The news was featured in one of the leading Bengali newspapers: January 12 was the 85th death anniversary of revolutionary Surya Sen, better known as Master Da.
We call it death, but the ending of this patriot, who took on the might of the imperial British Raj, was actually by hanging in Chittagong Central Jail.
Surprisingly, despite having such a valiant freedom fighter who is from Bangladesh, the cult of Master Da is, for some odd reason, less pervasive than that of other revolutionaries like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro.
Che found a venerable presence among the rebellious youth in Bangladesh in the 70s and later, in the 80s, when the anti-authoritarian movement in this country looked for an ideological figure head.
Being a Guevara fan myself, I often thought that in comparison, Master Da should not be outshone by the Argentine rebel at all. In fact, one would not be wrong to state that Surya Sen’s odds were far higher, the impediments to his revolution totally insurmountable.
At a time when the colonial empire was at its pinnacle with “Rule Britannia rule the waves, Britain shall never be slaves” resonating assertively across the world, this rather diminutive guy from Chittagong had the audacity to plan the complete guerrilla takeover of Chittagong.
The daring Chittagong uprising
Some call it the armoury raid since the revolutionaries led by Surya Sen stormed the police arsenal in Chittagong, though there is ample evidence to prove that the move carried out by less than 100 revolutionaries on April 18, 1930 was actually an uprising with the motive of taking over the port city.
Historical evidence shows that the intrepid young men cut off all telephone and telegraph lines, and raised the national flag after they looted the armoury.
They also proclaimed a provisional revolutionary government.
But like many times in the past when destiny played a role, Surya and his men did not know that the weapons were kept without the ammunition.
The target was to take over the consignment of the latest Lewis Guns to allow the revolutionaries enough fire power to fend off a colonial backlash.
Without the ammo, the guns meant nothing. Later, these men went off to the hills from where a fight ensued with imperial forces.
Sen broke off from the battle, dispersed his men, went into hiding, but the clandestine attacks on the empire continued till he was caught, tried, and hanged.
Surya Sen and his band of desperados should be more prominently placed in our academic curriculum because their conviction is the spirit that we need to inculcate in our young
The Irish inspiration plus the gender empowerment factor
The inspiration of the Chittagong raid came from the 1916 Irish Easter uprising, which vexed the crown, though the uprising was crushed in the end.
In the case of the dauntless Chittagong mission, there is one dimension which, in later decades and still today, is seen by many as the definitive moment when women left the traditional roles to play a part in defining an independent national identity.
Pritilata Waddedar, also from Chittagong, accompanied Sen during the 1930 mission and later, in 1932, led another raid on the Pahartali European Club, which reportedly had a sign at the entrance: “Dogs and Indians not allowed.”
During this operation, Pritilata was surrounded and took a cyanide pill to kill herself, thus creating a defiant nationalistic image to be followed by women in future decades to break down restrictive social shackles.
Forgotten revolutionaries, eternal romantics
One may question the significance in remembering Sen and his group of young daredevils in a time when global political landscape has transformed so much. Well, the first reason has purely to do with romanticism.
The colonial period, at least its overt imperialism, is now just a chapter in history books. Brazen gunboat diplomacy to subjugate another nation is condemned, though the fascination of a small group of men and women daring to challenge the juggernaut of imperialism remains. Call it our love for stories where David brings down, or at least tries to bring down, Goliath.
There is intense pride plus an undeniable sense of melancholic satisfaction when underdogs valiantly take a stand against a stronger opponent.
The defeat becomes more profound than victory. The vanquished find their place in history, myths develop around their defiance.The Charge of the Light Brigade sentiment, you may call it. Going beyond such romanticism, there is, of course, the more practical reason, which is the lesson that irrespective of the obstacle, one has dared to challenge it.
When the invading forces tried to use brutal suppressive measures to subdue the spirit of the people here in 1971, they could hardly have imagined a cohesive counter action and an independent Bangladesh in less than a year.
The lesson from Sen, Pritilata, and others is that capitulation is not the only way, even if the odds are stupendous.
The Chittagong raid plus all the other guerrilla actions could never have defeated an empire. Possibly, the men and women who took up arms, imbued with nationalistic zeal, knew that very well.
Yet they decided to attempt the impossible. Just like Bangladesh, the war-ravaged country which proved all detractors wrong.
Shattered and in constant turmoil, this country stumbled, sometimes fell, at times looked utterly hopeless, mired in man-made and natural problems. Then, with marked resolve, she stood up, carried on and, today, is firmly placed in the world.
Surya Sen and his band of desperados should be more prominently placed in our academic curriculum because their conviction, that even the mightiest of opponents can be challenged, is the spirit that we need to inculcate in our young.
Whatever the odds, we can dare to take it on -- I feel that is what young Bangladesh needs to learn if we want to see the 2021 dream materialised.
Sen rattled an empire, let the young of today dare to jolt the world.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.