Category Archives: colonial system

Marking the Centenary of the Salanga Massacre

British Imperial India, 1909
British imperial India in the early 20th century.

On 13th April 2019, the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was widely commemorated in India and in the South Asian diaspora across the world. Over the years, it has been memorialised through exhibitions, plays, songs, films and the memorial in the park in Amritsar where the bloody event took place.

Yet three years after this horror, on 27th January 1923, nearly 2,000 kilometres to the South East in unpartitioned Bengal, the small town of Salanga witnessed a terrible atrocity perpetrated by the British Imperial Police Force. There are no memorials to mark this tragedy which has long been forgotten.

Both the Jallianwala Bagh and Salanga massacre took place in the years following the end of World War One which was an earth-shattering convulsion across the world. Nearly 1.3 million Indians served in the British Indian Army across the world in all the battle fronts from the Western Front to the Middle East, East Africa to Burma. 

On 13th April 2019, the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was widely commemorated in India and in the South Asian diaspora across the world. Over the years, it has been memorialised through exhibitions, plays, songs, films and the memorial in the park in Amritsar where the bloody event took place.

During the war, Indian politicians like Gandhi supported the war effort. Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, acknowledged that the British could not have made through the Great War without the Imperial Indian Army. In total, more 74,000 Indian soldiers died and nearly 67,000 were wounded.

At the end of the war, there were high expectations that the British government would grant India self-governing status similar to that granted to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1907.  The struggle for independence resumed. Gandhi returned to India from South Africa and began to fight for justice by leading satyagraha (passive non-violent resistance) in places such as Bihar and Gujarat to support the peasants who were overburdened by taxation and exploitation.

The dissolution of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the deposing of the Khalif had a great impact on Muslims across the world. In India radical Muslim leaders organised the Khilafat movement to demand the restoration of the Khalif by the British government which had been involved in the defeat of Turkey and the partition of its Empire under UN mandate with France.

When Gandhi supported the Khilafat movement, these two non-cooperation movements brought to together millions of Hindus and Muslims to fight against British colonial rule.  The main aims of this movement were to: boycott foreign goods, denounce titles awarded by the British, boycott elections to the legislative assemblies dictated and dominated by the colonisers, refuse to pay taxes, promote local production of clothing, salt and other items, promote religious harmony amongst locals, form local panchayets (Village Councils), and protest against price rises in staple foods.

The Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms enacted by the colonial government set out a gradual path to self-government. The franchise was extended, and increased authority was given to central and provincial legislative councils, but the viceroy had all executive powers delegated by London.  The reforms did not satisfy any party in the Indian independence movement.

To suppress the rising tide of resistance and nationalism, in March 1919 the British viceroy rushed through a draconian law – the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act. The act labelled any political resistance against colonial rule as ‘terrorist’ and effectively authorized the colonial government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism for up to two years.

It gave the police powers to arrest without warrant and detain indefinitely without a fair trial. Those accused of proscribed acts faced a three-judge special court without a jury which allowed secret evidence whereby the accused were denied the right to know the evidence used in the trial. The act established stricter control of the press. Those convicted were required to deposit securities upon release, and were prohibited from taking part in any political, educational, or religious activities.

This repression intensified the struggle against the colonial government.   It was the Rowlatt Act which brought Gandhi to the mainstream of the Indian struggle for independence and ushered in the Gandhian era of Indian politics. Demonstrations, political marches, mobilization of the populace, educating and spreading the ideals of the movements and such other activities became widespread. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was part of bitter harvest of the shoot-to-kill policies to attack demonstrators.

Almost a century ago, in 1922, Salanga was one of the biggest centres of trade and commerce in East Bengal. Its river port and adjacent market place were the regional hub of cattle and agricultural produce trade. On every Monday and Friday, countless farmers, traders and artisans gathered at Salanga to market their produce.

However, burdened with high taxes by the local zamindars (landlords) and due to the overwhelming dominance of British goods in the local market, the local growers made little profit. According to the village elders of Salanga, the Hindu zamindars had imposed a special tax on the cattle trade, which is still one of the most significant sources of income for Salanga farmers. Evasion of this tax was punished with eviction from the village and merciless beating.

On the other hand, the colonial administration used to force locals to purchase clothes and salt manufactured by the British companies at a higher price, although the district of Sirajganj was famous for weaving industry. In a Muslim-majority area, two liquor shops were set up, which led to further discontent among the conservative local populace.

