Insurgency then and now: British India’s rebels and Israel’s Hamas

In the same way that the British cited terrorism as the reason why India was not ready for self-rule, so do the Israelis and their Western benefactors in denying freedom to Palestinians.
Published January 9, 2024

Videos released by Hamas’s media team towards the end of November and broadcast on Al-Jazeera showed the militant group releasing Israeli hostages captured on October 7. The videos also showed Hamas fighters behaving with unexpected kindness while doing so — they hugged and gave dap handshakes to elderly ladies, cared for puppies, held hands with children, exchanged terms of endearment with their captives in Hebrew, and made sure everyone had bottles of water.

The scenes looked like family farewells, but surreal, with the fighters saying goodbye from behind balaclavas and slinging kalashnikovs. Watching Hamas’s etiquette and decorum, I was reminded of a phrase gleaned from the archives by the historian Durba Ghoshgentlemanly terrorists.

The words do not normally go together. The amalgam was coined in the context of British rule in India — a juxtaposing of the Bengali bhadrolok, roughly meaning “gentleman,” with “terrorists,” that which the Empire thought many of these gentlemen to be.

The gentlemanly terrorists are not considered terrorists in Bengal. In Bengal, once the cradle of the armed anti-colonial struggle in British India, they are simply biplobi [revolutionaries]. Their names adorn major intersections and railway stations, they are taught in schools as national heroes, and their biographies are the subject of television programmes.

Elsewhere, they are a largely forgotten chapter of the Independence story. It was because of their constant agitation, however, that the British moved the imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 — a move that established a symbolic genealogy with Indian kingship (Delhi having been the Mughal seat of power), but also acquiesced that Bengal had become ungovernable.

In a way, Bengal was Britain’s Gaza.

Khudiram Bose — the boy revolutionary

Khudiram Bose was one of the most prominent of the gentlemanly terrorists. He was 18 years old when, in 1908, he attempted, along with his accomplice, Prafulla Chaki, to assassinate the Chief Presidency Magistrate of Calcutta in his carriage.

The operation was botched, and they instead killed two British women by bombing the wrong carriage. Prafulla took his own life while on the run, and Khudiram was arrested, tried in a show trial, and hung a few months later. Newspaper reports from the era state that he was “cheerful and smiling” both in court while receiving the verdict, and when his executioners drew the cap over his head.

Khudiram’s story does not end there. Alarmed that the assassination attempt was part of a larger insurgency, the British cracked down on other potential ‘terrorists’, including luminaries of the Independence movement like the brothers, Aurobindo and Barin Ghosh. The gentlemen were rounded up in Alipore Jail in Calcutta in 1909 and 36 were convicted. The event became known as the Alipore Bomb Case. The Ghosh brothers were both sentenced to death, although Aurobindo was subsequently acquitted and Barin later managed to escape from prison.

Others who publicly supported Khudiram were arrested for sedition, like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was jailed for six years on exactly this charge — a trial in which he was defended, albeit unsuccessfully, by a young Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Khudiram, thus, spooked the British in a way that arguably nobody had since the 1857 mutiny.

Khudiram had a kind of afterlife in the early 1940s. An anonymous Bengali artist illustrated Khudiram’s execution scene in the style of popular calendar art, depicting him childlike and in bright colours, smiling, and with a noose around his neck. The circulation of the image helped close the discursive gap between disparate acts of revolutionary violence across historical time and a cohesive revolutionary ethos that was an important component (among others) of the Independence movement.

It was, in a sense, what in Palestine would be a mulasaq shaheed [martyr poster], in which a political martyr is commemorated via easily reproducible print media.

But one individual who was unimpressed was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Gandhi denounced the assassination attempt against the magistrate, concurring with the British that revolutionary terrorism would only procrastinate the arrival of self-rule in the subcontinent: “The Indian people will not win their freedom through these methods.”

Gandhi’s steadfast commitment to nonviolence does not require an elaboration, but it does perhaps require a deconstruction. Recent studies of Gandhi have argued that even more than Gandhi’s long-term experimentation with ways to overcome the Empire — and, perhaps, imperialism generally — a more intimate and equally long-term enemy was the Indian armed resistance.

