A brief note on sources – The Kolkata Police Museum, Police Archives

I have been researching and writing on the socio-political history of Bengal for more than half a decade now. I came across information about this archive in the same way as most scholars do- from the references made in a book. In this case, this was a unique reference, that I found only in the work of the historian Joya Chatterji. No other historian had previously mentioned this archive. Obviously, this archive had only been opened recently to scholars. But what surprised me, what the lack of references from this archive in subsequent works. The Kolkata Police Museum archive strangely was shrouded in mystery.

Seeking permission to access this archive led me into the corridors of the Kolkata Police Headquarters, more famously known as ‘Lal Bajar’. Standing at the entrance to this imposing red building, I meekly told the constable on gate duty, that I had an appointment with the Assistant Commissioner of Police. He gruffly replied – ‘Bara Babu erom bhabe dekha koren na!’ (The ‘Bara Babu’ doesn’t meet commoners just like that!). Having stayed in Kolkata for quite some time, I knew this was coming. I responded with an equal measure of pride (at my preparedness) – ‘I have an appointment letter.’

The Constable clearly was not happy, letting a ‘commoner’ through the hallowed gates at her first attempt itself! Nonetheless, I was quickly pushed into the ‘Ladies Room’, where two extremely chatty female constables quickly frisked me, checked my bag for weapons and then asked what I do (they had to call up the receptionist at the Assistant Commissioner’s office to inform who had come). When I told them I was a researcher, they stared at me wide-eyed and eventually one of them exclaimed ‘Baap re!’ (My God!). She called up the receptionist and informed her of my arrival. After a short wait, a plainclothesman came to escort me to the office of the Assistant Commissioner.

The sweltering heat of the summer months of Kolkata soon disappeared as I stepped into the air-conditioned hallway to the offices of the ‘important’ police officers. I was asked to wait in a lounge area, till I was called for. Soon, the plainclothesman returned and escorted me into the immaculately maintained office of the Assistant Commissioner. I walked in (unsure whether I should put on a meek or confident demeanor) and shook hands with him. He immediately put me at ease and started asking me about my research. He repeatedly ensured me that the Police Museum would be a valuable asset for any research on Bengal, and that he wished more scholars would come and work there. He immediately granted me permission to access the Archive. Well, to say the least, I was overjoyed.

The next day I made my way to the Kolkata Police Museum, which houses the Special Branch (Police Archives). After a warm welcome and several offers for tea, I was taken to the Reading Room and presented with a neatly organised four volume catalogue. The catalogue was not just neatly organised, it was plain neat – clean, no dust stuck to my fingers while leafing through them! For someone who had been used to handling dusty catalogues in several other archives across India, this was indeed a welcome break. Soon a member of the staff came to check on me, and I handed him some file numbers that I had hurriedly managed to take down. He disappeared with my request slip, and I settled into making a catalogue list for myself. Quickly I realised that this was quite a daunting task, this archive was a minefield!

I spent nearly two days after that finishing my catalogue of files, and three years and countless trips later, I am still wading through them. I am not exaggerating when I say that this archive is a potential sea of sources for anyone working on socio-political history of late colonial Bengal. And not just that – for a change, it’s utterly enjoyable to spend your time at this archive – the staff is incredibly polite and always eager to help. There are several street food joints close by – if you fancy a cake or some nibble along with your afternoon tea, there are local bakeries, and if you stick around till the Archive closes at 5pm, you will be able to enjoy some of the finest chops, samosas, and rolls that Kolkata has to offer in the evening!

I would recommend and encourage scholars working on colonial Bengal to definitely make their way there – You would be in for a treat!

Questioning politics of protest in Gandhian mass movements – A view on the Quit India Movement 1942

Gandhi and Gandhian politics have always held a deep fascination for scholars of South Asian history. Endless debates and discussions have gone on regarding the nature and efficacy of Gandhian mass-movements in the Indian ‘freedom-struggle’. However, apart from Faisal Devji, historians have hardly been interested in looking at the practical scope of violence within the larger rubric of Gandhi’s non-violence. The Quit India Movement, his last mass movement, was also his grandest, in terms of scale and expanse, however, it was also the most violent of all his mass-movements. In Bengal, the movement saw the establishment of the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar (National Government of Tamluk) in December 1942 in Midnapore.

