“Gandhi, Tegart and the Bengali Terrorist” by Sobhanlal Mukherjee, in The Statesman, Calcutta, 28 April, 2009 1:14 PM Special Article
Top cop and Swadeshi Gandhi, Tegart And The Bengal Terrorist By Sobhanlal Mukherjee
The two articles by Mr Amiya K Samanta, published in The Statesman on 30 and 31 January 2009, are of tremendous historical importance. They throw light on Mahatma Gandhi’s “strange” meeting with CA Tegart, then the Police Commissioner of Calcutta, on 25 June 1925. The meeting was held at the residence of SR Das, who was then the Advocate-General of Bengal. Both Gandhi and Tegart had agreed that it would be a strictly private interaction, with no commitments from either side. In his personal papers, Tegart had left a signed copy of the main points discussed at the meeting. The data is available only in the archives of the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.
Through The Statesman, Mr Samanta has rendered signal service by publishing excerpts of Tegart’s notes. In the early years of the 20th century, educated, politically-conscious upper and lower middle class Bengali youth were generally concerned over terrorism, euphemistically described as “militant nationalism”, a trend that emerged after the first Partition of Bengal (1905). It took the form of the swadeshi movement. There was considerable confusion in the wake of the split in the Congress into moderates and extremists at the Surat session in 1907.
‘Do or die’
The British tried desperately to forestall a Bolshevik-type revolution in India by the young extremists. There was widespread condemnation of the Jalianwalabagh massacre on 13 April 1919. The youth of Bengal were gearing up for counter-violence in what they reckoned was a “do or die” situation. They disliked Gandhi’s pacifist “non-cooperation policy”, coupled with the Khilafat agitation. They rather welcomed the extremist strategy of Chittaranjan Das and his Swarajya Party, within the Congress. The main purpose of Gandhi’s meeting with Tegart in 1925, a year after Deshbandhu’s death, was to secure the release of all militants detained without trial. He also wanted the Ordinance of 1924 revoked in order to heal the “breach between the government and the people” in post-Deshbandhu Bengal. Indeed, he held out an olive branch. His policy was in accord with his ethics of non-violence and value-based politics. He even described the Bengali militants as patriotic gems, with noble intentions, an indomitable public spirit, and exemplary self-sacrifice for their country.
Gandhi informed Tegart that CR Das himself was disenchanted with contemporary Bengali militants. He reminded the Police Commissioner that Das, a barrister-at-law, had written to Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, requesting him to go soft and explore the possibility of a rapprochement with the militants. Gandhi is recorded to have made certain frank admissions to Tegart. He admitted that the non-cooperation movement had failed as no deadline was fixed within which swaraj could be achieved. He even declined comment when Tegart remarked that Deshbandhu’s Swarajya Party experiment was also in the doldrums. Gandhi placed a “strange” proposal before Tegart ~ every militant be released on personal bond. He volunteered to negotiate with the terrorists. Tegart disagreed because such negotiations could not be an individual’s responsibility. It was the exclusive prerogative of the government. Tegart also examined the legalities of Gandhi’s proposal. It was too theoretical to imagine that a single revolutionary could be isolated and tutored to abjure violence. This would need a thorough review of the case history of each detainee.
Tegart, undoubtedly, had the Irishman’s sympathy for Indian militants. But as a disciplined and pragmatic police officer, he was aware of the stark reality. He relied only on facts. He had survived several murder attempts in Calcutta, but remained undaunted. He was as astute as the Mahatma. He made it clear to Gandhi that militants could not be so easily tackled. Gandhi told Tegart that those arrested on the basis of false or concocted reports filed by lower grade officers should be released. Tegart defended his subordinates, but assured Gandhi that he would definitely make an inquiry. How could he be so sure about his forthright assertion? I feel privileged to answer this question on the basis of what was recounted to me by my father, Haridas Mukherjee, who was a colleague of Tegart in the IB offices of the Bengal government. He had joined the police service in 1907 and was posted as Officer on Special Duty, Special Cell, dealing with Bengali terrorists.
The other notable members of the cell were three Special Superintendents, Fairweather Springfield, Pardy and Robertson who held independent charge of the “Source Money” meant for informers. The British officers could be distinctly identified with their Tory (Conservative) and Whig (Liberal) leanings. The British policies towards India and Ireland were influenced by the Whig-Tory equations. In spite of their political differences, the officers worked in the IB as a cohesive team. The British officers missed Subhas Chandra Bose as one of their colleagues in the ICS. They also regretted that a large number of talented young men had become militants and martyrs. Many among the officers had a profound respect for Indian culture and values. Fairweather borrowed from my father books on Indian mysticism and tantra.
Brayden had a keen interest in astrology and Indology. Pardy spent his leisure working out the crossword puzzles in The Statesman. Robertson was scrupulous in his handling of the “source” funds. There was little substance in Gandhi’s plea that Bengali militants were wrongly detained on the basis of false or concocted reports. Reports of constables, “writers” and “watchers”, were cross-verified by my father and his colleagues at the “history sheet section”. If at all there was any concoction, it was due to some gameplan of officers who wanted a higher share of the “source” money or such coveted prefixes as “Rai Saheb” or “Rai Bahadur” from the Raj. There was a strange case of an “ambitious” policeman who tried to wangle a promotion by implicating his son and his friends with militant activities. The plan boomeranged and he was promptly blacklisted by the IB.
Gandhi told Tegart that Jatin Mukherjee, generally referred to as “Bagha Jatin”, was “a divine personality”. Little did he know that Tegart had once told his colleagues that if Jatin were an Englishman, then the English people would have built his statue next to Nelson’s at Trafalgar Square. In his note to JE Francis of the India Office in 1926, he described Bengali terrorists as “the most selfless political workers in India”. Mr Samanta has supplemented his account with quotes from Amrita Bazar Patrika and Forward, two contemporary dailies that praised Tegart’s “devotion to duty”. He was my father’s role model, an ideal, people-friendly Commissioner of Police. He had set excellent paradigms of effective police administration. His work culture was marked by clockwork precision and remarkable efficiency.
He avoided notes in files and official formalities, in other words the overbearing burra sahib mentality. Cutting across the superior-subordinate divide, he took vital decisions over a cup of tea with colleagues. He had a prodigious memory, and knew the names and addresses of his colleagues, from the three Special Superintendents down to the constables. He believed in minimum force. Police excesses have marked recent developments in Naxalbari, Nandigram, and Lalgarh. Tegart would have refused to act as the “Chief Minister’s man” and obey party cadres. And he would never have intervened in civil marriages. The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata