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.
At the orders of an English police officer called Fletcher, an estimated 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 ‘lesser breeds’ like Indians suffered unimaginable miseries at the hands of their white rulers. Some of those tortures resulting in death—whether it involved bayoneting or being forced to lie on blocks of ice for hours on end— were 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.
The disgraceful attitudes of the colonial era prevailed long after Indian independence: Indians who arrived in the UK in search of work after 1947 still recall their bewilderment at the way they were treated. Looking for accommodation in big cities like London and elsewhere was the first problem. How do you deal with signs outside homes to let that said ‘No Dogs, Blacks or Indians’? Sometimes the discrimination was subtler. An Indian friend who went to school in the UK back in the 1960s remembers how he was taunted by a group of boys who would walk past him singing Bing Crosby’s I’m dreaming of a White Christmas. The poor fellow, who didn’t know he was being mocked, asked his parents, “How did they know it was my favourite song?”
Some 130 leaders of the Ballia revolt were bayoneted, hung upside down, fed chapattis that gave them dysentery.
In recent years, it has become fashionable for some historians to suggest that 200 years of colonial rule were actually not all that bad and that India gained more than it lost from interacting first with the East India Company, a mix of rogues and thugs dressed up as so-called gentleman traders, and then with the British government. In practice, there was not much difference between the brutality and exploitation practised by the Company and, later, the Crown. One small example should suffice. It was British government representatives who forced baptism on Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son and heir Duleep Singh. And it was British government officials, including Lord Dalhousie, who after presiding over the looting of the Lahore treasury, ‘persuaded’ young Duleep Singh to hand over the fabled Kohinoor diamond in person to Queen Victoria. Today, that same Kohinoor forms the centrepiece of the British monarch’s crown.
Back to the benefits of gora rule. It was the British after all, so the argument goes, who introduced Indians to the English language and developed the country’s infrastructure, introducing piped water, electricity and sewerage to our cities and towns or by laying the foundations of the railways and the post & telegraph services. And it was the British who introduced religious and social reforms such as the abolition of child marriage and sati in 1829 and legislated the remarriage of widows in 1856. Yet, contrary to British portrayals, decadent Indian rulers were quite capable of behaving in civilised and principled ways! When the Company established control in the name of trade in 18th century India, its officers trebled the taxes local peasants were obliged to pay. These taxes remained in place even during times of dire famine. On the other hand, when local rulers were in charge, it was common practice to dispense with taxes during times of calamity.
In Ballia, 200 years later, it is instructive to recall just how 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.
Even more instructive was the unity that 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.
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 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 viceregal 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.
(Former Commonwealth and Africa correspondent of The Observer, London, Shyam Bhatia was till recently editor of the Asian Affairs magazine.)