People’s history of the Punjab: The great 1920 rebellion

Dr. Manzur Ejaz

Channan Din, a little weak in the head, recruited a small band of soldiers and armed them with sticks and toy guns. This, dubbed the Danda Fauj by Lahore’s wags, was the mock fighting arm of a people’s rebellion in Lahore against British rule. The Danda Fauj paraded the streets of Lahore on April 11 and 12, 1920, when the revolt against the Rowlatt Act was at its peak. This Act was made law by the British Raj in 1919, indefinitely extending “emergency measures” enacted during World War 1 to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. Passed on the recommendations of the Rowlatt Commission, this act authorised the government to imprison, without trial, any person suspected of terrorism.

Channan Din’s Danda Fauj was one aspect of the pan-India revolt against the draconian Rowlatt Act. The Fauj’s significance lay in that it was exclusively drawn from Muslim artisans and workers who appeared to be roused to action by the cry of Pan-Islamism but in fact were victims of inflation. Obviously, the Danda Fauj was not taken seriously but a British officer later confessed that it “was a very mischievous thing”.

Channan Din’s ideology was a mixed bag. On the one hand he made speeches declaring that the Danda Fauj owed its allegiance to the Ottoman Caliph of Turkey and the King of Kabul, in order of precedence, and on the other he plastered the walls of Lahore with posters preaching unity amongst Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Channan Din also printed a newspaper, the Danda Akhbar, which exhorted the citizens of Lahore to “get ready for the war, and God will grant victory to India very soon. Fight with enthusiasm and enlist yourself in the Danda Fauj”.

Channan Din’s Danda Fauj was an amusing part of the great rebellion which emerged in opposition to the Rowlatt Act on Mahatma Ghandi’s Satyagraha (peaceful resistance) call. This revolutionary movement’s strongest manifestations were in Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab. Gandhi’s call aroused people all around India but in Lahore the uprising was so intense that the city seemed to spin out of British control. Large contingents of the British Indian Army were deployed to protect the homes of Europeans.

In fact, the leaders of Lahore had opposed the new law even before Gandhi announced his movement of protest against this “devilish legislation”, as he termed it. The Indian Association of Lahore passed a resolution on February 4, 1920 to condemn the Rowlatt Act. The Indian Association’s resolution expressed the sentiments of the middle classes of Lahore. The leaders of the Indian Association were stalwart like Harkishen Lal, financier and industrialist; Dhuni Chand, a prominent lawyer and member of the Arya Samajh; Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhry, a rising young Brahman lawyer; Gokul Chand Narang, a leading member of the bar and Fazal-i-Hussain who led the liberal Muslims of the city. The Indian Association of Lahore passed another resolution on March 9, but the movement was radicalised after Gandhi’s open letter of March 26 in which he had asked Indians everywhere to rise up against the Rowlatt Act.

Fazal-i-Husain had presided over the March 9 meeting and was implacably opposed to the new legislation. However, he was not enthusiastic about Gandhi’s call to Satyagraha. He was of the opinion that Gandhi was playing with fire. He could not resist the popular urge of revolting against the British but tried his best to water down the resolution. Nevertheless, what happened after the city wide hartal (shut-down) of April 6 was very different from what Fazal-i-Hussain had desired or expected.

On April 6, in the strike which took place all over Lahore, students were most conspicuous by their vociferous participation. But the crowd that had gathered around Lahori Gate of the walled city, consisted of clerks, petty shopkeepers and men on the fringes of professions. The crowd was very impressive in number and spirit. However, when the crowd reached Anarkali Bazaar’s Nila Gumbad, a critical situation developed. The crowd wanted to march on to The Mall but Mr. H. Fyson, the then Deputy Commissioner of Lahore, was not willing to permit this because the Europeans’ quarters were adjacent to The Mall. Gokal Chand Narang averted bloodshed by diverting the crowd to Bradlaugh Hall where it was addressed by prominent leaders including Fazal-i-Husain and Mohsin Shah.

