Remembering Khudiram: The Smiling Young Martyr


The Statesman, May 2 1908: “The Railway station was crowded to see the boy. A mere boy of 18 or 19 years old, who looked quite determined.

He came out of a first class compartment and walked all the way to phaeton, kept for him outside, like a cheerful boy who knows no anxiety… on taking his seat the boy lustily cried ‘Bandemataram’.”

(When he was brought to Muzaffarpur after his arrest)

Seldom has the Vandemataram invocation carried greater pathos, stirred deeper empathy, evoked fiercer pride, and fanned purer patriotic sentiments, the way it did, being uttered by the unrepentant and unapologetic Khudiram, almost hundred and thirteen years ago, after he was arrested in the Muzaffarpur conspiracy case. Even after almost seventy five years of Indian independence, Khudiram pervades the collective consciousness of generations of Bengalis as a symbol of ultimate patriotic heroism and unparalleled selfless sacrifice. In today’s fast-paced competitive life, where yardsticks of success mostly revolve around gauche display of materialistic luxury, remembering Khudiram itself, is a prayer. A prayer that infuses us to even momentarily stop and think about the hard-earned freedom of our country and what’s become of it. His smiling acceptance of the gallows while in his teens for the abstract love of one’s motherland, should inspire generations of youngsters to tread beyond boundaries defined by selfish ends.

The name Khudiram conjures up the image of a wimpy, calm, dhoti-clad teenager with just a hint of smile at his lips – a smile that mocked the paramountcy of the British rule, shrugged off the ultimatum of death and almost single-handedly turned the trajectory of the spirit of nationalism to a headlong collision path with the rulers. In fact, Khudiram is not just remembered for the momentous events that define his short life, but rather more because of his attitude – his sublimity and composure in the face of death, his carefree defiance of the arrogance of the British raj and his unwavering love for our motherland.

Just before Khudiram’s execution, Aftab (an Urdu newspaper) wrote:

Aftaab: August 2, 1908: A change seems to be passing over the country. It commences in Bengal the people of which were first to be swayed by the creed of nationalism. They used to be regarded as cowards by their fellow countrymen, but this estimate of their character has turned out to have been unfounded. They are proving themselves as the saviours of India. They have lost all fear of death, while imprisonment has no terror for them. Blessed are those who sacrifice their lives for their country and make themselves immortal thereby. The Bengalis are resolute and no power can stand in their way. The more Government tries to suppress them the more they will gain in strength.

Khudiram was born to Trailokyanath Bose and Lakshmipriya Devi on 3rd December 1889 in Habibpur village, in the district of Medinipur. He was the fourth sibling to three elder sisters and his parents also had two sons before him but both of them died prematurely. Following cultural traditions prevalent at that time, the newborn child was symbolically sold to his eldest sister in exchange of three handfuls of food grains locally known as Khud, in an attempt to save him from dying at an early age – hence the name, Khudiram. He lost both his parents very early (around when he was six) and lived with the family of his eldest sister Aparupa Roy. Aparupa’s husband, Amritalal Roy, got him admitted to Tamluk’s Hamilton High School.

Khudiram, was extremely courageous and anecdotes about his spending new moon nights alone at the burning ghats, holding snakes bare-handed abound tales of his childhood times. He was also amazingly generous and innumerable tales of his selfless gestures of charity – giving away his own share of food and clothes – have been endlessly recalled by acquaintances. He also used to play the flute quite deftly.

Khudiram was enthused with patriotism right in his early formative years – in 1902 and 1903, Sri Aurobindo and Sister Nivedita visited Midnapore and held a series of public lectures and meetings with the existing revolutionaries and Khudiram, who was in his teens then, was an active participant in these discussions.

He probably joined Anushilan Samiti and became a volunteer at the age of 15. He actively participated in anti-British activities like distributing pamphlets against the British rule in India, and the daredevil that he was, he took part in planting bombs near police stations and targeted government officials. His fearlessness was understandably quite legendary even before the attempt on the life of Kingsford.

Khudiram, along with Prafulla Chaki, were chosen by the revolutionaries to assassinate a British judge, Magistrate Douglas Kingsford, by hurling bombs on the carriage he was supposed to be in. Kingsford had earned great notoriety among nationalists for passing extremely harsh sentences on them.

When all arrangements were made – Hemchandra Kanungo and Ullaskar Dutta had finished making the bomb to be hurled at Kingsford, two required revolvers had been obtained, and Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki were making final arrangements – Khudiram’s friends were surprised to see Khudiram buying a new pair of shoes. When his friends inquired, he smiled and replied that he was going to get married and hence was buying a new pair of shoes! His friends were expectedly rather surprised since he always said he’d never marry and in fact urged his friends not to marry as well as and instead devote their lives towards serving our motherland. But Khudiram spoke with such innocence that it was hard for his friends not to believe him. When they asked him when he’d return, he had smiled and said he wasn’t sure he’d return or not since they’d probably keep him as ghorjamai.

On a fateful day, Magistrate Kingsford, however, was seated in a different carriage, and the throwing of bombs resulted in the deaths of two British women. Prafulla committed suicide before the arrest. Khudiram was arrested and trialled for the murder of the two women.

