At the peak of the Quit India Movement (1942-43), an Assamese young man called Kushal Konwar became the only martyr in the country who was hanged to death in the dawn of June 15, 1943, at a young age of 38 years. The story of Kushal Konwar is one of unwavering patriotism, sacrifice, and courage. He was implicated in an incident that took place at midnight on October 10, 1942. A train carrying British, and American soldiers along with military equipment was derailed at the Sarupathar Railway Station in the Golaghat district of Upper Assam. It led to the death of several thousands of soldiers, including officers and a few general passengers.
Kushal Konwar was born on March 21, 1905, at Balijan near Sarupathar, Golaghat. He gave up his job as a clerk in a tea estate so that he could devote himself completely to the cause of India’s freedom. Just like other parts of India, in Assam too, people protested in large numbers against the policies of the British Government during the Quit India Movement. Kushal Konwar was then a prominent leader of the Sarupathar District Congress Unit. Along with Santi Senas (Peace-Forces) which were set up throughout the state, Mrityu Bahinis (Suicide Squads) were also formed which carried out some serious acts of sabotage, to paralyze the communications network of the British authorities. In the meantime, the British Government resorted to violent measures to suppress the movement.
In collaboration with the Sarupathar Mrityu Bahini, the District Congress Unit chalked out a plan to sabotage a military train. Although Kushal tried his best, he failed to convince the members of the District Congress against carrying out such an activity. The British military soon cordoned off the entire Sarupathar area. Many people were indiscriminately arrested and physically harassed by the police. It was on October 13, 1942, that the British police arrested Kushal Konwar, accusing him of the chief mastermind behind the Sarupathar train sabotage incident. Kushal Konwar was advised by many to go underground, but he outrightly refused. Eventually, Kushal accepted complete moral responsibility for the crime in the Court, although there was no evidence against him to prove him guilty.
It was Kushal’s honesty in accepting the crime on behalf of his fellow countrymen which made him the perfect scapegoat for C.A. Humphrey, the then Deputy Commissioner of the district. Besides Kushal Konwar, Kanakeswar Konwar, Dharmakanta Deka, and Ghanshyam Saikia were sentenced to death by hanging. They were charged with the guilt of sedition against the colonial Government. But, except Kushal, the other three got their sentences commuted to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment through a mercy petition.
Kushal Konwar was innocent but accepted the unlawful sentence without any questioning. To quote the Gazeteer of India, Assam State Vol-1, ‘Kushal Konwar, who was believed to be innocent, was, however, declared to be guilty of sabotage and awarded capital punishment by the Court that tried him. He was hanged in the Jorhat Jail in 1943.’ Before his hanging, Konwar read a few selected verses from the Bhagavad Gita while chanting the name of Hari. Although he was never directly involved in the train sabotage incident, the hanging of Kushal Konwar proved to be another desperate attempt by the colonial administration to exert its already declining power and influence among the natives.
In the memory of Kushal Konwar, the Government of Assam has renovated and preserved the lock-up room in the premises of the Golaghat Police Station where he had spent some time after his arrest by the British.
Today, the country pays a glowing tribute to this dynamic freedom fighter from Assam on his 78th Death Anniversary.
(The author holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and regularly writes on topics of national and current interest).