In February 1922, the region that is now called eastern Uttar Pradesh was in ferment. This was driven by the Non-Cooperation campaign against the British colonial administration and the Khilafat Movement, aimed at preserving the Caliphate in Turkey.

On Saturday, February 4, protestors congregated in a village called Chotki Dumri to express their outrage at police repression when they were trying to picket shops as part of the Gandhian programme of non-cooperation. One of them, Nazar Ali, bound the crowd by oath. They then marched a mile to the Chauri Chaura police station.

But once they reached the thana, matters deteriorated. The police fired in the air, only to be met by a rain of stones. The police then fired into the crowd of satyagrahis, killing three. Rage engulfed the crowd. It locked the policemen in the station and set it aflame, killing 23, including the station-officer.

On Thursday, the Bharatiya Janata Party resurrected this incident, as two of its leading stars – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath – inaugurated what they called the “centenary celebrations” of Chauri Chaura.

From ‘crime’ to freedom struggle

There was no lack of clarity in the line the programme took: “In Chauri Chaura, patriots challenged the might of English rule by destroying a symbol of British rule: the police station,” a short education video informed viewers just before Adityanath took the floor.

When Modi spoke, he took much the same line – there was to be no apology for the burning alive of the policemen that day: “What happened 100 years ago in Chauri Chaura was not just an act of arson or the act of setting fire to a police station. The message of Chauri Chaura was very significant.”

Modi made it clear that he considered the earlier historiography of Chauri Chaura to be incorrect and that it needed to be changed. “For a number of reasons, whenever we spoke of Chauri Chaura earlier, it was portrayed as an ordinary act of arson,” he said. “But we must see the circumstances for the fire, the reasons for it – that is just as important. The fire wasn’t lit in the thana – it burnt in the hearts of the people.”

A depiction of the Chauri Chaura incident in the 1982 motion picture "Gandhi".

Gandhian line

What did Modi mean when he argued that he wanted the history of Chauri Chaura as arson to be changed? Writing about Chauri Chaura in 1922, Mohandas Gandhi had directly called the incident a “crime”.

“No provocation can possibly justify the brutal murder of men who had been rendered defenseless and who had virtually thrown themselves on the mercy of the mob,” Gandhi wrote about an act of violence that had been committed by people who, at least in their own imagination, thought they were following a Gandian path.

In a shock move, Gandhi called off the Non-Cooperation Movement, arguing that Chauri Chaura showed that Indians were not ready for ahimsa or non-violence.

Clearly, Modi does not agree with Gandhi – although he took care not to rebut the Mahatma (or even mention him).

However, what Modi failed to mention was that the disagreement with the Gandhian line on Chauri Chaura had a long history. In fact, Gandhi’s decision to call off the Non-Cooperation movement was sharply contested within the Congress.

“If this was the inevitable consequence of a sporadic act of violence, then surely there was something lacking in the philosophy and technique of nonviolent struggle,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru in his autobiography noting that the suspension of noncooperation was “resented” by all “prominent Congress leaders”.

Maulana Abdul Bari, a leading Khilafat leader was even more scathing, calling Gandhi a “paralytic” whose “limbs are not in his control but whose mind is still active”.

Post-colonial rewriting

This other narrative became stronger after Independence. While Nehru was careful enough to call the actual act of arson “deplorable”, historian Shahid Amin writes in his comprehensive subaltern telling of the incident about how the incident is represented in local histories, such as the directory of accredited freedom fighters called the History of Freedom Struggle in the Gorakhpur District published in 1972.

These “post-colonial local histories ...always exculpate the martyrs of Chauri Chaura”, he says in his book Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922-1992.

There is also a break with Gandhi’s condemnation of the mob, writes Amin: “Now, this crowd is seen as a nationalist crowd, much as Gandhi had stressed it was. But, with due respect to Gandhi, the Chauri Chaura volunteers are not indisciplined ‘hooligans’ nor the ‘rogues’ (dusht) of all times and ages, ‘who twist even the best of doctrines in ways so as to create disorder for their own selfish ends’. In the 1972 District Account they figure as straightforward satyagrahis.”

Twenty-five years after Independence, Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the freedom fighter’s memorial in Gorakhpur to commemorate the incident – a sign that, the riot has been “incorporated within the Great Freedom Struggle”, Amin argues. This also includes the naming of trains after Chauri Chaura (the upgrading of which is also part of the Modi government’s centenary).

Adityanath at the Chauri Chaura event. Credit: PTI

Political connect

Given this historiographical process, it is hardly surprising that Modi completely avoided any apologies for the attack on the thana and presented it instead as a glorious act of nationalism. Hindu nationalists themselves acknowledge that while Hindutva admires the outer religious aspects of Gandhism, it has always rejected his emphasis on non-violence. It is thus hardly surprising that the centenary programme explicitly projected the attack on the police station (“a symbol of British rule”) as a glorious part of the Indian freedom struggle.

Modi also made sure to connect Chauri Chaura to his present government. “The same collective forces which ensured the delivery of India from slavery are also the basis of the Atmanirbhar abhiyan,” said Modi, connecting the incidentto his government’s programme to push a self-reliant programme for Indian manufacturing. He went on to draw a link to India’s Covid-19 vaccine programme and the recently announced Union budget.

Modi ended his speech by connecting Chauri Chaura to his vision of hard nationalism: “Because they [people punished for Chauri Chaura] died, we got independence. They died for the nation. You must take an oath to live for the nation.”