The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003
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They died for Vande Mataram
Manohar Malgonkar

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote Vande MataramBY the end of September 1909, the three-man team which was to murder the British Collector of Nasik, A.M.T. Jackson, had been primed and ready. They had received their revolvers and tried them out at target practice. They were now waiting for the year to end because their leader, Anna Karve, had been told by his astrologer that 1909 was not a good year for such assassinations. Ironically, it was Collector Jackson who seemed to egg them on to action—advance the D-day for his own murder.

In Nasik, Jackson had sought to make out that he was totally impartial in carrying out his administrative tasks. Sahib or native, White or Black were the same to him. In the law of the Empire, there was no discrimination.

Then something happened in Nasik itself, in the club which was a ‘Whites’ only’ preserve, that made a mockery of the boast: the empire’s own White servants were not covered by its system of justice. The people of Nasik who had seen their hero, Babarao Savarkar, marched through the streets in shackles and, for writing and distributing patriotic songs, had been given a sentence normally given to murderers, also saw that an Englishman who had beaten an Indian so severely as to cause his death was not so much as censured for his savagery —let alone punished for causing death.

Henry Williams, the Executive Engineer of Nasik was playing a round of golf when a ball he had driven had soared away and rolled into cart-track that edged the course. Williams called out to the driver of a passing cart to pick it up and throw it back. Perhaps the cartman did not understand what the sahib wanted him to do. The fact is that he failed to obey. And that was reason enough for Williams to run out on to the road, seize the man and give him a savage beating. The golf caddies and a few passersby saw what was happening. That same evening, the cartman died of his injuries.

Some public spirited citizens of Nasik decided to make an issue of it and filed a police complaint against Williams. The case came up before Jackson for a hearing. He decided it quickly. The Verdict: ‘Not guilty’.


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No one was particularly surprised. The verdict was all of a piece with the logic of the empire. An Englishman could do no wrong. It must have infuriated the men who had decided to kill Jackson, but did not prod them into precipitate action. It was Jackson himself who seemed to be bent upon trying out their patience.

In this part of India, the Dasehra festival has martial overtones, for it was on this day that Maratha armies traditionally took to the field on their annual campaigns. The main feature of the Dasehra celebration was a procession simulating an army setting out for war, waving banners and singing martial songs. But since such demonstrations were now thought to be ‘seditious’, the Desehra processionists were compelled to tone down their spirit. They sang songs which contained no rousing calls or appealed to the martial instincts.

And the song that had emerged as almost the tune of Dasehra was Vande Mataram an invocation of a land of birth which did not contain a single word which might be construed as a challenge to the Empire’s presence, yet filled Indians with pride.

But Jackson was no fool. He knew that Vande Mataram, for all its sentimental words, had been adopted by the ‘seditionists’ of Bengal and Maharashtra as a sort of national anthem. It appealed to a sense of unity among all the people of the subcontinent and thus formed a threat to those who had conquered India by promoting and supporting disunity.

Only a couple of days before Dasehra, Jackson promulgated an order banning the singing of Vande Mataram, or even shouting the words of its title as a slogan, during the Dasehra procession.

In the event, the police found it difficult to enforce the order. Almost as a dare to them, the younger men in the procession took up the cry only when they could see that the police were not in the vicinity, and stop shouting when the police came running. They made the policemen run backwards and forwards and look stupid. Finally they arrested a few of them at random and marched them off to the lock up. The next day, Jackson, who was also the District Magistrate, gave them all stiff jail terms.

Kanhere, the youngest member of the team that had taken on the task of killing Jackson, absented himself from school the next day to press upon their leader, Anna Karve, to let him do it on his own. "We can’t even salute our motherland," he complained. "Jackson has lived too long."

"We’re already in October," Karve remained him. "Let’s keep to our plan. Do it all together early in January."

And with that Kanhere had to be content.

Then, on December 14 Karve called his two colleagues for an urgent meeting. "We have to do it in the next few days," he announced. "Before the 23rd!"

It turned out that the collector had been transferred, on promotion, too, as a commissioner. He was handing over charge to his successor on the December 23, to be able to leave Nasik before Christmas.

"But I shan’t be free till the December 19, Anant Kanhere protested. My exam doesn’t give over till the December 18!"

Who can rationalise the thought processes of young men determined to become martyrs? All three were from similar backgrounds, of impoverished Brahmin families who respected learning and were scrupulous about observing the rules of middle-class morality. They were going to commit murder, and they knew they would be given capital punishment. Yet they all decided to wait until the December 18 so that Anant Kanhere would not have to skip his examination.

That left them only five days to act in.

Meanwhile, Jackson was being treated to a series of send-off parties arranged by his admirers. At one of these he had boasted: "When I took over as Collector of Nasik, I saw it as my paramount duty to root out the anarchist movement for which this district had become famous. I am proud to say I have succeeded. That I can walk about with complete safety, is proof that I have succeeded."

The time had come to disabuse the people of Nasik that the freedom fighters had capitulated.

December 21, Jackson’s last day as Collector, was also to be his last. He had agreed to attend a Marathi play, Sharda being enacted by the Kirloskar Drama group in Nasik’s Vijayanand theatre. It was a performance open to the public and thus tailormade for the murder-team. Hitherto, none of them had seen a play from anywhere other than the cheapest gallery seats. But now they had to position themselves as close to where Jackson would be made to sit. So they splurged on-two-rupee tickets in the fourth and fifth rows of chairs.

The curtain had already gone up and the overtures begun before Jackson’s party arrived; he was accompanied by another Englishman and two ladies. When those who were to receive Jackson and escort him in left their seats to stand at the entrance, Anant Kanhere too joined them. As Jackson was passing him, almost within touching range, he whipped out his revolver and fired four shots. Then, with three rounds still in his pocket, he gave himself up without resisting. Karve and Deshpande too, even though they had not fired their revolvers, gave themselves up. All three were carrying in their pockets written statements, saying. We avenge death with death!. This is punishment for the following crimes.

Prominent in Jackson’s list of crimes was that he had banned the song: Vande Mataram.

Predictably enough, all three were tried and sentenced to death. They were hanged in the yard of Thane Jail on April 20, 1910.