He defied the British police, endured their atrocities and eventually went down fighting.
This is the story of a 15-year-old Sanskrit student, who became the revolutionary – Chandrashekhar Azad.
There were five to six youngsters in the group, all of them between 15 and 35 years old. Magistrate Kharegat, a Parsi, known for awarding severe punishments, saw that these youngsters were standing fearlessly. They seemed to know no fear. He called one of them, arrested for throwing a stone at a police officer. He seemed very young, but was totally unperturbed by his arrest.
The boy replied nonchalantly, “Azad”.
“Your father’s name?” “Azadi”
“Where do you live?” “In prison.”
Taken aback by the insouciance and arrogance, a furious Kharegat ordered 50 lashes. It was a punishment that even the most hardened criminals would fear. Yet the youngster showed no fear. He was stripped of his clothes, except a vest, and tied to a wooden plank. The caning could often tear the flesh off his body, yet the youngster did not seem to fear it. Jailor Ganda Singh was notorious for his cruelty. He relished torturing the prisoners and hearing them cry. As the jailer lashed, the youth cried out “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” with every stroke. Not one trace of anxiety, or suffering, as he patiently endured the lashing. As the news of the youth’s bravery spread, the citizens of Benaras, came to receive him. He was accorded a hero’s welcome, garlanded, taken on a procession with slogans of “Chandrashekar Azad ki jai” filled the air.
The youngster, who took the cane blows, was born Chandrashekar Sitaram Tiwari on 23 July 1906 in Bhabara village, now located in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh. His father, Pandit Sitaram Tiwari, hailed from the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh, and worked as a clerk in the forest department. Located in the midst of a thick jungle and surrounded by hills and valleys, this is where Chandrashekar spent his childhood years. Even though Sitaram Tiwari was not very well off, and had to struggle due to poverty, he was honest and never sought to earn money by illegal means. Chandrashekhar grew up under the loving care of his mother Jagrani Devi, who wanted her son to be a Sanskrit scholar. Even as a child he displayed a strong rebellious streak. Once when his hand was burnt during Diwali, he did not even notice it, until his friends alerted him about it.
Chandrashekhar, along with his brother Sukhdev, studied at the village school, where he was taught by Manohar Lal Trivedi. Chandrashekhar always held high ideals and a love for justice, a quality he inherited from his father. Trivedi would go on to become Chandrashekar’s mentor, for his father was unable to meet his education expenses. It was he who took Chandrashekhar to his home and educated him. Owing to poor financial condition, Chandrashekar took up a job when he was just 14 years old, under local tehsildar Sitaram Agnihotri. However, Chandrashekar was uphappy with the job, and wanted to explore the world.
His mother persuaded Chandrashekar’s father to send him to Kashi to study Sanskrit. Varanasi was then the centre for Sanskrit learning with students all over India flocking the city. The best part was that students from poor background were given free boarding and lodging. Keeping this in mind, Sitaram Tiwari, sent Chandrashekhar to Varanasi for further studies.
However, the restless Chandrashekhar could not adjust to the environment, and he ran away from Kashi to Alirajpur, where his uncle lived. It was during his stay in Alirajpur that he came into contact with the Bhil tribals. He learnt archery from them. However, a tribal lost his eyesight after an arrow shot by Chandrashekar accidentally hit him, making his uncle furious. He felt that the Bhils were having a bad influence on Chandrashekar and sent him back to Varanasi. Chandrashekar studied Sanskrit but could not bring himself to understand the grammar, which he found complicated. He loved to swim in the Ganga for hours. He loved listening to discourses on Ramayana, Mahabharata and hearing stories about freedom fighters and heroes.
On 10 December 1917, the British government introduced the dreaded Rowlatt Act to suppress the growing clamour for independence. Its aim was to suppress political agitations, calling it “sedition”. It specifically targeted the extremists in Congress like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, who along with other revolutionaries like the Chapekar brothers and Khudi Ram Bose, were considered dangerous. Under this act, the police could arrest anyone, anytime, or place them under house arrest, with no warrant and no questions asked.
