Vajpayee and the Quit India movement
Findings of a Frontline investigation.
TWENTY-FOUR years after reports were first published about Atal Behari Vajpayee’s signed confessional statement to a magistrate during the Quit India movement in 1942, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial aspirant has confirmed in a tape-recorded interview with Frontline‘s Editor, N. Ram, that he did, in fact, make the statement in question, dated September 1, 1942, to the magistrate. The statement, which was recorded in Urdu – and Vajpayee makes it clear in the interview that he does not read Urdu – was signed by Vajpayee.
Atal Behari Vajpayee’s confessional statement taken down in Urdu and signed by him, and the magistrate’s note in English.
In 1942, Vajpayee, officially under 16, was already a dedicated and active member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and well versed with politics. The RSS as a movement had no association with the freedom struggle – choosing, ideologically and politically, not to oppose the British colonial authority. (See accompanying story in this investigation by Manini Chatterjee.)Frontline‘s investigation shows that against such a backdrop, contrary to the propaganda of the Sangh Parivar and his own bio-data summary, Vajpayee did not participate in the Quit India movement as a “freedom fighter” in his home village of Bateshwar. In his own characterisation recorded in the interview, he was “a part of the crowd” with no role to play in the militant events in Bateshwar of August 27, 1942 – other than going along with the crowd and witnessing the proceedings. “I related whatever I had seen,” he told Frontline about the nature of his confessional statement. “I did not speak against anybody – I did not claim that…whatever had happened was truly related by me.”
Frontline‘s investigation also found that, contrary to the allegations levelled against him, Vajpayee’s confessional statement was not used by the prosecution in Sessions trial No. 3/43 before the Special Judge, Agra. In fact, the copy of the judgment furnished to the press by Vajpayee makes it clear that his name did not figure in the trial at all. Thus, the political charge that he was a government “approver” in the 1942 case is untrue.
It is noteworthy that in confirming the authenticity of his signature (in English) on the Urdu statement, a copy of which was shown to him, Vajpayee has now authoritatively contradicted his lawyer, Dr N.M. Ghatate. In a letter, dated January 15, 1998, to the Editor of Frontline written “under instructions from Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee” (see facsimile of letter in accompanying box), the senior advocate had stated: “It is obvious that the documents enclosed with your letter are a total forgery and meant to malign Shri Vajpayee. This is further made obvious by the statement in the said document which reads ‘I have explained to Atal Behari son of Gauri Shankar.’ The name of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s father is (Late) Shri Krishnan Bihari Vajpayee. Please note that if these false statements, which you know are false, are used in your newspaper, you will be liable for civil and criminal action.”
Vajpayee, again contradicting his lawyer, confirmed in the Frontline interview that he had, in his confessional statement of September 1, 1942, given his father’s name as Gauri Shankar because “Gauri Shankar was his family name” and “the people in the village knew him as Gauri Shankar.”
He told Frontline‘s Editor that he was withdrawing Ghatate’s letter, and followed this up the same day with a faxed letter (see accompanying box) which stated: “The letter sent by my Advocate dated 15.1.98 may be treated as withdrawn.”
ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1942, Atal Behari Vajpayee signed the following confessional statement – which had been taken down in Urdu, which he could not read – before S. Hassan, II Class Magistrate (his elder brother, Prem Behari Vajpayee, made a virtually identical statement):
My name: Atal Behari
Father’s name: Gauri Shankar
My caste: Brahman
Age: 20 years
Occupation: Student, Gwalior College
My address: Bateshwar, P.S. Bah, Distt Agra
On being asked by the Court “Did you commit an act of arson and cause damage? What have you to say in this regard?”, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee made the following statement:
“On August 27, 1942, Ala was being recited in Bateshwar bazaar. At about 2 p.m. Kakua alias Liladhar and Mahuan came to the Ala and delivered a speech and persuaded the people to break the forest laws. Two hundred people went to the Forest Office and I along with my brother followed the crowd and reached Bateshwar Forest Office. I and my brother stayed below and all other people went up. I do not know the name of any other person, except Kakua and Mahuan, who was there.
“It seemed to me that bricks were falling. I could not know who was razing the wall to the ground but the bricks of the wall were certainly falling.
