Untold story of two teen age girls who avenged Bhagat Singh s hanging

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Anupama Nair

Our great Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Amrit Mahotsav or celebration of  India’s 75th year of Independence. We will be celebrating this event till 2022. I am going to write a feature on all those great men and women who fought against foreign invasion not just against the British. Today I am going to write about two unknown girls Shanti Ghosh and Sunita Chaudhary, who assassinated a British district magistrate when they were less than 16 years old to avenge the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukdev.

So let me tell you what happened to these three young brave hearts and then I will talk about the young girls. The promised Dawn did finally come after nearly 200 years of colonial rule. We lost millions of Bharat Ma’s sons and daughters starting from Siraj-ud-Daula (Battle of Plassey, 1757), to Mangal Pandey, Rani Laxmi Bai (1857) and finally Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev and lastly the man who said “Give me blood, I will give you freedom”—Netaji.

As Rousseau, during the French Revolution said “Man is born free yet he is in chains”, it was true for India. The desire to be free is the dream of every human, but during the Raj it was a rare commodity. For a century we were ruled by a Company called East India Company, who let loose a reign of terror. It was truly a black era. But the Revolt of 1857 ended the Company rule and India was ruled by the British Government. But the reign of terror did not end. All voice of freedom was suppressed.

In such an India was born a true son of Bharat Ma in 1907, in Lyallpur, Lahore (Pakistan). Even today he is the hero of entire Indian sub-continent. His parents were Kishan Singh and Vidyavati. His family had been active in Indian Independence movement for a long time. He was very moved by the visit to Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, where General Dyer shot innocent people. Lakhs lost their lives. In 1923 he joined National College, Lahore, where he met Sukhdev and both of them joined Hindustan Republican Association (HRA).

In 1928, the British government set up the Simon Commission to report on the political situation in India. It was opposed in India because there was not a single Indian in the Commission. Lala Lajpat Rai held a march in protest against it. Police attempts to disperse the large crowd resulted in violence. The superintendent of police, James A. Scott, ordered the police to lathi charge against the protesters and personally assaulted Rai, who was injured. Rai died in November 1928.

Bhagat was a prominent member of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) and was mainly responsible, for its change of name to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928. The HSRA vowed to avenge Rai's death. Singh conspired with revolutionaries like Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrashekhar Azad to kill Scott. However, in a case of mistaken identity, the plotters shot John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, as he was leaving the District Police Headquarters in Lahore on 17 December 1928. After killing Saunders, the group escaped to Calcutta with the help of an associate Durga Bhabhi.

Bhagat Singh's plan was to explode a bomb inside the Central Legislative Assembly. The intention was to protest against the Public Safety Bill, and the Trade Dispute Act, which had been rejected by the Assembly but were being enacted by the Viceroy Lord Irwin, using his special powers; the actual intention was for the perpetrators to allow themselves to be arrested so that they could use court appearances as a stage to publicize their cause for freedom. The trial began in the first week of June, following a preliminary hearing in May. On 12 June, both Bhagat Singh and Bhatukeshwar Dutt were sentenced to life imprisonment for: "causing explosions of a nature likely to endanger life, unlawfully and maliciously." After a re-trial of the Saunders Murder case, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were sentenced to Death by Hanging.

The entire country except the Congress under Gandhi revolted against the execution. Gandhi was greeted by black flags in Karachi. On 23rd March 1931, the British treacherously hung three young lives. Chandrashekhar Azad was also martyred but their sacrifices did not go in vain as Dawn of Freedom come on 15th August 1947 as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel and Veer Savarkar followed their ideas.

Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Chaudhary were like any other teenage girls – scared of darkness, and liking to play with their toys, but no one would imagine they would shoot a tyrannical British magistrate Charles Geoffrey Buckland Stevens, for avenging the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.

Shanti Ghosh was born on 22 November 1916 in Calcutta in British India. She was the daughter of Debendranath Ghosh, who was a nationalist and a professor of philosophy at Victoria College in Comilla now in Bangladesh. Suniti Chowdhury was born on 22 May 1917 in Comilla to Umacharan Choudhury and Surasundari Choudhury.

Ghosh was the founding member of the Chhatri Sangha and served as its secretary. Ghosh was inspired by Profulla Nandini Brahma, a student at Faizunnesa Girls' School in Comilla, and then joined the Jugantar Party, which was a militant revolutionary organization that “used murder as a political technique to dislodge British colonial rule”. She was trained in self-defense. Chowdhury was influenced by the revolutionary activities of Ullaskar Dutta, who also lived in Comilla. She was also recruited to the Jugantar Party by Profulla. During this time, she was known by the codename of ‘Meera Devi’. She was selected as the ‘custodian of firearms’ and was in charge of training female members of the Chhatri Sangha in lathi, and sword and other methods of fighting.

That was the time of the Civil Disobedience Movement in the country. Prafulla, their mentor had supplied them with books mainly the revolutionary books that was banned by the British. They believed, “life is a sacrifice for the Motherland” which were the words of Swami Vivekananda the monk who changed the perception of the West towards India.

Suniti became the Major of the District Volunteer Corps and led the parade of girls when Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was in town to address the student organization. Profulla asked Bose about his thoughts on the role of women in the revolutionary movement. Bose replied, “I’d be happy to see you in the front row.” On being requested by Shanti Ghosh to give his autograph, Subhash Chandra Bose wrote, “to preserve your, honor, take up arms yourselves, ye mothers”. Needless to say these words inspired the girls to fight for their Motherland.

Meanwhile, Chhatri Sangha, the female wing of the organization, affiliated to ‘Yugantar’ was training young girls, and the smartest and bravest of the trainees passed on information, papers, arms, ammunition, and money, to the revolutionaries. However, Prafulla, Shanti Ghosh, and Suniti Choudhury demanded more responsibilities and wanted to be treated equally to men! When some of the senior leaders expressed their doubts about little girls being handled responsibility, Suniti stated, “what good is our current dagger-and-stick play, if we shy away from real action”?. These were emotional outbursts of her young heart.

They stopped going to school, sneaked out to the Maynamati Hills away from the dense town, and fired practice shots.

“The key challenge was not to shoot targets but to manage the back kick of the revolver”. At first Suniti’s index finger did not reach the trigger properly, but she was not ready to give up. She used her long middle finger to fire her lethal shots from a small revolver made in Belgium.

Who was their target? Their target was the District Magistrate Charles Geoffrey Buckland Stevens, “a man who would stop at nothing to destroy the struggle for Independence. He threw all the leaders into prison, and harassed every Indian who raised a voice”. They decided to assassinate him to avenge the brutal hanging of the nation’s heroes – Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev. Stevens was born in December 1880, originally belonged to London and he arrived in India in1914. He joined as District Magistrate and Collector of Tiepera which was the district of Comilla, on 6th March 1930. 

The girls sent an interview slip through the orderly, and the Magistrate came out, along with Sub-divisional Officer (SDO) Nepal Sen. Stevens glanced at the letter passed to him. The girls, with aliases Illa Sen, and Meera Devi appealed to the Magistrate for a swimming club. “The use of a much-flattering ‘your Majesty’ and some otherwise incorrect English left no doubt about their sincerity. Illa also identified herself as being the daughter of a police officer to win over the ‘majesty’s’ sympathy”.

The girl requested Stevens to sign the letter as a reference. He went to his chamber and soon returned with the signed paper. That was his last move before the shots rang through the house. “The notorious magistrate’s last sight was the two girls, now without the silk wrapper, pointing two revolvers straight at his heart”.

The girls were taken into custody and imprisoned in a local British jail. In spite of all the difficulties, Choudhury and Ghosh never lost their calm and cheerfulness throughout their trial days in prison and in court. “They expected to die martyr’s death”. However, when in Ghosh and Choudhury appeared in court in Calcutta, both of them were sentenced to imprisonment for ten years as they were minors. They were not happy with the judgment and they stated, it is better to die than live in a horse’s stable.” Suniti was held captive in Hijli Detention Camp as a ‘third class prisoner’.

Due to Suniti’s actions, her family had to suffer. Her father’s government pension was stopped, and her two elder brothers were held in custody without trial. Her younger brother died from ‘consumption, exacerbated by years of malnutrition. Both the young girls were released in 1939, after having served seven years of her sentence, because of the amnesty negotiations between M.K Gandhi and the British government.

Contemporary Western periodicals characterized the assassination of Stevens as a sign of “Indians’ outrage against an ordinance by the Earl of Wellingdon (Viceroy of India from 1931 to 1936) that suppressed the Civil Rights of Indians, including that of free speech.” Indian sources portrayed the assassination as the “misbehavior of the British district magistrates” who had abused their positions of power to treat Indians fairly. What ever be the comments these teenagers raised their voice against injustice.

What brave girls!. True daughters of Bharat Ma

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