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BAGHA JATIN: The Unsung Hero

It is an irony of history that the supreme sacrifice made by Jatindra Nath Mukherjee or Bagha Jatin, as he is popularly known, whose martyrdom falls on 10 September; is little known outside Bengal and Odisha, although there is no dearth of well documented historical records in this regard.  Much before India achieved Independence in 1947, there was an attempt under the leadership of Jatindra Nath Mukherrjee, M.N. Roy et al in 1915 during the First World War to attain Independence through armed insurrection in cooperation with the Germany.  Although the initiative did not fructify, the efforts deserve to be recalled and given due importance in the pages of history, particularly this year which we are observing as the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.  In fact, the episode can be considered as a precursor of the later attempt by Subhas Chandra Bose in 1945 under the aegis of the Indian National Army (INA) during the Second World War with the help of Japan. 

Born in 1879 in a village called Koya in Kushtia district of undivided Bengal (presently Bangladesh), Bagha Jatin joined the Central College in Calcutta in 1895 after completion of his school education. His bravery, valour and dare-devil spirit can be gauged from the fact that in 1904 while he was working in the hill station of Darjeeling in Bengal, he killed a tiger which attacked one of his friends with the help of a dagger after struggling for over three hours.  The incident earned him the sobriquet Bagha (Tiger) Jatin.

The ideas and ideals of religious nationalism of leaders like Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo Ghosh had significant bearing on his mental disposition and his approach to the liberation of the mother-land from the yoke of British colonialism.  In fact, the seeds of his militant nationalism, to a great extent, can be attributed to the ideas of both Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo was believed to have described Jatindra Nath Mukherjee as his right-hand man.  Sister Nivedita, the discipline of Vivekananda, had introduced Jatin Mukherjee to Vivekananda.

The ideas of Bhagavad Geeta and the writings of Bankim Chandra, Aurobindo Ghosh’s Bhavani Mandir and Vivekananda’s Present India ignited the fire of nationalism sweeping across the length and breadth of the country and particularly in Bengal. Being disillusioned with the slow progress for self-rule, the clarion call of militant nationalism forged a bonding among the restless youth of the country who were disillusioned with the slow and piecemeal pace of progress towards independence and were losing faith in the efficacy of constitutional agitation in the form of protest and petition.  The partition of Bengal in 1905 had also cast its impact on the revolutionary movement brewing in the country and particularly in Bengal.  The organization that galvanized the spirit of strident nationalism was Jugantar and its icon was Jatindra Nath Mukherjee.

Although Mukherjee was a government employee working as a short-hand clerk in the Office of the Financial Secretary to the Government of Bengal, he was actively involved in the revolutionary movement taking place in Bengal. Around 1905, he organized Chhatra Bhandar as an out-fit to camouflage his militant organisation.  He mobilised around him a large group of young revolutionaries.   M.N. Roy came to know him in the later part of 1906 and accepted him as his leader.  Both worked together in tandem.  What attracted Roy in Jatindra Nath Mukherjee was his indomitable spirit and dynamic leadership.

By early 1914 the country was seething with discontentment against British rule and what added fuel to the fire was the promise of moral and material support to the revolutionaries in India from revolutionaries fighting for the cause of independence from abroad such as Ghadr movement in Canada and the USA.  This provided an impetus to the revolutionary activities taking place in India particularly in Bengal.

It was in this context that Jatindra Nath Mukherjee was involved and implicated in a number of murder and dacoity cases which were primarily aimed at raising funds required to launch the armed insurrection to end British rule in India.  Such activities of Mukherjee and his associates are mentioned in the Sedition Committee Report or Rowlatt Report of 1918 which the British Government in India had constituted to investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies connected with revolutionary movement in India.

In this connection mention may be made of the Garden Reach dacoity committed on 12th February 1915.  The Report mentions that the dacoity was committed under the direction of notable leaders like Jatindra Nath Mukherjee and Bepin Ganguli.  It was carefully planned so as to intercept the servant of Bird & Co., carrying a weekly sum of Rs.20, 000 from the Charted Bank in Calcutta to Bird & Co’s mill at Garden Reach, a little way down the Hoogly.”

The Garden Reach incident was followed by yet another such incident at Beliaghata in Calcutta where an attempt was made, under the direction of Jatindra Nath Mukherjee, to extort from the cashier of a rice merchant Rs.20,000 in cash and currency notes.  The Report further mentions that “two days later occurred the murder of Nirod Haldar in Pathuriaghata Street.  There was ample evidence of a convincing nature that he was murdered because he unexpectedly came into a room where Mukherjee with others was seated and recognized Mukherjee and addressed him by name.”  The Report makes a mention of yet another such incident.  It mentions that “four days later in Cornwallis Street in Calcutta, Inspector Suresh Chandra Mukherjee, while on duty with an orderly, supervising arrangements in connection with a ceremony at Calcutta University at which the Viceroy was to attend, noticed an absconding anarchist in the street and approached to arrest him, when he was fired at by the anarchist and four others.  The Inspector was killed and orderly wounded.  There is very good reason for believing that the murder of this officer was planned by Jatindra Nath Mukherjee.”

It was against this backdrop that the outbreak of First World War in 1914, provided fuel to the fire of militant nationalism in the country.  The Indian Revolutionaries in exile looked towards Germany as the land of hope.  M.N. Roy wrote in his celebrated Memoir that by the end of the year news reached that the Indian Revolutionary Committee in Berlin had obtained from the German Government the promise of arms and money required to declare the war of independence.    Clandestine conferences led to the formation of the General Staff of the coming revolution, with Mukherjee as the Commander-in-Chief”.  The job of finding money for initial expenditure was entrusted to Jatindra Nath Mukherjee.

Roy left India in April, 1915 and proceeded to Batavia (Djakarta) in Indonesia where he adopted the name C.A. Martin.  What happened in Batavia is mentioned in detail in the Sedition Committee Report.  According to the Report, on his arrival in Batavia ‘Roy’ was introduced by the German Consul to Theodor Halfferich, who stated that a cargo of arms and ammunitions was on its way to Karachi to assist the Indians in the revolution.  Roy then urged that the ship should be diverted to Bengal.  This was eventually agreed to after reference to the German Consul-General in Shanghai.  Roy then returned to make arrangements to receive the cargo of the Maverick, as the ship was called, at Rai Mangal on the Sunderbans.  The cargo was said to have consisted of 30,000 rifles with 400 rounds of ammunition each and 2 lakhs of rupees.

Roy returned to India in the middle of June to execute the plan.  The mastermind behind the plan were Jatindra Nath Mukherjee, Jadugopal Mukherjee, Bholanath Chatterjee, Atul Chandra Ghosh and Roy himself.  According to the Sedition Committee Report, revolutionaries decided to divide the arms into three parts, to be sent respectively to Hatia, for the Eastern Bengal district to be worked by the member of Barisal Party, Calcutta and Balasore in Odisha.  It was planned to hold up the three main railways into Bengal by blowing up the principal bridges.  Jatindra Nath Mukherjee was to deal with the Madras Railway from Balasore.

In the meantime, the work of taking delivery of the cargo of the Maverick was apparently arranged by Jadu Gopal Mukherjee who was in touch with a Zamindar in the vicinity of Rai Mangal who had promised to provide men, lighters etc. for the unloading of the vessel.

James Campbell Ker, who was one of the senior officers of the British Indian Government and who worked as Personal Assistant to the Director of Criminal Intelligence from 1907 to 1913 in his significant book Political Trouble in India, 1007-1917, mentions about the way it was envisaged to transport arms to India from Germany.  Ker mentions, that the most remarkable was the voyage of the S.S. Maverick, which was intended to bring arms from the West Coast of Mexico to Java to be afterwards carried to India.

Jatindra Nath Mukherjee in the meanwhile anticipating the arrival of the arms and ammunition and in order to avoid being caught by the police, especially after the Garden Reach dacoity had left for Balasore, not very far from Calcutta, in the company of a few select followers sometime in April, 1915 before Roy left for Batavia. There Jatindra Nath Mukherjee and his loyal followers sheltered themselves in a place called Kaptipada some 22 miles from Balasore under the then Mayurbhanj State.  Earlier at Balasore, Saileswar Bose, an associate of Mukherjee had set up in April 1915 a business called the Universal Emporium which ostensibly dealt with the repair of bicycles and the sale of gramophones and records.

