Mihir Bose investigates the case of Subhas Chandra Bose in Bengal in 1924 to show what can happen when a government is able to lock people up on suspicion of terrorism.

History Today

EIGHTY YEARS AGO the British Raj used laws that are almost a mirror image of the anti-terrorism legislation recently passed by the British Parliament to detain suspects without charge. The `lawless laws’, as an Indian politician called them, were used against `revolutionists’, the word the Raj used for men plotting the violent overthrow of British rule in India. They show how a government that feels itself threatened by violence will act against its political enemies.

The name of Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose now means little in the West — the few that know of him despise him for his wartime decision to use Axis help to rid India of British rule. In the mid-1920s he seemed an unlikely revolutionist. The Indian National Congress was firmly under the control of Gandhi and his non-violent, non-cooperation movement, designed to make the British give India the sort of self-governing status the White dominions already enjoyed. In 1921, aged twenty-four, Bose had resigned from the Indian Civil Service to join Gandhi’s movement, and in his home province of Bengal he worked closely with his political mentor, the barrister Chitta Ranjan Das, on a twin strategy. He sought to prove that the limited reforms the Raj had introduced were unworkable, but where these reforms gave the Indians real power he seized every opportunity to exploit them. When, in 1924, the Raj allowed Indians to run the Calcutta Corporation, then a body whose revenues were higher than those of many small Indian provinces, Bose became the chief executive officer.

The British authorities, haunted by the Indian Revolt of 1857, were worried by the revival of revolutionary violence. On August 23rd 1923, the chief secretary to the government of Bengal wrote to Delhi asking for powers to arrest suspected revolutionists without a warrant. Unless something was done quickly, he wrote, `the powerlessness of government to cope with the movement would be apparent to everyone and most of all to the conspirators themselves.’ Delhi sympathised but declined to act.

Six months later, on January 12th 1924, Gopinath Saha, a young Bengali, shot a man he thought was Charles Augustus Tegart, the red-haired Irishman who was Police Commissioner of Calcutta. Saha did not know what Tegart looked like. He mistook Ernest Day, an innocent British businessman, for Tegart and killed him. Saha was promptly arrested, tried and sentenced to death. But while Gandhi condemned Saha, Bose saw things differently. He did not believe in Gandhian non-violence. To him it was simply a technique. When a fellow-student at Cambridge had expressed his revulsion at terrorism, Bose, an admirer of the Irish revolutionary struggle, had replied:

I admit it is regrettable, even ugly if you will, though it also has a terrible beauty of its own. But maybe that beauty does not unveil her face except to her devotees. But what would you have?

When, after Saha’s cremation, the British released his prison clothes, Bose touched them

and, according to a witness, `was very much moved. This does not mean Subhas entertained sympathy for terrorism but the spirit of sacrifice filled him with admiration.’

By April 30th, 1924, J.E. Armstrong, Deputy Director General of Police Intelligence Branch CID, had prepared a document, twenty-five pages long, called the History Sheet of Subhas Chandra Bose, compiled from five intercepted letters and information from ten police informers. The history sheet did not name the agents. Two were identified by the initials K.G.S. and A.S.P. The history sheet stated that:

…a revolutionary party had been organised in Bengal chiefly by Subhas, and that the members of the party proposed to prepare themselves with arms and ammunition, in order to be ready to take advantage of the first opportunity which

might arise in the chaos which was expected to result from the non-cooperation movement.

According to some agents’ reports, Bose was eager to introduce Communism to India, and K.G.S. said that a contact had told him:

Subhas’s conversation indicated that he was connected with enemies of England beyond India who promised to assist Indians as soon they were in a position to start an armed rebellion against the British. The agent added that Subhas was said to be have no faith that non-violent non-cooperation would ever bring about Swaraj (freedom).

K.G.S. also reported that Bose planned to bomb the Bengal Council chamber, kill Tegart, and attack the Governor of Bengal and also the barracks and the residence of the Deputy Superintendent of Police of the Intelligence branch.