“I along with my brother started to go to Maipura and the crowd was behind us. The abovementioned persons forcibly turned out the goats from the cattle-pound and the crowd proceeded towards Bichkoli. Ten or twelve persons were in the Forest Office. I was at a distance of 100 yards. I did not render any assistance in demolishing the government building. Thereafter, we went to our respective homes.”
Signed: S. Hassan
Signed: Atal Behari Vajpai.
The statement was recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The magistrate appended the following handwritten note in English to the statement:
I have explained to Atal Behari son of Gauri Shankar that he is not bound to make a confession and that if he does so, any confession he may make may be used as evidence against him. I believe that this confession was voluntarily made. It was taken in my presence and hearing and was read over to Atal Behari who made it; it was admitted by him to be correct and it contains a full and true account of the statement made by him.
Signed: S. Hassan
Magistrate II Class
(In his interview to Frontline, Vajpayee says that the statement was not read back to him.)
There are three noteworthy features of this confessional statement.
The first feature is that the young Vajpayee – who was self-admittedly a member of an “unlawful assembly” out to “break the forest laws” and could quite easily have been prosecuted under Section 149 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), given the harshly repressive approach of the times – dissociates himself from the activity and the intentions of the protestors. He says that although “I along with my brother followed the crowd” and witnessed the event, “I did not cause any damage. I did not render any assistance in demolishing the government building.” Vajpayee says, in effect: I was part of the crowd, but I did not share its objectives and I did not participate in any culpable act. This point is of exceptional importance since, half a century later, the Sangh Parivar has sought to lionise its Prime Minister-In-Waiting for the fighting, if not heroic, role he played in 1942 – a role he explicitly denied then and has denied again, in his January 1998 interview to Frontline.
Secondly, the confessional statement describes, in the detail possible in a short statement, the course that the protest took in Bateshwar on August 27, 1942. Although Frontline‘s investigation has found that Vajpayee’s statement was not used by the prosecution in the trial that was to follow, there is no gainsaying the fact that the statement provided the kind of educated description of events around which the police could have built a case against the protestors. (This, in fact, is a specific criticism levelled against Atal Behari by Kakua alias Liladhar Bajpai, one of the instigators of the militant incidents in Bateshwar in 1942.)
Thirdly, the statement names two leaders of the protestors, “Kakua alias Liladhar and Mahuan”, both of whom were tried in the case. According to Atal Behari’s “truly related” account of the proceedings, these two “came to the Ala and delivered a speech and persuaded the people to break the forest laws.” While Mahuan alias Shiv Kumar was given the benefit of doubt and acquitted, Kakua alias Liladhar was convicted and sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment.
In an interview to Frontline more than half a century after the Bateshwar militancy, Liladhar recorded the impression that although Atal Behari’s confessional statement was not part of the evidence in court that led to his sentence, it did help shape the prosecution’s case at the investigative stage. It was true, he said, that he was one of the ring-leaders on that day and that everyone knew him in the village since his family lived there and he visited them frequently. The Vajpayee brothers were not the only ones to name him. A number of other villagers also gave his name to the police, but while the others were illiterate rural folk, the Vajpayees were erudite college educated boys and their word carried more weight.
Liladhar also points out that the prosecution’s case largely echoes Atal Behari’s statement. Even if this is true, the record shows that the prosecution, for its own reasons, did not field Vajpayee in court as one of the witnesses in the trial. What it also shows, however, is that Atal Behari, along with elder brother Prem Behari, named two persons who led the revolt in the knowledge that in the repressive conditions of the time, such “truthful” narration of what happened could be used against them.
THE CONFESSIONAL statement and the circumstances of his release from custody in 1942 are issues that have pursued the political career of Atal Behari Vajpayee for over two decades.
In 1974, in an article by Bishan Kapoor, the Bombay-based tabloid Blitz published a translation of Vajpayee’s confessional statement. In a second article, published on February 9, 1974, Blitz went on to make further – inaccurate – allegations regarding the statement. It said that Vajpayee’s statement was made before a trial judge and that the statement was “part of the Sessions case against Kakua (Special Judge Trial No. 1943/43, State vs Liladhar).”
