India, my Love|Sep 25, 2003 4:55 PM| by:

History, Amnesia and Public Memory: The Chittagong Armoury Raid 1930-34

I shall divide this essay into three parts: in the first, I shall attempt to reconstruct the main outline of the Chittagong Armoury Raid and the uprising against the British at Chittagong (former East Bengal, now Bangladesh) between 1930-34. In the second, I shall explore the reasons that might help explain the erasure of this significant episode from public memory in India as well as the former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh. And finally, I shall suggest as to how this amnesia could be overcome and the recovery of the Chittagong narrative contribute to the shaping of a new South Asia, more composite, possibly in the manner of a South Asian federation or confederation. I shall rely, in the main, on available historical evidence including Manini Chatterjee’s well documented volume Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34 Penguin Books, India, 1999. I shall supplement this account by my recent visit to Bangladesh to the sites associated with the Armoury Raid and my conversation with one of the two surviving members of the Raid, Binode Bihari Choudhury, (the other being Subodh Roy of Surjya Sen Bhavan, Calcutta).


The Chittagong story forms an intimate part of the larger history of revolutionary or militant nationalism in Bengal. Led by an intrepid ideologue and combatant, Surjya Sen, popularly known as Masterda (so named since he was a school teacher), the movement scored an extraordinary victory against the vastly superior British military and civilian presence in and around Chittagong in East Bengal. On 18 April 1930, a group of armed revolutionaries raided the British Armoury and other military installations at Chittagong. They proclaimed an independent national government under the Indian Republican Army and waged a prolonged guerilla war in the ensuing three years in the countryside. Striking and graphic accounts of the attack at Dhalghat, the attack at Pahartali European Club and the underground resistance have been documented largely in Bengali by some of the survivors. Sadly, mainstream historians in India and Bangladesh neglect this story.

In reconstructing this narrative, it will be useful to ask the following questions:

What were the ideological antecedents of Surjya Sen, the chief architect of the Chittagong movement? Who were the role models of the revolutionaries? What was their socio-economic base and underpinning? In what significant ways was this movement different from the earlier ones? And finally, what is its lasting contribution to nationalistic thought and the history of the freedom struggle in India and Bangladesh?

It is impossible to think of the Chittagong movement without the intellectual, political and martial leadership of Surjya Sen. He was born in the Noapara village of the Chittagong district in 1894. During his college days, he came under the influence of the nationalistic movement and vowed to dedicate his life for national liberation. According to other accounts, Surjya Sen, Ambika Chakraborty and others were initiated into the movement by Hemendra Mukhoti, an  absconder in the Barisal Conspiracy Case.

The Chittagong Group’s early inspiration came from the Bengal revolutionaries who came into prominence especially during the Partition of Bengal Movement during 1905.The chief architect of this phase was undoubtedly Sri Aurobindo, then known as Aurobindo Ghosh. His maternal grandfather was Rajnarayan Bose who formed in 1876 a secret society called Sanjibani Sabha of which several members of the Tagore family had membership. In a series of articles in Induprakash, a weekly from Bombay edited by KG Deshpande, Sri Aurobindo severely criticized the Congress policies as moribund of vision. He sent a Bengali soldier of the Baroda army, named Jatin Banerjee to Bengal with the objective of establishing a secret group for undertaking revolutionary propaganda and recruitment. Jatin was later joined by P. Mitter and Barendra Ghosh, Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother. Another figure who was influential was a Maratha named Sukhram Ganesh Deuskar.

On April 30, 1908 at Muzaffarpur, two revolutionaries, Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki threw bombs at Kingsford. Sri Aurobindo was arrested on 2 May, 1908 and sent to Alipore jail. The report sent from Andrew Fraser, the then Lt Governor of Bengal to Lord Minto in England declared that although Sri Aurobindo came to Calcutta in 1906 as a Professor at the National College, “he has ever since been the principal advisor of the revolutionary party. It is of utmost importance to arrest his potential for mischief, for he is the prime mover and can easily set tools, one to replace another.” Sri Aurobindo ably defended by CR Das was acquitted on 6 May 1909 while the other accused were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

Of the terrorist organizations in Bengal, there were principally two, Anushilan and Jugantar. Under the influence of Barrister P. Mitter, a strong branch of Anushilan was formed in Dhaka.

Thus, while working under the banner of Gandhi’s Non- Cooperation Movement Surjya Sen and his group were deeply influenced by the earlier revolutionaries of Bengal. They had undergone physical and armed training. In October 1926, Surjya Sen was arrested and, two years later, he and other members were released.

