Politics of ‘sedition’: middle-class youth and colonial repression in Kolkata during First World War

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

During the years
of First World War, as they experienced economic desperation and racism,
middle-class young men in the urban public sphere of Kolkata, posed a problem
to the colonial government and to their guardians. Most students were migrants
to the city and studied in institutions without any government support. During
the war, escalating prices of food and the diminished income of middle-class
families directly affected them. Over-crowding in the colleges, dearth of
student accommodation, high prices of paper and infectious diseases, such as
the small-pox epidemic of 1916, obstructed study.  Emerging as a political constituency during
this period, a fact picked up by nationalist and pan-Islamist newspapers that campaigned
for student welfare, they could not be expected to offer ‘unflinching’ loyalty
to the Empire. Students and youth were officially viewed as potentially
seditious and criminalized.

While the social
base of the Bengal revolutionaries was narrowly Hindu and middle-class, during
the early years of the war, they tried to establish links with Pan-Islamist and
Ghadar activists. Sharp rise in a ‘new form of crime known as motor dacoities’
to forcibly collect funds, arms and ammunitions by robbing European and Indian
businesses and wealthy individuals for nationalist revolutionary activity
involved bhadralok revolutionary youth and Sikh chauffeurs linked with the
Ghadar Party during 1914-15. The bhadralok revolutionaries assassinated Bengali
police officials engaged in counter-insurgent operations and attacked
constables in the streets. Witnesses often refused to identify those paraded
before them by the police.
The state and
its opponents alike identified the area stretching from the university district
of College Street to the city centre comprising of Chowringhee and Dalhousie,
the citadel of colonial governance and colonial capital, as the chief
geographic zone of ‘seditious activities’. While the revolutionary groups
recruited students from the College Street neighbourhood in the north, the ‘operations’
against the Empire often brought their young members to the heart-land of
imperial political authority and economic power. The
Chowringhee-Dalhousie-Esplanade area at the centre of the city embodied the
peculiar ‘normalcy’ of the colonial circumstance: this was where the prosperous
members of European community amused themselves in the shops and cinema houses
when not engaged in running the colony; timid lower middle-class Bengali clerks
were casually assaulted by drunken white soldiers; chaotic ‘over-crowding’
could not be avoided during the rush hours; 
and young men from a bhadralok background, in torn clothing and dripping
with blood, fled the police  or wrestled
with them and were arrested in full view of the public.
Even Presidency
College, a show-piece of colonial pedagogy and the well-funded among
government-run institutions, displayed contrary pulls among its student body.
In the first issue printed in November, 1914, Pramatha Nath Banerjea, editor of
the Presidency College Magazine (and decades later a Vice Chancellor of Calcutta
University), declared: ‘We make our first appearance amidst the excitement of a
crisis unparalleled in the experience of anyone now living. Far away from the
scene of strife we hear only the echoes of what is likely to prove the greatest
war in the world’s history.’ The editorial combined the hopes of a future
‘partnership’, based on autonomy within the Empire with the contemporary support
for imperial war-effort: ‘The peoples of India accept the British cause not only
as subjects of the British Empire but as comrades in a struggle for
existence…The dispatch of Indian troops to fight on European soil for the first
time in history, the voluntary grant of all the expenses of the Indian
expeditionary forces from the Indian exchequer are significant facts. They give
happy assurance of the steady development of better fellowship throughout the
British Empire.’   Professors, members of
the office and the library staff agreed to make monthly contributions from
their salaries at a fixed rate as long as the war lasted. Student
representatives were asked to raise subscriptions in the class-rooms. Ambulance
classes were planned to train student volunteers. Despite this ‘wave of
loyalty’ and ‘deep sympathy’ towards the government ‘as dutiful citizens of the
British Empire’, a sense of disquiet was present from the beginning. That war
meant privation for the common folk was recognized in the measure ‘to join the
movement that has been set on foot for the relief of the people who are likely
to be thrown out of employment in consequence of the stagnation of business
during the present crisis.’ Certain ambiguities could be deciphered in the
attitudes of the European academics as well. The Principal, H. R. James, in his
address before the students, spoke against the perils of ultra-nationalism; he
asked them to stand above party politics, regional parochialism and only
display patriotism in extreme cases such as the contemporary crisis. Cautioning
against becoming too involved in the war-effort, he wanted his pupils to
concentrate more on college-level activities. A liberal upholder of the
ideological state apparatus and a reluctant advocate of the war, he may have
felt unsettled by the conflict-ridden implications of ‘patriotism’ in the colony.
