Mumbai's role in the Independence Movement

by newuser09876 19. August 2010 22:46


The independence movement, which was first kindled in North India with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, paved the way for Delhi’s emergence as the political epicentre of India and the focal point of India’s freedom struggle. However, many other Indian cities also played their part, and one of them was Bombay. The arrival of the then England-educated Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to the shores of Bombay in 1915 heralded the launch of organised mass movements against the British in India. Before this, the freedom struggle largely comprised of spontaneous uncoordinated efforts that were easily subdued. He transformed the Indian National Congress (then mainly a body of self-centred elite Indians) into a group of committed individuals who worked at the grass roots to ensure that the freedom struggle became a mass movement. Mani Bhavan on Laburnum Road in south Bombay is associated with many landmark events and ideologies of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi stayed here between 1917 and 1934, whenever he visited Bombay. It was from the terrace of this two-storied structure that Gandhi was arrested on January 4, 1932, just after he had finished his prayers. Encompassing a museum and research centre, it has more than 50,000 books on the Mahatma and his life now. You can also buy Gandhi memorabilia here, such as stamps brought out in his honour. Children love to walk around the tableaux depicting the Mahatma's life story – from his birth in Porbandar to his assassination in Delhi.

Not far from Mani Bhavan, Hindustani Prachar Sabha off Marine Drive is another iconic structure associated with the Mahatma. This institute was setup in 1942, with the help of Dadabhai Naoroji's granddaughters Perin Captain and Goshi Captain, to promote the Hindi language. Gandhi believed that Urdu and Sanskrit were far beyond the linguistic abilities of most people, while Hindi was a unique reflection of both. Today, the institute is a friendly place and attracts many foreign students.

The Chowpatty Beach, which is also near Marine Drive, is associated with the famous Dandi March; an agitation that was launched to protest the salt tax imposed by the British. Since Gandhi had forbidden women from accompanying him on the Dandi March to Sabarmati, thousands of women in Bombay led by the freedom fighters Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the Captain Sisters, decided to make salt at Chowpatty Beach and at the saline marshes in Wadala. Kasturba Gandhi, K F Nariman, and Yusuf Meheraully were the other torchbearers of the salt movement. Chowpatty Beach is also one of the venues for the immersion rituals during Mumbai’s famous Ganesh Chaturthi; but this festival’s connection with the independence struggle runs deeper. To prevent a repeat of the mutinous rebellion of 1857, a law was passed, which prohibited large groups of people from congregating in public places. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of India’s true patriots, did not take this lightly and decided to shatter the imperialistic arrogance of the Raj. The ban did not extend to religious festivities and under the garb of a cultural event; Tilak used the Ganesh festival to spread the awareness of a national identity among people, which intensified the freedom struggle. One of the most magnificent relics of the Raj era, the iconic High Court Building is also linked to Tilak. While defending himself against the charge of sedition he coined his famous slogan "Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it!” This is now inscribed on a plaque in the chief justice’s chamber.

Horniman Circle in Churchgate is named after Ben Horniman, the pro-independence editor of the Bombay Chronicle who openly spoke about the excesses of the Raj, especially in connection with the Jalianwalla Baug Massacre. He was promptly deported, but a statue was later erected in his memory, on the lawns of the garden. Further ahead, on a parallel road was a quaint Parsi restaurant called ‘Wayside Inn’, where Dr Ambedkar drafted the Indian Constitution.

Mumbai’s numerous green lungs – its maidans, were also venues for agitations connected to the freedom struggle. After the 1857 Mutiny was quelled, it was at the Esplanade (now Azad Maidan) that two sepoys were executed on charges of sedition by cannons under orders of the police chief Charles Forjett. They were among the first martyrs of the freedom struggle. Other maidans have played their role too. The Maidan opposite the Tejpal Hall hosted the first session of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885. The Quit India movement, which was one of the most tenacious freedom movements in India, was also launched here in August 1942. The elegant Oval Maidan later hosted the 20th INC session, in 1904.

Since entry into clubs was initially restricted to Europeans, the various communities in Bombay sought to have their own clubs. Plots along the long stretch of reclaimed land along the Marine Drive (formerly Known as the Kennedy Sea Face) were allotted to various communities for their recreational clubs. The Hindu, Muslim, and Parsi gymkhanas were soon formed, each with their own independent playgrounds. Ironically, the Catholic gymkhana came later. The English brought with them the game of cricket. Tournaments between the clubs became a regular feature, but they were contested on fiercely communal lines. The Bombay Pentangular, a five-way match between various communities developed into an ugly religious standoff. Mostly dictated by negotiations between stalwarts of the INC and the British, and conducted in the backdrop of the increasingly toxic divide between Hindus and Muslims, the matches became a clash of egos and nepotism. Once again, the Mahatma’s intervention brought it to closure: “I have never understood the reason for having Hindu, Parsi, Muslim, and other communal Elevens," he said. "Can we not have some field o f life untouched by communal spirit?" The last communal Pentangular was held in 1946.

The Congress House in central Mumbai, which served as the headquarters of the Indian National Congress in western India also witnessed many historic moments. One of the high points was when the terrace was converted into saltpans during the Dandi March. The then deputy commissioner of police Cowasji Petigarra raided the house with 200 sepoys to dismantle the salt factory. However, the satyagrahis did not budge. The police were further flummoxed when a shield of women came forward and barred their way.

Gowalia Tank Maidan (also in Central Mumbai) earned the epithet of August Kranti Maidan due to its association with the Quit India Speech that Gandhi delivered here on 8th August 1942. The speech mobilised the citizens of Bombay to join a huge civil disobedience movement, as the British refused to grant independence until the war was over. The Khilafat House, in the central suburb of Byculla, was the hub of the All India Khilafat Committee. Launched in 1919, by the Ali brothers-Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali-with the active support of Mahatma Gandhi, it was formed to protest the British threat to Islam's holy sites in Mecca and Medina as well as against the Jalianwalla Massacre in Amritsar.

On the stunted hillock of Malabar Hill, which is undoubtedly the most expensive address in Mumbai, lies a historic mansion that is associated with one of the protagonists of the partition. The Jinnah house might seem like an unassuming structure; however, its erstwhile owner Mohammad Ali Jinnah was one of the most prolific faces during the struggle for self-rule. By 1920, Jinnah resigned from the Congress, with a prophetic warning that Gandhi's method of mass struggle would lead to divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Today, this mansion is still the arena for a diplomatic battle between Jinnah’s heirs, the Pakistani diplomatic mission, and the Indian government over rights of ownership.

Cinema and theatre also played a part in the freedom struggle. Himanshu Rai's Bombay Talkies in the northern suburb of Malad stopped functioning a long time ago. However, it was here that Subhash Chandra Bose was shot for a historic newsreel. In this, he announced his decision to part with the Congress and launch his own party, the Forward Bloc. Unfortunately, the acetate-based negative has been either lost or destroyed.

One structure in Mumbai has been a mute witness to both, the entry and unceremonious exit of the British. The Gateway of India, which is one of the iconic symbols of Mumbai, was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay, prior to the Delhi Durbar, in December 1911. Ironically, when the Raj ended in 1947, this colonial symbol also became a sort of epitaph, as the last British ships that set sail for England left from the Gateway.

Sunil Vaidyanathan/ Shayoni Mitra 


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