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Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi: The journalist who sacrificed his life in front of an Islamist mob while trying to save Hindus during the Kanpur Riots of 1931

Vidyarthi, who was preparing to attend the Karachi session of Congress, decided not to leave Kanpur and rather help people in the riot-hit areas.

Two days after freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev sacrificed their lives for India’s freedom, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, a journalist, freedom fighter, and Congress leader was killed by a rioting mob in Kanpur on March 25, 1931. A champion of freedom and justice who bravely perished in 1931 at the age of 41 while trying to stop communal violence and save Hindus from a violent mob.

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was one of the understated icons of India’s freedom struggle and a rebel in his own right.  Born on October 26, 1890, in a typical Indian household in Attarsuiya, Allahabad (now Prayagraj), he became an important figure in the non-cooperation movement. Vidyarthi’s father, a middle school teacher, homeschooled him as he was raised in a poor family. Vidyarthi was compelled by poverty to work as a clerk before being hired as a teacher in Kanpur, although his true passion was journalism.

A deeply religious person, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was much influenced by the fiery articles of popular journals of the time, Swarajya and Karmayogi. He also contributed articles to these journals. It is said that he adopted the ‘Vidyarthi’ pen name around 1910. 

In 1913, Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, a prominent Hindi writer and editor at his famous literary monthly, ‘Saraswati’ offered Vidyarthi a job as a sub-editor. However, it is said that Vidyarthi who was keener on politics and current affairs went on to join ‘Abhyudaya’, another popular newspaper.

Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi returned to Kanpur in 1913 and started his own revolutionary weekly journal ‘Pratap’ with the help of his aides Shiv Narayan Mishra, Narayan Prasad Arora, and Yashodanandan. Through his writings, Vidyarthi raised the voice of the oppressed people of his time. 

Vidyarthi dedicated himself to the national movement after meeting Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Lucknow in 1916. In addition to participating in the 1917-18 Home Rule movement, Vidyarthi also led the first textile workers’ strike in Kanpur.

During this time, he also was arrested on multiple occasions, be it for his articles in support of Kanpur mill workers, Rae Bareilly peasants, or for his political activities. It is notable that Vidyarthi was a prominent Congress leader during this time and also served as a member of the United Provinces Legislative council from 1925-1929.

In 1920, Vidyarthi launched the daily edition of Pratap named Dainik Pratap and it was in this year that he was sentenced to two years of rigorous imprisonment for championing the cause of the peasants of Rae Bareli. After being freed in 1922, he was almost immediately imprisoned again for delivering a “seditious” speech at the Provincial Political Conference in Fatehgarh. Vidyarthi met and protested with Bhagat Singh in 1924, and the two became close friends and colleagues. It is interesting to note that Vidyarthi met Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in prison.  Moreover, Vidyarthi covered their 63-day-long historic hunger strike. Using the pen name ‘Balwant Singh,’ Bhagat Singh used to write thought-provoking pieces for Vidyarthi’s Pratap.

Front page of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s Dainik Pratap (Image via News18)

When Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi led a demonstration at the Moolganj Mosque

At Kanpur in 1927, some Muslims attacked a band that was playing music while a Hindu wedding procession passed by. The city’s notable Congress leaders including Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, Narayan Prasad Arora, G. G. Jog, and Bir Bahadur Tiwari led a group of Party volunteers who played music in retaliation for forty minutes in front of the Moolganj mosque. 

Excerpt from The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth-Century India by Nandini Gooptu (Page: 293)

Kanpur riots 1931 and the death of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi

The infamous Kanpur riots erupted on March 24, 1931, and lasted for six days till March 30, 1931, claiming over 400 lives. The riots erupted after Muslims opposed the demand of Hindus to call for a ‘Hartal’ against the hanging of martyr Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev by the British colonialists. However, several Muslim shopkeepers refused to close their shops and also objected to the demonstrators asking for the closure of their shops.  In the Cawnpore Riots Inquiry Committee Report (1931), the ‘attitude’ of the Congress Committee and the actions of its prominent men led to the outbreak of communal riots. 

Excerpt from Cawnpore Riots Inquiry Committee Report (1931) (Image via National Archives)

Vidyarthi, who was preparing to attend the Karachi session of Congress, decided not to leave Kanpur and rather help people in the riot-hit areas. Even the Cawnpore Riots Inquiry Committee Report mentions multiple times how Vidyarthi showed exemplary courage and became a true ambassador of communal harmony as he rescued locals belonging to both Hindu and Muslim communities. However, Vidyarthi was attacked with sharp weapons and killed by a murderous Islamist mob. It has also been reported that a temple was also set ablaze during the riots.

Vimla Vidyarthi, the daughter of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi had in an interview reportedly said that the killing of her father was a “part of the conspiracy which hurried the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.”

In a book titled ‘Yug Purush Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’ accounts of a few eyewitnesses have been mentioned. An eyewitness named Ganpat Singh, describing the events on the fateful day of March 25, 1931, stated that at Kanpur’s Chaubegola area around 4-5 pm, a group of Muslims from Bakarmandi arrived at the ‘nai sadak’, meanwhile a Muslim shouted -He is Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, kill him! Don’t let him go!

Another eyewitness, Madho Rao, who was with Vidyarthi till the end told the Inquiry Committee that on March 25, 1931, at around 3 or 4 pm at Chaubeygola, the place near a mosque on Meston Road, a large crowd had gathered requesting Vidyarthi to give a speech. “There were two hundred Musalmans. Chunni Khan and some other prominent Musalmans shook hands with him and embraced him.” From Chaubeygola, Vidyarthi was taken to another ‘troubled spot’ and was left alone to face the Muslim mob.

“It was there that some people started attacking him with lathis. At the instance of one Muslim volunteer, he was spared as he had saved hundreds of Muslims. But soon after, another group attacked him. When some people started dragging him to a nearby lane, he said that he won’t run away as he had to die one day, he would prefer to die while doing his duty. But his noble words had no effect on the murderous mob which attacked him from all sides. One of Vidyarthi’s companions died on the spot. Another volunteer was stabbed with a knife. Lastly came his turn and as the mob approached him, he bowed his head down only to be killed. He was stabbed in the back and another man attacked him with a khanta (an axe),” eyewitness Ganpat Singh told Enquiry Committee, as mentioned in Dr. M.L. Bhargava authored book Builders Of Modern India-Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi (Page:143).

M.L. Bhargava further writes that Vdyarthi’s decomposing corpse was found two days later, stuffed inside a gunny bag at the hospital. Despite having a severely disfigured face, he could be recognized due to his prominent white khadi attire. The three letters he had written on the fateful morning of March 25 were found in his pocket and served as additional evidence of his identification (Page: 144).

Before getting slain, Vidyarthi rescued many Muslims and Hindus from the violent mob, it is said that Vidyarthi was killed by a Muslim mob when he returned to rescue some Hindus stranded in the riot-stricken zone. It is said that even during his last moments, he was trying to convince the rioters not to kill innocent people. Vimla Vidyarthi in an interview with Suresh Salil, a noted poet, and translator, who is also accredited with editing and compiling the works of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, had said, “Her father had successfully rescued some Muslim women but then immediately got involved in rescuing some trapped Hindus, and at this stage, he got attacked and killed.”

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