It was around midnight on 22nd June 1897. Celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee had just ended in the Government House (currently the main building of the Savitribai Phule Pune University) in the British occupied Pune (Poona at the time).
Walter Charles Rand, recently appointed as the Chairman of the Special Plague Committee (SPC) in Pune, was riding in his horse carriage. He was followed by Lieutenant Ayerst, his military escort, who was riding in his own horse carriage.
Both British officers were merrily returning from the celebrations, to go rest in their quarters. Both were unaware that they were galloping towards their death.
The Chapekar brothers—Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev were waiting patiently in pitch darkness on the Ganesh Khind road (now the Senapati Bapat Road in Pune) each with a gun and sword in their hands and revenge on their mind.
Just as a carriage passed by the eldest brother, Damodar, he followed it and as it reached the yellow bungalow, shouted the decided call of “Gondya ala re ala”.
Just as Balkrishna heard the call for “the target has arrived”, he followed the carriage, entered it and shot his victim. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Rand but Ayerst.
Damodar and Balkrishna understood their mistake but remained unshaken. Vasudev, the youngest brother, was still running behind Rand’s coach. Damodar followed him, opened the flap of the carriage and shot their intended target—Rand—the British official who had brought shame rather than relief to the plague victims of Pune.
It all started in 1896 when the deadly plague reached Pune. It had initially affected the coastal cities with ports, but owing to its proximity to Mumbai, Pune too had been affected by it. By the beginning of January 1897, it had become nothing short of an epidemic.
In just a month, about 0.6% of Pune’s population had succumbed to the disease. Nearly half of the population had run away from the city.
It was then that the Colonial government had decided to put serious measures in place to curb the spread of the plague. It formed the SPC and made Rand the commissioner of the committee in Pune.
A New York Times report on the plague in Pune, published in June 1897 quoted a Presbyterian missionary, who said,
“Two kinds of the disease, and both deadly—Natives dying by Hundreds of Hunger—Overseers stealing the supplies.”
Rand had initially provided some relief—establishing a hospital, quarantine camps, in addition to disinfecting affected areas. However, these initiatives soon paved the way for more brutal steps that would rip the dignity of the affected families, and ignite the fire of anger among the minds like the Chapekar brothers.
Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev were born to a conservative family. Although the family was once quite wealthy, owing to the unsuccessful business ventures and the independent spirit of their grandfather, Vinayak, they lost all their money and sank into poverty.
So much so, in fact, that they could not attend the funeral of their parents because the journey would be too expensive.
The three brothers were heavily inspired by conservative ideologies and a sense of rebellion against the British. Inspired by the strong language that Balgangadhar Tilak used in his newspaper “Kesari” they decided to take action and bring down Rand who had ashamed hundreds of families in Pune.
Soon as the operations to curb the plague had started, Rand began his reign of terror. He deployed forces who had full authority to barge into any house and upset the belongings. The troops stripped men, women and children naked for “check-ups”, sometimes even in public, and evacuated them to hospitals or quarantined them. At times they also destroyed property without due permission.
Regular harassments like these had prompted the Chapekar brothers and other members of the revolutionary “Chapekar Club” to take action against the person who started it all—the commissioner.
Damodar was arrested soon after the shooting, locked in Yerawda prison and was sentenced to death. There he met Tilak, who was also arrested and kept in Yerawda and conveyed his wish to be cremated according to Hindu rituals.
Balkrishna and Vasudev, and Mahadev Ranade, who was also part of Rand’s killing, had still not been arrested. Unfortunately, the Dravid brothers, who were part of the Chapekar Club, ratted out their location to a few British officials. Balkrishna and Vasudev found out and killed the Dravid brothers, following which they were arrested and sentenced to death.
This story might not have been the most significant in British occupied India, but it shows the courage and eruption of revolutionary groups in certain parts of the country. Lala Lajpat Rai, a close aide of Lokmanya Tilak, reportedly wrote, “Chapekar brothers were, in fact, the founders of the revolutionary movement in India.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)