Some of the Raj officials had doubts about this evidence, and one even suggested that the idea of the chief executive officer of the Calcutta Corporation planning to murder the Police Chief `suggests Ruritanian opera’. But Armstrong was certain of his involvement in terrorist activity:

Subhas Bose is a young man of considerable ability and is believed to exercise not a little influence over Mr C.R. Das. For some years past he has been acquainted with a number of known revolutionists… and there is little doubt that he enjoyed a good deal of their confidence. But, for a long time, it was believed — and it is probable — that he confined himself almost exclusively to Congress work and that, though cognisant of most of the revolutionary activity, he was not a party there to. Recent events, however, have clearly demonstrated that he has now (if never before) definitely joined hands with the revolutionists and that, at the present moment, he occupies an important place in their councils. He is now firmly of the opinion that no measures save violence will suffice to bring about Swaraj and his complicity in the plot to bomb the Legislative Council proves beyond all doubt that he is prepared to stick at nothing. He has already acquired considerable authority in the revolutionary ranks and it is probable with the most active spirits of the organisation and their implicit trust in him, will, on the arrest of the former leaders, combine to bring the reins of the leadership more completely within his grasp.

The Bengal government used the history sheet to renew its pleas to Delhi for the power to arrest suspected terrorists. A copy was forwarded to the Secretary of State for India in London, who had the final authority to grant such powers. The document was considered too secret to be transmitted safely by telegram or post, and it was delivered by hand on June 16th 1924, by Sir Hugh Stephenson, a Raj spokesman in the Bengal Legislative Council, who left the document with J.W. Hose, the official in charge of criminal proceedings at the India Office.

Hose realised much of the history sheet could be false. He commented:

It is not necessary to claim that everything in these statements is true. They are simply a collection of information received from informers and from other sources and tabulated against the person mentioned by the Police Intelligence Officer. If it were desired to prosecute any person against whom similar material existed, no doubt only a portion of the story as contained here would be found suitable for production in Court.

However he felt his boss, Sydney Olivier, Secretary of State for India in Ramsay Macdonald’s brief Labour government of 1924, should see it for it shows that `men who are ostensibly public politicians are closely associated with criminals.’

Olivier, a founding member of the Fabian Society, must have been intrigued to read what the Indian agents had to say about British politics and politicians. According to K.G.S., the Communists had `captured’ the Labour Party, now in power for the first time. Another agent reported that the radical member of parliament, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, who was known to be very friendly with a number of Indian politicians, had invited Das to visit London for a conference on the Raj’s use of arbitrary powers. This was one of the five letters intercepted by the Bengal police and it never got to Das. Wedgwood, a campaigner for Indian self-rule, had incurred the wrath of the British in India for making a brave speech in the House of Commons denouncing the Amritsar massacre of 1919. He had recently been appointed to serve in Macdonald’s Cabinet as Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster.

When the Labour Cabinet debated the issue Wedgwood opposed the proposed laws, but Olivier, a former colonial administrator, argued in their favour and the Cabinet agreed with him. On October 25th, 1924, the ordinance was promulgated. Dawn had not yet broken in Calcutta when Bose was woken up and taken away to prison. He remained there for two and a half years. Bose was convinced that he was arrested for political reasons. The Raj denied this although the Bengal Secretary, in a letter to the government of India, acknowledged it, saying the nationalists `have now practically achieved their object as far as the Bengal Legislative Council is concerned … at present government can command no support for any of their actions’.

Bose was never presented with any charges in writing and kept demanding to be tried in a court. But when he eventually did get to court, it was to press charges of libel against The Statesman, India’s biggest English-language newspaper, which had accused Bose of fomenting violence. The case dragged on. By the time it came to court the Conservatives had returned to power in Britain, and the controversial lawyer and statesman Lord Birkenhead, a former Lord Chancellor, was now Secretary of State for India.

Birkenhead’s involvement gave Bose’s story a curious twist. The Statesman’s counsel in London denied that Bose was jailed because of his political activities, adding that `there was evidence sufficient to convince such as a skilled assessor of the value of evidence as the former Lord Chief Justice of England that they were planning or aiding and abetting in crimes of violence.’ The judge in Calcutta was impressed by the reference to Birkenhead and decided that The Statesman had not libelled Bose. Birkenhead, who believed that Indians would never be capable of ruling themselves, had read the Bose file casually and got the impression that Bose was a dangerous anarchist. In 1927 when the government of India wanted to exile Bose to Switzerland he protested indignantly about allowing `a notorious anarchist to go to a European country which is a refuge of anarchists’. Delhi hurriedly explained that Bose was a national hero in Bengal, but outside it his ‘revolutionist’ anarchical tendencies would have no impact. Switzerland had nothing to fear from Bose.

© Mihir Bose


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