Few know of the defiant 1942 Republic of Ballia, crushed brutally by the British police
As India prepares to commemorate 68 years of freedom from British imperial rule, it may be worth remembering a small, dusty town in Uttar Pradesh that suffered the consequences of declaring itself an independent country for a few days in 1942. The sovereign Republic of Ballia, headed by Chittu Pandey, survived some seven days before British-led military and police forces managed to regain control, thereafter unleashing a series of atrocities that are still remembered by the descendants of those who were raped, beaten and killed by torture, shooting and burning.
Known for their rebellious nature, people of Ballia took an active part in Quit India movement of August 9,1942. According to district records, the news of the arrest of Congress leaders reached Ballia the same day, and the next day all the schools were closed. Local natives and students took out processions on August 11 and 12. They demanded the closure of the courts. This was stopped by 100 armed constables and in the ensuing lathi-charge many were badly wounded. On August 13, the Bilthara Road Railway Station was attacked and the building burnt. The currency notes found in the safes were also were burnt. The water pump and the water tank were smashed.
A goods train was looted and the engine was smashed and seed stores, police stations and post offices attacked. On August 16, the Rasra treasury was attacked and two days later, the police station at Bairia was re-attacked as the station officer had removed the Tricolour which the freedom fighters hoisted there on August 15, after gaining control of the place. The infuriated mob of about 25,000 people raided the police station and numerous attempts were made to re-hoist the flag. Men and women of all ages as well as children took part in the raid. The police responded with volleys of shots, resulting in the deaths of around 20 persons and injuries to over a hundred.
Undeterred by firing, the deaths and the injuries, people maintained pressure to gain control of the police station as they were determined to capture the police officer and others responsible for the firing but at dead of night, when it was raining, the police staff slipped away and the thana was captured the next morning. By this time, the freedom fighters had gained control of many other places in the district including the tehsil headquarters of Bansdih, the police station and the seed store. The indiscriminate firing at the Bairia police station and at other places compelled the people to take up arms.
On August 19, 50,000 persons armed with guns, lathis, spears proceeded towards the jail to free their leaders and other participants. The gate of the jail was opened. This marked the first victory of the freedom struggle. It was a symbol in this small and economically backwards district of Ballia of the downfall of the British Raj. After their release, the leaders addressed a huge gathering in the town. The mass uprising in Ballia began soon after the arrest of Congress leaders taking part in Quit India movement. On August 10, 1942, all the schools were closed and people continued to take out processions. On August 13, Bilthara Road railway station was attacked and the building was burnt. On August 16, Rasra treasury was attacked and two days later the police station at Bairia was attacked. The station officer had removed the Tricolour, which the freedom fighters hoisted on August 15. At least 20 persons were killed and several others injured in police firing.
On August 20, a police van went round the town firing at passersby indiscriminately, contrary to the assurance given to the leaders. In the absence of planned programme, many administrative centres remained to be captured but they had already ceased to function properly. The freedom fighters constituted separate panchayats for different localities for carrying out the civil administration and Congress volunteers were appointed for the defence of the city. By now, the people had acquired complete control of the city and they declared ‘Independence’ for Ballia on August 20, 1942, and a popular government was formed with Chittu Pandey as its first head.
During the night of August 22-23, military forces entered Ballia and the popular government was overthrown. Then the horrors of the British police and military were let loose upon the people. All leaders of the revolution, young and old, were arrested, beaten and tortured. The sacrifices of the people earned the reputation of ‘Revolutionary Ballia’ during the Quit India movement of 1942. The conquest of Ballia by the freedom fighters attracted the attention of the British Parliament also.
75 Years On…
In Ballia, 75 years later, it is instructive to recall how communal unity prevailed in those days between Hindus and Muslims. Inevitably, when they returned to Ballia, the British committed all kinds of atrocities. They did not want the national flag to be hoisted in the town and they shot and killed any who dared to do so. Emerging from the shadows was a young Muslim who was killed when he tried to raise a flag that was not the Union Jack. It is still a matter of local pride in Ballia that before the flag fell to the ground, another volunteer took it upon himself to grab and support that symbol of national pride, then yet another and so on. Some 11 men were killed one after another by soldiers of the British Crown.
