The ‘Capitol’ bomb case of Pune, 1942

– Vaishali Borker

Three Cinema halls of ‘Capitol’, ‘Empire’ and ‘West-end’ situated in the cantonment area of Pune generally screened English films and were frequented by British Officers and soldiers. At the end of every screening, they played the song, ‘God save the king…’ which infuriated the revolutionaries as it was an insulting reminder of being under subjugation. The theatre management were warned with anonymous letters that this practice should be stopped and instead ‘Vande mataram’ song should be played at the end of every film. As expected, there was no change, and thus, the ‘Capitol’ was bombed on 24th January, 1942. Four British officers were killed and more than 18 injured. The Capitol bombing case resonated through Pune, enlivening hope in the populace. The British were not going to take such a loss, lying down. It became a matter of honour and pride for the British. Soon the search for the perpetrators began.

Capitol theatre is today known as Victory theatre.

The background

In 1942, in the shadow of World War II, the Quit India movement was started by Gandhiji with the clarion call of ‘Do or Die’. There was general unrest everywhere in Bharat, police stations were burnt down, bridges blown up, railway tracks were disrupted to give cover to the actual strikes by the revolutionaries; whereby the movement of British troops would be hampered. There seemed to be no space for extraneous arguments like whether the strike should be violent or non-violent. In Pune, Narayan Dabhade, a young lad of 16 lowered the Union Jack and raised the Tricolour Bharatian flag in its place on one of the official buildings near Appa Balwant Chowk, Pune. He was shot at by the soldiers in the act, whereby he fell from atop the building to meet his death and attain martyrdom. This incident particularly incensed the youth, who seethed for revenge. The British brought the military war tanks onto the streets of Pune and fired in all directions on the unarmed citizenry. To control the fervent situation, men were being picked up randomly in anticipation of trouble and on mere suspicion.

The secret revolutionaries too intensified their strife. BaburaoChauhan, pseudonym – Malharrao Holkar* (*Revolutionaries during the freedom struggle often took one or more pseudonyms to mislead the police, avoid arrest, etc.)  was arrested, but cleverly escaped and went underground into hiding. Bapu Salvi (pseudonym – Kadam) fearing arrest went underground. S.T. or Chhagan Kulkarni, aged 21-22, (pseudonym – Bhopatkar) and (Neelkanth) Neelubhau Limaye aged 24-25, were their principal cohorts. Bhaskar Karnik, employed as a supervisor with the ammunition factory at Khadki near Pune often wondered how he could put to use the ammunition that he dealt with every day, for the national cause of freedom. He had begun to smuggle out small amounts of ammunition every day and store them in his own house. They began plans for a daring attack. It was decided to bomb the three cinema halls of ‘Capitol’, ‘Empire’ and ‘West-end’, all at once. Bapu Salvi and Baburao Chauhan had a warrant on their names and hence could not move about freely. Thus, the entire responsibility for conducting recces fell upon the young brother of Neelubhau, Haribhau Limaye aged 15 years and Chhagan Kulkarni. 

The preparations

They were in possession of hand grenades but how to convert them into time-bombs, so that the bomb could be detonated after the audience had seated in the theatres, was the obstacle. Trials for the same began under Bapu Dongre, who was B.Sc. and handled all the technical aspects which were being carried out in the house belonging to Madhav Patil, Durga Kutir, Prabhat Road, Pune. They detonated a bomb accidentally while experimenting due to which Neelubhau Limaye and Bapu Dongresuffered burns. They needed to be treated but approaching medical help could have alerted the police. With a loss of two members who were rendered indisposed but with the gain that the experiment was a success, they were left with only 4 people to execute the plan. Ramsingh Pardeshi had been called for, by Baburao Chauhan. That took the figure to 5. They needed at least 9 people, 3 for each cinema hall; 2 would buy the tickets for the film, enter the hall and hold suitable seats. A third one would smuggle the explosives into the theatre hall and leave immediately. After hiding the explosives suitably to cause the desired damage, the two would leave the theatre. The third would be ready with cycles to flee, each his own way to the pre-planned location. So, the ‘Empire’ theatre was dropped from the plan. But they still needed a sixth person.

Bhaskar Karnik did not want to involve himself in the actual action, so that he could keep on with his work of supplying explosives and providing logistical support. However, the revolutionaries would discuss what would be the plan of action in case they were caught, and Bhaskar Karnik swore that he would rather die than spill the names of the revolutionaries. Small boxes and bottles were required to house the bombs which were procured through Bhal Vayal. Haribhau remembered Datta Joshi, aged about 17, who was studying for his matriculation exams. He came from an extremely poor background, but had promised to get involved in revolutionary activities if the need arises. Thus, the quorum was complete.

The bombing

Initially, they had thought of January 26, the day when revolutionaries all over our nation, in 1929 or 1930, had pledged to strive until our motherland was freed; and had promulgated the ‘Declaration of Purna swarajya’. However, taking into consideration that the police surveillance would be tightened on this day, they chose the 24th of January, 1942. The bomb in Capitol achieved the target as anticipated. However, the bomb in West-end was discovered and diffused or due to some defect in the bomb only caused some fire without a blast.