Hind Swaraj, Gandhi’s first major treatise, was published in 1909, during the fallout from the Khudiram event, and was written as a fictional dialogue between a naïve revolutionary and a sage-like Gandhi who imparts the apparent superiority of his nonviolent method.

There are two points to be made here. First, Gandhian nonviolence, based on the Sanskrit theological concept of ahimsa [non-injury] already precludes violence in so much as it is a negative definition that draws its essence from what it is not — there is no nonviolence without violence.

The second point is that although Gandhi trivialised the revolutionaries and, later, actively sabotaged large-scale military efforts to combat British rule, he held the highest esteem for those who had “the courage to die.” Possibly, he saw martyrdom as the logical maximal conclusion for the self-sacrifice and suffering that was the basis of his satyagraha [nonviolent resistance]. Regardless, it is precisely because of his hostility to local armed resistance that Gandhi never enjoyed the same reverence in Bengal that he did in other parts of India. Indeed, in certain circles even in contemporary Bengali society, Gandhi is not the Mahatama.

The Chittagong uprising

Another of the gentlemanly terrorists was Surya Sen, a schoolteacher from Chittagong in what is now Bangladesh. Inspired by the Irish republicans, he masterminded an uprising in 1930 designed to take control of two armouries, cut off communication lines between Chittagong and Calcutta, and take hostages from a colonial bungalow and social club.

Except for the miscalculation of having raided the club on a holiday — Good Friday, when there were no hostages to take — things went mostly as planned. Having taken control of the armouries, the insurrectionists proclaimed the inauguration of a Provisional Revolutionary Government.

The British caught up with them a few days later, and a shoot-out ensued in which 12 of Sen’s insurrectionists and 80 British soldiers were killed. Sen was able to flee and go into hiding, until the manhunt caught up with him after three years.

Legend has it that part of the excruciating torture inflicted on Sen in prison included smashing his teeth with a hammer. When he was hung in 1934, it is said that his tortured body was already practically dead, and that he could barely stand on his feet for his own execution. Perhaps because of the spectacular nature of the Chittagong uprising, Sen’s story is better known than those of the other gentlemanly terrorists. He has been the subject of various cinematic portrayals, including the 2010 film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, starring Bollywood scion Abhishek Bachchan — one of the biggest box office disasters in Indian cinema history.

Scale aside, the parallels between Sen’s Chittagong armoury raid and Hamas’s uprising on October 7 are striking — both took control of military installations, cut off communication channels, sequestered hostages (or at least tried to), and killed many on the enemy lines. But the parallels do not end there.

In the same way that the hearts of Bengalis burst with pride when recalling our era of armed resistance, so do the hearts of Palestinians in their own revolutionary context. Also, in the same way that the British cited terrorism as the reason why India was not ready for self-rule, so do the Israelis and their Western benefactors in denying freedom to Palestinians.

Anti-colonialism and its perils

Colonialism and anti-colonialism work in sets of patterns, sometimes mismatches, and often comparable narrative arcs. One might easily find comparable situations in Algeria, South Africa, and across the darker continents that constituted the colonised world. Because British India was an exploitation colony and not a settler colony — meaning that its raison d’être was Britain’s monopoly over resources and not any kind of large-scale settlement project looking to replace Indians with Britons — perhaps some of the other colonies make even more compelling cases for comparisons.

But a latent pedagogy from a possible blood bond between the experiences of colonialism in Palestine and the subcontinent, however they might diverge or meet, is one that has not often been explored. The exception here is Kashmir, where the haemorrhage of Partition bled into further tragedies — those in which Kashmiris have long seen their own experience reflected in Palestine.

Not limiting themselves to “terrorists”, the British used a plethora of choice terms to describe the revolutionaries — fanatics, dacoits, thuggees, goondas, anarchists and bomb worshippers. Of this lexicon of slurs, the only one with any grounding in reality is anarchist, as some of the revolutionaries did indeed have personal ties to anarchist thinkers and philosophers in Europe, like Emma Goldman.