His sympathetic review of H. G. Wells’ anti-war science-fiction novel The World
Set Free-The Story of Mankind was printed in the college magazine:
‘The great war
is put in the year 1956 or 1957, it is not quite clear which, and its occasion
and origin resemble pretty closely those of the war which broke out in August
this year…It is the moral ideas put forth that are the real subjects of this
book. There is an overwhelming demonstration of the atrocious folly of war
between nations and incidental exhibition of the irrationality of the political
and legal systems holding sway at the opening of the 20th Century. …Mr. H. G.
Wells’ ‘Story of Mankind’ repays somewhat more careful reading than an ordinary
The review
emphasized the theme of Atomic warfare, of bombs dropped from airplanes that
destroyed entire cities.  The reviewer
was shaken by the idea that the bombs ‘go on destroying within the area of
their activity’ and as a result of radiation ‘Paris, Berlin, London, every
capital city in Europe, are wholly or partially ruined’.  The ‘average’ person’s attitude to the war as
a sphere of divisions between the social imperialist and anti-war left in the
West was also represented before the students. E. F. Oaten humorously
‘recalled’ a public debate he supposedly witnessed on May Day at Melbourne in
1910. At a meeting ‘emblazoned’ with a ‘red flag’ and the slogan ‘We demand the
Social Revolution’, a former MP of the Australian Labour Party, towards whom
Oaten felt sympathetically inclined, had put forward a social imperialist
position. He was confronted and outstripped by an anti-militarist figure, ‘the
collarless one’, in a ‘very old and dirty coat’. The latter argued: ‘Why should
you working men fight? What’s the good of saying you are fighting for Australia,
when not a flower-pot in Australia belongs to you’? ‘Suppose I get a rifle and
shoot my fellow creatures. I ain’t fighting for myself; I’m only fighting for
the capitalist.’  Since similar
disagreements were taking place in Britain, it would appear that Oaten,
representing yet another shade of imperial liberal opinion, was confused by the
debates on the legitimacy of an inter-imperialist war. The positions of James
and Oaten went on to show that even within its ‘subjective’ arena, imperial
patriotism bred contrary responses. 
On the surface,
the students continued to remain ‘loyal’. The college library acquired maps of
Belgium and the North-East of France, eastern and western theatres of war, as
well as ‘Thacker’s Military Map illustrating the War in Europe’.  The discussions in the corridors and the
common room paved the way for academic debates in the seminars, and ‘a great
gathering in front of the War maps set up in the Common Room by Mr. Peake’.  The Eden hostel library became ‘the
rendezvous of all the boarders since the outbreak of the great war’; it was
regularly visited by those ‘anxious to get the news’ and ‘the dailies are read,
re-read, handled and re-handled a hundred times, with the result that only
relics remain for curious eyes.’ The secretary of the library, Anangomohan Dam,
popularly known as ‘Dummy’, was praised in 1914 for ‘doing his work
satisfactorily.’  Next year, ‘Dummy’ was
expelled from Presidency College alongside Subhash Chandra Bose and Satish
Chandra Dey. The trio was identified as ringleaders of an attack by masked
students on Oaten, accused of racist misbehaviour.  While Dam later became a Congress leader in
Sylhet, Dey joined the ranks of nationalist revolutionaries.  The Eden Hostel, despite its outward and
formal commitment to ‘loyalty’ was not spared and suspected of harbouring
enemies of the state. A visit by the police on a Saturday evening in September 1914
was perceived by the boarders as ‘unexpected and the invitation did not come
from our side; but the function passed off very pleasantly and with, we trust,
the result of an increase in mutual respect.’ 
Students belonging to other institutions were neither extended nor expected
the same level of interaction:
‘…an explosion
took place at 30-1 Dixon’s Lane, resulting in serious injuries to a Chittagong
student, Nagendra Nath Chakrabarti, who lived there. On enquiry it transpired
that the youth was injured while experimenting with materials for the
preparation of bombs, remnants of which were recovered from his room. He was
prosecuted under section 5 of the Explosives Act and sentenced to 4 years’
rigorous imprisonment on 8 May 1916.’
The wider
climate of colonial repression was unleashed in response to a surge in
revolutionary nationalist activity during the initial years of the war. State
repression was organized through old and new legal measures enabling searches,
arrests, detentions without trial and press censorship. The Viceregal
declaration on 5 August 1914 that drew India into the war was immediately
followed by the Indian Naval and Military (Emergency) Ordinance of 1914 which
effectively muzzled the press. On 18 March 1915, Defence of India Act was
passed, without any proper discussion in the Imperial Legislative Assembly.