On Friday 27th January 1923, the market place had thousands of people. A crowd had gathered in front of the Congress office to listen to speakers.  A young radical leader of the Khilafat Movement, Abdur Rashid, addressed the gathering about the about importance of the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement. He exhorted the necessity of boycotting British-made goods (especially cloths and salt) and concentrating on the production of items locally to strengthen India’s economy to counter the plunder by the colonisers.

A group of 40 armed police led by the Superintendent of Police, the District Magistrate and Senior District Officer arrived and arrested him. He was dragged to a corner of the bazaar and beaten with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. He recorded this this experience in his rare account titled Shadhinota Shangramer Rakta Shiri Salanga (Salanga: The Blood-Stained Step to the Struggle for Independence) which was discovered in the late 20th century.

As the police took him into custody and carried him while he was almost unconscious and profusely bleeding, rumours spread that he might have been killed. The crowd grew agitated. He came from a well known pir (Muslim saint) family and there were many followers (murids) who venerated his family in the crowd.

By that time, thousands of people had surrounded the police from three sides to rescue Abdul Rashid.  In this melee, someone hit the police superintendent with a bamboo stick. His head started to bleed.

The police lined up a defensive position in front of the liquor shops with their rifles aimed at the crowd.  On receiving orders, they opened fired repeatedly and indiscriminately into the crowd. Some were killed and others injured by the bullets. Terrified, the crowd stampeded, leading to more deaths.

 According to Abdur Rashid, the death figure was close to 4,000. Many of the dead bodies were thrown into the river. Many others were buried in mass graves in nearby neighbourhoods.  Several hundred people were left to die in different areas; many died after going to their homes but the family members of the victims never came forward fearing harassment by the British police, so the actual figure of causalities cannot be definite.

Today investigators have not been able to find any families in Salanga whose forefathers were killed or injured in the carnage. Due to floods and river erosion, many of the families have shifted to other areas. Many of the victims who had come to trade in the market were from different places. Probably their dead bodies were buried in mass graves as nobody could come to claim their bodies. The victims remain unnamed. 

Abdur Rashid was jailed for six months and on his release, he travelled across India to study in Islamic institutions which earned him the title of maulana (revered Muslim scholar).  Then he proceeded to Lahore to study Logic and Philosophy at Ehsanul Islam College. After winning a famous debate there, he was given the title of tarkabagish (master of reasoning).

Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish dedicated his life to politics for more than 60 years, always fighting for freedom and justice. Beginning with the anti-colonial movement to independence which led to partition, he won many elections to serve as member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. He supported the Bengali language movement under Pakistani rule and was an inspirational leader of Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. He opposed the military rule that followed the assassination of the first president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975.

Although the Salanga massacre was as horrific as Jallianwala Bagh, it did not receive as much publicity as the Punjab incident. Among the reasons were the remoteness of Salanga, its low status as a market town compared to cities like Amritsar and the press censorship exercised by the colonial authorities. The association of the incident with the Khilafat movement which waned by 1925 may have been factor. The convulsion of the partition of Bengal overshadowed the independence struggles that took place in East Bengal.

In the 1960s the Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish Memorial Library was established to keep alive the memory of the sacrifice of local people in Salanga. But unfortunately it has remained in a poor state for lack of investment by the local government. Unfortunately it seems that the national government has made no effort to memorialise the tragedy.

Far from the myth of the British Empire being a civilising mission, it left behind a legacy of violence through its existence. Caroline Elkins has revealed how an evolutionary and racialised doctrine espoused the use of unrelenting systemic violence to secure and preserve British imperial interests. To the boast coined in the 19th Century that “the sun never set on the British Empire” the Chartist Ernest Jones aptly replied “and the blood never dried.” Historians of the left such as Richard Gott and John Newsinger have also documented the extent of this violence.

Salanga and its victims need to remembered. This is not only a local task but a national and international one. History is always silenced unless it is reproduced through archives, monuments, exhibitions, museums, stories, books and films. As we mark this centenary, the Bangladeshi government, the universities, the schools, the press and periodicals should resolve to memorialise the Salanga massacre.


Ahmed Humayun Kabir Topu,  ‘The Salanga Massacre of 1922: History needs to be preserved’The Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh),  29th January 2021.

Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence- A History of the British Empire, Bodley Head, UK, 2022.