The British also widely speculated that the Bengali affinity towards bombs was cultish, and deeply rooted in Hindu religion, particularly the worship of Kali — the black goddess of death and rebirth. Consider here how it is Islam, rather than nation or the human spirit, that is often cited as the ideological basis for Palestinian resistance — that Hamas, in spite of everything, do not have any legitimate cause against Israel other than the stories of Bani Israel’s treacheries as revealed in the Holy Quran, or that the militant’s fearlessness before death is not driven by love of the homeland but by a libido for houris in heaven.

Freedom fighters, not terrorists

Khudiram Bose and Surya Sen — and, in Punjab, Baghat Singh and others — are part of the fibres of the protracted and multifaceted processes of Independence. Their contributions to this accomplishment is in no way minor to those brought about by the political work of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Ambedkar, and the other usual suspects.

In Palestine, there is a similar pantheon of names that coexist in spite of political and ideological divides — Yasser Arafat, of course, but also leftists like Abu Ali Mustafa, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi — the Islamist founders of Hamas —and dozens more. All were assassinated by Israel.

When Israel released Palestinian prisoners during the temporary truce with Hamas last month, jubilant crowds in Ramallah flew green Hamas flags alongside those of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — flags that denote distinct but interconnected movements that are integral to Palestinian society. It is because of such ecumenism that Israel’s psychotic war campaign in Gaza is not against Hamas but against all Palestinians.

It is only sensible, however, that Hamas — the only major Palestinian faction to have “resistance” enshrined in its name — is also the only one to have been born and taken shape in Gaza — always the most rebellious and ungovernable of the Palestinian enclaves. The first intifada began in Gaza in 1987. It was also in Gaza, in 2005, that the second intifada ended, when Israel was no longer able to provide security for its 9,000 settlers living there. The dismantling of 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza was a victory not only for Hamas but for the Palestinian people.

As is always the case for those who are militarily weaker but spiritually mightier, this victory came at an enormous cost — over 3,000 Palestinian lives lost, thousands more jailed, homes demolished, economic hardship, and the aggressive growth of Israel’s security infrastructure — to name only the material losses.

Whether it is the experience of the two intifadas, or the presently unfolding tunnel-guerrilla warfare with the Israeli military in Gaza — even under conditions of earth-shattering bombing; against all odds — Palestinians have shown the world again and again that they are willing to lose everything for their cause. The same cannot be said of their colonial masters. Were this to be otherwise, there might be new conditions for moral equivalency.

Politics, in many ways, is about subjective identification. I mean this in the Freudian sense — identification as a libidinal investment in a cause, idea, person, or public. It is perfectly admissible from the perspective of Western interests that Hamas, the vanguard of Palestinian armed resistance, at least in recent decades, are “terrorists.” Nobody expects this to be otherwise. It is because of this that I, unlike Gandhi, do not see the universal value in appealing to the moral compass of one’s enemy. Some enemies, especially those backed by colossal structures of power and capital, do not have a moral compass.

Back to Khudiram. Who would have thought that an 18-year-old “gentleman” would shake things up as much as he did? There was armed resistance in Bengal before him, but, perhaps because of the exaggerated British reaction to his case, after him, something changed.

In 1910, two years after his execution, it was estimated that 6,000 Bengalis were involved in resistance cells. In 1912, Bengali revolutionaries attempted to assassinate Viceroy Lord Hardinge in Delhi, narrowly missing, but leaving him wounded. In 1915 alone, there were 49 cases of terrorism in Bengal, including 10 assassinations. These days, we would probably call it an intifada.

Here there is another connection to be made. In present-day Kolkata — formerly Calcutta — there is a metro station in the Garia neighbourhood named after Khudiram, called ‘Shaheed Khudiram’.

This is another of Khudiram’s afterlives. In addition to being a gentleman, a terrorist, and a revolutionary, Khudiram is also a shaheed — and, in this, he is a node in a symbolic universe that narrows the distance between Palestine and Bengal, via Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and — to borrow from the great Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali — from our witnesses to our beloveds who sacrifice their lives not in vain.