This law vested the government with enormous repressive powers in the name of
upholding security. The state, alarmed by the ‘serious outbreak’ of ‘political
crime’ in the city during 1915, came down heavily on all strands of
revolutionary activity. From July 1916, the dragnet was spread over bhadralok
revolutionaries as well as the Ghadar and Pan-Islamic networks; this action was
ironically labeled the ‘July Revolution’ by its targets and followed the
earlier suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin. Charles Tegart, a British
policeman of Irish origin, who directed the counter-terrorism operations
through the Special Branch of Calcutta Police which he had set up, was
officially praised for suppressing revolutionary activity by 1916. Admiration
was also showered on ‘the tenacity with which the Special Police has fought
what at one time looked like a lost cause’ and ‘never be forgotten by their
brother officers in less adventurous branches of the service and ought to
compel the admiration of all right-thinking men.’
arrests as well as torture and maltreatment of prisoners generated controversy
in the public sphere. Rabindranath Tagore, as the leading voice of the Bengal
intelligentsia, opposed the harsh measures adopted to discipline students who
were no longer willing to put up with imperial authoritarianism. In
‘Chatroshason Tantra’ (Student-repression System), an essay published in Sabuj Patra (The Green Leaf), he argued
European teachers who undermined the growing sense of liberty and self-respect
among their pupils were inviting contempt and insult. In April 1916, ‘Indian
Students and Western Teachers’, the translated version of ‘Chatroshason Tantra’,
appeared in Modern Review, where Tagore compared the ongoing war in Europe with
the conflict between ‘our students and their European teachers’. He felt
punishment meted out for opposing racist abuse often amounted to revenge and
sent a copy of his article to Lord Carmichael, the Bengal Governor; there was
no response.
After the Lucknow
Pact of 1916, when Hindu-Muslim unity was in the air at the leadership level
discussions between the Congress and the Muslim League, political meetings and
protest rallies demanding freedom of political prisoners and civil liberties,
with significant student and youth participation, came to be regularly
organized in the city.  Criticisms were
directed at the operation of the Defence of India Act by the Hindu and Muslim
press for implicating and persecuting the ‘innocent’. The Hitavadi mentioned
‘the case of Debendra Nath Sarkar as illuminating the dangers with which many
Bengali youths are now beset because of the activity of the political
criminals.’ The young man was thrice arrested within three months by the police
and felt ‘steps should be taken to prevent innocent men from being harassed on
unfounded suspicion.’ The Tarjoman accused the security apparatus of abusing
the emergency laws: ‘People are deprived of their liberties on the report of
the detective police. Times without number requests have been made that at
least the nature of the crime committed by these people should be made known,
but these requests have not been granted.’ The Bengalee reported: ‘A
distinguished University student and a poor man, also a graduate of the
University, the bread-winner of his family, have recently been interned. It is
a very serious matter to deprive a man of his liberty without a trial.’ The
Amrita Bazar Patrika  held state terror
responsible for generating social anxiety: ‘The application and operation of
the Defence of India Act has of late been so wide and indiscriminate that it is
natural that it should cause a panic in the community, for no one can feel
quite secure from falling into its meshes. It is perhaps now known that it is
not the Defence of India Act alone that is at work, for Regulation 111 of 1818
has also been brought into play.’ The Dainik Bharat Mitra summarized the regime
of harassment and persecution embedded in the emergency policing measures
directed at the alleged ‘political criminal’:
‘Now-a-days home
searches and internments are the order of the day in Kolkata. Hardly a day
passes when such events do not happen. Whenever the police wants to intern a
man it gets out a warrant for searching his house from the Magistrate on some
ground or other…When a house is searched, the police take the man they suspect
along with them, so that they may “ask him something”. After that he is placed
before high officials who tell him that he has been arrested under section 54,
of the nature of which 99 per cent of the people are ignorant. But this does
not prevent arrests being made: there ends the first chapter in the internment
of an individual. After this the second chapter begins. In Kolkata, immediately
after a person is arrested, he is sent to Kyd Street or to the Police Court and
sometimes to the lock-up. The police then attempt to get out information from
him according to their methods, and if he does not say anything or pleads not
guilty, he is sent to the Dullanda House. If this place happens to be overcrowded
he is sent to the Alipore Jail. His relatives have then to wander about from
place to place without success. After 10 to 14 days, when an application for
bail is made, the reply is given that though he has been acquitted of the
charge of murder yet he has been arrested under the Defence of India Act. Those
who are wealthy supply food to their arrested relatives but those who are poor
cannot do so and many arrested persons, though not declared guilty in a
law-court have to subsist on jail fare. After this follows the order of
internment …’
Court judgments
upholding capital punishment were indicted as roots of political injustice. The
Dainik Basumati philosophically observed: ‘When man cannot give life, he ought
not to take it away lightly.’  The
treatment of political prisoners became a zone of deep acrimony between the
government and the local intelligentsia. The Bengalee claimed, as early as in
1914, that it did not have the ‘smallest sympathy’ with political crimes but
appealed to the government ‘for a more humane and considerate treatment’ of
political prisoners. Torture and abuse of middle-class detainees became a major
issue during the war. The paper alleged Bidhu Bhushan Sarkar, an accused in the
Alipur Bomb Case in Kolkata, and interned in the Central Provinces, was whipped
for some breach of the jail regulations in ‘violation of Lord Morley’s orders
against youthful political prisoners being whipped’.  Bhupendra Kumar Datta, a nationalist
revolutionary arrested and interned in 1916 wrote that torture in police
custody was routine and drove men to madness and suicide. ‘Sadist’ methods of
interrogation, including rape with objects and pulling out finger and toe nails,
were considered effective in breaking the resolve of the prisoners and making
them reveal secrets of the revolutionary underground. Ultimately, Lord
Ronaldshay, the new Governor of Bengal who succeeded Carmichael, was forced to
remove Charles Tegart, who had gained notoriety as a torturer in nationalist
circles; Ronaldshay also forbade physical abuse. The colonial authorities
became sensitive to criticisms and campaigns on the treatment of political
prisoners, increasingly strident from 1917; they did not wish to jeopardize the
dialogue on behalf of the British Government which Montagu, Secretary of State
for India, attempted to initiate through his visit to the colony in 1917-18.
