The man who fooled the British Raj

Sometime in the 1920s, the British authorities conducted an audit of the political prisoners they had incarcerated in the Andaman Islands in a remote part of the Bay of Bengal. To their surprise they found that they had one more prisoner than shown in their records. This was especially amazing because the prison at Port Blair had an horrific reputation and no one went there willingly. To the British officials, schooled in belief in the omnipotence of the Raj, this revelation was not only puzzling. It was exceedingly humiliating. How had their efficient administration screwed up?

The British had been using the Andaman Islands as a place to imprison Indian freedom fighters since the rebellion of 1857 (a.k.a. The Indian Mutiny). By the beginning of the twentieth century the scale of Indian independence activity against British rule was so widespread that the Government opened the Cellular Jail in the Andamans in 1906. Designed to house almost 700 prisoners, many sent there for life, it was frequently full. Every cell was for solitary confinement and the authorities, mindful of the rebellious nature of their political charges, ensured there was no contact between inmates.

As the twentieth century rolled on, scores of pro-independence groups throughout India were active in speech-making, seditious pamphlets, sabotage, assassinations, bombings, robberies (to raise funds) and even in small military battles against British troops. All had the aim of driving the British out of India. The authorities often resorted to hanging those they caught. Those convicted of less serious offences like sedition were transported to the Andamans, some for life. As a result, the Cellular Jail was frequently at capacity.

Located far away from the Indian mainland, the authorities treated the inmates harshly and often inhumanely. Food and water were inadequate and often contaminated. Prisoners toiled long hours at forced labour in hot tropical conditions. Disease was rife and medical treatment almost non-existent. Prisoners were often flogged, sometimes to death. Suicide was frequent. When prisoners managed to break through the enforced isolation and rioted in protest at conditions, ringleaders were hanged.

By the 1920s there was a growing sense of resentment amongst Indians at the indignities of foreign rule. In Amritsar in 1919, General Reginald Dyer had ordered British Indian troops to fire on unarmed civilians, killing almost four hundred and wounding over a thousand. There was widespread condemnation, not only in India but worldwide. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore registered his disgust by renouncing his British knighthood. In 1920, Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement of strikes and civil disobedience. In 1921 Gandhi became leader of the Indian National Congress and began campaigning for swaraj ( = self rule).

Against this background, enter my grandfather’s elder brother, Rajanikanta (RK), living in Cuttack on the east coast of India, a clerk on the governor’s staff. For over a hundred years educated Bengalis had made good clerks, serving the administrative needs of the Raj in a humble capacity. Though he depended for his livelihood on working for the Raj, RK like so many other Indians yearned for the day when the British were thrown out and, who knows, some of the top jobs might become available to well-qualified locals.

One day he saw his opportunity to get back at the Raj when he became aware a freedom fighter was scheduled to be hanged. He forged the governor’s signature on a reprieve and had the man transferred as a political prisoner to the Andamans.

Somehow the requisite paperwork did not accompany the man when he arrived in Port Blair but nevertheless he ended up in the Circular Jail.

When the misdeed was eventually discovered, you might think that the authorities would have taken revenge on RK and at the very least given him a long jail sentence, maybe in the Andamans. However it seems that the authorities realized that the resultant publicity might rebound on them and show up the incompetence of the mighty Raj in allowing the fraud to occur. Remember this was an increasingly sensitive time and they must have felt that the prestige of British administration should not be compromised in any way. The British Raj could not be seen to be ridiculed by an insignificant Bengali Babu.

So RK was asked to take a “Voluntary Retirement”. He was told to keep quiet about the incident on pain of prosecution and of course it remained a taboo subject which no one in the family talked about until after Indian Independence in 1947.

Meanwhile, RK managed to get himself a job as a clerk in an English company. He did not like the work but his attempts to resign were rejected by his English manager because RK was good at his job. In his frustration and in order to force the issue he snatched the manager’s hat from its stand, put it on and strolled around the office proclaiming that he was now an Englishman. He thus succeeded in losing his job, came home and declared that others would easily be able to bring up his children. That is how his younger brother Dr Durgadas Sen, my grandfather, came to bring up and educate some of his nephews.

Later RK earned fame and popularity as a street bard who lampooned Englishmen.

RK went to live in the family home in Bankura in rural Bengal where he died in 1931 aged sixty three, having a laugh about the English to the end.

ROBIN SEN

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