By 1919, the country was up against the Rowlatt Act, and Mahatma Gandhi led the satyagraha. Swami Shraddananda led the hartal in Delhi against the act, and there was a firing in which five Indians were killed. Punjab exploded in anger against the Rowlatt Act, leading to the arrest of Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satyapal Dang. And one of the worst massacres in the history of India took place on 30 April 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh on a Baisakhi day. General Dyer led the troops to Jallianwala Bagh, where a meeting was taking place and ordered them to fire on the unarmed people. With all exit routes blocked, the people ran helter skelter, many jumped into a well to save themselves. When the firing stopped, around 20,000 people lay dead – it was one of the most horrendeous acts fueled by British arrogance. Even after the Jallianwala Bagh incident, the British committed more atrocities, native Indians were asked to crawl on the streets, people were put in cages and paraded, and routinely flogged and whipped.
Chandrashekar was furious with what had happened in Jallianwala Bagh and the atrocities committed by the British in Punjab. Headed by Lala Lajpat Rai, the Congress held a session in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1920, and passed a resolution for non-cooperation. Under the leadership of Gandhi, the non-cooperation movement spread like wildfire all over India in 1921. Varanasi also got involved in the movement with students boycotting classes and taking part in demonstrations. Chandrashekhar abandoned his studies and joined the national movement. During an agitation, Chandrashekar saw police mercilessly beating up some protesters. He could not stop himself and threw a stone at a sub inspector, injuring him. Even though he managed to escape, the police traced and arrested him. He was just a 15-year-old student, when he was handcuffed, put in a dark, damp cell. However, the incident, instead of breaking his spirit, strengthened his resolve.
The defiance he showed at the police station, the courage with which he endured the cane blows made him a hero in Varanasi. People turned up in large numbers to see this brave son, whose resolve the British could not break. His photo was published in Maryada newspaper with the caption “Brave Child Azad”, along with a write-up about his heroic deeds. The 15-year-old Sanskrit student Chandrashekar Sitaram Tiwari was now the heroic revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad. His father, however, was worried and implored him to return home. Azad by now had made up his mind that he would serve the nation and his life was dedicated to the cause.
Azad now plunged headlong into the freedom movement. He had broken all bonds with his family and his life was fully committed to India. However, when Gandhi suspended the non-cooperation movement abruptly after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1921, like many others, Azad was thoroughly disappointed. An angry mob had burnt down a police station at Chauri Chaura village near Gorakhpur following which Gandhi suspended the movement. Azad felt that armed revolution was the only way to achieve independence, and he began to join forces with rebels from Bengal. The new movement was led by Sachindranath Sanyal, who organised it in Uttar Pradesh. Soon the revolutionary body in Uttar Pradesh was merged with Anushilan Samiti, which was founded by Sanyal under the name of Hindustan Republican Association (HRA). Influenced by the objectives of the Russian Revolution in 1917, it sought to establish a democratic, socialist society in India. Apart from Azad, it had other active members like Pandit Ram Prasad Bismil from Shahjahanpur, Suresh Bapu from Kanpur, Rajendra Nath Lahiri and Ravindra Mohan Kar from Varanasi.
Azad became a member of HRA with the help of Pranavesh Chatterjee, a revolutionary, who was impressed by his spirit. Soon Azad became an active member of HRA and he ensured that the membership increased as he reached out to people. Most of these revolutionaries used to meet at Kalyan Ashram in Benaras and often conducted their activities under the guise of a music troupe. However, when the group started facing financial difficulties, Azad took up the responsibility of meeting influential Congress leaders for generating funds. His excellent speaking abilities impressed many and Pandit Motilal Nehru was one of those who assisted the group financially. Others like P D Tandon, the famous writer Sharat Chandra, advocate general of Calcutta S N Sarkar also contributed financially.
