The Easter Rising: Powerful and Useless

“The Bomb, Bhadralok, Bhagavad Gita, and Dan Breen: Terrorism in Bengal and Its Relation to the European Experience”

by Michael Silvestri
Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 21, No. 1 (January 2009)
Nurses in front of a shelled building in Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916
RTÉ Stills Library
Nurses in front of a shelled building in Dublin after the Easter Rising of 1916

On April 18, 1930, sixty-four militants from the Jugantar party in Bengal seized buildings in the eastern port city of Chittagong. They captured weapons at the police armory. They cut off telegraph communications and derailed a train. They controlled Chittagong for four days until they were routed with heavy casualties by reinforcements from the British army’s occupying forces. The survivors fled to the forests. The leader of the uprising, Surjya Sen, held out until 1933, when he was captured. He was hanged in 1934, becoming a martyr to the cause of Indian independence.

The Chittagong armory raid, as it is generally called, had some peculiar features. The rebels were not Christians but their attempted uprising was very self-consciously staged at Easter. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army: IRA for short. And they envisaged their action as an imaginative, rather than a merely military, intervention, aimed not just at the British authorities but at mainstream, nonviolent Indian nationalism. “They thought,” wrote one of the revolutionaries, “their short but heroic legend would be blazoned forth all over the land and inspire new generations to fight for the freedom of their motherland.” Chittagong’s Easter Rising was, in other words, not merely inspired by the one in Dublin fourteen years earlier. It was a direct attempt to emulate it. The mythology of the original Easter Rising had taken root in Bengal.

A revolutionary leaflet of 1929, “The Youths of Bengal,” urged Bengalis to emulate the martyrdom of the teacher and poet Patrick Pearse, who was court-martialed and executed by a firing squad in 1916. The pamphlet argued that “Pearse died and by so dying he roused in the heart of the nation an indomitable desire for armed revolution. Who will deny this truth?” The Indian Republican Army was modeled on the Irish Republican Army. My Fight for Irish Freedom, a racy memoir by Dan Breen, who renewed the IRA’s guerrilla war on the British administration in 1919, was translated into Hindi, Punjabi, and Tamil (and banned in all three languages as well as in English). The district magistrate in Chittagong called Breen’s account “a text book for the revolutionaries of India.”

In January 1921, the historian William Edward Dodd recorded a long conversation with his friend Woodrow Wilson, who was just about to leave the White House on the expiration of his second term as president. Dodd found Wilson “a broken man,” brooding and bitter. The cause of his depression was the rejection in the US of his great plan for international order after the catastrophe of World War I. The Senate had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and US participation in the League of Nations. And as…

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