Tag Archives: India

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.

Sources

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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/7458313334. Licence: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

First published in Labour Hub on 27 January 1923 https://labourhub.org.uk/2023/01/27/marking-the-centenary-of-the-salanga-massacre/