independent government for two whole years, called the Tamluk Jatiya Sarkar, the Tamluk National Government.

Heroic resistance

Most of the revolutionary activities in the area were led by a Congressman, Sushil Kumar Dhara and Satish Samanta (although given the famine and the chaos, quite a bit of the resistance was also leaderless).

Villagers in some cases attacked armed soldiers taking away rice from the district – resisting the colonial scorched-earth policy which would soon lead to mass starvation. By the end of September, Dhara’s team was taking over police stations and government officers. In this direct action, 71-year old Matongini Hazra was shot and killed as she attempted to take over the police station of the district headquarters located in Tamluk.

Hazra’s murder came to symbolise the immense British repression as well as the heroic grassroots resistance that characterises the Quit India movement and she remains an icon of anti-colonial struggle. Modern Kolkata remembers her with a statue at the Brigade Parade Grounds, proudly holding up the Congress flag – which is what she was doing when she was shot.

By the end of 1942, the Tamluk Jatiya Sarkar had been fully established and the Raj – with the imperial centre of Calcutta only two hours away – completely cut off. Government buildings had been taken over, roads dug up and telegraph wires cut.

British repression

The British response was initially brutal. Colonial security forces fired upon unarmed Midnaporis and even machine-gunned Tamluk town using aeroplanes. In October, 1942 a massive cyclone hit the region and the Raj, as collective punishment, provided almost no relief work. After a while, though, the Raj simply let the provisional government be, given that it did not really threaten the war effort – which is all the British were interested in at the moment. Tucked away in the south of Bengal, Midnapore did not affect either the Assam or Burmese front of war.

The Jatiya Sarkar, meanwhile, launched a militia, in the hope of helping Bose’s Indian National Army, should it succeed in invading British-held Bengal (it didn’t). The Sarkar was also involved in cyclone relief work and was actually rather successful in famine relief, targeting hoarders and distributing surplus paddy to the poor. The parallel government was so organised that it even ran its own justice system, helping to dispose of 1,681 cases.

Eventually, while the Quit India movement did not succeed in its immediate aim – of making the British quit India – it did have a major impact on Britain’s colonial policy after the war. Clear that they could not hold India by force, the British looked to work out a negotiated withdrawal from India – which they did on August 15, 1947.

1942 to 2007

And it wasn’t only 1947. The culture of Midnapore which had produced something as radical as the Tamluk Jatiya Sarkar wasn’t going to quieten down overnight. Sixty years later, in 2007, the Left Front government looked to acquire land forcibly in the Nandigram area of Midnapore – one of the areas liberated by the Tamluk Jatiya Sarkar. In a movement startlingly similar to 1942, Nandigram simply cut itself off from Kolkata. Protestors dug up roads, cut off telephone cables and declared a muktanchal, “liberated zone” free from government control. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told the West Bengal Assembly, “For two and a half months, the administration could not function at Nandigram”.

Eventually, the state government would launch a massive operation involving 3,000 policemen supported by Communist Party of India (Marxists) cadre to try and “take back” Nandigram. During this, the police opened fire on protestors, killing between 14 (official figures) to 50 people.

Like in 1942, though, the events in Midnapore reverberated far beyond the district. Four years later, the Trinamool Congress would make opposition to forcible land acquisition its main point of attack against the ruling Left, holding up the violence in Nandigram as a graphic example. The campaign would be a success and Nandigram would end the Left’s 34-year rule over West Bengal.

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