Subhas Chandra Bose: Another Look Part 4: Holwell Monument & with Muslim League

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

Continues from Part-1  (the beginnings) | Part-2 (the urduphile secularism) | Part-3 (“Mahasabha is communal”)

The Holwell Monument

We have seen in the last part how the year of 1940 began with a failed Bose–Mahasabha alliance, followed by a successful Bose-Muslim League alliance for Calcutta Corporation.  While Bose waved aside his attempts to ally with Mahasabha as purely an attempt at running the civic body free of British control, he dubbed his alliance with Muslim League of being a larger vision and strategic purpose.

Important to note that when Bose allied with League, Muslim League had declared loud and clear, only one week earlier at Lahore (24 March, 1940), not only its objective of Pakistan but also their vision of how they planned to achieve it. Interestingly, the person who moved the Pakistan Resolution at Lagore was none other than Abul Kasem Fazlul Haq, the Prime Minister of Bengal and chief leader of KPP, whom Bose would continue to call (even after this) a secular, progressive, patriotic and a nationalist Moslem.

It was written on the wall for all sane Hindus to read as to which way the winds were blowing.  But like any diehard hopeful secularist, Subhas Babu was not to be dismayed by such tell-tale signs.  He forged an alliance with Muslim League in Calcutta, and made a career Muslim leaguer Abdur Rahaman Siddiqui the Mayor, himself being just one of the five aldermen under Siddiqui.  Modern Review (in which Sir Jadunath Sarkar used to write), perceptively criticised Bose, that instead of waging a war against the pro-Moslem and anti-Hindu Corporation Bill itself, Bose had “walked into the parlour of Muslim league which has humiliated the Congress and the Hindus”, and which had openly declared, right under the proposal of the Bengal Prime Minister Haq, the plan for Pakistan.

In justifying the Calcutta Corporation alliance with Muslim League, even in the face of League’s declared objective of creating Pakistan, he wrote under a signed editorial for Forward Bock (4 May, 1940):

“…one cannot ignore the fact that a certain number of communally-minded Hindus are furious about the above understanding. We, on our part, do not regard the communal organizations as untouchables. On the contrary, we hold that the Congress should try continuously to woo them to its side. During the last three years, repeated attempts have been made, to bring about a rapprochement between Congress and Muslim League. At a certain stage, the writer, then President of Congress, met Mr. Jinnah, President of the Muslim league… the attempts failed… We regard the present agreement with Muslim League as a great achievement not in its actuality, but in its potentiality… There is now some hope that we may ultimately succeed in solving a problem which has proved well nigh insoluble to many.”

In the hindsight, as assessed the Bengal Governor John Herbert in a letter to the Viceroy that month, Muslim League objective in allying with Bose was simply to employ him as a useful tool to keep Congress and Hindus divided, while at the same time consolidating itself in Bengal as the sole Moslem representative.

Indeed, Bose would continue his labours to “woo them to his side” at all costs, and it is towards that direction that he spent his energies in the next political program that he took up: Muslim League led agitation to remove the Holwell Monument.

Short-lived “Last sovereign Nawab of Bengal” [Footnote 1], Nawab Siraj-ud-Dawla[Footnote 2] was as notorious for his debauchery and drunkenness as for his cruelty and harshness.  After successfully capturing the Fort William at Calcutta from the East India Company garrison on 19 June 1756, his soldiers locked up over a hundred European and Anglo-Indian captives in a small dungeon cell meant probably for not more than 2 or 3 people. Without enough ventilation and any water and sanitation at all, in the Bengal heat of June month, most of them died of suffocation or heat exhaustion in a single day.

One of the few survivors, Dr. John Zephaniah Holwell, an East India Company Army surgeon and later Governor of Bengal, wrote a detailed narrative of the event. He himself placed at this place, after the battle of Palashi, a memorial tablet to remember the victims of the tragedy, which remained there till 1822 when it disappeared until replaced by another one in 1901 by Viceroy George Curzon remembering also the older slab. This rather modest and humble stone slab came to be known as the Holwell Monument. Neither the Holwell’s book nor his memorial blamed the Nawab, who seemed to have been unaware of the tragedy until it was over.

As is usual to the Moslem psychology, the Moslems suddenly discovered the issue in 1940 and monument overnight became as a famous insult to the ‘venerable memory of a great Islamic sultan’ and a British attempt to ‘tarnish his glory’. And also as is usual to the Secularist psychology, Siraj-ud-dawla, like the Ghazis Tippu Sultan and Hyder Ali, became great ‘nationalist revolutionaries’ and ‘freedom fighters’, and therefore here was another opportunity to forge a ‘Hindu-Moslem unity’ by lionizing these “Heroes”.  Subhas Bose pledged support to Muslim League Students Organization and declared a joint agitation with Muslim League, just like Gandhi had done with Ali Brothers for Khilafat.

Bose wrote in a signed article in Forward Bloc on 29 June 1940, declaring the plan for agitation:

“The third of July 1940 is going to be observed in Bengal as the Sirajuddaula Day – in memory of the last independent king of Bengal. The Holwell Monument is not merely an unwarranted strain on the memory of the Nawab, but has stood in the heart of Calcutta for the last 150 years as the symbol of our slavery and humiliation. That monument must now go.”