Even more instructive was the way the British administration was treated by the leaders of the independence movement. British officials and their local toadies were gathered together in safety and peacefully ushered across the railway line that divided the civil and military lines of the town. Not one of them was harmed in any way.
At the orders of an English police officer called Fletcher, about 130 leaders of the local independence movement were hanged. Those who were not hanged were forced to climb trees, where they were bayoneted. Those who managed to avoid the tree punishments were taken to local jails, where they were suspended by their legs and starved. Those who avoided the leg suspension torture were forced to sit together on the floors of the jails and fed chapattis that gave them dysentery. Ballia offers a small insight into the realities of colonial rule, during which Indians suffered unimaginable miseries at the hands of their white rulers. Some of those tortures resulted in death. This was not all that different from what the Jews endured at the hands of their German tormentors before and during World War II. The difference is that the atrocities perpetrated in places like Auschwitz in Germany have been well documented and some of those responsible for what happened in the concentration camps have been brought to justice, if not by the Allied powers (Britain included) and post-Nazi Germany at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, then certainly by the modern state of Israel.
Atrocities committed in places like Ballia, which joined the Quit India movement of 1942, are still not fully documented. As for the likes of Commissioner Fletcher, no one to this day knows what happened to him and whether he was ever held to account for the murders of so many innocent civilians.
Significantly, this gesture of defiance by the citizens of Ballia — Hindus and Muslims alike — was never reported in the British media. This was during World War II, when Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister. As the war was coming to a close, he is documented as declaring that Britain would never give up its Indian Empire.
His recorded comments include this one: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Just as shocking were his earlier comments about Mahatma Gandhi. “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half naked up the steps of the vice regal palace while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.”
Churchill did not and could not anticipate that Ballia would ignite the fire that five years later would engulf and destroy colonial rule both in India and beyond. Ironically, the statues of both Gandhi and Churchill today stand close to each other in a prestigious location opposite the British Parliament in London.
In order to commemorate the historic event when ‘Baghi Ballia’ had declared Independence from British rule in 1942, hundreds of local residents still assemble at the district jail on August 19 every year. The gate of jail was opened for a while. A procession is taken out across the town and a meeting is organized at Bapu Bhawan to celebrate the victory.
However, the town is yet to see the completion of ‘Shaheed Smarak’ (Martyr Memorial) in memory of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives. “To remember the historical moment every year on August 19, people assemble at the gate of the district jail and carry out a procession across the town. The procession culminates at Bapu Bhawan, Town Hall, where a public meeting is held,” a local resident said. “But Baghi Ballia, which fought bravely against the British rule, is today helpless in preserving the memory of its martyrs,” he lamented, adding that the half-built memorial at Basantpur, about 8 km from the town, is facing utter neglect.
The Martyr Memorial was conceived in 1992 during the Golden Jubilee celebration of Quit India movement of 1942. The then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao while addressing a function at Jaiprakash Nagar, the birthplace of Jaiprakash Narayan, on August 19, 1992 had announced that a Rs 1 crore would be made available by the government for construction of Shaheed Smarak at Ballia. HRD ministry had nominated former PM Chandra Shekhar as the president of the trust.
The trust would be a centre for perpetuating the memory of martyrs and freedom fighters. It would carry on constructive activities beneficial to the surviving freedom fighters and their dependents.
It aims at collecting, preserving, publishing and distributing records, plans, books, writings, lectures, letters, correspondence, teachings and messages of the martyrs and freedom fighters together with their autobiographies, biographies, anecdotes and reminiscence highlighting their feelings and sentiments against British tyranny and strong determination for the Independence of the country. It also aims to set up, maintain and run museum where various relics, objects of veneration photographs, paintings, sketches, articles and things connected with the history of the struggle for Independence have to be preserved.
However, Ballia was not an isolated incident. People in Tamluk (West Bengal) and Satara (Maharashtra) too declared independence. But, none of them were as pronounced and well defined as in Ballia. A local government was formed at Tamluk in Midnapore in December 1942 which remained in place up to September 1944. It started relief programmes for people suffering from hurricanes, doled out grants to schools, distributed doles to the poor and constituted an armed constabulary.
The parallel government formed by local people at Satara kept the British at bay till 1945. People like YB Chavan and Nana Patil had an important role in setting up this government. It banned liquor, set up rural libraries, people’s courts and organized dowry-less community marriages.
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