In 1989, a pamphlet titled “How patriotic is the BJP and its leader Atal Behari Vajpayee who betrayed the ‘Quit India’ movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942” was issued by D.S. Adel in New Delhi on behalf of the All India Freedom Fighters Organisation (AIFFO). This pamphlet carried a facsimile of Vajpayee’s confessional statement taken down in Urdu and bearing Vajpayee’s signature in English. The pamphlet also carried the note appended by magistrate S. Hassan as well as an English translation from the Urdu. The pamphlet went on to allege – without foundation, the Frontline investigation shows – that it “was because of Atal Behariji’s statement that the Court sentenced Kakua to 5 years’ rigorous imprisonment and the entire village was forced to pay a punitive fine of Rs. 10,000.”
On July 23, 1989, Vajpayee announced that the BJP would observe August 9 that year as “Gaddi Choro” (Quit Power) Day. This triggered a series of over-the-top statements by batches of Congress members of Parliament against him (the statements were also published in the AIFFO pamphlet). A statement issued on August 7, 1989 and signed by 52 MPs (signatory Number One was Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, then a Rajiv Gandhi acolyte – now born-again BJP) alleged that Vajpayee’s statement was “a calculated attempt to foul the memory of August 9 and continue his nefarious role which he played in the 1942 Quit India Movement as a British Government Approver when he implicated a number of freedom fighters to save his skin.” On August 13, a statement by 21 Congress MPs declared that “Shri Vajpayee does not have a word to say about the documentary evidence to the effect that he voluntarily chose to appear on September 1, 1942, in the King Emperor’s court at Agra (sic).” It added: “and if he cannot refute the document signed by him of his free will which was the only basis for sentencing a whole group of freedom fighters for long terms of imprisonment, then, at least now, he should apologise to the nation.”
On August 5, 1997, the president and vice-president of the Maharashtra Seva Dal, Chandrakant Dayamahave and Subodh Solanki, raised the issue in an appeal to Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. They asked him not to share a dais with Vajpayee at a function organised by the Shiv Sena and the BJP on August 9 at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan to commemorate the Quit India movement – unless Vajpayee and the BJP “apologised” for his confessional statement.
HOW DID the Sangh Parivar and Vajpayee himself react to the allegations? While denying – validly – those parts of the allegations that were inaccurate, the Jan Sangh (and later the BJP) and Vajpayee chose, by way of strategy, not to confirm the authenticity of the confessional statement. This was a strategy that culminated in the 1998 allegation of “a total forgery…meant to malign Shri Vajpayee” by his lawyer, Ghatate. At the same time, the Parivar was taking a real risk with history by assiduously creating the alternative fiction that Vajpayee was a “freedom fighter” of the Quit India movement, who had gone to jail for his sacrifice – and that the scene of his heroism was militant Bateshwar. For a start, the creators of this fiction had reckoned without a spirited and sprightly old man who lives in Gwalior town, Liladhar Bajpai, the “Kakua” of the confessional statement (for his recollection of 1942, see accompanying story by Manini Chatterjee).
In response to Blitz in 1974, Vajpayee said that he was released from jail in 1942 because he was a minor and for lack of evidence against him. Not surprisingly, he reacted sharply to the allegation or insinuation that he was a traitor. A defamation case was filed against Blitz by Jan Sangh and RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh (see story by Sukumar Muralidharan).
An interesting example of the Parivar’s strategic response to the issue is Vajpayee’s nuanced reply to a question put to him by The Illustrated Weekly of India(September 3, 1989) in 1989:
Q: How do you react to the recent charge the Congress has made against you, of your being a British approver in the Quit India movement?
A: The allegations regarding my role in the Quit India movement of 1942 are totally baseless. In fact, it was my involvement in the movement in Gwalior that led my father, who was a government servant, to send me to my ancestral village, Bateshwar. As I did not tender any evidence against any person in any court, equally baseless is the charge that some people were convicted on the basis of my evidence. This canard is being spread from 1971 before every election but never before has any member of Parliament belonging to the Congress party bothered to associate himself with this allegation. This has hurt me the most. The signatories say this campaign has the Prime Minister’s blessings.
On January 21, 1998, Vajpayee once again stated that he had not turned approver, that he had not given any evidence against any person in court, and that he had not tendered any apology to the government.
It is technically correct that by making a confessional statement under Section 164 of the CrPC, Vajpayee did not tender any evidence against any person in any court. It is also technically correct that no person was convicted on the basis of evidence given by him. Both statements thus state carefully what Vajpayee did not do; both carefully avoid mentioning what he did – namely, make a confessional statement which “truly related… whatever had happened.”
