After two well-received popular history books, Sanjeev Sanyal is back with his much-awaited book on the revolutionary movement.
Sanyal’s talks on history are popular on YouTube, satisfyingly devoid of anger, and focusing solely on facts and narrative. Revolutionaries follows in that mold.
The book asserts that the Indian struggle for independence was an organised movement spanning several generations of armed resistance, and that the politics and social developments of the era influenced it.
A far cry from how the popular imagination thinks of Bhagat Singh or Khudiram Bose — as having committed individual acts of bravery, which hurt more than helped the Gandhian peaceful struggle.
Instead, Revolutionaries goes deeply into the wide-spanning international networks that went into organising an armed resistance, the ambitious plans that were hatched to free India (including one which involved Ghadarites from Thailand breaking prisoners out of the Cellular Jail), as well as the colourful characters who led these battles.
In a project as ambitious as chronicling the entire history of the revolutionary independence struggle, it is easy to get lost in stories and details, given the large number of people involved and the 40-to-50-year span.
Also, documentation is spotty while chronicling revolutionaries, primary research is sparse, and many of the stories sound too fantastic to be true.
Often, the only reliable evidence tends to be police confessionals and articles in English newspapers, which tend to present a one-sided perspective.
Sanyal manages to hack through this jungle by keeping the narrative front and centre and using the broad palette of exciting tales of bravery and brotherhood to keep us hooked.
The book starts with a bang — a daring heist of a consignment of arms via a bullock cart!
It proceeds chronologically, focusing on the early stories of Sri Aurobindo and Veer Savarkar. We see how the foundations for organised armed struggle are laid, with strong intellectual underpinnings as well as a large organised network in Europe and America.
The action then shifts to the Ghadar movement in the United States and Canada, and its connections to Punjab. The history of Indians in pre-First-World-War America is incredibly unrenowned, which makes the stories sound quite far out.
For instance, Sanyal talks of how Canadian officials infiltrated Gurudwaras, leading to the assassination of an officer in open court, and the killings of informants.
This, along with the failed army revolt, then puts in context the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh.
While the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy is one of the events in the book that is well-known in the popular imagination, Sanyal writes about it with precise facts and narrative, connecting it to the context of the time, to drive home exactly how brutal, inhuman, and remorseless the incident was.
The rise of Gandhi is covered with great context. I have been surprised at reading the biographies of several proponents of armed struggle, like Senapati Bapat and V V S Aiyar, who, in the 1920s, joined Gandhi’s nonviolent path with the Non-Cooperation Movement.
Against the backdrop of Jallianwala Bagh and Gandhi’s talent at inspiring large numbers of Indians, the Non-Cooperation Movement held potential.
The large population of India rising against the British, combined with the possibility of much less bloodshed, would have seemed like a great deal to these revolutionaries, who spent years underground and experienced personal tragedies as a result of their work.
However, by 1922, with the collapse of the Non-Cooperation Movement after Chauri Chaura, the revolutionaries had lost faith in Gandhi’s leadership and non-violence. And by 1925, they were back to their old ways.
The book then covers Bhagat Singh and the men of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), and Surya Sen in Chittagong, before chronicling the rise of Subhas Chandra Bose and his taking over of the Indian National Army (INA) from Rash Behari Bose.
These chapters have vivid detail, seeing as they follow Sanyal’s irrepressible great-uncle Sachindranath Sanyal, the first to have been sent to Kalapani twice.
An especially evocative part of the book is when within an hour of getting back to the mainland from his second term, Sachindranath is trying to recruit someone he just met into the HRA.
The last chapter deals with the INA and the 1946 Indian Navy Revolt. These are busy chapters with a lot going on. Each of these topics can be an entire book by itself. It reads rushed; one wishes it had been split into multiple chapters and written to read more leisurely with more detail.
Most books about the freedom struggle end in 1947. Revolutionaries doesn’t. It explores three very interesting lines of enquiry.
First, it brings up and highlights the role of Indians who collaborated with the British.
From those Rajas, Nawabs, and Khan Sahibs who forcibly recruited their subjects into the British Indian army, to Gadarite informants in Canada; from those who turned approvers in various cases and got rewarded, to government officials and the post-independence elite; he calls them all out.
This topic of colonial collaborators is under-researched, and Sanyal’s work is a beginning for a larger audience to scrutinise them.
Secondly, the book talks about how the political leadership post-independence unintentionally and intentionally tried to scrub away all evidence of revolutionary history.
From demolishing several wings of the Cellular Jail to not even giving the INA veterans recognition as freedom fighters, Sanyal exposes the systematic erasure of revolutionary history.
More insidious is the anti-Brahmin riots of 1948 where a mob fatally injured Narayan Savarkar, the brother of Vinayak Savarkar and a freedom fighter in his own right. The perpetrators have never been investigated.
Finally, in contrast to the descendants and successors of the collaborators, Revolutionaries looks at an organisation that survived from that era and has continued until today in a new light — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS.
Reading about the template for the revolutionary movement, from Anandamath to Savarkar’s Abhinav Bharat to the Anushilan Samiti, the parallels were always there. The backbone of the Indian resistance was always a network of social clubs where young people came to practice physical skills, which in the present day is called a shakha.
It was hard not to notice the similarities of unattached pracharaks traversing the country to the sannyasis of Anandamath, but now Sanyal has made this connection quite plain.
While the fortunes of the collaborator class have always been up for generations, it is easy to feel cynical about the revolutionary movement and feel dour about how they didn’t get their due. But in light of this new interpretation of the RSS, the present day looks dramatically different.
Slowly, but surely, the revolutionaries built a wide-spanning network again that found ways to beat the collaborators at their own game and find their way to power.
In that context, Sanyal ends by showing us how the erection of a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose at the Kartavya Path is essentially the revolutionaries carrying out his call of "Dilli Chalo" and finally bringing him to Delhi.
Revolutionaries is an incisive, exciting book that presents a concise alternative narrative of the Indian freedom movement. With touching personal stories and crackling individual narratives, it is an eminently readable tome despite the breadth of the topic it covers.
While many important characters and stories don’t make the cut, and several sections read rushed, they are more of a cue for us to dig deeper into these topics and write more detailed expositions.
In all, a must-read for every Indian.
Lila Krishna is a San Francisco-based writer and programmer. Her novel, India House, set in the Indian independence movement, is released serially online at lila.substack.com.
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