There’s a long laundry list of pre-independence communal riots, a feature so common in those days that it’s amazing how quickly we have forgotten them. The Struggle for Freedom volume of the 11-volume History and Culture of the Indian People records in its pages numerous such incidents of communal riots at sickening regularity during the freedom struggle era. And these are just the more well-known incidents. At the most, an average Indian will recall the Partition-fuelled orgy of communal carnage, the butchering of innocent Hindus at Moplah, and the wanton massacre of Hindus in 1948 by the Razakars, the Hyderabad Nizam’s goon squad (aided by the then Communists with bloodthirsty lust).
However, during what I call the middle period of the freedom struggle — the late 1920s to the late 1930s decade — a seemingly minor communal incident occurred in Bangalore, which upon calm reflection presents a valuable warning and a study of how far down we’ve travelled on the path of pusillanimity that the Nehruvian Indian National Congress paved: appeasement of Muslims at any cost. Just as recently as on January 8 2015, BSP leader Yakoob Qureshi praised the murderers of Charlie Hebdo staff and said he was ready to pay them Rs 51 crores. His outrageous statement was business as usual.
But in those days, the incident in question evoked widespread outrage against the then Mysore government. It is still alive in the memories of old timers, especially in Bangalore, and others in the Old Mysore region — in Kannada, they recall it as the Ganapati Galabhe or Ganapati clashes. To fourth and fifth generation Bangaloreans the incident will emerge as wisps of vague recollection of an important milestone of their city’s history.
The modern Mysore State witnessed its golden era during Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV who ruled from 1902–1940. While Paul Brunton described him as the king living the ideal laid down by Plato, Mohandas Gandhi described him as a Rajarshi (a rishi-like king). His rule witnessed a succession of Diwans who elevated the fame of Mysore to ever higher summits, a fact that Lord Sankey recorded at the First Round Table conference declaring that Mysore was “the best administered state in the world.” Among such Diwans, Sir M Vishweshwarayya and Sir Mirza Ismail distinguish themselves for propelling Mysore to awe-inspiring and all-encompassing excellence in almost all areas — banking, education, public life, urban planning, industry, irrigation, agriculture, railways, and social reform.
Sir Mirza Ismail began his tenure as diwan of Mysore in 1926. That the systems, institutions, buildings, and administrative processes he put in place, especially in the Bangalore and Mysore regions, have continued to endure is a testimony to his capabilities to say the least.
The Government School (formerly known as S R Nanjundayya School) on Arcot Srinivasachar Street in Sultanpet, Bangalore (today, AS Char Street) housed a small Ganesha idol in its campus since time immemorial. When the school underwent renovation in 1928, the contractor built a small mandap for the Ganesha idol.
Overnight, the government decided to focus its attention on this development which had gone unnoticed by the general public. The officials of the education department objected to the presence of this Ganesha idol inside the mandap. The reason? The house of Abbas Khan, the then head of the (Bangalore City) Corporation was located right opposite the school. A mosque stood next to his house.
Once this news became public, students and the general citizenry took out a rally demanding the Ganesha idol to be restored to its place in the mandap. Prominent Kannada papers like Veerakesari, Nava Jeevana and Vishwa Karnataka stood rock-solid behind this widespread public opinion. It didn’t take long for the rally to morph into a protracted public agitation.
H C Dasappa (who later became a Congress MP from Bangalore South in the second Lok Sabha and was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet), Nilagiri Sanjivayya, and K H Ramayya stood by the government’s stand to not restore the Ganesha idol. On the other side, those who supported the public agitation included the formidable Kannada editor, “Veerakesari” Sitarama Sastri, Sampige Venkatapatayya, Nittoor Srinivasa Rau (later the Chief Justice of the Mysore High Court, also the first chief of the CVC), and M P Somashekhara Rao.
“Veerakesari” Sitarama Sastri wrote blazing editorials protesting the nakedly communal stand of the government, including a fine piece of satire in Kannada with the God Ganesha himself outpouring his sorry plight in the first person.
The government, instead of resolving the issue in a rational manner, decided to use brute force. It arrested student leaders who formed a significant and influential chunk, which only heightened tensions. The unrest only intensified — now the government had two problems on its hand instead of one: the demand for reinstating the Ganesha idol and the protest against the government’s haughtiness. Thousands of protesters took out their processions in front of the Diwan’s home and the Bangalore Central Jail. Things reached such a dangerous pass that the army was called in to restrain the protestors.