However, with the increasing number of members, the expenses spiralled, leading Azad and his friend to go on an austerity drive during which they had to often do with minimum clothing and sparse food to save money. They often spent the chilling winter months in ordinary clothes and sometimes had no food to eat. However, it never deterred them from their resolve. With a growing necessity for weapons, Azad enrolled a member, who was an expert in pistol making. He himself started working as an accountant in a shop to support the party financially.
Faced with a funds crunch, HRA decided that the only way out now was to loot government money. The plan was centred around Kakori, a small railway station near Lucknow, through which a train carrying the treasury money would pass. The idea to rob the train was conceived by Ram Prasad Bismil, who saw the security loopholes. On the night of 10 August 1925, the revolutionaries stopped the train at Kakori and looted it. Along with Azad, other rebels who took part in the operation were Rajendra Lahiri, Roshan Singh, Ashfaqulla, Manmath Nath Gupt and Sachindranath Bakshi.
However, the government launched a crackdown and an intensive search was ordered to track down those behind the robbery. Many were arrested and after a long trial, four of them - Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh, were sentenced to death by hanging. Azad, however, was now on the run and the British were unable to capture him.
Disguised as a sadhu, Azad reached Jhansi through a long route that touched Khandwa, Indore, which he soon made as the centre of his revolutionary activities. The Orchha forest near Jhansi was where he began to practise his shooting skills and soon became an expert sharpshooter. Living in his Jhansi hideout, Azad began to recruit others for the revolution and trained them in shooting. He also taught kids at nearby villages under the pseudonym Pandit Harishankar Brahmachari. He learnt driving in Jhansi at the Bundelkhand Motor Garage. Sadashivrao Malkapurkar, Vishwanath Vaishampayan and Bhagwan Das Mahaur were his close associates in Jhansi, and Congress leaders like Raghunath Dhulekar, Sitaram Bhagawat often visited him.
The HRA was in disarray after the crackdown and death of Bismil and Ashfaqullah. It was now left to Azad to reorganise it. Trekking through the thick jungles of central India, Azad reached Kanpur after a long and arduous journey. He reorganised HRA under the name of Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA). It was at Kanpur he met Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Batukeshwar Dutta, who would later play a crucial role in the freedom movement. He was helped in its re-establishment by one of his close friends Bhagawati Charan Vohra. The HSRA now vowed to take a more aggressive approach and soon the members started training in bomb making and shooting.
However, tragedy struck when Lala Lajpat Rai, their inspiration and role model, was brutally lathi charged while leading a demonstration in Lahore. Lalaji soon succumbed to his injuries, and a furious Azad vowed to avenge the brutality. Rushing to Lahore, he held a meeting with other revolutionaries to formulate a plan of action. Along with Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, he lay in wait for Saunders and Scott, the police chiefs in charge of Lahore. When they fired shots, Saunders was killed on the spot, but Scott managed to escape. The killing of Lalaji was avenged. Bhagat Singh was arrested in 1931, along with Sukhdev and Rajguru, and put on trial.
Azad, once again, escaped the police dragnet and by now had become one of the most wanted men in the country. In 1931, he went to meet another revolutionary, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi at Sitapur Jail. It was Vidyarthi, who suggested Azad to meet Jawaharlal Nehru at Allahabad to seek clemency for Bhagat Singh. However, Nehru refused to meet Azad at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad and he walked away in frustration.
27 February 1931
Azad was sitting with his friend at Albert Park in Allahabad, planning his next course of action. However, an associate had turned informer and the police came to know of his whereabouts. With 80 sepoys the police surrounded Azad and soon a gunfight broke out. One man against the whole police force, Azad refused to surrender. He fought like a tiger until the end. He kept firing at the British police with his pistol until he was left with one bullet. He put the pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. A great revolutionary and a brave son of Bharat, Azad chose death over surrendering to the British.
A man, who called himself Azad, sacrificed his life for India’s azadi.
This article was first published on the blog, History Under Your Feet, and has been republished here with permission.