The more immediate inspiration to the Chittagong group came from the famous Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916. Eamon de Valera’s exhortation spurred Surjya Sen to effective action. In a speech delivered in New York in 1920, entitled “India and Ireland”, Valera declared:

We of Ireland and you of India must each of us endeavor both as separate people and combination to rid ourselves of the vampire that is fattening on our blood, and we must never allow ourselves to forget what weapon it was by which Washington rid his country of the same vampire.

The second aspect that distinguishes the Chittagong Group from its predecessors and earlier models of revolutionary activities, including the Anushilan Group was their widening socio-religious base. No doubt, the Chittagong Group, like the earlier revolutionaries like Khudiram, Bagha Jatin, and Barin Ghose came from the Hindu middleclass Bhadralok background. But Surjya Sen did not have the advantage of a primarily Hindu ambience for a revolutionary action. The entrenched socio-economic divide between the relatively different and educated Hindu minority some of whom came from the landed zamindar background along with the largely sullen Muslim peasantry, vulnerable to a communal mindset of East Bengal, was the greatest challenge the Chittagong Group faced. As events proved, they turned the challenge into an opportunity. Revolutionary terrorism at Chittagong was not a one-time affair, the spectacular shooting down of a hated political or administrative symbol of the British Raj, say by a Khudiram or a Bhagat Singh. The earlier attempt by a Bagha Jatin to prepare an army under the shadow of World War I, with a shipload of German weaponry had met with a premature and aborted end in the fields of Kaptipada at Balasore in Orissa.

Due to various reasons including persistent internecine rivalry, betrayal and mutual suspicion among the rebels, such a plan did not fructify until the time of Subash Chandra Bose during World War II. We must also remember that Sri Aurobindo’s argument in favor of the war-effort was induced by solid strategic seasoning. Apart from the permanent need to resist and defeat the fascist forces of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, India, he reasoned, would have a standing army of nationalistic minded soldiers that could be relied upon to fight a war of national liberation, should the occasion arise and should the British decide to go back on their promise.

What Subash did with the favorable support of the Japanese, by forming the Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore and what the mutineers in the Royal Indian Navy did in the wake of a vastly weakened British military in the naval dockyard of Bombay in 1946, Surjya Sen accomplished despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the British. He and his men carried out with the help of mostly looted weapons, a prolonged guerilla war against a formidable army in the face of the full might of the British military in the undivided India. He did it by guts and idealism, no doubt joined primarily by strategy, careful planning and by overcoming the class and communal divide in east Bengal. Apart from this, he also enlisted the active support and combat participation of women like Preetilata and Kalpana Datta, who would be remembered as the most outstanding examples of female participation in revolutionary action.


After meticulous planning on 18 April 1930, the Chittagong Group raided the AFI Armoury, the police station, and the telegraph office simultaneously. Telegraph and communication lines were totally severed. Ananta Singh, Kalipada Chakraborty, Birabhadra, Dwija Dastidar, Surjya Sen, Ganesh Ghose, Ambika Chakraborty, Nirmal Sen, Binode Choudhury, Makhan Ghosal, Loknath Bal and others took part in the raids. They scored a huge success. Unfortunately they could not take possession of the magazines, which were stored separately. Undeterred, they proclaimed a provisional revolutionary government, unfurled the national flag and Surjya Sen made the following declaration in English as part of a longer proclamation: “The great task of revolution in India has fallen on the Indian Republican Army. We in Chittagong have the honor to achieve the patriot task of revolution for fulfilling the aspiration and urge of our nation.”

Having made the proclamation, the group retreated, surviving on biscuits and watermelons. Later, they fought a pitched battle in the surrounding hills of Jalalabad against a contingent of the Eastern Frontier Rifles under the command of Lt Col Dallas Smith. They lost several men and inflicted heavy casualties on the soldiers pursuing them. Some of the rebels like Ananta Singh escaped to Calcutta. Others, the largest group remained underground and fought a guerilla war  for nearly three years. Several encounters took place, including one at Dhalghat in June 1932. Later, Preetilata and her group attacked the European Club at Pahartali. Wounded, she took potassium cyanide and embraced martyrdom heroically in 1932.

Throughout 1932-33 Masterda and his men were on the run in the countryside. Unfortunately, he was betrayed on 7th February 1933 and was captured by a platoon of Gorkha Sepoys. Later Tarakeshwar Dastidar and Kalpana Datta were arrested.

