Covert ties of Indian revolutionaries with Congress (Book Review)

Title: A Revolutionary History of Interwar India; Author: Kama Maclean; Publisher: Penguin Books; Pages: 305; Price: Rs.599

This is a fascinating story of the Indian revolutionary movement, focussing mainly on the charismatic Bhagat Singh and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) and how the group influenced and radicalized the Congress, speeding up the race for independence.

In contrast to popular belief that the revolutionary movement and the Congress struggle for freedom from British rule were antagonistic in nature because of their differing ideologies, the book brings to light the many covert dealings the two sides had, often through intermediaries. This, then, is a detailed account of the intersections between the HSRA, the Congress and the Indian government, based on largely untapped oral history interviews, memoirs, pictures and colonial archives.

It is not that scholars drawing on intelligence reports had not alluded to moments of cooperation and convergence between the HSRA and Congress. But Kama Maclean, from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, makes a case that the relationship was deeper, even if it was only for a short period. Both parties were careful not to leave evidence of their interactions. And in some cases the British intelligence simply failed to believe the vignettes of information that came its way.

Almost all HSRA members had been Congress volunteers in the 1920s and had taken part in the non-cooperation movement. Even after the HSRA came into being, many continued to attend annual Congress meetings, “not only to liaise with sympathizers but to calibrate their own activities”. It was only after India’s independence that some eminent Congress leaders from Punjab remarked upon their personal connections to Bhagat Singh.

Many interactions between Congress leaders and the revolutionaries, says Maclean, were highly amicable. “The revolutionaries did not operate in opposition to, or in isolation from, the mainstream Congress.” Most Gandhiites too wanted to be friendly to the revolutionaries and had great respect for them.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandrda Bose were of course known to make supportive statements about the revolutionaries. But Motilal Nehru, long known as a moderate, covertly supported the revolutionaries, much of the evidence coming to light after India became free. He quietly donated money to and interacted with Chandrashekhar Azad, the supreme leader of the HSRA. The junior Nehru too gave money to Azad – indeed when Azad was killed in Allahabad in 1931, he had in his pocket the cash given by Jawaharlal although the British police had no clue about this. Even Madan Mohan Malaviya, who initially condemned the bombing of the Punjab assembly by Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt, provided support to the accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, pledging Rs.1,000 from Seva Samiti funds.

Maclean says the hunger strikes by the revolutionaries in prison also brought them close to the Congress. When hunger striker Jatindranath Das died, his bier was carried through Lahore by members of the Punjab Congress unit and handed over to representatives of the Bengal Congress who made the arrangements to take his body to Calcutta. The revolutionaries went to the extent of saying that their violence will only increase the bargaining power of the Congress vis-à-vis the British.

This collaboration between the revolutionaries and the Congress, although short-lived, largely went unnoticed, clouded by the dominance of non-violence in nationalist historiography. Indeed, the political violence orchestrated by the HSRA threw non-violence into sharp relief, marking Mahatma Gandhi a viable and desirable option for the British. This is a really racy read, almost gripping; unusual for books of this genre.

(03.04.2016 – M R Narayan Swamy can be contacted at

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