On June 22, 1897, a group of young men killed two
British officers as they were returning from a party to celebrate the
diamond jubilee of the accession of Queen Victoria.
The murders set off a chain reaction. Three brothers Damodar, Balkrishna
and Vasudeva Chapekar - went smiling to the gallows within a period of 13
months. Their friend Mahadev Ranade was also hanged. Khanderao Sathe, who
was a mere school-boy, was sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment.
Repression was let loose and among its victims was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who
had not yet won the honorific of Lokmanya but had emerged as the leader of
the radicals in the Congress.
The British government tried to implicate Tilak as an accomplice in the
murders. But there was no evidence for this, so it prosecuted him for
sedition for the editorials in his newspaper Kesri and sentenced him to 18
months rigorous imprisonment. Tilak, a lawyer, editor, and member of the
Provincial Legislative Council, was made to beat coir and paint the walls
and furniture in the jail.
Who were the Chapekar brothers who unknowingly changed the face of Indian
politics? And who were the two British officers they killed on June 22,
1897? Of the two officers, Ayerst was killed by mistake. The target was
Rand, the officer-in-charge of measures to cheek the spread of plague in
Pune. It sounds strange that the officer who was trying to save the people
should have been gunned down.
The answer lies in the ruthless manner in which he carried out his campaign
against plague, often going not only beyond but even transgressing the
rules. Rand was an officer of great energy but lacked the finer qualities
of a good administrator. Disinfection of the houses and segregation of the
people suffering from plague was necessary. But in the raids that he and
his soldiers carried out on houses suspected to be infected, property was
destroyed and looted and places of worship were desecrated. Helpless old
people were ill-treated, men and women were almost stripped naked and
forced to stand outside their homes and healthy people were taken to
segregation camps where men and women were herded together.
There was anger among the people who felt that the plague was a lesser evil
than the measures adopted by Rand to check it. The people wanted
deliverance from Rand and the only way seemed to eliminate him.
The man who decided to do this was Damodar Chapekar, the eldest of three
sons of a keertankar. The Chapekars were once rich and lived in Chinchwad,
a little distance from Pune. The family had been reduced to the status of a
middle class family because of lavish spending by Damodar's grandfather.
The father earned his living as a keertankar. He settled down in Pune but
went to Bombay during Chaturmas - the four months of the rainy season -
because offerings there were far more than in Pune. His three sons,
Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev, accompanied him. Damodar was a poet while
Balkrishna and Vasudeva could sing well.
In the political terminology of today, Damodar will be called a Hindu
fundamentalist or a revivalist. But these terms were not known a hundred
years ago. Damodar was against everything which was against the established
Indian, or rather Hindu, way of life. He was against British rule because
it imposed alien values and culture on the Indian people. He was against
the English system of education, against missionaries and Hindus,
particularly Brahmins, who converted to Christianity. He was against those
who sought to reform Hindu society because he felt the changes were against
the Scriptures. It is difficult to say whom he hated most: the British
Government, moderate Congress leaders, social reformers or missionaries.
The urge to do something was keen. He collected a band of young boys and
began training them in the use of the sword, the lathi and the sling, much
in the manner of Shivaji 300 years before. Damodar had managed to collect
some swords and small firearms. But he soon disbanded his Rashtra
Hitechchu Mandal because he found that it was not possible to undertake any
major task by involving a large number of boys. The activities of this band
had attracted the notice of newspapers. He therefore decided that whatever
he wanted to do had to be done by a small dedicated group.
And this he did with remarkable success. Bombay was then the only centre
for the matriculation examination in the presidency. The metropolis was
also in the grip of plague and people wanted the examination to be
postponed. The Government was not willing. Damodar and Balkrishna set
fire to the pandal had been erected for the examination.
Western India had first suffered from famine and now from plague. In the
midst of this misery, the government was going ahead with its plans for
celebrating the diamond jubilee of the accession of Queen Victoria. The
two brothers decided on shock therapy: they defaced the Queen's statue in
the Fort area of Bombay and garlanded it with tattered shoes.
In order to divert attention, the Chapekars sent letters to the newspapers
claiming responsibility on behalf of other groups.
The Chapekars returned to Pune in June 1897 and found the city seething
with anger against Rand. They decided that something had to be done to
remove him from the scene. The day they selected was June 22, 1897 the day
of the diamond jubilee. Like other cities in the British Empire,
celebrations had been planned on a grand scale in Pune. The Government
House was brightly illuminated. Bonfires had been lit on the surrounding
hills. There was to be a reception and then a banquet. A large crowd had
collected outside the gates to see the display of fireworks. The two elder
Chapekars, perhaps even the youngest, Vasudeva, and their friends mingled
with the crowd.
The planning was meticulous. As the carriages began leaving, one of the
boys watched from the gate. As Rand left he gave the signal. Another began
running with the carriage. As he reached the spot where Damodar, Balkrishna
and others were waiting, he shouted, "Gondya ala re! (Gondya has come)".
Balkrishna jumped on the carriage and shot the occupant. But there was a
mistake. It was Ayerst whom they killed. They realized their mistake.
When Rand's carriage came to the spot, Damodar climbed on it and shot Rand.
Ayerst was killed on the spot while Rand died in hospital on July 3.
Their purpose had been achieved. The Government was rattled. It saw in
the murders a deep-rooted conspiracy and let loose severe repression.
Tilak compared the measures to the action of a big mad elephant. He
reminded the Government that to rule did not mean to take revenge. But with
all the measures that it took, the police were clueless about the identity
of the killer. They announced reward of Rs "20,000 to anyone giving
information about him.
The enquiry was entrusted to Harry Brewin, an Anglo-Indian officer of great
ability, who could speak Marathi and knew Pune well. He studied the letters
that the Chapekars had sent about the outrages in Bombay. He came to the
conclusion that these and the murders in Pune were the job of the same
person. He came to the conclusion that the person was educated but not
highly educated, was an idealist and had great pride in himself and his
lineage. But the question still remained - who was he?
Brewin not only knew the leaders of Pune but also the underworld. He
remembered Ganesh Dravid. He was a trouble-maker and was in prison
undergoing a sentence for forgery. Brewin met him and dangled the carrot -
the reward of Rs 20,000 - before him. Dravid and his brother told him about
the Chapekar brothers and their activities. Damodar was arrested on
suspicion in Bombay on September 30. Balkrishna and Vasudeva absconded.
But Damodar's arrest brought the police no nearer to a solution. Damodar
and the boys arrested on the basis of information given by Ganesh Dravid
and his brother, were subjected to third degree methods but had not broken
down. Brewin now played another card. He had realized that the one chink
in Damodar's psyche was his ego.
During the search of his house the police had found his unfinished
autobiography. He had said there that he would soon do something startling.
Brewin treated Damodar as a guest and gave him all facilities. Even a
statue of Hanuman was installed in the police lock-up for him. Brewin won
his confidence and told him that there was no point in doing an act of
bravery if the people did not know who had done it. Damodar fell into the
trap and made a confession before a magistrate.
Corroborative evidence is necessary for securing a conviction on the basis
of a confession. Such evidence was very flimsy. But the British Government
wanted to hang Damodar as soon as possible and he was sentenced to death.
Tilak was then in the same prison and drafted Damodar's application for a
review of the sentence on the ground of insufficient evidence. The
application was turned down. For a time there was a proposal to hang
Damodar in public but better sense prevailed. There was also the fear that
an attempt might be made to rescue him. Damodar was hanged in Yerwada Jail
on 18 April 1898. He mounted the gallows with a copy of the Bhagwadgita in
his hand. Tilak had given him his own COPY -
Vasudeva takes revenge
Balkrishna and his younger brother Vasudeva had run away to the Nizam's
territory and had taken shelter with a gang of dacoits. 'Their mother had
died after Damodar's arrest and the family was in difficulty. Balkrishna
decided to send Vasudeva home. In any case, there was no evidence against
him. He met Brewin and asked for a government job.
The police was on the trail of Balkrishna and the gang sheltering him
finally betrayed him for a mere Rs 600. Brewin was playing a cat-and-mouse
game with Vasudeva. He wanted him to give evidence against Balkrishna. He
did not know that 18-year-old Vasudeva had only one desire - revenge on the
Dravid brothers who had betrayed his brothers, on head constable Ramji
Pandu who had beaten him and on Brewin who had trapped him into making a
The Dravid brothers were unhappy that the Government had given them only Rs
10,000, half of the prize money. Was it their fault, they asked, that
Balkrishna had run away? The Kesri had ridiculed the Government for its
niggardliness for deducting income tax from the prize money. On 8 February
1899, two young men dressed as Pathans went to the Dravids' house and told
them that they were wanted at the police station. The brothers accompanied
them. They had gone only a little distance when they were gunned down.
Vasudeva and his friend Mahadeva Ranade then went to the police station.
They tried to murder Brewin and head constable Ramji Pandu. The attempt
failed. They confessed to the murder of the Dravid brothers. Their only
regret was that they were Pot successful in their attempt on Brewin and
Ramji Pandu. In May 1899, they were hanged. The first to mount the gallows
was Vasudeva. Mahadeva Ranade followed two days later and Balkrishna after
two more days. Khanderao Sathe was sentenced to 10 years rigorous
imprisonment. Muhamed Ali Jinnah was among the counsel for the defence.
The British Government well knew that whatever it and its supporters might
think, for the people of India, Damodar Chapekar, his brothers and friends
were national heroes. Sister Nivedita had called on Damodar Chapekar in the
death row. A day before he was hanged Damodar told the officers, "You may
hang me tomorrow but my soul will at once pass into another body and in 16
years it will be fighting against the British again." His last wish was
that his body should be cremated with Hindu rites and no non-Hindu should
defile it. The authorities acceded to the request and handed over the body
to his family. For fear of public demonstration, the cremation took place
in great secrecy.
The Chapekar family fell on really bad days after the execution of the
three young Chapekars. The mother had died after Damodar's arrest and the
father died after the execution of Balkrishna and Vasudeva. Three young
widows were left. Two of them had children while the youngest hardly knew
married life. It was a hard life for them. Damodar's widow lived for
nearly 60 years and saw India achieve independence. Vasudeva's widow went
to school and rose to be the headmistress of a government girls' school.
A statue of Damodar Chapekar has been installed at the place where he shot
Rand on 22 June 1897. Statues have been erected at other places also. The
ancestral house in Chinchwad has an akhada and a library named after him.
As the motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws and four-wheelers speed past,
how many have the time to cast even a cursory glance at the statue of a man
who triggered off the revolutionary movement in India?
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