Midnapore had had a long tradition of anti-British struggle right from the time of partition of Bengal in 1905. It was small wonder then that it would participate in full strength in the 1942 movement. The movement began with an anti-British thrust, as elsewhere in the country. All symbols of British authority – post and telegraph, thanas, even costumes, such as Pugrees (head gear) and police uniforms – were attacked. Uniforms of police constables were regularly taken away or burnt and in several cases, especially during the thana attacks on 29th September, weapons and official papers at police stations or at Khas mahal offices were looted. Given the fact that Midnapore was badly affected by the Denial scheme and the Scorched Earth policy of the War-time Colonial state, the strong anti-British feeling was quickly translated into political action by the rebels once Gandhi gave the Quit India call. Midnapore also had been subjected to militant anti-British propaganda by the ‘terrorist’ groups like the Jugantar and Bengal Volunteers groups, and owed a strong allegiance to Subhash Chandra Bose, especially among the students.

Gandhi’s own militant outlook in the early months of 1942, only mirrored the militant emotions that ran high in Midnapore that was directly affected by the policies of Colonial state in 1942. However, with the burning down of thanas the movement deviated from the typical Gandhian trajectory of a non-violent mass movement. While thana burning was not new (one gets instantly reminded of the Chauri-Chaura Incident during the non-cooperation movement in 1922), this time the scale of burning of thanas was unprecedented.

With the brutal repression that the State launched as soon as the revolution began, the movement deviated from its anti-state focus and became more inward looking. While the anti-British thrust was still there, the rebels concentrated more on weeding out Indian loyalists living among them. It was from here, that the movement deviated further from the Gandhian mould, with violent acts of kidnapping, terrorism and murder. As it became more and more difficult to commit acts of terror on the more visible symbols of British authority, like Thanas, the category of the ‘traitor’ became more important. Those villagers who did not participate in the movement, or were seen as furthering the British cause by supplying information against the rebels, bore the brunt of the rebels’ anger. The underground press of Midnapore bears testimony to numerous warnings issued to such ‘traitors’ of the ‘nationalist’ cause.

Thus the movement witnessed two different stages of violence – one, where violence was directed at symbols of British authority, and secondly, where the violence became more inward-looking. The interesting fact remains that unlike Chari-Chaura, this time Gandhi did not call off the movement, rather he let it go on for almost two years. He called off the movement only after his release from prison in 1945. This leads a historian to question two things – 1. What was the rationale behind the rebel’s acts of violence, all of which were committed in Gandhi’s name? 2. Why did Gandhi not call of the movement, once the terrible wave of violence hit not only Bengal, but also elsewhere in the country. This then links up the fundamental question about the relationship between elite leadership and popular perceptions and response.

Just another Kings Blog?

Welcome to my new blog – Politics of Protest in Colonial South Asia. Before you wonder if this is just another Kings Blog, or if this is just another academic broadcasting her work, let me assure you this is not. But before we go into what this blog is about, a brief introduction about who I am.

I am Dr. Anwesha Roy, and I am a Marie-Curie Fellow at the History Department, Kings College London. My doctoral thesis focussed on various modalities of communal mobilization in 1940s in Bengal, specifically delving into the inter-relations between hunger, caste and communal politics. I am deeply interested in ‘mass’ politics, ‘crowd’ behaviour and their linkages with elite leadership. For my current project as a Marie Curie Fellow, I focus on revolutionary praxis and practical scope of violence within the ambit of Gandhian mass-movements, specifically the Quit India Movement in Bengal in 1942.

That was me. But now let’s return to what this blog is going to be. First and foremost, this is going to be an interactive space, where scholars, including myself, will contribute on various issues about politics of protest in colonial South Asia. We shall discuss themes like nature of protest movements, relationship between elite leadership and mass perceptions in protest movements, and the relevance of studying these in the South Asian context today. Through these blog posts, we shall also develop an understanding of why studying history is relevant in today’s context, and what the public role of historians (and academics in general) could and should be.