Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

'Chittagong Summer of 1930': A TRULY All-Encompassing history

The history of the Indian independence struggle against the British Raj is peppered with astonishing events and remarkable personalities.

The Chittagong Armoury Raid Case of April 1930 was one that combined both those elements in abundance.

The raid, also known as the 'Chittagong Uprising', was carried out on 18th April with the revolutionaries intending to plunder the main police armoury in the city, one of the most strategically important for the British in Bengal, at the very heart of the British Raj.

It was masterminded and led by Surya Sen, popularly known as "Master-Da", a school-teacher whose unexceptional appearance masked a passionate independence activist who influenced scores of Bengali youths during his day.

After weeks of careful planning, the raid began around 10 pm with hundreds of armed, khaki-clad youth marching in order before cutting off communications and rail connections and seizing a huge haul of arms and ammunition.  The raid itself led to a general uprising as the British brought in reinforcements whilst the revolutionaries resorted to guerrilla tactics.

Superior British firepower and numbers meant that most of the leaders of the uprising were eventually killed whilst others were captured although the events marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire in the sub-continent.
Surya Sen was arrested in February 1933 and sent to the gallows on the night of 12th January 1934, crying "Vande Mataram".

This remarkable story of many facets has been the subject of numerous books over the years and the latest is 'Chittagong: Summer of 1930' by Manoshi Bhattacharya, which brings to life the events leading up to the raid through the eyes of 'Master-Da's' students and, intriguingly, the British officers in charge of the region at the time.

Surya Sen and his lieutenants, including the likes of Kalpana Dutt, Ambika Chakraborty, Binod Bihari, Lokenath Bal, Ananda Prasad Gupta and Pritilata Waddedar, have become men and women of legend whilst the raid is part of Bengali folklore.
Bhattacharya chooses eight of the heroes from the raid and eight British officers to weave a freshly detailed account of the events and with aplomb. 

Drawing extensively from existing literature about the time and the event and also from the personal writing of the personalities, Bhattacharya recreates the events with a small sprinkling of fictional license to give the narrative a boost.  It's a quite remarkable effort and one which leaves you in disbelieve until you refer to the footnotes in each chapter which then refer back to the sources.

Being a Bengali herself, Bhattacharya could have fallen for the literary trap that many Bengali writers would have fall into by - intentionally or not - veering into showing just the revolutionaries' point of view.

Her finest achievement is detailing the lives of the British officers, including Police Commissioner Sir Charles Tegart, and District Magistrate H R Wilkinson who tell stories of the splendour as well as the mundaneness of being colonialists.
Bhattacharya's Bengali background then comes in handy when getting the nuances of the revolutionaries' absolutely right, including the subtle nuances in language and personality.

Moving between the Bengali and British worlds, the author immerses the reader in both worlds sufficiently so that the reader ends up empathising with the travails of both sides for fundamentally, in spite of the tags of "good" vs "evil" is often all-too-easily pinned on the opposing sides, both camps suffer equally, as is often the case in war.

Instead of creating a linear narrative, Bhattacharya, who also happens to be a Indian Navy physician, uses these opposing voices to recreate an event that was second only to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and which reverberated all the way to Westminster; a fact that the author carefully illuminates by reproducing the harried letters sent by Sir Charles Taggart in the wake of the uprising.

Bhattacharya's Naval background meanwhile, lends itself to the careful reconstruction of the military precision which characterised the raid and one which baffled India's British masters in India and Britain.

'Chittagong: Summer of 1930' is, as such, an all-encompassing experience: part historical fiction, part memoir, part biography and part gripping war story.  Intriguingly enough, the book ends with a tantalizing intimation that there may be a sequel, perhaps exploring the repercussions of the raid that eventually led to Independence in 1947.

If Part I is anything to go by, then the sequel will doubtless be equally thrilling.

- Poonam Joshi



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