The Independence movement is often narrated in terms of the country as a whole. But the city of Mumbai has undoubtedly played a key role in the freedom struggle. Be it in terms of financial assistance, through the power of cinema, the women who took charge and even the role of the press, we can trace the contribution of the city during the time and even after.
The National Gallery of Modern Art along with Avid Learning introduced us to these various facets of the city through a panel discussion led by journalist and editor of Scroll.in Naresh Fernandes, Mumbai historian Murali Ranganathan, corporate archivist Sanghamitra Chatterjee and film scholar Amrit Gangar. Here are a few interesting things we picked up at the talk...
Way with words
Bengal may have been regarded as the pioneer of the Indian press in the 18th century, but the press in Bombay dived into and expanded the freedom movement. In his book Journalism in India, Rangaswami Parathasarathy noted that “Bombay was the citadel from where the Indian press launched its social reform movement…and then the political movement.”
In 1789, The Bombay Herald was the first paper to be launched in the city, which was later called the Bombay Gazette. However, it didn’t hint at nationalism in any way. In 1832, it was the The Bombay Darpan, an Anglo-Marathi fortnightly started by Bal Shastri Jambhekar that paved the way for socio-political reform.
So far leeway was given to the press, but in 1833, the Bombay Native Observer wrote about how ‘the British have their hands in our pockets’ as a nod to colonialism, and this was when the British decided to pull the plug on the newspaper, stating that the editor had spoken too frankly.
Several women contributed to the character of the city during our freedom struggle, many of whom have been forgotten. For instance, we have seen hoardings and posters commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
However, we forget that it is also Kasturba Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary; she was six months older than Gandhi. Another little known tid-bit about Mumbai is that Lijjat papad was founded by five women and has now travelled overseas and gained popularity internationally.
In fact, when men failed to come forward and support the Father of the nation, it was the women who showed solidarity and held meetings which Bapu attended and addressed.
Directed by Kanjibhai Rathod and made under the Kohinoor Film Company banner, Bhakta Vidur is a silent film made in 1921, and it came soon after the Rowlatt Act was passed in India. The mythological character Vidura was moulded on the personality of Gandhi, and Vidura was shown wearing the Gandhi cap, khaddar etc.
Several other contemporary political events of the country were shown as reference in the film. All of this caused Bhakta Vidur to become the first film to be banned in India (in Madras, Karachi and some other provinces). The censor report concluded, ‘It is likely to excite dissatisfaction against government and incite people to non co-operation.’
The beautiful thing about Gandhi is that he established a connect with a cross-section of the society. Be it the villagers or the industrialists, he had a way with them. And rightly so, because the movement towards Independence wouldn’t have succeeded solely on the basis of emotional support.
The financial backing was essential, and this is where the big industrialists of the time came together to support the Tilak Swaraj Fund in 1920. Jamnalal Bajaj eventually went on to become the treasurer of the fund. The fund provided monetary aid to the movement and the people who had left their jobs to participate wholly in it.
It’s important to note that the businessmen and the mill owners of the time intervened in the freedom movement in their individual capacity and they ensured that their businesses were in no way affected.
A big non-cooperation move on the part of the Indians was the rise of Indian goods and commodities in retaliation to British goods. It was around this time that Gandhi put forth the idea of khadi and relied on the businessmen for the promotion and distribution of the cloth throughout the land.
He had the backing of the Indian capitalist class. Godrej also introduced a 100% vegetarian soap under the brand. Khwaja Abdul Hamied, who founded Cipla (India’s oldest pharmaceutical company in 1935), was a strong nationalist by nature. He contested the legislative elections in the city and refused the offer to become a Muslim Minister in the cabinet in Bombay.