BY LATE 1997, the campaign to make a Quit India hero of Vajpayee was in full swing. Consider the following:
- An entry in Vajpayee’s bio-data summary reads: “Participated in freedom struggle and went to jail in 1942.”
An article by Vajpayee published in Dainik Jagaran on August 15, 1997, gives an account of what happened at Bateshwar. It says: “On that afternoon, a performance of Alha was being held in the bazaar of Bateshwar. A crowd had collected. I was also in the audience. Suddenly, three young men arrived on the scene and stopped the performance. They informed the audience of Gandhiji’s ‘Quit India’ call of August 9 at Bombay, and exhorted the people to throw out the British imperialists. The villagers were already aware of August kranti. They were enthused seeing the flames of revolution being lit in their own village. The village reverberated with the slogan of ‘British, Quit India’.” Vajpayee goes on to recount the attacks on the two forest outposts and how the “angry crowd demolished the structure.” He adds: “In this way, the patriotic people of Bateshwar participated in the freedom struggle – by damaging the forest outposts and by flouting the forest laws. What happened subsequently showed a glimpse of the disgusting and cruel face of the doddering English colonial rule. The next day the police surrounded the village after the forest guards reported the matter. Indiscriminate arrests were made. The leaders of the movement went underground and the police could not lay their hands on them. Those arrested were sent to Agra jail. I was amongst those arrested and lodged in jail.”
An article in the sponsored supplement that appeared in many newspapers on the occasion of Vajpayee’s birthday on December 25, 1997, says: “Atal Behari Vajpayee’s formal induction into politics coincided with the launch of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the first genuine non-Congress party, on the eve of the first general elections in 1951. But, in a sense, it was the Quit India movement that fired his nationalist zeal. He was arrested in 1942 for lending his voice to this mounting demand for freedom….”
On January 21, four days before his Frontline interview, Vajpayee issued a statement that claimed: “It was my involvement in the Quit India Movement and my imminent arrest at Gwalior that I was sent to my ancestral village, Bateshwar, about 60 miles from Agra. But I got involved in the Quit India Movement at Bateshwar too.”
Given that Vajpayee has confirmed that that he did sign the confessional statement and that he was only a “part of the crowd” and a bystander against whom there was and could be “no evidence”, these statements now face a serious credibility problem. In any case, it is now clear that these and similar statements are merely part of the artifice of the propaganda of the Sangh Parivar. Vajpayee’s stirring account of the 1942 events in Bateshwar, written for Dainik Jagaran, for instance, conveys the impression that he was involved in a heroic revolt, challenging British rule and facing state repression. Now that we know that the course of personal action Young Man Vajpayee chose was to dissociate himself from the protestors in a signed confessional statement, the article seems something of a classic case ofsuppresio veri, suggestio falsi.
A copy of Prem Behari Vajpayee’s statement before the magistrate in 1942, identical in most substantive respects with his younger brother’s, except in recording his father’s name as “Krishna Behari alias Gauri Shankar”.
In January 1998, Frontline began an investigation of the controversy surrounding Vajpayee’s confessional statement and his role in the Quit India movement in Bateshwar. The rationale behind, and the context of, the investigation are clear: Vajpayee is the only person being projected, by any party or camp, as a Prime Ministerial candidate in Elections ’98; indeed, the BJP has built up an image of Vajpayee as India’s Prime Minister-In- Waiting. An important part of this campaign is to establish a link between the personality of Vajpayee and the party’s claim (despite the RSS antecedents) to the legacy of India’s freedom struggle.
Although the BJP has been running a campaign around the personality of Atal Behari Vajpayee on the lines of a U.S. presidential campaign (in the run-up to which a contender’s past tends to be researched in great detail), many questions about his early political career remain unanswered. Prominent among them is the question of the part he played in 1942 as a teenaged but reasonably experienced RSS recruit. The Frontline investigation, begun in late-1997, sought to inquire into that issue objectively, fairly and in depth.
