The last revolutionary standing
“We knew we were all going to die,” he says, casually.
I have heard this line many times in films, read it in books, but to hear it face to face, from a man who knew he was going to die, is something else. This is not a line we, born in free countries, quite appreciate when it is played out in the movies. To feel the real meaning of the words, make a trip to Momin Road in Chittagong, and find Binod Bihari Chowdhury, who lives in one of the bylanes in a small non-descript house. He had a bullet pierce his neck, but he has survived to tell the not-often-told tale of the Chittagong Armoury Raid in 1930.
Binod is 101 now, the last revolutionary alive among that group, mainly comprising students, who fought a battle that they knew would eventually claim their lives. He is as frail as can be imagined. Recently he has been to Kolkata for treatment. He struggles with high blood pressure, but still watches cricket, much to the chagrin of those who look after him. He struggles to talk, but likes to tell stories. Dadu we call him. Like a dadu, a grandfather, he has us sit around him and tells us of the people who fought for independence. He doesn’t blink at all when he is talking. There are four of us there, and he looks into the eye of each, one by one, alternating, as he admits his memory plays tricks at times.
Once upon a time Binod was a student too. A student who, when moving to an English-medium school from the Bangla school, had to be demoted two standards to fit into the English school. “I didn’t understand all that then, I did what my father asked me to,” he says. From the age of 16, Binod’s life has been one full of revolution, the fight against injustice, prison, hibernation, having a prize on his head – 500 rupees – but the most inspirational part of it has been the Armoury Raid, led by the legendary Masterda Surjya Sen.
The first thing he talks about when he realises we are from India is about the recent Bollywood film on the Chittagong Uprising, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se. “Why do they keep calling him Surjyo da, Surjyo da in the film? Don’t they know nobody ever called him Surjyo da? He was always Master da.” Just confirms how callous popular culture can be. How do you make a whole feature film on the revolution without consulting the only revolutionary alive?
At the age of 16, Binod joined Jugantor, the revolutionary organisation. A measure of how committed they were to the cause was how nobody got to know what he was up to. Not his father, not his mother, not his brother, not his sister, not the best of his friends. Such organisations had to be secret in those days, else they wouldn’t survive. “One day I was chatting with Master da,” Binod says. “And one of the revolutionaries saw us, and asked Master da, ‘Why do you let him sit next to you? I have asked him to join us many times, but he keeps abusing you.’ That’s when Master da laughed and told him, ‘He has been a member even before you.’ That’s how well we guarded our organisation. I still have secrets I have never told anybody, ever.”
After meticulous planning, they put up their fight against imperialism, after which, albeit for a short duration, Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Branch, as they called themselves, tasted freedom. They took Auxiliary Forces armoury, and cut telephone and telegraph wires. Master da took a military salute, and the National Flag was hoisted.
“We knew if we claim their armouries in Chattagram [Chittagong], the Britishers wouldn’t be able to do much. But we also knew we would be able to rule for only two-three-four days. We would soon be outnumbered… We knew we were all going to die.”
We spent more than an hour with Binod, during which he told us about his and his friends’ ordeals when the stronger British forces finally caught up, about his time in prison, about how the independence they fought for didn’t turn out to be the independence they wanted, his role in the planning for the Liberation War of 1971. For about 10 minutes after we came out, nobody spoke a word. Films and books can never do that to you.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo