By Joseph McQuade
On Good Friday, 1930, a group of revolutionaries seized the armouries of the police department and the auxiliary forces in Chittagong, Bengal. Led by Surya Sen, a prominent Bengali freedom fighter, the revolutionaries referred to themselves as the Indian Republican Army, or IRA. The timing of the raid and the name adopted by the revolutionaries in carrying it out were not coincidental, but rather a deliberate attempt to emulate the Easter Rising that had occurred in Ireland in 1916. As one of the Chittagong raiders later wrote in recalling the incident, ‘The blood-stained memory of the Easter Revolution of the IRA touched our young minds with fiery enthusiasm!’[i] After capturing the armouries and cutting telephone and telegraph wires, the raiders retreated into the hill country surrounding Chittagong. There, they waged an ongoing insurgency against the British colonial government before the majority were surrounded by imperial troops on the 22nd of April.
In order to understand the dissemination of the Easter Rising as a source of inspiration to Indian revolutionaries, it is necessary to understand the global imperial context of Ireland’s 1916 uprising. With the outbreak of the First World War in August of 1914, Germany adopted a policy of Revolutionierungspolitik, in which German spies and officials sought to undermine the war effort of their enemies by attempting to foment local uprisings and revolutions in places such as Ireland, India, the Middle East, and – most famously – Russia. Just as German agents had attempted to aid Irish nationalist Roger Casement in smuggling a large shipment of arms into Ireland ahead of the rising, similar attempts had been made to ship arms and ammunition into India the previous year.
In March of 1915, Indian revolutionaries in America in cooperation with German agents acquired two ships, the Annie Larsen and the Maverick, with the intention of transporting some 30,000 rifles and revolvers to the island of Java in the neutral Dutch East Indies, where they would be sent on to Calcutta on a number of small fishing boats in time for a large scale uprising on Christmas Day. This was to coincide with a second uprising in Burma, at the time still a part of British India, which would be instigated using weapons brought in from neighbouring Thailand. The final element to this bold plot would be a raid on the infamous Andaman Islands, where the numerous veteran revolutionaries being detained would be liberated to join the uprising against the Government of India.
Despite its ambitions, this plot fell apart due to a combination of the extensive scope of British intelligence operations in North America and Southeast Asia, as well as poor coordination on the part of both the Indian conspirators and their German accomplices. Despite waiting for a month at the agreed meeting point, the schooner Annie Larsen was unable to meet up with the larger ocean-going Maverick in time to transfer the firearms which had been loaded into the Annie Larsen‘s cargo hold. Unable to find the Annie Larsen and the promised shipment of arms, the Maverick sailed across the Pacific only to arrive empty-handed in the Dutch East Indies. At the same time, some 5,000 rifles and 500 revolvers intended for the Burmese portion of the uprising had been loaded on board the Henry S. in the Philippines, to be shipped across the South China Sea to a remote area of neutral Thailand. The discovery of a German spy in Singapore by British intelligence services resulted in the full details of the plot becoming known to imperial officials, and the confiscation of the cargo of the Henry S. by cooperative Dutch authorities.
In understanding the divergent routes of anti-colonial politics in Ireland and India, the events of 1915 to 1916 represent a key moment of historical disjuncture. In occupying Dublin for six days, the Easter Rising had severely challenged British sovereignty by exposing the limits of its monopoly on violence. The events of Easter week indicated that British power was not without limits and could be challenged by determined rebels. More importantly, the rising necessitated a public response on the part of British authorities, who had to retake Dublin by force, thus bringing the raw violence of the imperial regime to public attention. This resulted in a particular relationship between violence and politics within the Irish context that fueled a cycle of rebellion and reprisal that would continue throughout the Anglo-Irish war, with an increasingly damaging impact on British claims of legitimacy. By contrast, the Christmas Day plot was pre-empted by colonial intelligence services, who were able to deploy a more extensive and effective apparatus of surveillance and censorship against the revolutionaries stopping the planned arms shipments long before they even reached India. In both of these cases then, revolutionary violence was met by a colonial violence that was more subtle and easier to hide from public attention.
This is important for understanding why Indian revolutionaries in the interwar period looked to the Easter Rising as a model of anti-colonial insurgency. This interest in the Easter Rising was not limited to the Chittagong raid of 1930, but was rather a consistent feature of ongoing attempts to legitimize revolutionary politics in India. Dan Breen’s book, My Fight for Irish Freedom, was widely read by revolutionaries in Bengal, being prohibited under censorship laws that referred to it as a ‘terrorist textbook.’[ii] Revolutionaries such as Taraknath Das sought to establish close links with Ireland, viewing it as a successful model for how an armed insurrection against British rule could be fought. Forging close contacts with important Irish figures such as Eamon DeValera, Das tried to encourage the Indian National Congress to formally declare Indian Independence, ‘as the martyrs of Easter week did in Ireland.’[iii] Although the non-violent methods of Mohandas Gandhi would come to dominate anti-colonial politics in India, revolutionary traditions continued through the 1930s as Indians discontented with the lack of progress made by Congress continued to look to Ireland for inspiration regarding an alternative path to freedom.
Rather than understanding the Easter Rising as a key moment in only the national history of Ireland, situating it within the context of a global insurrection against empire can provide wider perspective for the impact of this uprising in world history. India did not follow the path of violent revolution. Independence was obtained in 1947 through Gandhian methods, although with the attendant violence of a bloody partition. But the role of violence in Indian politics is nonetheless critically important to understanding how Indian nationalists deployed ideas of non-violence and legitimacy. Aside from the ways in which it was explicitly invoked and emulated by Indian revolutionaries in the 1920s and 1930s, understanding the Easter Rising as a moment of historical disjuncture provides insight into the roles of violence and non-violence in nationalist politics, and creates an important starting point for better understanding the global history of decolonisation.
Joseph McQuade is a PhD candidate and Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge. His research examines revolutionary violence in early twentieth century India in a global context.
[i] Michael Silvestri, Ireland and India: Nationalism, Empire and Memory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 63.
[ii] Report by R.E.A. Ray, Special Superintendent IB, CID, 1 Jan to 30 June 1927. Terrorism in Bengal: A collection of documents on terrorist activities from 1905-1939 (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal, 1995), p. 603.
[iii] File on Tarak Nath Das. IOR: L/P&J/12/166, p. 4