Roy returned to India in June and probably arrived at Negapatam on 14th of June and next day reached Madras.  On the same day, he sent a telegram to Jadu Gopal Mukherjee in Calcutta.  The telegram mentioned, “arrived here, starting tonight for Balasore, expect to meet someone there.”11 The sending of the telegram and the nexus between Harry & Sons of Calcutta and the Universal Emporium at Balasore led to inquiry at Balasore by the British police.  The enquiry in turn led to the search of Universal Emporium and its mysterious doings at Balasore.  After interrogating Saileswar Bose it was found that he had visited Kaptipada on different occasions.  This was a curious place for a Bengali of his class to go to without any apparent object, and accordingly on 6th September 1915, the District Magistrate of Balasore, accompanied by several police officers engaged in the inquiry, went to Kaptipada and learnt that several Bengalis were living in a house in the jungle about a mile and half away.  Next morning, after necessary sanction had been obtained from the Sub-Divisional Officer of Udala, they searched the house and found that the Bengalis had left.  The search party, however, could find some interesting documents, among which were a map of the Sundarbans and a cutting from a Penang paper about the Maverick, and it was clear that they had firearms in their possession as a tree in the compound showed marks of bullets. The British administration and the police cordoned off the area so as to prevent the escape of Jatindra Nath Mukherjee and his associates.

The District Magistrates of Balasore received information on 9th September that the revolutionaries had been located and had shot one villager dead and wounded another.  The Magistrate with a Sergeant of the Proof Department (presently the missile testing center of DRDO) and a party of armed police went to the spot in motor cars and found that the revolutionaries had escaped to a small island of jungle in the middle of a paddy field.  With occasional skirmishes, the revolutionaries, running through thorny jungles and marshy lands, tired and exhausted for days, at last took up position on 9 September 1915 behind an improvised trench in a bush at Chashakhand in Balasore.  The police party surrounded them.  An unequal battle of 75 minutes between the five revolutionaries with Mauser pistols and an overwhelming number of police and army men with riffles ended with unrecorded number of casualties on both sides.  One of the revolutionaries named Chittapriya Roy Choudhury succumbed to injuries.  Manoranjan Sen Gupta and Niren Das Gupta, two other accomplices of Jatin Mukherjee, were captured after their ammunitions ran out.  Jatin Mukherjee and Jatish Pal were seriously wounded.  Manoranjan and Niren were executed and Jatin was transported to the government hospital at Barabati in Balasore for life where he also died. During the trial, the prosecuting British Official advised the Defence laywer to read a manuscript by Jatin Mukherjee and remarked: were this man living, he might lead the world.

Referring to the martyrdom of Jatin Mukherjee, what M.N. Roy, his comrade in arm, wrote in 1949 merits mention.  Roy wrote, “the time has changed; the man who earned fame as a great conspirator against the Imperialist state and extraordinarily bold terrorist, is now to be memorialized as a great man in the history of modern India.  His birthday is celebrated, and biographies written.  But since his time, the political stage of India has been crowded with people claiming niches in history, if not places of honour in the pantheon of the great.  Judged by his actual feats, minus the legends woven around them, Jatinda’s name may be crowded out of the list of the national heroes…”  Mentioning about his heroic fight at Balasore, Roy wrote, “there is no doubt that the story of Balasore Jungle can be dramatized, and done by a master artist, it may attain the grandeur of an epic poem…”.  He wrote further, “by way of expressing admiration and respect, the imperialist policeman who, had the party to surround Jatinda’s hiding place, said’, ‘He was the first Indian to die fighting, arm in hand’.

Highlighting the importance of the fight, renowned parliamentarian and author Hirendranath Mukherjee writes, “The Balasore battle where Jatin, with select comrades, laid down his life, remains a luminous land mark in India’s struggle for freedom from British imperialist subjugations.”  Historian Ajoy Chandra Banerjee emphasizing the vision and gut determination of Jatin Mukherjee writes, “he represented the zenith of militant nationalism culminating in the concept of a revolutionary war of international dimensions… At a time when conventional Indian nationalism could not even contemplate India’s independence Jatin was a believer in total freedom… While earlier militants had not given much thought to the utilization of the international situation.  Jatin’s vision transcended the frontiers of India.  He sought to utilise the situation caused by the First World War.

(The writer is a senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research, Views are personal.)