Binod Bihari Chowdhury, who took part in the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930, was the last link to a spectacular chapter of resistance against British colonialism
With the passing of Binod Bihari Chowdhury (1911-2013), a curtain has been drawn on one of the most spectacular chapters of the history of militant nationalism in undivided India. A colleague of the legendary Surjya Sen, or Master da, as he was popularly known, Binod Bihari, would be remembered as one who cherished, throughout his life, the values of Republicanism his leader stood for.
I had travelled to Chittagong to trace the footsteps of Surjya Sen, and his associates Pritilata and Kalpana Datta, the latter a revolutionary and an activist in her own right who later married P.C. Joshi, the charismatic Chairman of the Communist Party of India.
Ghulam Sarwar Choudhury from the Chittagong University received me at the Chittagong airport. Breakfast over, we reached the J.M. Sen Center that has a concentration of Hindu population. We visited the memorial to the martyrs of the Chittagong Uprising and paid our respects. Neighbours pointed out the home of Binod Bihari Chowdhury who lived on 120 Momin Road: the only surviving revolutionary of the Chittagong Armory Raid.
At 93, Binod Bihari looked frail and stooped a bit, but there was no mistaking the fire in his eyes once he spoke. The Chowdhurys’ house resembled a middle class home in rural Bengal: a bed-cum drawing room, sparsely furnished, a raised mosquito-net, books of history, assorted memorabilia and memories. The portraits of Pritilata, Surjya Sen and Kalpana Datta, his own photos from younger days, a framed photograph of him receiving an award from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — these adorned the walls.
The Chittagong Uprising began on April 18, 1930. The group, led by Surjya Sen, raided the AFI Armoury, the railway station and the telegraph office, and proclaimed the provisional Government under the Hindustan Republican Arm. Although the revolutionaries fought bravely and fought hard, they were outnumbered and outgunned. Several died in action in the hills of Jalalabad. Some like Pritilata embraced martyrdom while launching abortive attacks on the European Club, the emblem of the British power in the city. Surjya Sen, who evaded capture for long, was finally betrayed. On January 12, 1934, he and Tharakeswar Dastidar were hanged in the Chauliagang Jail, their bodies thrown, in the dead of the night, into the Bay of Bengal by a British Naval cruiser.
Binod Bihari began slowly as he recalled his days with Master da and the Uprising. I asked him if he saw action. In reply, he showed me his neck where a bullet had pierced and he had escaped miraculously. He served a jail sentence in far away Rajputana (now Rajasthan), Kalpana Datta was sent to the Hizli Detention Camp (now a national monument in IIT Kharagpur). Later, while many of his family members left for the safety of India, Chowdhury continued to brave hardships in his homeland. In April 1971, he travelled to India through the Mizo Hills and returned to Bangladesh on January 3, 1972.
At Chittagong, when he was not busy meeting visitors like me, he meditated at the Sadharan Brahmo Temple or gave tuitions to earn his livelihood.
What has been the legacy of Surjya Sen in Bangladesh? I asked him. “Unfortunately in many quarters, Surjya Sen is described as a dacoit, a Hindu leader,” he lamented. “I met Mujeeb four to five times. In 1972, idols of Goddess Durga were destroyed in many places. Accompanied by Fani Majumdar, a minister in Mujeeb’s cabinet, I went to Mujeeb and warned him that he would not remain in power if pro-Pakistan elements were not checked. There was an upsurge of such elements that were not reconciled to the emergence of Bangladesh as a secular nation,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, the Hindus and minorities of Bangladesh are being harassed because of their support to Sheikh Hassena,” he concluded.
It was time for us to go. As we rose, he told Sarwar: “I have given away the award money of one lakh rupees for an endowment lecture in the name of Surjya Sen to Chittagong University. Will you kindly follow up?”
As I read the news of Binod Bihari Choudhury’s passing on April 11, I remembered my visit to Chittagong. I recalled the lovely city, the river Karnaphuli which flows 12 miles into the Bay of Bengal, the majestic Sitakund Range and the hills of Jalalabad that saw action during the Uprising, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, home to the native Buddhist population, and above all, the Barawalias, the 12 Sufi saints whose spiritual presence is a perennial call to the devout.
Surjya Sen and Binod Bihari lived in this city of cultural confluence; they died for a cause. There is perhaps a lesson here for the two nations!
(The writer is with the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad. Some of the material in this article is from an earlier piece by him titled ‘History, Amnesia, and Public Memory: The Chittagong Armory Raid, 1930-34’, Manushi, No. 138, 2006.)