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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 29, New Delhi, July 3, 2021

Dharwar Firing Centenary | Anil Nauriya

Friday 2 July 2021, by Anil Nauriya

Today, 1 July, is the centenary of the police firing in Dharwar during the movement for Non-violent Non-co-operation with the Colonial Government in India 100 years ago.

The firing started around 8.20 at night when non-co-operators were picketing market toddy and liquor shops. At least 42 bullets were fired, killing 3 and injuring around 39 persons.

The All India Congress Committee appointed an Inquiry Committee to inquire into the incident and fix responsibility for the casualties, including deaths and injuries.

The Inquiry Committee was chaired by Abbas Tyabji, retired Chief Justice, Baroda, and included SS Setlur, former Judge of the Mysore High Court and M. Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, Advocate, Nagpur as members. Shri N.H. Dambal, Secretary Karnataka Provincial Congress Committee, acted as the Secretary to the Committee.

The Inquiry Committee treated the Inquiry as "a judicial contest between the Public of Dharwar and the Police of Dharwar." The Governor of Bombay was informed as were the District Magistrate and the District Superintendent of Police, Dharwar. A general invitation was also issued to members of the the public to offer evidence relevant to the inquiry. No one appeared on behalf of the administration but " Sub Inspector of Police attended as a member of the public and took notes of the proceedings from day to day". The Inquiry Committee sought to remedy the defect of the non-appearance of the administration. It noted that " Every care has been taken to utilise all such materials as were available from the records of the Committing Magistrate and Session Judge in the riot case up to the date of the Report and thereby remedy the defects that arise from the non-participation of the Government in the Inquiry". It took special care to ensure that no statements "pass without proper sifting". Some ninety odd witnesses were examined. V. N. Joshi of Hubli had conducted a preliminary inquiry of the Congress Committee. S.V. Kaujalgi of Bijapur placed the case of the public before the Commissioners of Inquiry. The Inquiry was completed by the end of August 1921 and the first volume was probably published the following month. The Second Volume consisting of witness statements, Exhibits and illustrations was published in December 1921.

The Inquiry Report notes specific efforts of the Colonial Government to divide the Non-co-operation movement.

The incisiveness with which the Report is prepared is testimony to the forensic ability of the Inquiry Committee’s Chairman and members.

Abbas Tyabji, who headed the Inquiry Committee, had earlier been a member, along with Mahatma Gandhi and others, of the Committee set up by the Congress to inquire into the Punjab events before and under Martial law in 1919.

In 1930 Abbas Tyabji would succeed Gandhi as the National leader of the Civil Disobedience Movement after the latter’s arrest. After his own arrest, Abbas Tyabji, in turn, would be succeeded by Sarojini Naidu.

The Dharwar Firing Inquiry Committee Report of 1921 is a model of precision, brevity and fairness of approach. The Collector of Dharwar, Mr Painter, was given an opportunity to give his version but did not avail of it.

The Committee framed the issues in the Dharwar Firing Inquiry as follows:

(1) Under what circumstances did the crowd collect before the liquor and toddy shops and their neighbourhood?
(2) What was the approximate number of those who were acting in common and were not present there merely as sight-seers at the time firing took place?
(3) What was the object aimed at by those who were acting in common?
(4) What was done by those acting in common prior to the opening of fire by the police?
(5) Was any attempt made by the Police to disperse the crowd by means other than shooting?
(6) Was any warning given that unless the crowd dispersed within a given time, it would be fired upon with buckshot?
(7) Was the firing directed only against points where danger was expected? If not, what was the justification for firing in other directions? Did the firing cease immediately the occasion for it disappeared? If not, was the continuation of the fire justifiable?
(8) Was the firing on the party which brought the Kitson light to the liquor shop justifiable?

The Dharwar Firing Inquiry Committee took and considered voluminous evidence (published separately as Volume II comprising 196 pages plus 47 pages of Appendices).
The Inquiry Committee then concluded: "The excessive shooting seems to support the contention, that the object was not maintenance of public peace but the teaching of a severe lesson to the people."

The Report of the Inquiry Committee contains a list of the dead and wounded in the police firing at Dharwar on 1 July 1921.

One person who died from multiple gunshot wounds was Malik, aged 17 years.
Another person who died from multiple gun shot wounds was Abdul Labbe, aged about 35 years.

Yet another person who died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds in the Dharwar firing was Gousu Rajesab, aged about 30 years.

The Dharwar Firing Inquiry Committee of 1921 also published a list of those wounded in the firing. These included persons of various religions and castes.

The Inquiry Report recorded the callings of persons injured eg., Weaver, peon, beggar, driver, ekka driver, tangawala, carpenter, barber, servants in tea and kirani shops, butcher, fakir, tea vendor, cultivator, student, pleader’s clerk, Sanitary inspector, constable and compounder at the Government Civil Hospital.

There are some noteworthy features in the Report. The Committee was able to establish that the events relating to the shooting did not accord with the police version on several points.

Though the Police did not appear before the Committee, the Committee had access to materials that had been filed in Courts by the police.

One of the most interesting features of the Inquiry Committee Report is its microscopic examination of the police claim that a warning had been given. The Committee dealt with Sub Inspector’s assertion as follows :

"We do believe that he must have asked people to disperse : but we doubt that he warned them of the firing".

The Inquiry Committee found further : "Moreover, the Sub-Inspector did not give time to disperse. The crowd consisted of boys and people of diverse classes such as gather at the evening Bazar of every big town. It is inconceivable that they would not have taken to their heels if they had realised the danger that was ahead. No officer can be justified in ordering a crowd to disperse and then to fire at the next moment without waiting to see whether the crowd would disperse peaceably or not".

And then came the clincher :

"Had the warning really reached the crowd we would not have found Policemen in plain dress or the two Municipal Officers remaining there to be shot as has been proved by a Police witness … and the two Municipal employees..."

That was not all. The Inquiry Committee found on the direction of the firing:

"Similar was the case with those standing on the open ground. So that if firing was necessary to cause a dispersal of the mob in front of the liquor shop, there certainly was no justification for firing in directions other than that of the liquor shop. And yet the evidence of the wounded persons and of others shows that the firing was not confined to one direction."

The Committee took adequate care to ensure that a student who was injured was examined only in camera.

Finally, the Committee concluded that the police firing on the crowds "that had assembled before the liquor shop and its neighbourhood was unjustifiable and far too drastic and excessive to meet the requirements of the situation and that the firing after the Kitson light was brought on the scene by people who came to succour the wounded was absolutely brutal and without even a semblance of a justifying necessity."

Anil Nauriya, New Delhi, 1 July 2021

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