In the investigation, it was recognized that the explosive was from the Khadki ammunition factory, and Bhaskar Karnik was arrested on suspicion immediately on the 30th of January 1942. As he entered the Faraskhana police chowky, he swallowed Potassium Cyanide and attained martyrdom, true to his word, without revealing any of his fellowmen’s names. Then, for months on, the British were clueless. They had no leads, and finally declared a prize of Rs. 5000/- for any information. Yet, for over a year, there was no response. 

The arrests

Wearied of being in hiding and on the run, all the time, Baburao Chauhan and S.T. Kulkarni, who already had warrants against them, had gone to watch a cricket match at the Breborn stadium in Mumbai. It is not known how the police got information, but the police team encircled the entire stadium and arrested them on 20th or 21st March, 1943 and were brought to Pune. Soon the rest of them were arrested. Bapu Salvi was underground in Nasik and hence could not be traced. Datta Joshi was arrested from Nana Agashe’s classroom near Nagnath paar, where he went to be tutored for mathematics. The police stated that Datta Joshi was being arrested for stealing a bicycle; while Datta, all the while argued that they should clarify that he was being arrested for his role in activities for freedom of his nation. Rest of the students gathered around Agashe sir, and asked, why he did not intervene to prevent the arrest of his favourite student, Datta, from his classroom premises. Datta was an ace cricketer, dramatist, and painter, besides being an excellent student.

The normal procedure in lock-up was to first create terror in the minds of the arrested through physical and verbal abuse. The detainees did not have permission to meet anyone, read anything or even talk to one another. On a rare occasion, if any relatives were allowed to meet, then too, there would be 4-5 police officers around. One day, Datta was allowed to stand at the gate of the prison. He saw an acquaintance passing by and called out to him to know about the welfare of his family, only to learn that his mother, only brother and only sister had expired in the last 6 months. Datta was astounded but soon collected himself and pushing aside the gun of a police guard, confronted the jailor, as to why he was not told about the mishaps in his family, which was his right as a political prisoner. After this incident, some leniency that was granted was also withdrawn, and they were subjected to further isolation. 

Soon, Pune was infected with plague, hence the prisoners were shifted from the Pune city prison to Yerawada Central prison. Arrangements were such that none could communicate with each other. It is when they were here that the hearing for the Capitol bomb case began before the sessions court judge, M.S. Patil. 

Haribhau and Datta, perhaps being the youngest, were made the prosecution witnesses and were trained by the police to give statements against their co-revolutionaries. On the other hand Haribhau’s father had warned him that if Haribhau gave a statement against his co-revolutionaries… He that is haribhau’s father would consider that his son is dead. They were also being counseled from outside the prison about how to give the statement and what to say, in order to save them all. Any difference in the statements of the two would have given them all away. The role of passing messages so that the two gave the same statements was played by the relatives of Haribhau. Notes written on paper rolled into the middle of chapattis when home-food was occasionally allowed was the medium. The police exercised strict vigilance, hence some sign language was devised to convey which version of the story was narrated in court.

As they were taken into the court premises, the armed police in charge of Haribhau and Datta threatened to shoot them, if their statements were not, as instructed. But Haribhau and Datta had resolved to try and save everybody involved. As Haribhau gave his statement and was escorted out of the courtroom, Datta was brought in. On the way out Haribhau had signaled the necessary to Datta. Both had insisted that they only agreed to have committed the ‘crime’ due to the torture of the police in confinement. Whereas, in reality, they were innocent and knew nothing about the bombing, except what the police had instructed them to say. Datta explicitly narrated the agony of life in prison. Hearing of the torture, the young accused were subjected to, one Chingopant Divekar stabbed the interrogation officer, Mr. Roch, who was on his way to the courtroom. Some or other incident would occur in the animated environment of Pune as the public eagerly awaited for the daily news of the court-proceedings. Finally, on 29th February, 1944, amidst all drama, the judgment was delivered – They were all acquitted; A special mention for the atrocities suffered in jails was made. As they stepped out of the courtroom, they were arrested again, under ‘भारत संरक्षणकायदा’. Only this time, with a lot of pleadings, the isolation was done away with, which made the confinement bearable.

Unfortunately, Datta contracted a fever. Due to poor and inappropriate medical treatment in jail, where he was administered disproportionate doses of quinine, assuming it was Malaria, his health deteriorated further. Under pressure from the jail-mates, he was transferred to the Sassoon hospital. Haribhau’smother and their friend Janu Joshi visited him in the hospital. Except for his aging father, there were no relatives left to visit Datta! Soon Datta breathed his last. With a lot of pressure, permission was granted to have a proper cremation according to Hindu rites, albeit, with a lot of terms like no procession shall be taken out, only 10-12 persons will be allowed, no garlands, no slogans shall be allowed, etc. When Datta’s father was told about Datta’s demise, he collapsed. The last rites were performed by Janu Joshi and his friends. Agashe sir came with a small garland, for his favorite extraordinarily talented student.  

The rest were released only after Bharat got its freedom on 15th August 1947.

Source : ‘काराग्रहातील पथिक’, written by Haribhau Limaye; and personal interactions of the author with Haribhau and his relatives. 

Author : Vaishali Borker – Freelance Architect and Industrial Product designer (IIT, Bombay)

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