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The Laughter And The Tears Simon Go Back: 75 Years On By Anil Nauriya Routine scholarship sometimes fails to capture

the thrill of critical moments. The Simon Go Back agitation of 1928 is a case in point. It was the first all-India struggle after the non-cooperation movement of the early twenties. In November 1927 the British appointed the Indian Statutory Commission, headed by John Simon. Britain had been unwilling to make a commitment on Indias Constitutional advance. The people had had enough and were irked by the Commission, its exclusively British composition and the manner of its appointment. The Commission was to inquire into the working of the system of Government, the growth of education and the development of representative institutions and matters connected therewith . The terms of reference were provocative: it was to report on whether and to what extent it is desirable to establish the principle of Responsible Government or to extend , modify or restrict the degree of Responsible Government. The move fell far short of the Congress demand for a Round Table Conference or a Convention Parliament. A few days before the Commission was publicly announced, the Viceroy called Gandhi and other political leaders for a meeting. Gandhi was in Mangalore and came up a thousand miles north for the purpose. On seeing the paper which the Viceroy handed over, Gandhi asked why it had simply not been placed in a one-anna envelope and posted to him. The report in The Hindu of November 9, 1927 suggested that Gandhi gave an indication to the Viceroy that such a Commission could be met with a boycott. On November 10, the Congress President , Srinivas Iyengar, declared: we cannot be parties to an enquiry into our fitness for Swaraj or for any measure of responsible government. A womens meeting in Bombay, presided over by Sarojini Naidu, in early December 1927 also called for a boycott. The Congress and most other political parties resolved to oppose the Statutory Commission. At its Madras session later the same month the Congress passed a resolution calling for a boycott. The Commission toured India precisely 75 years ago, from February 1928 to April 1929. In January 1928, a committee headed by the new President of the Congress, Dr M.A. Ansari, and including, among others, the famous Dalit leader and freedom fighter, Chaudhuri Behari Lal, called for a hartal. The Commission landed in Bombay on February 3. The Bombay Chronicle on that day carried Mahatma Gandhis one line statement saying that the boycott should be peaceful and show the nations strength of purpose. The Simon Go Back slogan which rang out throughout India was coined by the Bombay-based Yusuf Meherally, then a young man who was later to be known to history as a leading Congress Socialist. Yusuf Meherallys birth centenary also happens to fall this year (2003). As Bombay, the Gateway to India, greeted the Commission with Meherallys slogan, the same words were echoed by the rest of the country.

Meherally himself was arrested in Bombay, placed inside a drum and rolled for a long distance on the road. Later he described it wryly as a moving experience. On the day the Commission arrived in Bombay there was a near complete hartal almost everywhere in the country. In the eastern state of Assam not only Gauhati, Dhubri and Goalpara but even the farthest towns like Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Sylhet and Karimganj were affected. In Bombay, even some of those knighted by the British declined to meet it, so extensive was the boycott. Jinnah, who backed boycott because the Commission comprised only Indians, told the (Central) Legislative Assembly that barring a few jo-hukumists and flunkeys the country was for boycott. However, there were some important exceptions. Dr Ambedkar, for example, did give evidence before the Commission. As in Iraq in 2003, where many expenses of the occupying forces are being charged to Iraqs national budget, so in 1928 the expenses of the Simon Commission were to be charged to the Indian account. In the Legislature Motilal Nehru moved a cut motion for Rs 3,40,000, that being the cost of the Commission. He argued that the (British) Parliament must nurture its own child and not foist its cost on India. Motilal Nehrus motion was passed by 66 votes to 59. The journalist , M. Chalapathi Rau, wrote of the agitation : In its completeness, the boycott brought together all communities as they had not been brought together since the Khilafat days. This agitation touched the masses and people gave free play to their sense of fun: A kite with the Go Back slogan descended when members of the Commission were having tea at a party thrown by some Talukdars in the Lucknow Baradari maidan. The kite swooped down low enough to be read but went up again and could not be traced by the police. Word did spread that it was flown from the house of Chaudhury Khaliqquzamman , which was close to Kaiser Bagh. According to some versions, possibly apocryphal, the kite actually touched the plate of Simon or that of another member of the commission, Major Attlee. The latter subsequently became Britains Prime Minister and held that position at the time of Indias independence in 1947. In the nineteen thirties the kite used to be a prized possession of the UP Pradesh Congress Committee. In Banaras officialdom decided that the Commissioners should have a ride up the Ganges in the Mor-Pankhi, the personal barge of the Maharaja of Banaras. The idea was to give the Commissioners a view of the Ghats. The protestors got wind of it. Sampurnanand tells us that a motor-boat was requisitioned. With the Go Back slogans prominently displayed, it kept pace with the barge, taking a parallel course between it and the Ghats. In Patna tenants whom the government had imported from the neighbourhood to welcome the Commission walked into the boycott camp, and not the welcome camp.

And there were the tears. Lucknow, as Pattabhi Sitaramayya put it, had been converted into an armed camp. The black flag procession in Lucknow was led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant. The Mounted Police resorted to a brutal lathi charge. Nehru and Pant were specially targeted. Nehru was mercilessly beaten up. This show of force did not help the Raj. Photographs showing injuries on Jawaharlal Nehrus back were later published by many newspapers. In Lahore the black flag procession on October 30 was led by Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Lajpat Rai was beaten severely on the chest and died soon after on November 17, 1928. Sardar Mangal Singh, Dr Muhammad Alam, Dr Satyapal, Raizada Hansraj and Abdul Qadir Kasuri were also in the procession. Many of them, particularly Raizada Hansraj, were also beaten up by the police. Gandhi described as fraudulent the police version of the incident in which Lajpat Rai was targeted. Jawaharlal Nehru moved a resolution at the AICC meeting in Calcutta for a stiffer boycott. As is well known, this incident also galvanised Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Students and police were in conflict in almost every major city, including Calcutta and Delhi. In the South too youth were ever active. A boycott committee had been formed with the 20-year old Davood Ali Mirza of Madras as chairman. The police resorted to firing near the High Court. One person died on the spot, two died later and several were injured. Although the Commission was widely boycotted, its arrival spurred Constitution-making. The Motilal Nehru Committee on the Principles of the Constitution of India also came to be appointed in May 1928. Sardar Mangal Singh, who was later arrested in the 1930 civil disobedience movement, was among the 8 members of the Nehru Committeethe only one from Punjab. He was also the Nehru Committees longest surviving member , remaining with us till 1987. Among the other Nehru Committee members were Ali Imam, Tej Bahadur Sapru and Subhas Bose. A Supplementary Report was also produced by an enlarged Nehru Committee. Saifuddin Kitchlew was among those consulted. The enlarged committee had a second member from Punjab Abdul Qadir Kasuri, whose grandson is, at the time of writing, in 2003, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Like Mangal Singh, Kasuri courted arrest in the civil disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s. Much respected, and known especially for his sobriety and consistency, Kasuri was President of the Punjab Congress for many years. Among Punjabs Muslim leaders, Kasuri was considered personally and politically the closest to Maulana Azad. However, he passed away before independence. Both Mangal Singh and Kasuri have been rather neglected by historians. Given the many stories and much material on the anti-Simon Commission agitation, it is surprising there is so little historical work done on it. Some books on political prisoners, and dealing with this period, dont even mention these agitations !

Why so? It is when a nation loses a sense of its composite history that the space is created for alternative sectarian narratives.