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:

A novel development in 20th-century Chaura was the introduction of other engines for the manufacture of sugar, rapeseed oil and mustard oil. A small model sugar factory, exhibited at an industrial exhibition in 1911 and put up in partnership by Sardar Harcharan Singh, the supervisor of the bazaar, had been a failure. The baillot, as the sugar boiler was called by the peasants, was inoperational in 1922, but there were a total of 56 ordinary oil-pressing kolhus attached to three steam engines in the bazaar.

This account of the economy of the four villages in their pre-insurgency, prelapsarian days not only serves as a background: it also rescues ‘Chauri Chaura’ from its existence as a ‘metaphor’ in nationalist discourse, and gives it an organic and evolving life which it has not possessed so far.

Much of what Amin tells us about the villages and their changing culture, and about their Gandhian volunteers, has interesting parallels with what was happening, or had already happened, in other parts of lndia, including élite urban centres like Calcutta. For instance, there was the obsession with diet, an obsession strangely related to an emergent nationalism, perhaps because it was bound up with ideas of manliness. In the chapter entitled ‘The Alimentary Aspects of Picketing’, Amin tells us that the volunteers’ picketing of ‘liquor and meat and fish shops’ formed the background to the riot at the police station. The ‘virtues of nationalist vegetarianism’ were preached by Gandhi, the seeds of his idea of a nationalist diet having been sown in the nightmare he had, when he was still young Mohandas and not a mahatma, after experimenting with eating meat: presumably one of the ‘experiments with truth’ he refers to in the title of his autobiography. Obsession with meat-eating goes back to the emergence of a modern, élite, Indian self-consciousness in Bengal in the mid-19th century; here, though, the thrust was in the opposite direction, and was at once more radical and innocent than Gandhi’s vegetarianism; several educated Bengalis (frequently lampooned by other Bengalis) championed the consumption of beef, no less, as a remedy for the physical and moral defects of their race.

In his autobiography, Gandhi tells the story of his brief boyhood flirtation with meat in a chapter appropriately entitled ‘A Tragedy’:

A wave of ‘reform’ was sweeping over Rajkot at the time when I first came across this friend ... who informed me that many of our teachers were secretly taking meat and wine. He also named many well-known people of Rajkot as belonging to the same company ...

  I was surprised and pained. I asked my friend the reason and he explained it thus: ‘We are a weak people because we do not eat meat. The English are able to rule over us, because they are meat-eaters. You know how hardy I am, and how great a runner too. It is because I am a meat-eater. Meat-eaters do not have boils or tumours, and even if they sometimes happen to have any, these heal quickly.’

Gandhi then reflects on himself in comparison to the two meat-eaters he knows personally:

I certainly looked feeble-bodied by the side of my brother and this friend. They were both hardier, physically stronger and more daring. This friend’s exploits cast a spell over me. He could run long distances and extraordinarily fast. He was an adept in high and long jumping. He could put up with any amount of corporal punishment ...

  I was a coward. I used to be haunted by the fear of thieves, ghosts and serpents. I did not stir out of doors at night. Darkness was a terror to me. It was almost impossible for me to sleep in the dark, as I would imagine ghosts coming from one direction, thieves from another and serpents from a third. I could not therefore bear to sleep without a light in the room. How could I disclose my fears to my wife, no child, but already at the threshold of youth, sleeping by my side? I knew that she had more courage than I, and I felt ashamed of myself.

Gandhi goes on to quote, in his own translation, a ‘doggerel of the Gujrati poet Narmad ... in vogue amongst us schoolboys’:

Behold the mighty Englishman
He rules the Indian small,
Because being a meat-eater
He is five cubits tall.

In the doggerel the individual physical proportions of the Englishman and the Indian invert the actual sizes of their respective countries. Gandhi obviously had problems digesting his first meat dinner. As he puts it in the following chapter, ‘A Tragedy (Continued)’, ‘I had a very bad night afterwards. A horrible nightmare haunted me. Every time I dropped off to sleep it would seem as though a live goat were bleating inside me, and I would jump up full of remorse.’ After a year of further meat-eating under the influence of his friend, Gandhi, unable to continue deceiving his parents (who had no idea, and never would have any, of the deception), returned to being a vegetarian, this time for life. It is clear from the paragraphs quoted above just how important the concern with diet was to Gandhian nationalism and resistance: a redefinition of masculinity and courage, and, in Gandhi’s description of his wife, the discovery of the feminine.