On the said date, a meeting was held at the Calcutta Town Hall, attended mostly by the Muslim League’s student wing and Forward Bloc workers, and addressed by Subhas Bose. Glowing homage was paid to the lionized nawab, and the whole tragedy of dungeon itself denied as being a malicious farce of British historians’ creation; and demands were made to rewrite the history textbooks that had any ‘negative’ reference to Siraj-ud-dawla. Bose and his Muslim League supporters also gave a two week ultimatum to the government (which was itself a Muslim League led government!) for removing the monument or face street agitations. There was never really any opposition to removing the Holwell plaque from any quarter including British. And still, the hoax of an agitation went on for some time under the leadership of Muslim League student wing supported by Forward Block and Congress supporters of Bose.

Some “nationalist” supporters of Subhas Bose in this movement were student leaders Abdul Wasek Mian and Chaudhary Muazzam Ahmed, who, having made their name in this ‘cause’, would later take active part during Partition politics and after partition have bright careers in East Pakistan.

It was in mid of all this that Bose travelled to Bombay and had the famous meeting with Savarkar on 21 June 1940, along with on the same day, and before Savarkar, having also met Jinnah and Dr. Ambedkar. Apparently Savarkar unsuccessfully tried to impress Bose about the futility of the Holwell agitation, rather using the opportunity presented by the WWII in going abroad and focusing on activities from there as had done the earlier Indian revolutionaries around WWI. However, as the quoted editorial above appeared right in the next week of this meeting shows, Bose seems to have taken no heed to Savarkar’s first suggestion, but he possibly did discuss in detail the second one. [Footnote 3]

Bose would never mention his meeting with Savarkar, but he would the meeting with Jinnah. Elated about collaboration with Muslim League in Calcutta, Bose was optimistic of some understanding with Jinnah at national level, towards a “Hindu-Muslim Unity”. It was in background of similar initiatives Bose had taken up with Jinnah three years earlier when Bose was the Congress President.  As then, also now, Bose would not recognize the reality that Muslim League really represented the most popular Indian Muslim sentiment.  And as then, also now, Jinnah would insist that no understanding between League and Congress was possible without Congress realizing, whether they liked it or not, that Congress really represented a large body of Hindu opinion and Muslim League the large body of Muslim opinion; and a successful Hindu-Muslim alliance in shape of a Congress-League pact can be had, as was done at his own initative over 2 decades back by Tilak and League, only if Congress could shed the false grandiose notions of representing all Indians and denying League the right of representing Moslems.  Congressmen should shred the false notions, once and for ever, first that the Congress was a secular party representing not Hindus alone, and second, there were other groups besides League that could be the representative of the Moslems.  And then Jinnah pointed out that Bose was not even an official Congressman at the time, having been expelled from it, and enjoyed no locus standi to represent either the Congress or the Hindus for any formal agreement with Muslim League, who were bonafide and sole representatives of the Indian Muslims.  Bose would forever remain bitter at this, and would continue to dispute this claim, as comes out from his later speeches.

Continues to the concluding part, the Ghazis and Jehadis of Azad Hind

Foot Notes

1: Alivirdi Khan, maternal grandfather and predecessor of Siraj-ud-dowla was a chauth-paying vassal of Raghuji Bhosle, therefore hardly a sovereign.  Peshwa Bajirav II had subdued the rogue Raghuji, for which he had himself marched upto Murshidabad, Alivirdi standing before him in attendance, and he had plans for Bengal just when Panipat debacle took place.  In a letter he even says so far that he intended to reduce the nawabs of Bengal and Awadh to ‘pigeons without feather’ after taking care of Hyderabad and Hyder Ali.  But he made a great mistake in misjudging the British.  Indeed, one of the mistakes of Maharatta policy in failing to check the British was that the Peshwa did not send Maharatta support and reinforcement to Bengal, underestimating the mlechcHa power.

2: British had invented an ingenious way to pronounce the nawab siraj-ud-dawla’s name as ‘New-Web Sir-Roger-Dweller’)!

3: Rash Behari Bose, from whom Subhas Bose later took reigns of the INA, was in close communication with Savarkar since, at least, 1937 when Savarkar was freed by the British. Rash Behari was also engaged in establishing Hindu Mahasabha among the Indian Diaspora in East Asia. But it would not be correct to say that there was no independent initiative about going abroad on Bose’s part if credence is given to the theory that Shankarlal, a secretary of the Forward Bloc, had clandestinely travelled to Japan and had held meetings with Rash Behari Bose, returning sometime in the same month of June 1940. (Mihir Bose in his “Raj, Secrets, Revolution” quotes a British intelligence brief that mentions Shankarlal’s activity. PP 178)


5 Responses to “Subhas Chandra Bose: Another Look Part 4: Holwell Monument & with Muslim League”

  1. good

  2. In footnote 1 it is mentioned that peshwa bajirao 2 subdued raghuji bhosle. How is that possible, as the reign of bajirao 2 started in 1796? The peshwa at the time of alivardi khan was balaji bajirao.

  3. Interesting and valuable information regarding Bose’s political activities of the time.


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