A Daughter of India vs. a Son of England
John Drew finds a crucial moment in modern Bengali history thrown into relief by an unexpected cricketing dimension.
“Would not the immolation of a daughter of India and a son of England awaken India to its continued state of subjugation and England to the iniquities of its proceedings?” - Bina Das (1932).
When I recently read the story of Sir Stanley Jackson, the Governor of Bengal, side-stepping the five shots Bina Das took at him during the Convocation at Calcutta University in 1932, I wondered rather inconsequentially whether this notable cricketer would have survived if his assailant had been allowed to complete her over.
This is a reprehensibly trivial way, no doubt, of regarding a grave historical moment. Bina Das, famously, was an offspring of the Easter Rising in Chittagong in 1930, a revolt against the British Empire as significant perhaps as its predecessor in Dublin in 1916, catalyst for the freedom of Ireland, albeit partial.
If a true parallel with Dublin is to be observed, Chittagong probably has to share its historical moment with Jallianwallabagh, a massacre that might have led to the immediate freedom of India had not Gandhi in 1922 called off the mass protest movement of non-violent non-co-operation that followed.
The summary executions of the leaders of the Irish Uprising that were intended to reaffirm British imperial rule had the exact opposite effect of making it untenable. So was the massacre of the crowd of Punjabi fair-goers, trapped in a square in Amritsar three years later. Chittagong was an expression of utter exasperation at the frustrating delay to India's Independence.
It is curious to reflect now that, a century ago, Home Rule had been a possibility for Ireland and then increasingly, via Annie Besant, for India and was only stymied perhaps by the strange death of Liberal England. Gilbert and Sullivan had earlier informed their operatic public that in England every child born alive was Liberal or Conservative. Had there been more Liberal children we might even have had a British Commonwealth of Nations at the end of the First World War - the Lucknow Pact, incidentally, then pertaining.
In the event, the Conservative children remained dominant. Sir Stanley Jackson, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, was a prominent figure in the Conservative Party, its Chairman and a minister in Government. As a school prefect at Harrow, his fag or servant had been a certain Winston Churchill. Appointed Governor of Bengal he had fostered the Co-operative movement, inaugurating the (still extant) Malda & District Co-op Bank. As Bina Das deposed, she had nothing against him personally, only as a figure of authority in a despotic regime.
Bina Das was a brave young woman from an educated family who took the fate of India upon herself. Influenced by the example of her Brahmo schoolmaster father and social worker mother, she was moved to action by the way she saw friends and neighbours in her own Chittagong and surrounding districts, suffering and being crushed by the arbitrary detentions and punishments that followed upon the imposition of martial law after the Armoury Raids. She was particularly indignant that her own sister had been rigorously imprisoned on charges that could not be sustained.
At the heavily-guarded Convocation at the University of Calcutta, Sir Stanley was actually delivering a speech on the need to deal with the growing menace of “terrorism” in the educational system. Bina got up once to approach him but sat down before making a second, more determined effort.
The image of Sir Stanley using his skills as a batsman side-stepping, body-line bowling probably applies, though accounts vary only to the first two shots. By then Lt. Col. (and thereafter Sir) Hassan Suhrawardy, the (first Muslim) Vice-Chancellor, with the help of another, had grappled with Bina and wrestled her into a chair as she discharged two more shots, one grazing an old professor. Her final shot whistled harmlessly into the air before she was disarmed and led away.
Sir Stanley - noblesse oblige - coolly resumed his speech after this dramatic illustration of the subject of it, perhaps impervious to the notion that one person's terrorist could be another's freedom fighter. Jackson was coming to the end of his term in Bengal and, as we now know, so was the British Empire: rather symbolically, he died in 1947.
Until recently, I was unaware of Stanley Jackson, let alone this Bengali dimension to his life. Unbeknown to me, he had been with me for many years. As a boy, I found an old print of a cricketer in a bookshop off the Charing Cross Road and gave it to my father, a keen village cricketer. The print of a stooping batsman, part of the famous Vanity Fair series of portraits by Spy, is captioned: The Flannelled Fighter. This anonymous flannelled fighter had spent decades taking up his stance on one wall or another of our family's homes.
Only of late, for the sake of my grandson, did I try to find out who had been the original of this portrait. It was Stanley Jackson, member of five of the unassailable Yorkshire sides that won eight County Championships at the turn of the century. More than that. Not only was he captain of the England side that easily retained the Ashes in 1905 but, surely uniquely, topped the batting and the bowling averages of both teams combined.
There is an earlier Indian twist to Jackson's cricketing story. When he moved on effortlessly from Harrow to become captain of the Cambridge University cricket team, he was confronted by an Indian student whose developing brilliance as a cricketer he initially failed to spot, perhaps as much on account of his unorthodox stroke-play as of the appalling racial prejudice then prevalent. The student was Ranjitsinhji and, to Jackson's credit, he changed his mind and awarded the young Indian his Blue. Ranji went on to join him in playing for England.
Sir Stanley's impeccable credentials were such that he had a Yorkshire bishop to preside at his funeral. The Bishop of Knaresborough was moved to recall that as he gazed down on the rapt faces of the congregation he could see they revered the dead man as though he were the Almighty, adding in portly jest more justly applicable to Ranji, “though infinitely stronger on the leg side.”
Bina Das, ever poised between Bose and Gandhi, after serving two prison sentences and while a Member of the Bengal Assembly, joined Gandhi in Noakhali in 1946-7 to help provide basic social training for poor peasant women of whom she had hitherto known little or nothing. Forty years later, she died less ceremoniously than Jackson: alone and unknown by a roadside in Rishikesh.
John Drew is an occasional contributor to the Literature pages of The Daily Star.