John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, ‎ Bookmarks Publications, 2006

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past- Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press, Boston, 1995

Pradip Kumar Dutta  ‘An almost forgotten part of our glorious past’Daily Asian Age (Delhi) 22nd July 2020,

Richard Gott ‘The blood never dries‘ Red Pepper,19th August 2021.

Shahnawaz Khan Chandan ‘The Salanga Massacre of 1922: Bangladesh’s forgotten bloodbath‘ The Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh), 25th January 2019.

Tim Cornwell, ‘‘Shameful scar’: Centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre marked in New Delhi exhibition‘, The Arts Newsletter, 12 April 2019.

Wikipedia, ‘Indian Army during World War I’. Wikipedia, ‘Salanga massacre

Image: British imperial India in the early 20th century. Source: Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

First published in Labour Hub on 27 January 1923

The crimes against indigenous children in Canada reveal the barbarism of the colonial system

The discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous children in Canada reveals the cruelty and inhumanity of the colonial system. In May, members of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation found 215 bodies at the Kamloops school in British Columbia. On 24th June, Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of as many as 751 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewanan. On 30th June, the Lower Kootenay Band community announced finding 182 unmarked graves of indigenous children between the ages of seven and 15 at St Eugene’s Mission School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.

The nearly 1,000 ‘virtual unearthings’ of the bodies were made by using a highly specialised ground penetrating radar which mapped the buried human remains. The initiatives were a persistent effort by the indigenous community groups, and not by the Canadian government or the perpetrators who had every reason to hide these remains forever. These revelations are a searing reminder of the sufferings of the indigenous communities.

Just imagine the trauma of a family whose child was abducted without notice, without consent. The accounts of survivors who lived through such abductions make harrowing reading.  Being loaded onto buses, trucks and trains without the opportunity to say goodbye to their parents and family, many cried all the way and were taken many hundreds of miles from home. The arrival at a residential school was equally traumatic. They were stripped of their clothing, their hair cut and given a school uniform. Brothers were separated from sisters, older brothers from younger and older sisters from younger.  They entered a world dominated by fear, loneliness and lack of affection.  The trauma is still fresh in the minds of some who experienced the abduction of their siblings.

To operate such a heartless system, the settler society dehumanised the indigenous communities. Institutional racism based on the supremacy of ‘white Christian’ culture was the driving force behind the policy of ‘aggressive assimilation’ that Canada copied from the United States. It was made mandatory for native children between the ages of seven and 16 to attend residential schools.

A partnership between the Canadian government and Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches administered the system. The system opened around 1883 and grew to about 150 schools across Canada. The government’s partnership with the churches remained in place until 1969, and, although most of the schools had closed by the 1980s, the last federally supported residential schools remained in operation until the late 1990s.

An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced into the residential schools. A landmark class action by the survivors of the system against the federal government in 2008 resulted in a court settlement.  The Canadian government apologised to the former students, and agreed to pay 1.9 billion Canadian dollars (about $1.85 billion) to surviving students and establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the experiences of children who attended the schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up immediately. It was led by Justice Murray Sinclair, an Ojibwa who was the first aboriginal judge in the province of Manitoba. Members of the Commission spent six years travelling to all parts of Canada to research and gather evidence.  Seven national events were held across the country between 2010 and 2015, marking the culmination of a process which saw the TRC hold 238 days of local hearings in 77 communities across the country.

In all, the TRC collected 6,750 statements from survivors, their families, and others directly affected by the schools. In 2015 it published a six volume, 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. By all accounts, this is an immense achievement reproducing the erased history of the indigenous communities for the first time.

The Commission could establish that 3,201 students died of malnourishment, tuberculosis and other diseases caused by poor living conditions. Many students also died from accidents, fires and during attempts to escape. Justice Murray Sinclair argued that this number is likely higher, perhaps five to ten times higher

The poor record-keeping by the schools of the children on their register and poor burial records made it impossible to establish a more accurate picture. The schools were left unregulated. The lack of a proper dietary standard meant students were undernourished, which increased their vulnerability to infectious diseases. 

It was known that the comparative mortality rate for indigenous children in these schools ranged between twice as high and five times higher than non-indigenous schoolchildren. The rates of infectious disease grew due to lack of regulation barring ill students from being admitted to the schools or being in class or dormitories, as well as overcrowding.

Furthermore, students were expected to grow crops or raise animals to provide themselves with food, to make and repair much of their clothing and to maintain the school building and grounds. This meant that the schools operated a “half-day system” with half the day spent in classes and the other half on institutionalised repetitive child labour in the guise of vocational training.