The notorious British governor of Punjab, O’Dwyer underestimated anti-British sentiment and tried to browbeat the city into acquiescence. But instead of capitulation, Lahoris struck back using the Hindu festival of Ram Naumi, the birthday of Lord Rama, on April 9. The procession of Ram Naumi of 20,000 moved around the city. For the first time such a Hindu procession was joined by substantial numbers of Muslims. Leaders like Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhry spoke at length on Hindu-Muslim unity as the supreme need of the hour. “Once we unite amongst ourselves, we have nothing to fear” was the essence of their message. April 9 passed without incident. However, April 10 was a different story.

On that day, news reached Lahore that Gandhi had been arrested at Paliwal while he was trying to enter the Punjab. In addition, rumours ran rife that leaders like Kitchlew and Satyapal too had been arrested and that some British officials had been murdered brutally in Amritsar. The reaction in Lahore was immediate. All of Anarkali bazaar’s merchants and bazaaris within the walled city declared an instant hartal. People from mohallas across the city poured into the bazaars, with the leaderless crowd determined to express its indignation. Smaller groups joined in and a big multitude moved towards Anarkali. One segment of the crowd moved towards Upper Mall where the police fired upon them at point blank range. More than half a dozen protesters were killed on the spot. The mob dispersed towards the walled city.

The crowd at Anarkali was pushed back by Fyson towards Lahori Gate. Rambhuj Dutt tried to persuade the crowd to retire to their homes like he had done in Nila Gumbad on a previous occasion but this crowd was not as genteel as the one Mr. Dutt had tackled on April 6. This crowd at Lahori Gate contained strong contingents of Muslim artisans and workers who were not easy to control like middle class Hindus. While Mr. Dutt was trying to pacify the crowd, Fyson opened fire on them and scores of people were killed. Muslim artisans and workers had given a radical dimension to the movement and among those who died at Lahori Gate that day, there were both Hindus and Muslims.

The news spread like wildfire, and so did the agitation. The entire city ground to a halt and the cry rose from all over Lahore that all its citizens, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, were to gather at the Badshahi Masjid on Friday April 11. Fyson and other British officers tried to persuade the leaders not to take out processions after the gathering. The Badshahi Mosque congregation numbered around 35,000 of which roughly a third consisted of Hindu merchants and professional men while the rest was made up of Muslim artisans and workers. As usual, students were well represented at the gathering.

That day, Hindu-Muslim unity witnessed its high point at the Badshahi Mosque. The leaders present at the mosque included Rambhuj Dutt, Nihal Chand, Gopi Chand Bhargava, Harkishen Lal, Dhuni Chand, Dharam Das, Mohin Shah, Pir Tajuddin and Khalifa Shujauddin. The latter began his opening speech in a conciliatory manner but Rambhuj Dutt put paid to that tone with his radical rhetoric and presented a proposal to form a People’s Committee. Dutt’s proposal was adopted.

The British authorities gathered the aristocrats of Lahore like Mian Mohammad Shafi, Fateh Ali Khan Qazilbash and Raja Narendra Nath. These men tried to manipulate the local leaders. The People’s Committee also tried to persuade the rebels to end the strike but the masses of Lahore were in no mood to listen: they wanted change and an end to British rule. Muslim artisans and workers were at the forefront as the most radical part of the movement. Channan Din’s Danda Fauj melted into the crowd as an expression of resistance from Lahore’s Muslim downtrodden classes.

When diplomacy failed to tame the rebellion in Lahore, General O’Dwyer called in the army which successfully crushed the upsurge. Several people, Hindu and Muslim, were killed in this process. The events of 1920 alarmed the British and raised the “spectre” of Hindu-Muslim unity, a factor the Raj did its best to undo in the following decades. Tragically for the subcontinent, they did this with great success.

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia.

This piece was first published by The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan.

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One response to “People’s history of the Punjab: The great 1920 rebellion

  1. Barbarians have no wish for tranquility..Ustaad Amanat Ali

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