Finally, the government backed down and released some student leaders on bail. Ramlal Tiwari, Subramhanyam and Bhima Rao became instant heroes — they were paraded in a massive victory procession, which eventually reached the school. The Ganesha idol was reinstalled and Arati and Puja was performed.
It didn’t take long.
Even as the Arati was being performed, a barrage of stones and footwear came flying from the opposite buildings. This was followed by the sound of a gun going off. Within minutes, an army of Muslims armed with sticks, swords and other deadly weapons descended on the worshippers. Hundreds were grievously wounded.
That the nature and the aftermath of this unprovoked attack was so gruesome can be gauged by the fact that it not only made national headlines but was also reported in faraway London by the Times and other prominent papers.
Meanwhile, the Mysore government seemed to be hurtling towards disaster after fresh disaster. This time, it simply feigned blindness, which only infuriated the public, which perceived the government to be insensitive. An incident that was reported in the international press was being met by the government with snubbing-by-silence. A torrent of angry editorials, protest marches and other forms of strident criticism followed.
Finally, the government backed down and appointed a six-member enquiry committee headed by the retired Diwan Sir M Vishweshwarayya. After a prolonged process of collecting evidence, documents, reports, and testimonies, the committee submitted its report formally titled Report of the Bangalore Disturbances Enquiry Committee. Its findings: Things went out of hand because of the government’s inaction and delay in the face of a situation of crisis, and that “law and order was completely broken during the disturbances and the government favoured one side in the incident.”
But then, this only became the preface to yet another dark chapter.
Faced with plummeting credibility, the government turned to vent its ire against newspapers. It unleashed a regime of press censorship and threatened editors with banishment, a common punishment in those days.
The government’s prime targets included these newspapers: Sampadabhyudaya, Mysore Patriot, Veerakesari, and Navajivana. Of these, the government withdrew the license of Veerakesari on February 26 1929. Undaunted, its editor, “Veerakesari” Sitarama Sastri blasted this move in Navajivana in a fiery essay of protest, and in order to draw public attention to his essay, circulated thousands of pamphlets in advance. Here’s how it read:
Read “Veerakesari” Sitarama Sastri in Navajivana on 28 February 1929!
Let the Mysore Government be prepared!
I have readied 50 people to break the Press Law, we are ready to go to jail, banishment is child’s play for us!
Mirza sahib’s Diwangiri must end, a responsible government must be established!
This blistering protest essay, obviously, further infuriated an already inflamed government. But this was perhaps the last straw in a seemingly endless volley of attacks against the government which had so badly bungled the Ganapati episode, and which was smarting under the Enquiry Committee’s report. On February 18 1929, Sitarama Sastri in the same Navajivana had openly accused Mirza Ismail of playing favourites with Muslims:
The government has withdrawn all cases against Muslims [in the Ganapati clashes]. We are asked to believe that this move will help establish peace. But real peace will be established only when such Diwans who misuse their position and authority vacate their seat.
This was the last straw.
The government retaliated by foisting a case of treason against Sitarama Sastri and Ashwathanarayana Rao, editor of Navajivana. The actual technical term used in the case against them: Rajadroha.
The case landed in the court of the district magistrate, Syed Tajpeeran. Advocates A R Nageshwara Iyer and M Ramachandra Rao represented the government while a team of defence lawyers led by Nittoor Srinivasa Rau and C V Narasimha Iyengar argued in favour of Sastri. Their argument hinged on two major points: the government’s order to close the two papers without due process was unjust, and two, criticism of a few government officials wasn’t tantamount to a criticism of the government itself.
The verdict was along expected lines. The court ruled that the language used in the newspapers — comparing the government’s behaviour to a mad elephant — was a punishable offence. Sitarama Sastri and Ashwathanarayana Rao were sentenced to six months of ordinary imprisonment and a fine of five hundred rupees per head.
The defendants appealed to the high court, which in turn upheld the verdict of the lower court. However, Ashwathanarayana Rao’s prison sentence was reduced from six to three months and the fine was cancelled.
Postscript: That this occurred nearly twenty years before Independence should’ve given a foretaste to all thinking Indians of the dangers of treading on this path. That the political elite that took the reins of power after 1947 wantonly trod on this path is one of the greatest betrayals in history.