The residential schools were woefully underfunded compared to the schools for non-indigenous communities.  They were inadequately staffed with many staff being paid poorly on the grounds that they were carrying out missionary duties. During any economic recession the schools faced a financial crisis as well as health crisis because of cuts.

Many survivors recalled how their heavily regimented daily lives lacked privacy and dignity. At many of the schools, students were addressed by a number rather than a name, as if they were prisoners. Corporal punishment was administered if they were caught speaking their language. Children were forced to convert to Christianity. Such was the alienation of students that there were episodes when students tried to burn down their schools. At least 33 students died after running away, mostly from exposure to cold and drowning.

There were widespread bullying and beating involving both staff members and older students. Some former students testified before the Commission that priests at the schools had fathered infants with indigenous students, that the babies had been taken away from their young mothers and killed, and that in some cases their bodies were thrown into furnaces.  The commission found that the government had in effect blocked criminal investigations of some sexual predators employed at the schools.

The objective of separating children from their families was to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to next. Thus aboriginal parents were completely alienated from their children on the grounds that they were unfit to look after them. Parental visits were strictly limited by placing schools hundreds of miles from home. Parents who travelled a long way and camped outside the schools were denied the opportunity to see their children. Many parents resisted by keeping their children out of these schools at risk to being punished because they saw those schools as dangerous and harsh institutions. Students were also subjected to forced enfranchisement as ‘assimilated’ citizens that removed their legal identity as Indians.

The legacy of the regimented residential schools has left a lasting impact on indigenous communities. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system were often unable to fit into their communities but remained subject to racism in mainstream Canadian society. It has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse and suicides which persist within indigenous communities today.  A disproportionate number of indigenous people are imprisoned in Canada. Indigenous children account for a much larger part of the child welfare system’s caseload than their share of the population.

The TRC came to the conclusion that for over a century, the central goals of Canada’s aboriginal policy can best be described as “cultural genocide”. Aboriginal lands were simply occupied or seized. Often, negotiated treaties were seemingly legal but marked by fraud or coercion. Populations were forcibly transferred from agriculturally valuable or resource-rich lands to remote and economically marginal reserves. Their movement was restricted through ‘pass laws’. Aboriginal languages were banned. Spiritual leaders were persecuted, spiritual practices were forbidden and objects of spiritual value were confiscated and destroyed.

The TRC’s call for action included an apology from Pope Francis for the role the Catholic Church played in the residential schools system.  But the pope has not apologised but only expressed “pain”. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime minister said that Canadians were “horrified and ashamed” of the policy of forced assimilation but stopped short of launching a national investigation on the deaths in residential schools.

The TRC set out an agenda for true reconciliation between the indigenous and other communities. The establishment of the of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation as an archival repository for all the material it collected laid the basis for the compilation of the complete history and legacy of the residential school system for future generations.

However five years after it issued its recommendations, the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation led research centre found that the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church have implemented only nine of 94 recommendations.

The government’s reconciliation agenda, which is still based on assimilation, is facing increasing opposition from native people due to Ottawa’s manifest failure to address the horrific social conditions faced by the majority of Canada’s indigenous people, both on and off reserve.

On 1st July when Canada was supposed to have a national celebration marking its 154 years of independence, the celebrations were muted because indigenous groups had called for the cancellation of the celebration after the discovery of the unmarked graves.

Apologies and reconciliation should not be allowed to deflect from thorough accountability. The most basic of questions about missing children — who died? why did they die? where are they buried? — have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government.

The Independent UN human rights experts called on the Canadian authorities and the Holy See of the Catholic Church to conduct prompt “full-fledged investigations”. They called on the authorities to probe “the circumstances and responsibilities surrounding these deaths, including forensic examinations of the remains found, and to proceed to the identification and registration of the missing children.”

Furthermore, “the judiciary should conduct criminal investigations into all suspicious death and allegations of torture and sexual violence against children, hosted in residential schools, and prosecute and sanction the perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive.”

For the last three centuries, vast swathes of the world fell under direct imperial rule accompanied by the most brutal violence against indigenous peoples by states which see themselves as democracies today. The barbarism of colonialism that has been buried needs to be exhumed and a comprehensive indictment against the colonial system fully assembled. There has to be justice and reparations for the survivors.­

Image: Canada. License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution Link: – link to – Original Author: Nick Youngson – link to – Original Image:

First published on the Labour Hub on 28th July 2021