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Oct 12, 2012 at 01:06pm IST

Book Extract: Chittagong Summer of 1930, Part 1

Chittagong: Summer of 1930, Part 1 brings to life the famous Chittagong Armoury Raid, led by Bengali revolutionary Surya Sen, through the memories of his young disciples and the British officers who were his contemporaries. Manoshi Bhattacharya draws upon historical records, government documents and personal reminiscences, tracing the life of the Bengalis and the British during the period. She creates a vivid picture of the armed revolution from 1900 to 1934, and brings to light one of the lesserknown yet vital episodes of India’s struggle for independence.

Here's an extract from the book:

John Younie, 22 April, Circuit House, Chittagong

Book Extract: Chittagong Summer of 1930, Part 1

The book brings to life the famous Chittagong Armoury Raid, led by Bengali revolutionary Surya Sen.

The platform was crowded, mostly by squads of troops squatting on piles of kitbags and smoking. A liaison officer, sent by Wilkinson, whisked his suitcases into a waiting car.

'With the troopers in there, I'd reckon the Circuit House's about the safest place in town right now,' said the LO. They were driving down the wide metalled road with the kutcha edge that skirted the Paltan Maidan. Shade trees lined it on both sides and lime-washed stones marked the culvert crossings over monsoon ditches that led into the compounds of the bungalows. In all, a well laid British station. The pretty red-roofed Circuit House lay at the northern end of the green patch; he had been billeted there once before. A motor truck with six armed men passed them by.

'Them planters,' the LO jerked his head. 'Patrolling the city since Sunday; two hours on and one hour off - night and day! Banks, post office, docks.'2 The broad gravel drive curved through a compound darkened and cooled by trees. The colonnaded facade looked a dazzling white. A grizzled old bearer, white-uniformed, sashed and turbanned, came forward to lift the bags and beckoned to him. John followed him through the passages. Many of the wooden doors to the rooms had been left open as if the occupants had rushed off in a hurry. But through the screen doors he caught sight of what was his worst nightmare: men in uniform sleeping with rifles chained to their wrists.

Slipping the old bearer a coin, John waved him away. The latch on the top of the screen door was just within his reach. Locking both sets of doors, he sat back heavily into a chair, conscious of the sudden cold sweat that had drenched his shirt. What he had just witnessed was a scene straight out of Peshawar, where blood feuds were the norm; where lived the treacherous and cruel Pathans; where Pax Britannica had given way to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. Soldiers, throughout the Khyber, slept with rifles chained to their wrists, for a British army rifle could fetch at least Rs 500/- across the border. 3 An involuntary shudder racked his frame. Little good had the practice achieved, for the Pathan night thief simply severed the wrist to which Chittagong 249 the chain was attached. What had driven the litigation-loving Bengali to turn his gentle green valley into a pocket edition of hell?

He had not been permitted into Chittagong until Colonel Dallas Smith had arrived with a 100 Gurkhas of the Eastern Frontier Rifles from Dacca. His boat had been carefully searched and the train that brought him in from Chandpur carried a military escort. But the family had not been granted permission to leave Barisal. The old bearer was back, knocking at the door. He had a tray from which he took things and laid a single plate on a small table in the centre of the room. Then he produced the final item: a breakfast menu card stuck on a silver-plated stand. 'Sahib,' he said and waited patiently.

A knock at the door. A very pink, stout little man peered at him. 'Johnson,' he extended his hand. John rose to greet the police superintendent. 'I hope you are being looked after all right,' he said, a trifle apologetically. John assured him he was. 'Is it as bad as what I see?' Johnson dropped into a chair. He leaned forward, his face strangely animated, 'This is the most amazing coup possible!4 A raiding party … about 100 strong … I must say the whole show was most marvellously organized down to the minute details. The attack commenced at 9.15, with one gang taking the police lines completely by surprise and another finding the Auxiliary Force armoury in a state of even greater unpreparedness. Wilkinson, Lodge and two others, alarmed by the firing at the police lines, rushed there in a car - all unarmed. They thought it was a riot over a marriage procession or something of that sort. They were fired at - four bullets piercing the windscreen and several the radiator. As they had no weapons there was nothing for them to do but to leg it for all they were worth. They got away in time to warn the people at the small armouries down at the jetties - apparently forgotten or overlooked by the raiders.'

'So they are using the AF rifles?' Johnson shook his head. He looked up at the bearer. 'Coffee,' he said. 'No, not one was removed. They didn't have the time to get at the ammunition … but they gutted both armouries … Criminal unpreparedness on the part of the AFI … two retired Punjabi sepoys 250 Manoshi Bhattacharya on guard - a couple of decrepit ancients … Farrell, the sergeant major, was sitting, having dinner … went out to see what was happening and was shot dead. On their tail … been sighted once late last evening but Dallas seems to have lost them.' He looked thoughtful for a moment and added, 'We had them closely watched since Colson's visit in March. In fact, on 2nd April, I had revised the system. The movements of the suspects and all those capable of terrorist activities were being tabulated and the watchers were being supervised day and night. In fact the Baby Austin used in the raid was being closely watched. I had instructed that the plan be followed until 23rd April, but no watch was to be kept from 13th to 18th April to lull the suspects into thinking that the watch had been withdrawn.

I had hoped,' Johnson winced as he said it, 'that it would induce them to give some clear indication about their intentions.'5 Wilkinson, the only other reliable source had far too much on his hands to sit down and make newcomers wise to things past and present. The club on the Pioneer Hill, across the street from the Circuit House, was rife with garbled accounts of the local gup and wild rumours. But one thing was certain: the large oil installations were safe.6 It was clear that the affair had come as a shock to the government which had responded forthwith, promulgating an ordinance, reintroducing powers of detention. The state of uncertainty and disorganization that prevailed made him glad that Dorothy had stayed on at Donovan's. It would have driven her to fits, well not for her own sake but for the kiddies.

Chittagong Summer of 1930, Part 1; By: Manoshi Bhattacharya; Price: Rs. 450; Extent: 360 pages; Category: Non-fiction