Sarat Bose, the brother of well-known Barrister Subash, came down to defend Surjya Sen. Unfortunately Gandhiji did not intervene. On 12 January 1933, Surjya Sen and Tharakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in Chauliaganj Jail. Fearful of a popular backlash, the bodies were carried in a British Cruiser, The Renowned and thrown into the Bay of Bengal. Kalpana Datta who was in the Rajasahi Jail was later released, given her young age and gender. With this, the curtain came down on the Chittagong  Armoury Red.

It is worth recalling, in this context, what Surjya Sen said in his last message before his hanging at mid-night:

“This is the task for preparation: to embrace death as a friend and this is the time to recall light of other days as well. At such a solemn moment, what shall I leave behind for you? Only one thing, that is my dream, a golden dream- the dream of a free India. How auspicious a moment it was when I first saw it! Throughout my life, most passionately and untiringly I pursued it like a lunatic … onward my comrades! Never fall back! The day of bondage is disappearing and the dawn of freedom is ushering in!”


The Chittagong Armoury Raid  shook the foundations of the British Empire in India. Its echoes vibrated and reverberated across the length and breadth of the country, inspiring countless young men and women. Why was it subsequently erased from national memory and history? In this section, I shall rely on my recent trip to Chittagong , the visits to the various sites and monuments such as the Pahartali European Club and my conversation with Binode Bihari Choudhury, aged 93 the only surviving member of Surjya Sen’s Group at Chittagong.

From Calcutta Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International Airport to the Shahi Amanat Antrajatik Biman Bandar of Chittagong, it takes less than one hour. As the Bangladesh Biman flight took off on 18th January invoking the name of Allah, I recalled my meeting with Professor Ghulam Sarwar Chowdhury, chairman of the English Department, Chittagong University. “Will you come for an American Studies Seminar?” He had asked me at Hyderabad. “I will”, I had said conditionally, “provided you can let me explore the Surjya Sen trail at Chittagong!”  Sarwar had kept his promise, I recalled as he drove me from the airport to the Elite Chittagong Club for lunch.

Sarwar’s colleague, Nuri, at the university, met me at the conference held at the auditorium of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce. We had the US ambassador Marry Anne Peters as the chief guest, who certified in the local newspapers in the next day that Bangladesh was a moderate Muslim State and ought to receive American support.

With Nuri and Sarwar, I went to the J.M. Sen Center. There is a concentration of Hindu population here. We witness at this center the  permanent homage to the martyrs. Helpful neighbors announced that legendary Binode Bihari Choudhury aged 93 lived close by at 120 Momin Road.

Binode Bihari’s home resembles an average middle class household in Kolkata. His bedroom also serves as the drawing room where he meets visitors. The wooden shelves against the wall house memoirs, books of history and other memorabilia. High up on the wall, there are the portraits of Preetilata and Surjya Sen and  some of his own photos of younger days. A framed photograph shows him receiving the award from Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman.

At 93, Binode Babu stoops a little. However, his voice exudes strength; he has a sharp memory and recalls facts quickly as he fixes his gaze upon  you and recalls his younger days. We sit down. I ask Nuri to take notes :

“What was the influence of Sri Aurobindo on your movements?” I ask him.

“Aurobindo’s influence on our movement was immense”, he declares. “Aurobindo was masterda’s leader. He was a great inspiration to the revolutionaries.”

“Tell me something about the Muslim members of your movement” I ask him.

“Yes indeed we had Muslims among us”, Choudhury replies in Bangla. “We had Mir Ahmed for instance. He was a trusted comrade. He failed though on his mission of assassination.  We had others such as Abdul Sattar and Kamal Ahmed. We made no discrimination on the basis of religion. But Hindus were more in number and Muslims were less educated then. Masterda was very keen to have Muslims perform action. “You know, it’s easier to die together but hard to die alone. Mr. Ahmed lost his nerve in one mission when he was sent alone”, says Binode Babu.

“Did you take part in the action?” I ask him. “Yes”.  He shows his neck where a bullet had pierced. He was sent to a jail in far away Rajputana and shifted to a camp in the desert. Kalpana Datta was kept in the Hizra Detention camp. Later, she became a communist. This was the time when many arrested revolutionaries came in contact with communists in jail. In April 1971, at the time of the liberation of East Bengal, Choudhury left for India through the Mizo hills and returned to Bangladesh on 3 January  1972.

I ask him about the legacy of Surjya Sen in Bangladesh. He shows a moment’s hesitation in the presence of Sarwar and Nuri. “Unfortunately in many quarters, Surjya Sen is  described as a dacoit, a Hindu leader!” he regretted. “I met Mujeeb four to five times. In 1972 the idols of goddess Durga were destroyed in many places. Accompanied by Fani Majumdar, a minister in Mujeeb’s cabinet, I went to Mujeeb and warned him that he would not remain in power if the pro-Pakistani elements were not checked. There was an upsurge of such elements that were not reconciled to the emergence of Bangladesh as a secular nation.”

