Chandra Singh Garhwali. A name that’s not familiar one for most of us considering most books on India’s Independence movement didn’t record Chandra Singh and his contributions. Before becoming active in the freedom struggle, Chandra was a part of the British Army. One of the incidents during his tenure in the British Army tells us why knowing about Chandra Singh Garhwali is important in today’s times.
Before going further into Chandra Singh and the incident, here’s a summary of what happened: it involved a group of peaceful protesters and soldiers who were told to crush the protest.
Who Is Chandra Singh Garhwali?
Born in 1891, in Garwhali region of Uttar Pradesh, Chandra Singh joined the British Army at the age of 21 years. Chandra Singh Gharhwali was a Hawaldar Major in the British army and the head of its Royal Garhwal unit. In April, 1930, Chandra Singh’s regiment was sent to Peshwar in the North West Frontier Province, to quell a rebellion of Pathans, who were unarmed, under the leadership of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, according to Deccan Herald report. The biography of Chandra Singh, written by Rahul Sankritiyayan, mentions this incident like this:
“Sikh leaders were addressing the protesters in Pashtun and Urdu. The crowd was chanting `Allah ho Akbar. Victory to Mahatma Gandhi.’ Captain Ricket addressed the crowd, ‘All of you should disperse, else you will be killed by bullets.’ The Pathans were unperturbed by the threat. Captain Ricket then turned to the soldiers to fire three rounds.”
“Chandra Singh was standing to Ricket’s left. He shouted loudly to his regiment, ‘Garhwalis, cease fire! Garhwali, do not fire.’ As soon as the Garhwali soldiers heard Chandra Singh, they retracted their rifles and stood them on the ground. It hardly needs to be said that the soldiers were faithful to their country. One soldier, Uday Singh, gave his rifle to a Pathan and said: ‘Here brother, now you can shoot us.’ Soon, all soldiers of Platoons 1 and 2 placed their rifles on the ground. At this time, Luthi Singh, the commander of Platoon 3 did not accept this (sic) and ordered his platoon to open fire and himself started firing. But members of his platoon refused to follow his orders, and stood their ground.”
“When Captain Ricket asked Chandra Singh what the matter was, Chandra Singh replied, ‘These people are unarmed. How can we fire?’ This refusal from the soldiers led the British to send their own platoon, which opened fire, killing many, which enraged the Pathans. This resulted in chaos, and in the resulting melee, Captain Ricket was killed. Chandra Singh and his colleagues somehow escaped without harm.”
(Excerpt from Sankrityayan’s biography of Chandra Singh Garhwali as quoted by Association for India’s Development)
Chandra Singh’s action was more than a simple act of defiance and daring. It was an act of communal harmony as a Hindu regiment refused to fire on largely Muslim protesters and was a message that British policy of divide and rule had proved ineffective in this case, reports Madras Courier.
For his act of defiance, Chandra Singh and his fellow soldiers were taken into custody. A court marshal awarded a death sentence for him, which was however turned to life imprisonment. Released in 1941, he was part of many social movements and died in 1971. In 1994, the central government issued a stamp in his honour.
Ninety years years have passed since the Peshawar incident and today, we are seeing protests across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Many of these protests have spiraled into violence. Though police initially denied allegations of firing, investigation into the violence at New Friends Colony in Delhi have revealed that three bullets were fired by two police personnel in front of an ACP-rank office, The Indian Express reported. Around 20 people have died during the protests in Uttar Pradesh alone.