A Short Interval at the Railway Station

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922-92 by Shahid Amin
    California, 270 pp, £32.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 520 08779 8

Towards the beginning of Event, Metaphor, Memory, Shahid Amin observes: ‘Indian schoolboys know of Chauri Chaura as that alliterative place name which flits through their history books.’ This is true: Chauri Chaura, we were taught, was where, on 4 February 1922, peasant volunteers who had enlisted for Gandhi’s newly launched non-co-operation movement turned violent and burned down a police station with 23 policeman trapped inside it; and Gandhi called a temporary halt to his nationwide movement. It was an early moment of disgrace in a still unfolding nationalist history; and Gandhi had to condemn it quickly in order to prove the moral superiority of the movement he had initiated. Ironically, it was a moment that would have positive repercussions in the long term because, in condemning what had happened as an aberration, Gandhi demonstrated to his opponents and supporters that his movement was essentially political, not militant.

What Chauri Chaura actually was wasn’t altogether clear to us schoolchildren; for one thing, the words were used to refer to a place and to the event which had occurred in it; the words had already become, to us, something of the metaphor spoken of in the title of Amin’s book. The almost rhyming name was easy to remember, and the phonetic proximity of the name to the Hindi ‘chor’, or ‘thief’, gave it, appositely, a slightly illicit, transgressive air.

Among the many concerns of Amin’s book, the modes and nuances of representation might be said to be central – the way events and memories are given meanings and emphases by becoming inseparable from certain ways of telling. Amin first investigates written records – principally, the evidence left by Mir Shikari, a rebel who later confessed and became the mainstay of the prosecution’s case. The book then goes on to examine the ways in which such records have been appropriated by different, sometimes conflicting, histories – the colonial, on the one hand, and the nationalist, on the other. Amin’s interviews with survivors and village members are conducted in such a way as to construct an alternative picture of the event and its key players. His aim, it appears, is not so much to write an exculpatory reassessment of the event, or even to arrive at the ‘truth’ about it, but to examine the ways in which it was transformed into a ‘metaphor’ in mainstream historical accounts; how these accounts are limited by their representational procedures and ideological assumptions; and to enrich and complicate our understanding of the event by using oral evidence to qualify the canonical histories. My only complaint against this theoretically rigorous yet accessible study is that we are not given a full, or detailed, sense of the mainstream historians, their work and their argument. Thus, the colonial and nationalist histories are liable to remain abstractions that the text uses to construct and advance its own narrative, but seldom addresses directly.

A substantial part of the beginning of the book is devoted to uncovering what the nonsensical-sounding place name, Chauri Chaura, really means, enabling it to shed its negative resonance by allowing it the physical contours of a real place and culture. As Amin tells us, the name, like so many other things at that time, owed its existence to the cultural and economic intermingling peculiar to a landscape transformed by colonialism. In this case, penetration by the railways was the crucial factor: ‘it was the decision of a traffic manager to name the wayside rail station after two adjacent villages, Chaura and Chauri, which created this new site in January 1885.’ Moreover, ‘Chauri Chaura was just a railway station; no such place existed outside the platform and the malgodam ... It was to Chaura police station that the peasants marched on the afternoon of 4 February 1922; it was the Chaura thana which was burnt that evening. As reinforcements and punitive expeditions arrived at the rail station, and as the riot gained a certain notoriety in nationalist and official writings, the name Chauri Chaura came to acquire a substantive presence.’

Amin, rightly, devotes as much energy to reconstructing the life of the community (to which both the Gandhian volunteers and the representatives of the British Government – the chowkidars, the daroga, the policemen – belonged) as he does to the event itself. Chapter 3, subtitled ‘Chauri Chaura – Dumri – Mundera’, provides us with a meticulously detailed and, with hindsight, poignant account of the economy and trade of the four neighbouring villages which experienced the calamitous moment of insurgency. Part of the trade seems to have been coterminous with colonialism itself; as Amin says, ‘it was the railways that made Chauri village a bazaar.’ The introduction of colonial technology into local conditions seems to have been mirrored, characteristically, by certain technical terms being received into the local language and taking on, in their corrupted form, a renewed psychological life:

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