The investigation is based, inter alia, on lengthy tape-recorded interviews by Manini Chatterjee, assisted by Sukumar Muralidharan, with Liladhar (“Kakua”) in Gwalior and Bateshwar; a visit to the the site of the incidents in Bateshwar; a wide range of documentary evidence; and an unexpected but clinching interview with Atal Behari Vajpayee himself. The documentation includes copies of the confessional statements of the Vajpayee brothers, a copy of the judgement of the Special Judge, Agra in Sessions trial No.3/1943 “King Emperor vs Kakku alias Liladhar and others”, and the final report of the case in the village register.
In the course of the investigation, Frontline faxed Vajpayee at his New Delhi address, on January 15, 1998, a copy of “the two-page document relating to your reported statement to a magistrate on 1-9-1942”, inviting his views on “the authenticity of the above document” and asking him to “confirm or deny whether you made such a statement as mentioned in the above document.” Vajpayee was on tour, but a prompt response came through Ghatate’s letter claiming to be written “under instructions from Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee.” This letter, now withdrawn, contained the strongest statement to date on the issue.
Confronted by a frontal legal challenge to the authenticity of the key document relied on, Frontlineput off publication of the results of its investigation and decided to dig deeper. Liladhar was once again contacted and interviewed, and a mass of relevant legal papers, including Prem Behari Vajpayee’s virtually identical confessional statement, and old newspaper reports were scrutinised.
As the results of the investigation neared publication, confirmation of the authenticity of the signed confessional statement came unexpectedly from the most authoritative source possible – the subject himself. On January 25, ten days after Ghatate’s letter was received, Vajpayee sought out the Editor of Frontline for a conversation regarding the investigation. In the tape-recorded interview that followed, he confirmed – for the first time on record, at least in recent times: “This is my statement. I signed it.” Asked why all this had not been cleared up earlier, he explained: “That is because I did not take it seriously.”
The edifice that the Sangh Parivar had sought to create around the part played by Vajpayee in the Quit India movement, culminating in the challenging letter from lawyer Ghatate, had collapsed like a house of cards.
THE OTHER MAJOR question taken on by the Frontline investigation was: how and why was Atal Behari Vajpayee released, along with elder brother Prem Behari, after 23 days of incarceration, and why were they not prosecuted? Here the picture is somewhat clouded.
Vajpayee’s answer to this question is, and has long been, simple: “there was no case against me because there was no evidence,” as he put it in his interview to Frontline. But as Manini Chatterjee shows in the accompanying story, the matter is not so simple – and there are other, quite different, versions of the truth.
After all, both Vajpayee brothers admitted in their confessional statements that they were in the procession that attacked the forest posts in the vicinity of Bateshwar. All those who were brought to trial in the Bateshwar case were prosecuted for essentially the same reason – taking part in the procession that attacked the forest posts and militantly challenging the British rule. Three of those acquitted got off because the Special Judge was not satisfied that they were present on the occasion at all.
Liladhar Bajpai’s belief that the Vajpayee brothers were let off on account of their useful confessional statements cannot be the sole explanation. According to elder brother Prem Behari’s version of what happened published in Madhya Pradesh Sandesh (May 12, 1973), some external good offices came into play to get the Vajpayee brothers released: “Girija Shankar Vajpayee was a senior member in the Viceroy’s Council. At his intervention, both of us brothers were released.” Some other sources favour the explanation that Atal Behari and Prem Behari were released because their disapproving school teacher father pulled wires or used his contacts to get his sons out of the jam, although Atal Behari might not have been aware of this.
In the Frontline interview, Atal Behari plainly discounted his elder brother’s explanation for their release: “No, no, that is incorrect. That statement he made many years after the arrest. But nobody could interfere in a case like that.”
Finally: was Atal Behari Vajpayee’s release, after 23 days in prison in 1942, unconditional and did he give any surety? He and his brother were released under Section 169 CrPC which provides for release if, upon investigation, it appears to an officer in charge of a police station that “there is not sufficient evidence or reasonable ground of suspicion to justify the forwarding of the accused to a magistrate.” A release under this Section requires the execution of a bond, “with or without sureties.”
Asked whether his release under Section 169 CrPC on account of lack of evidence involved the furnishing of any surety or guarantee, Vajpayee told Frontline: “No, not at all. We would not have given any surety. And then there is no question of being an approver.”
with inputs from Lyla Bavadam in Mumbai.
Vol. 15 :: No. 03 :: Feb. 7 – 20, 1998