On 1 May, the handcuffed Khudiram was brought to Muzaffarpur. The entire town seemed to have gathered at the police station to take a look at the teenage boy surrounded by a team of armed policemen. Khudiram was taken to the house of the district magistrate, Mr Woodman. This English daily, The Statesman, wrote the following day, 2 May 1908 (the quotation in the beginning):

The Railway station was crowded to see the boy. A mere boy of 18 or 19 years old, who looked quite determined. He came out of a first-class compartment and walked all the way to the phaeton, kept for him outside, like a cheerful boy who knows no anxiety…..on taking his seat the boy cheerfully cried ‘Vandemataram’.

Khudiram had to give a statement or declaration to the magistrate. He took full responsibility for the assassination, unknown that Prafulla was dead. Only after Khudiram finished giving his statement, the body of Prafulla reached Muzaffarpur. Khudiram realized that lying would be of no avail.

The historical trial started on 21 May 1908. Lawyers Kalidas Basu, Upendranath Sen, and Kshetranath Bandopadhyay, Kulkamal Sen, Nagendra Lal Lahiri, and Satischandra Chakraborty took up Khudiram’s defence and all of them fought the case without any fees. On 23 May, Khudiram was persuaded by his counsel to resubmit his statement to the magistrate, denying any involvement or responsibility in the bombing (though he was initially much reluctant to do so). However, on 13 June, the Judge pronounced the death sentence for Khudiram.

Khudiram’s first reaction was a smile to which the surprised judge asked him whether he understood the meaning of the sentence. Khudiram replied that he did. When the judge again asked him whether he would like to say anything, he replied with the same smile that if he could be given some time, he could teach the judge the skill of bomb-making! He certainly didn’t seem to lose sight of his sense of humour even when death stared him in the face.

As per the legal system, Khudiram had seven days to appeal to the High Court, which he did after persuasion by his counsellors. The High Court hearing took place on 8 July and the British judges confirmed the conviction and sentence and dismissed the appeal in its verdict on July 13. An appeal was also made to the governor general to overrule the death sentence for Khudiram but it too was summarily turned down and it was ordered that the execution should take place latest by 11 August 1908.

The entire Bengali community, especially students, rose up in unprecedented protest and the streets of Kolkata started to witness huge gatherings and processions for several days. A legal battle of such momentous import, including appeals to higher courts etc., was settled and dismissed in less than three months, when legal battles are known to linger for months and years on an end, riding on loopholes and lacunae in language and other nitty-gritty of cases.

On the dawn of 11 August, much before 6am, people with garlands in their hands, thronged the region around the prison. After the hanging, the funeral procession went through the main road in the city, with police having a tough time holding back crowds, who kept throwing their flowers on the body as the carriage passed by.

“ekbar biday de ma ghure ashi,

hashi hashi porbo phasi dekhbe bharatbasi…”

Amritabazaar Patrika: August 12, 1908: “Kshudiram’s End: Dies cheerful and smiling: A Quiet Funeral”

“Kshudiram’s execution took place at 6 a.m. this morning. He walked to the gallows firmly and cheerfully and even smiled when the cap was drawn over his head.”

The Empire: August 12, 1908: Khudiram Bose was executed this morning… It is alleged that he mounted the scaffold with his body erect. He was cheerful and smiling.

The end of mortal Khudiram, in fact, marked the beginning of an immortal saga of nationalism where generations of freedom fighters were born and who sworn in the spirit of Khudiram.

However in the fragmented landscape of nationalism, the response to such unadulterated ultimate sacrifice had been mixed. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact denounced Khudiram’s actions lamenting the deaths of the two innocent women. The spectre of the divisive nature of the Indian idealism kept haunting posterity too. For instance, our first Prime Minister cancelled participation in the foundation stone laying ceremony of an edifice to be built in memory of Khudiram.

1949 3rd April Hindustan Standard: Title: “Unfortunate” : “At Muzaffar on April 2, the foundation stone was laid of a memorial raised to the martyr Kshudiram who forty one years ago fearlessly courted the gallows while in teens. It was previously announced that the Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, would perform the ceremony of laying foundation stone of the sacred edifice erected in memory of one of the pioneers of our freedom movement. Indeed it was quite in the fitness of things that the first Prime Minister of India would be called upon to honour the first casualty in our battle for freedom. Unfortunately, at the last moment, Panditji declined to come to Muzaffarpur to lay the foundation stone of Kshudiram memorial. That news came to the multitude as a rude shock. And what was even more shocking was the cause of his refusal. Panditji, as it is reported, revoked his consent to the lay the foundation stone of the memorial to the gallant revolutionary because being a Congressman wedded to the Gandhian doctrine of non-violence, he could not pay tributes to one who was a believer in the cult of violence…”

Khudiram is not just a young patriot who sacrificed his life smilingly for the motherland – he is a sentiment, he is a personification of selflessness, a quintessence of patriotic pride and an epitome of Bengali courage. He will gloriously stride across all thoughts of fear and resignation for generations to come and his ultimate demonstration of undaunted love for one’s motherland will be reverentially remembered by all of legacy.

Khudiram has ceased to be a name – it’s really a word connoting greatness of passion over the selfish and the mundane, single-minded pursuit of ideals even in the face of insurmountable challenge and the unshackling of worldly ties that prevent us from pursuing what is remotely achievable and likely to fail. Khudiram is a cult, an ethos of selflessness, and of treading a path fraught with danger and failure, fearlessly, and remembering him, not just for a day or two, but rather imbibing his ways and spirit in our everyday actions and pursuits, is the biggest tribute we can hope to pay him. He is the symbol of the ultimate romance of a teenager – with love and death – albeit of a vastly different kind.

Soumyanetra Munshi, Associate Professor,  Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata

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