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The Chapekar Brothers: The unsung revolutionaries who assassinated Englishman Walter Rand in 1897 for his repressive plague control measures

The Chapekar brothers assassinated Englishman Walter Rand on 22 June 1897 for his ruthless and culturally insensitive handling of the plague, reigniting a spark of revolution among the nationalists four decades after the famous 1857 revolt, the war of Indian independence, as Savarkar aptly described.

On this day 127 years ago, two brothers decided to avenge indignities and brutalities meted out on Indians by the Britishers by assassinating one of their senior officers. The Chapekar brothers assassinated Englishman Walter Rand for his ruthless and culturally insensitive handling of the epidemic, reigniting a spark of revolution among the nationalists four decades after the famous 1857 revolt, the war of Indian independence, as Savarkar aptly described.

The Poona region during that time was in the grips of a horrifying bout of plague. To curb the epidemic, the British had appointed an insolent officer known for his rude and merciless conduct. It was then that the Chapekar brothers, who were already finding means to take on the cruel English rule, found a purpose and a goal to terrorise the British Raj.

But the lesser-known tale of the Chapekar Brothers also has an even lesser-known facet. These days, one can presume that “Satyanarayan Katha” is to be performed if someone mentions that there is a puja at home. However, things weren’t always like this. It was uncommon two centuries ago for Satyanarayan Katha to be narrated during household pujas. The Skanda Purana, which Hari Vinayak translated sometime about 1890, tells us nearly the same version of this Sanskrit tale. Notably, he was also the father of three brave martyrs who embraced death after killing a cruel Englishman 127 years ago on 22nd June for dishonouring Indian women in a cruel display of his authority.

Due to Hari Vinayak’s limited resources, he used to perform kirtans in courts and other public spaces for a living. His Kirtan band did not have a separate musician, partially because of budgetary constraints and partly because he wanted to teach his boys about his vocation. He involved his three boys in this work. It was for this reason that Damodar, Balkrishna, and Vasudev did not receive special school education. Learning languages like Sanskrit and Marathi in the family was fairly easy for them. Furthermore, they had to engage with the most influential pundits of their era as a result of their regular trips to locations like the royal courtrooms. In his autobiography, Damodar Hari wrote that associating with intelligent individuals helped him learn more than just acing a few tests.

If one were to inquire today, Hari Vinayak is not remembered for his translation of Satyanarayan Katha but for his sons. According to the certificate, Hari Vinayak and his wife lived with their poorly-educated boys close to Pune, Maharashtra. Chinchwad, now regarded as an industrial district, was a mere hamlet then. The plague spread in Pune at the end of 1896 and by February 1897, the disease took a horrific form as the number of deaths exceeded that of bubonic plague deaths by twice. At that point, forty years had passed since India’s last significant independence movement and foreign powers had strengthened their hold over the entire nation.

ICS officer Walter Charles Rand was picked after witnessing the horrible form of plague so close to Mumbai (then Bombay) which the British received as a dowry. His methods of controlling the epidemic were harsh. The military officers who accompanied him would break into homes, search people for signs of the plague, and transport them to an isolated camp. They would strip all men and women naked after entering homes to conduct their examination. It was obvious to the three brothers that Walter Rand was to blame for the mistreatment of these women. In retaliation for this persecution of their compatriots, they decided to assassinate him.

A short while later, on 22nd June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s coronation was to be celebrated. Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev decided to execute their plan on this day. Each brother had a sword, a handgun or a gun when they stepped out. They were supposed to wait for Walter Rand at what is known today as Senapati Bapat Marg but as he was passing, they failed to recognise his vehicle as it was covered. Damodar Hari hid his weapon and waited for Walter Rand to come back. He then hurried after his vehicle as soon as he drove off, calling out to his brothers, “Gundaya aala re” (the thug is here).

Damodar Hari pulled the curtain of the carriage and fired a shot. Walter Rand’s military bodyguard, Ayrest, rode directly behind him. Balkrishna Hari shot him in the head and killed him instantly. However, Walter Rand didn’t die there and was taken to Sassoon Hospital. He passed away on 3rd July 1897. Dravid brothers testified to the incident. On 18th April 1898, Damodar Hari was hung after being apprehended based on their identification. Despite managing to escape, Balkrishna Hari was arrested in January 1899 as a result of a companion’s betrayal. he was hung on 12th May 1899.

The Dravid brothers who made statements against his siblings were slain by Vasudev Hari. On the same evening (9th February 1899) he and his friends Khando Vishnu Sathe and Mahadev Vinayak Ranade attempted to assassinate Chief Constable of Police Rama Pandu but were captured. The Chapekar brothers, Balkrishna Hari and Vasudeo Hari, along with Mahadeva Vinayak Ranade, were found guilty on March 8, 1899, and sentenced to death by hanging. They were subsequently executed: Vasudeo Hari on May 8, 1899, Mahadeva Vinayak Ranade on May 10, 1899, and Balkrishna Hari on May 12, 1899.

Like with the case of Vinayak Savarkar, the tale of the Chapekar brothers’ valorous deed has been forgotten with the vicissitudes of time, often because of the Nehruvian-Marxist historians whose entire focus since the independence was to glorify and lionise the Indian National Congress leaders and cast aside revolutionaries as inconsequential to the country’s Freedom struggle. History books still have sections disproportionately dedicated to the Gandhis, Nehrus, etc. but the sacrifices made by the Chapekar brothers barely find any mention.

The history of India’s fight for freedom is often recounted from the viewpoint of the non-violent movement. However, the narrative of armed resistance to colonial rule is equally significant. Figures like Vinayak Savarkar, Aurobindo Ghosh, Rashbehari Bose, Bagha Jatin, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Subhas Chandra Bose are still well-remembered. Their stories are typically portrayed as individual acts of heroism rather than as part of a broader movement with a cohesive strategy or substantial impact on the overall struggle for independence. But Sanjeev Sanyal in his book “Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom” eloquently makes a case for how the revolutionary movement was not just a manifestation of isolated incidents of anger but a well-coordinate strategy to overthrow the British rule from the country.

In his seminal book on Veer Savarkar, ‘Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past‘, author Vikram Sampath mentions in remarkable detail the life of the three Chapekar brothers, their growing-up years and their inspiration behind the assassination of the Englishman Walter Rand. Relying on primary sources of information, national archives, and a host of other sources, Sampath recounted the pure detestation Chapekar brothers had for the English, which only intensified with Rand’s repressive plague control measures in the Poona region, where his troops entered the temples and brought out women from their houses, broke idols and burnt holy books under the pretext of controlling the pestilence, following which they drew up an elaborate plan to assassinate the chief responsible for the indignities.

As for the Satyanarayan Katha, unfortunately, there is no historical account of its popularity throughout India before Chapekar’s translation, no matter how far you search. The Chapekar brothers might not have received the recognition they deserve, either in literature, movies or other media, but the next time you hear Satyanarayan Katha, try to keep in mind how religion honours its martyrs. A nation exists because of its religion.

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