Damodar Hari Chapekar, Balkrishna Hari Chapekar and Vasudev Hari Chapekar, collectively addressed as the Chapekar brothers, assassinated Charles Rand in June 1897. This was a significant event in the history of Indian freedom struggle, as it lent credence to the act of revolutionary violence that was to be a thorn in the side of the British for over three decades.
Plague and British excesses
The 1890s, it must be noted, were a period of cultural rejuvenation across Maharashtra. Bal Gangadhar Tilak had ushered in this consciousness by spearheading the Ganpati festival celebations and the Shivaji Utsav. However, all these festivities drew to a grinding halt towards the end of 1896, when Maharashtra grappled with an unprecedented scourge of plague. Bombay and Poona were hotbeds for the disease, as hundreds of people died with scant medical attention.
The British colonial government, in a spot after this outbreak, arrogated to itself extraordinary powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. The first step to curtail the spread was to 'segregate' and while the term might seem innocuous, the approach was absolutely ruthless. Poona in particular suffered massively because of these excesses. WC Rand was posted in Poona to carry out these reprehensible operations. Officials barged into homes, violating both men and women, and arbitrarily segregated people. Streets were blockaded and patients were stuffed into hospitals with an acute deficit of medical staff. Sexual violation of women in particular was appalling. Later, Rand made a concession for women with 'purdah', implying that this rule didn't apply to Muslim women. Thus, in spite of the situation being grim, the British indulged in oppressive activities, and on their policy of Divide Et Impera.
Nationalists across Maharashtra were aghast at this situation. Tilak of course admonished the government, but equally castigated the citizens of Poona and other regions who in his view were not raising their voice against such oppression. The Poona Press also incited the common people to seek revenge for their compatriots. On 22 June, 1897, while returning from the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Empress Victoria, Charles Rand was assassinated. This was a seminal moment in the Indian struggle for freedom, and it is worthwhile looking back at the revolutionaries behind this action.
Ideology and activities
The Chapekar brothers: Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev were Chitpawan Brahmins. Their father, Hari Bhau was a kirtankar (singer of devotional songs), and they had migrated to Poona in 1885. Their community of Chitpawans was at the centre of the cultural revivalism that had hooked on Maharashtra in the late 19th century. The eldest of them, Damodar Chapekar had a lot of influence on his brothers, and he nurtured a strong hatred for the British and the English language. His definition of nationalism had decisively cultural and religious undertones.
"When the English assumed the administration of India, they thought it necessary to extinguish the spirit of the Hindus by making them addicted to the vice of education."
- Damodar Chapekar
Damodar was fond of athletics and had also undergone military training for the army. However, he was not selected in the army and this only heightened his angst against the British. He arrived at the conclusion that revolution was the only method to oust the British, and in that spirit form the Rashtra Hitechu Madali, which consisted of a group of around hundred boys devoted to armed revolution. They collected arms and often entered the territory of the Nizam of Hyderabad to carry out such procurement. They also reportedly smeared and disfigured the Queen Victoria Statue in Bombay. Thus, their activities were clearly radical in outlook, but in June 1897, they accomplished the ultimate act of assassination.[ref]
The Plot and Assassination
The plague and the excesses meted out by the administration headed by Charles Rand made his heart boil. Along with his brothers and Mahadev Vinayak Ranade, they designed a very systematic plan to get rid of Rand. It must be noted that such an explicit act of revolution against a senior official had never been witnessed in India, and what the brothers had embarked to accomplish was eminently novel. Wasudev Chapekar tracked Rand's movements, while Damodar got in touch with his coachman. They chose the Jubilee Day celebrations to carry out their act, and waited patiently for an opportune moment.
That evening, Charles Rand’s convoy reached the palatial Government House in Ganeshkind Road at around 7.30 pm. Initially, they had planned to carry out their action upon his arrival, but with a lot of people in and around Rand, they waited further. The grand event got over by 11.30 pm, and as Rand’s convoy headed back, the Chapekar brothers latched on to their opportunity.
Balkrishna had stationed himself a little down the road, and as soon as he recognized Rand’s carriage, and yelled out ‘Narya, Narya’. Within seconds of that exclamation Damodar leapt onto the footboard of the carriage, removed the parda with his left hand, and rained bullets on Rand from up close. Rand succumbed to his injuries on 3 July 1897.
Right behind Rand’s carriage was the carriage of Rand's lieutenant M. Eyherst, and he was in a drunken state. His wife tried to warn him, but was unsuccessful. Within a few moments, a youngster hurled bullets at Eyeherst, and he too collapsed. This youngster was Balkrishna Chapekar.
Betrayal, Conviction, Martyrdom
Intelligence department head M. Bruin was given the task of investigating the murder of the two British officers. None of their attempts at identifying the culprits materialized, and so after two months, they announced an award of Rs 20,000 for anyone who could locate them. Ramchandra Dravid and Ganesh Shankar gave in to their desires and furnished the details to the officials.
Thus, they themselves informed M. Bruin that the murder may have been carried out by the Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar. Damodar was subsequently arrested on 9 August 1897, while Bal Krishna Chapekar somehow escaped the tentacles of the police for a few more months.
Despite possessing no solid evidence against him, Damodar Hari Chapekar faced the gallows on 18th April, 1898. Next in line was Balkrishna Chapekar, and the police used all kinds of tactics to get hold of him. Family and friends were constantly being threatened, and Balkrishna was forced to come out of his hiding. He confessed to his crimes in February 1898, and faced the gallows on 12 May 1898.
Having seen their friends make the ultimate sacrifice, the allies of the Chapekar brothers decided to teach a lesson to the traitorous duo of Ramchandra Dravid and Ganesh Dravid. Mahadev Vinayak Ranade and Vasudev Chapekar together gunned down the Dravid brothers. In spite of Ramchandra being ferried to the hospital, his life too couldn’t be saved. Thus, the greed for twenty thousand rupees resulted in a painful death for the Dravid brothers.
In a logical culmination of this revolutionary saga, Vasudev Chapekar and Mahadev Ranade were made to testify in court on murder charges, and were punished with execution. Vasudev Chapekar and Ranade were hung on 8 May and 10 May 1898 respectively.[ref]
Bhagini Nivedita's Testimony
A few days after their execution, Swami Vivekananda’s disciple Bhagini Nivedita went to the Chapekar household to offer her condolences. She was stunned to witness the disposition of their mother. Contrary to what had been expected, she didn’t show a sign of grief. Calm and absolutely unmoved by the tragedy, her chest swelled in pride. This was to deeply inspire Nivedita, who wrote extensively about Indian nationalism and the role of a mother as its pivot.