Some of the principal volunteers who professed the Gandhian cause in the villages at and surrounding Chauri Chaura were, interestingly, wrestling enthusiasts and inheritors of a traditional North Indian culture of body-building and physical prowess, whose ideas of masculinity were quite different from Gandhi’s. For instance, Nazar Ali, of Chotki Dumri village, one of the story’s chief actors, ‘convicted and hanged in July 1923’, was, besides being a tailor, a noted pahelwan (wrestler) who owned a renowned akhara, or gymnasium for wrestlers. Mir Shikari (the Muslim presence is notable in this story), on whose evidence the trial and judgment were to hinge, is characterised by those who remember him as ‘powerful’ and ‘fearless’.

If there was a tradition of masculinity, and of the masculine arts of self-defence, in the North Indian peasant community, which might have been one of the factors contributing to the riot in 1922, there were other traditions as well, including that of non-co-operation, which explain why Gandhi’s movement was so readily received in villages such as Chaura and Dumri. As long ago as 1858, Henry Meredith Parker, poet and member of the Bengal civil service, noted, in a pamphlet addressed to the British Government, what seems to be an instance of non-co-operation:

I feel persuaded that a few years of the English party government would be very likely to drive not only an Indian army, but a much more formidable power, the whole Indian people, into a resistance of your authority, which might take a form calculated to baffle all the might of even mighty Britain ... Very few of you are aware that the entire, complete, whole Hindoo population of one of the greatest cities in India once walked forth, bag and baggage (it was not some nonsensical quarrel about a cow and a pig which always affords legitimate cause for a row between Hindoos and Mahommedans, but the imposition of the Police rate), and remained in the fields for more than a fortnight; this happened, not in the time of Ram Raja and the ‘Mrichchicatra’, but while Wellington gained Salamanca.

This prescient passage suggests that Gandhi’s movement, and its success, did not spring out of a void; Gandhi’s genius consisted in giving political cogency to certain modes of resistance that were already in existence.

Amin shows that Gandhi’s contact with the villages around Chauri Chaura was, not unusually, only tangential, no more than a short interval spent at the railway station. As one account in the book has it, ‘Gandhiji had come, but he did not stop over; he just met people with folded hands and went away.’ This was enough to effect a miracle, however. ‘The thana was attacked twice. The first time it “failed”. The second time bullets turned into water by the blessings of Gandhiji.’

Naujadi, a rioter’s widow, and one of the village people interviewed by Amin, recalls signs presaging Gandhi’s arrival in 1921:

Oh regarding Gandhiji! You see sir! Now you are sitting on this cot towards the south, right! And sirkar we are labourers, right! ...

  You see! It was the month of Magh. Everybody is splitting dal. It was a bazaar day, Wednesday or Saturday perhaps. Har – har – har – har, everyone is grinding and splitting dal. And then Babu! From this very corner – I am not lying, I tell you – from this very side it arose, and then went round and round and round, and formed a complete circle. Then it subsided ... Like ash, like smoke in the sky it was.

  People said it’s a python ... Merchants and brokers, labourers and dal-grinders, all went to see this tamasha, this sight, from rooftops. Next day a broom [barhani] appeared in the southern sky, then a ploughing plank [henga]. And then a long twig broom [kharhara].

  God save us now! With his kharhara people and their houses will be swept away. No one, nothing will remain, people said.

Amin’s interviews with Naujadi, with Sita Ahir, the grandson of a rioter, and with other survivors and descendants of rioters, are central to his book; they represent the ‘memory’ in the title, the local memory of an event that has become a metaphor in colonial and nationalist discourse. Amin translates oral records in a way that gives us a sense of the rhythms and transitions of the original speech, often, as in the extract quoted above, placing original words in square brackets, and including the onomatopoeic terms that were part of the original impassioned rendering. Some speeches are transcribed in English in their original phonetic form, and translated later. The implicit suggestion is that how a peasant speaks is as important as what he or she says. Once certain political ideas enter another language, they take on an independent life as well as the values embedded in that language, and those ideas can no longer be divorced from the sounds, words and narrative procedures of the language they have entered. Thus, when Naujadi renders – in what Amin calls a ‘remarkable creolisation’ – the word ‘volunteer’ as otiyar, she does not mean by the word a simple translation of ‘volunteer’, or what ‘volunteer’ signifies. Honouring Naujadi’s usage, Amin uses otiyar to describe the volunteers and their activities in the villages. At such moments, Amin’s study attempts to make academic discourse engage with a language that is both literally and figuratively different.

