|Price: Rs 2195|
Dimensions (in cms): 15x23
|Publisher: Frontpage, Kolkata|
Amiya K. Samanta combines the dexterity of a sleuth and the acumen of a researcher in his exhaustive compilation of unpublished documents from one of the most sensational trials during the struggle for independence, when the rule of the colonial bureaucracy undermined the eulogized British ideals of law and justice. This is Volume One of the work; it lists the statements of 206 witnesses along with 1575 documents and materials placed before the court during the Alipore Bomb Trial, or the Maniktala Conspiracy Case. To the author’s credit, this book is not a mere logbook of trial proceedings but an exploration of the psyche and the turbulence of that time, which contrasts with Gandhi’s Satyagraha of a later date.
The book serves four major interests. Firstly, it presents the falsehood and hypocrisy of the colonial administration that extolled the glories of British justice to the world at large while at the same time denigrating Indians and surreptitiously amending criminal and press laws. The offence in the Alipore Bomb Trial was as serious as ‘waging of war, attempting to wage war or abetment to wage war against the King-Emperor’, yet was dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the newly introduced criminal law and procedure. The author shows how in the case of Khudiram, who was sentenced to death, the punishment was meted out not on the basis of evidence placed before the judge, but on the assumption that the accused was guilty. The colonial mindset is illustrated best in the case where, after recording a judicial confession, Magistrate Birley asks Upendra Nath Banerjee in an intimate tone whether the Indians were really capable of ruling India. Upendra’s reply that India had been ruled by Indians from the dawn of history until the British arrived led to a red-faced Birley instructing court officials not to carry the conversation outside the courtroom.
Secondly, the author’s painstaking research corrects several historical inaccuracies that have prevailed to date. These inaccuracies are of two types: factual errors and metaphysical misinterpretations. Thus Sri Aurobindo’s uncle Krishna Kumar Mitra’s contention that the eminent lawyer, Byomkesh Chakraborty, never appeared in the case is not corroborated by court records. In fact, a key legal lacuna in the case was clinched by Chakraborty and was later utilized by C. R. Das. This pertained to the inadmissibility of the approver Naren Gossain’s confession on the ground that he was not allowed to be cross-examined by the prosecution (This was indeed a slap in the face to an overzealous Birley who had disallowed cross-examination just because his administrator-self prevailed over his judicial role). Also, Krishna Kumar Mitra seems to have wrongly recorded that he had appointed C. R. Das as a lawyer on 8 December 1908, as the author unearthed court records to show that Das had cross-examined Richard Cregan, Superintendent of Police, on 26 November 1908 and hence must have been appointed prior to that date. As for metaphysical misinterpretations, the author takes pains to point out how an eminent historian like Amalesh Tripathi makes sweeping and unfounded generalizations about Sri Aurobindo’s purported use of the Gita and Vedanta to justify extremism and violence.
Thirdly, the voluminous statements of the accused and the witnesses, as well as those of police personnel, together with the list of seizures give a veritable insight into the psyche of the inspired youngsters branded as criminals for their nationalistic fervour. Their knowledge of explosives was quite up to date, their commitment to the cause was unquestionable, and although at times their confessions bordered on the naive, their actions were bold and fearless, leading two of them to commit the daring act of killing their co-accused approver within the jail premises. Major Frank Smallwood, the Chief Inspector of Explosives, gave a detailed description of the explosives and manuals seized from the accused. These included “kerosene powder”, a new explosive, an Orsini bomb with protruding detonators, and Safronski’s manual for preparing explosives. Despite their antagonism to British rule, the revolutionaries had quite a catholic and humane worldview and, unlike contemporary reactionaries, would never have used women and children as human shields. As Aswini Coomar Banerji, a barrister and Swadeshi leader, explains apropos a question put forward by Eardley Norton, the Chief Prosecution Counsel, that suffering was preferred over anarchy: ‘I do not advocate the view that the bodies of our children are to be sacrificed literally, for consummation of a political view….Aurobindo has never advocated such views.’
Fourthly, the book gives a glimpse into Sri Aurobindo’s personality and bearing during those tumultuous years. He kept his poise of silence and detachment amidst the hullabaloo of conferences and meetings, in the horse carriage pulled by enthusiastic students at Nagpur and Nasik, in the confusion during his arrest, in the harshness of imprisonment and amidst the falsehoods perpetrated in the courtroom. His silence baffled later historians like Tripathi as they were at a loss to gauge the complexity of his revolutionary connections. Yet he was unequivocally the inspiration behind the quest for freedom. The author makes a short but meaningful appraisal of the attitudes of Sri Aurobindo, Tagore and Gandhi towards passive and active resistance.
The book also contains a valuable chapter on judgments in sedition trials and documents relevant to the Case. The judgments against newspapers like Jugantar, Bande Mataram, Sandhya and Navashakti have enormous heuristic value. Of special interest are the statements of Barindra and Bibhuti in the Narayangarh Train Wrecking Case that exposed how innocent villagers were convicted on the basis of false confessions. There is, in addition, an account of Sri Aurobindo’s full involvement in the National College, provided by Satish Chandar Mukherji, its first Superintendent.
While the approver Naren Gossain was shot inside the jail hospital, other Indians who served the Crown against the interests of the Case were also killed during the trial. Nandalal Banerji was killed for trying to arrest Khudiram’s accomplice, Prafulla Chaki. Asutosh Biswas was assassinated for acting as a prosecutor in the case, though he was initially approached to defend the revolutionaries. Moulavi Shamsul Alam was murdered for fabricating evidence against the accused while Madhusudan Bhattacharya was killed for tracing the Maniktala Garden as the centre of conspiracy. What is significant is that the voluminous materials presented in this book, the confessions of the accused as well as the reports of the police officers, do not give any idea of how these killings were organized or, for that matter, on whom the mantle of leadership fell after most of the group were arrested. Who took such well-planned decisions to eliminate selected Indians branded as traitors? Was the matter hushed up as no Europeans had been killed?
The author gives interesting snippets of the times, making this collection of documents and court records more absorbing. The dreaded Chief Prosecution Counsel, Eardley Norton, was the son of the pro-Indian John Bruce Norton, who was a delegate to the 1888 session of the Indian National Congress and accompanied W. C. Banerjee, A. W. Hume, Surendranath Banerjee and R. N. Mudholkar to England. Eardley Norton, with C. R. Das as his junior, later defended an Indian revolutionary, Nirmal Kanta Ray, who shot a police official in January 1914, leading to the acquittal of the accused in a jury trial. Readers also come to know of one of Sri Aurobindo’s favourite expressions during that period—“for me thou art not”, a phrase that came up during the trial proceedings as well as being used in a telegram sent to Benares to inform Subodh Mullick of Sri Aurobindo’s arrest. The manner in which Hemchandra, who had gone to Europe for training in bomb-making, rebuffed the British expert on explosives provides a lighter moment to the reader.
The author seems inclined to make his work a source material for a comparison with Gandhi’s leadership of the movement in later years. The Time-Spirit acts differently in different eras and comparisons may or may not have relevance. Yet it was the absence of Gandhi’s picture above the judge’s chair in the courtroom at the Alipore Judges’ Court and the presence of a very old, large painting of Sri Aurobindo instead that led the late Justice Krishna Kumar Mitra, during the early 1950s, to stumble on the fact that this was the very room in which C. P. Beachcroft presided over the famous trial. Justice Mitra narrated this fascinating story to me shortly before he died in 1989. He said he was surprised to discover all the furniture, the judge’s chair, the cage where the prisoners were lodged—all had remained unchanged. The lockers in the courtroom contained invaluable records of the trial, mostly handwritten, including a massive stack of judgment papers.
Around 1952–53 a marble plaque commemorating the trial was installed inside the courtroom. At the same time, another marble plaque carrying the sentences awarded to the accused in the trial was placed on the outer wall of the building housing the courtroom. Close to forty-five years later, on 15 August 1998, a museum housing important documents pertaining to the events that led to the trial as well as some trial papers was set up in the courtroom and some adjacent rooms.
We offer our gratitude to Justice Mitra, who unearthed the fact that the room where he had been transferred as District Judge was the very one where the trial took place, and to Amiya K. Samanta for his assiduous research and compilation of unpublished documents in this important book.
Dr Basu is a psychiatrist exploring the consciousness paradigm of health, psychology, and psychotherapy from the integral perspective of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.