Better treatment was offered to political prisoners in certain select jails. Inmates
of the Alipur Central Jail in Kolkata were given an improved diet and the Jail
Superintendent personally enquired as to their well-being every day. Held
without trial, these prisoners along with those in less privileged facilities
took advantage of Montagu’s visit and started a long-drawn hunger-strike from
December 1917; they were soon subjected to force-feeding since the government
refused to be embarrassed by such deaths or give in to their political
demands.  Another revolutionary, Satis Pakrasi
recalled that though openly sadistic torture had stopped due to the
intervention of the Governor, psychological torture and physical abuse in the
form of sleep/food/drink deprivation, verbal insults, keeping prisoners
stripped and manacled for days in an upright posture were in practice during
early 1918; Satis claimed he was subjected to these methods while being
interrogated.  In the face of mounting
accusations, the colonizers became increasingly defensive on the condition of
political prisoners. European opinion-makers felt prison reforms were needed
but dismissed complaints of maltreatment as exaggerated. However, they could
not fully hide the brutality and despair that often prompted ‘Indian anarchist
under-trials’ to commit suicide in holding cells and urged prompt prevention,
possibly because such incidents reinforced the allegations of abuse.  In a letter written to a friend in London (18
September 1918) at the end of the war, Tagore expressed the paradox of liberal
imperialism during a moment of extra-ordinary crisis of colonial authority and
its social impact on the domestic sphere of bhadralok milieu:
‘The constant
conflict between the growing demand of the educated community of India for a
substantial share in the administration of their country and the spirit of
hostility on the part of the Government has given rise among a considerable
number of our young men secret methods of violence bred of despair and
distrust. This has been met by the Government by a thorough policy of
repression. In Bengal itself hundreds of men are interned without trial,-a
great number of them in unhealthy surroundings, in jails, in solitary cells, in
a few cases driving them to insanity or suicide. The misery this has caused in
numerous households is deep and widespread, the greatest sufferers being the
women and children who are stricken at heart and rendered helpless…we are
justified in thinking that a large number of those punished are innocent, many
of whom were specially selected as victims by secret spies only because they
had made themselves generously conspicuous in some noble mission of
The British
surveillance and policing networks, throughout the war, were accused of
manufacturing suspects to justify the repression of political dissent, officially
branded as ‘extremism’, ‘sedition’ and ‘terror’. As a practice of criminalizing
dissent and opposition, it was to be inherited and continued after colonial
authority had formally come to an end.
Primary Sources

Annual Reports
of the Police Administration of the Town of Calcutta and its Suburbs,
Reports of the
Municipal Administration of Calcutta, 1914-1918.
Reports on
Native Newspapers, 1914-1918
Bengal Home
(Political) Records, 1914-1918.
The Presidency
College Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1 (November, 1914).
The Presidency
College Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 2  (January,
The Statesman, (select
dates) 1914-1918.
BiplaberPadachinha(Footprints of Revolution), Kolkata, 1999.
Muzaffar Ahmad,
Amar Jiban o Bharater Communist Party (My Life and the Communist Party of
India), Kolkata, 1969, Fifth Edition 1996.
Agnijuger Katha (The Burning Times), Kolkata, Third Edition 1982.


John Berwick,
‘ChatraSamaj: The Social and Political Significance of the Student Community in
Bengal c.1870-1922’, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Sydney, 1986.
Prashanta Kumar
Paul, Rabijibani: Volume VII (A Multi-volume Biography of Rabindranath Tagore),
Kolkata, 2002.
Subodh Chandra
Sengupta& Anjali Basu (eds.), SansadBangaliCharitabhidhan(Dictionary of
Bengali Biography), Vols. 1 & 2, Kolkata, 1996.

Modern India1885-1947, Delhi, 1983.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.