Amin is a founder member of the Subaltern Studies group, which has had a long-established interest in the peasant’s unwritten history as a necessary but marginalised constituent of post-colonial history. Interestingly, long before this group’s attempt to recoup peasant or village memory and transform the historical record, the novelist, Raja Rao, in his first book, Kanthapura, explored the upsurge of Gandhian politics in a South Indian village; and in doing so investigated local narrative procedures and the oral version of history. In the following quote, Rao, both celebratory and mocking, gives us an example of storytelling by a Harikatha, or traditional storyteller, addressing his audience. In the Harikatha’s speech, history is transformed by the mythological and the demotic, in a way that echoes Naujadi’s exuberant outpourings. The tensions and negotiations between one sort of history and another contribute to the unexpectedness of Rao’s aesthetic world, and also, in fundamental ways, constitute the subject-matter of Amin’s book. Here is the Harikatha’s account of the religion and history of ‘Bharatha’, or India:

In the great heavens Brahma the Self-created One was lying on his serpent, when the sage Valmiki entered, announced by the two doorkeepers. ‘Oh, learned sire, what brings you into this distant world?’ asked Brahma, and, offering the sage a seat beside him, fell at his feet. ‘Rise up, O God of Gods! I have come to bring you sinister news. Far down on the earth you chose as your chief daughter Bharatha, the goddess of wisdom and wellbeing. You gave her the sage-loved Himalayas on the north and the seven surging seas to the south, and you gave her the Ganges to meditate on, the Godavary to live by, and the pure Cauvery to live in. You gave her the riches of gold and of diamonds, and you gave her kings such as the world has never seen! Asoka, who loved his enemies and killed no animal; Chandragupta, who had the nine jewels of Wisdom in his court; and Dharmaraya and Vikramaditya and Akbar ... And you gave her, too, sages radiating wisdom to the eight cardinal points of the earth. Krishna and Buddha, Sankara and Ramanuja. But, O Brahma! You who sent us the ... propagators of the Holy War and Sages that smote the darkness of Ignorance, you have forgotten us so long that men have come from across the seas and the oceans to trample on our wisdom and to spit on virtue itself. They have come to bind us and to whip us, to make our women die milkless and our men die ignorant. O Brahma! Deign to send us one of your gods so that he may incarnate on earth and bring back light and plenty to your enslaved daughter ...’ ‘O Sage,’ pronounced Brahma, ‘is it greater for you to ask or for me to say “Yea”? Siva himself will forthwith go and incarnate on the Earth and free my beloved daughter from her enforced slavery ...’

  And lo! when the Sage was still partaking of the pleasures Brahma offered him in hospitality, there was born in a family in Gujerat a son such as the world has never beheld. As soon as he came forth, the four wide walls began to shine like the kingdom of the Sun, and hardly was he in the cradle than he began to lisp the language of wisdom. You remember how Krishna, when he was but a babe of four, had begun to fight against demons and had killed the serpent Kali. So too our Mohandas began to fight against the enemies of our country. And as he grew up, and after he was duly shaven for the hair ceremony, he began to go out into the village and assemble people and talk to them, and his voice was so pure, his forehead so brilliant with wisdom, that ... more and more men followed him as they did Krishna the flute player; and so he goes from village to village to slay the serpent of foreign rule. Fight, says he, but harm no soul. Love all, says he, Hindu, Mahomedan, Christian or pariah, for all are equal before God.

Chauri Chaura, like the fictional Kanthapura, was one of the numberless villages that were transformed, in one way or another, by the magic of the relentless Gandhian mass movement and by a certain moment in pre-Independence history; Naujadi likens the movement to a giant kharhara or broom sweeping everything before it. It would be the only time when the ordinary people who live in the villages and comprise most of India’s population would be united in actively shaping the country’s destiny. Through the voices of his interviewees, Amin briefly brings the time to life. But, after the euphoria and violence of the riot on 4 February 1922 there was silence: ‘not even a sparrow chirped in Dumri the next morning.’ After Independence, that silence in the villages has deepened, while all the paraphernalia of Gandhi’s ear – the ideals and dietary obsessions – have become history.