“Where is Bangladesh heading today?” I ask Binode Babu as he shows signs of fatigue. “The BNP and the four party alliance are squeezing out the Hindus from this country. The majority of the Hindus in the village are a harassed lot especially after Sheikh Haseena’s Awami League lost the recent election”, he replies.

It is time for us to leave. We bow down before him, his parting request to Sarwar is: “I have given away the award money of one lakh received from Haseena to Chittagong University for an endowment lecture in the name of Surjya Sen. Will you kindly follow this up?” he pleads. Sarwar promises to do what he can, and we depart.

The European Club opposite the present Pahartali Railway School is in a state of dilapidation. In front, there is an old marble plaque which enshrines Preetilata’s heroic act. The letters are faded and the area looks forsaken. It takes a while to locate in the Dampara Police Line the old armory looted by the revolutionaries. The policemen appear uncooperative until Sarwar tells them that his late father was a sub-inspector in the same area some years back!

The next day, I am invited to the English Department of Chittagong University for a lecture. After the talk I enquire about Preetilata. “I shall show you Preetilata’s basha(home)” says Kachi, a student whose father is a former communist. This time I am armed with a tape recorder. Binode Choudhury, we are told, is at the nearby temple. He gives tuition for his livelihood. At the Sadharan Bramho Samaj Temple, he pushes away the recorder, obviously fearful of the safety of his community. I understand the reasons for fear. At Kachi’s place, I see graphic accounts and photographs of atrocities committed against the minorities, men killed, woman violated and all because of their support of Awami League.

Mohit Alam, a secular Muslim, suggests I buy JN Dixit’s excellent memoir Liberation and Beyond brought out by University Press, Dhaka after the Indian imprint appeared. As I read the chilling account I begin to understand the reasons for neglect of Surjya Sen’s legacy in Bangladesh.

The Muslim League takes birth in Dhaka in 1906 and flourishes under the leadership of Fazlul Huq, Hassan Saheed Suhrawardy, Mulla Jan Mohammed and Maulana Bhashani. Mujeeb continues to support the Muslim League and Pakistan till his denial of the premiership on 2 March 1971. Between 1945 and 1947, he is an active participant in Muslim League agitation in Calcutta.

The imposition of Urdu beginning from 1956 ended in the War of 1971. These cause his disillusionment with Pakistan as a failed State.

Many factors were responsible for the end of Bangladesh as a secular republic: Mrs Indira Gandhi was preoccupied with increasing domestic turmoil at home. Between 1972 to 1975, food shortages, floods, cyclones increased Mujeeb’s problems. By 1974 he had formed a one party State and a presidential form of govt. The assassination of Mujeeb and all the top leaders of Bangladesh Liberation struggle between August and November 1975 led to the primacy of the country’s armed forces.

Surjya Sen’s legacy of freedom struggle rested on a composite culture and inter-religious harmony. On the other hand, Bangladesh today continues to manifest an ethno-religious identity crisis, seriously questioning the earlier legacy of Surya Sen. The erasure of the Chittagong Armoury raid from the public consciousness in Bangladesh has been a logical corollary. Back in India, there is little appreciation of the movement. Such narratives lie trapped on the other side of the political divide. Thus public memory continues to be inhospitable to the Chittagong Armoury Raid.

Today, this memory lies neglected and forsaken, waiting for better days. Its belief in a composite culture, religious harmony, individual freedom and social equality are polar opposites to the various forms of fundamentalism sweeping the subcontinent. There is hope however that all is not lost. Memories of the Chittagong chapter of the Nationals freedom struggle can yet bring together our estranged neighbors into realizing their common destiny.

Sachidananda Mohanty

(The author, a Fulbright Scholar at Texas and Yale 1990-81, is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Hyderabad. He is a former Senior Academic Fellow at the American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad and former Vice President, South India American Studies Network (SIASN). The opinion expressed here is his own.)

Notes and References

1. All references to the Chittagong Armoury Raid cited in this article are from Manini Chatterjee’s excellent account: Do and Die: the Chittagong Armoury Raid,1930-1934,New Delhi: Penguin Books,1999.

2. Conversations with Binode Bihari Choudhury with Sachidananda Mohanty at Chittagong, Bangladesh on 18 and 19 Februrary 2003.

3. J.N. Dixit, Liberation and Beyond :I Indo-Bangladesh Relations, Dhaka: the University Press Ltd, 1999.

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