The Chapekar brothers, Damodar Hari Chapekar (1870–1898), Balkrishna Hari Chapekar (1873–1899, also called Bapurao) and Vasudeo Hari Chapekar (1879–1899, were Indian revolutionaries involved in the assassination of W. C. Rand, the British plague commissioner of Pune.
The brothers initially belonged to Chapa, a small hamlet near Chinchwad, then a village near Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, India. In late 1896, Pune was hit by bubonic plague, part of the global Third plague pandemic. By the end of February 1897, the epidemic was raging, with a mortality rate double the norm. Half the population of the city left.
A Special Plague Committee was formed, under the chairmanship of Walter Charles Rand, an Indian Civil Services officer. Troops were brought in to deal with the emergency. The measures employed included forced entry into private houses, forced stripping and examination of occupants (including women) by British officers in public, evacuation to hospitals and segregation camps, removing and destroying personal possessions, and preventing movement from the city. These measures were considered oppressive by the populace of Pune and complaints were ignored by Rand.
On 22 June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of the coronation of Queen Victoria, Rand and his military escort Lt. Ayerst were shot while returning from the celebrations at Government House. Both died, Ayerst on the spot and Rand of his wounds on 3 July. The Chapekar brothers and two accomplices were charged with the murders in various roles, as well as the shooting of two informants and an attempt to shoot a police officer. All three brothers were found guilty and hanged, an accomplice was dealt with similarly, another, then a schoolboy, was sentenced to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment.
Growing up with their Kirtankar father
Vinayak Hari was left to fend for his family on his own, he did not have the means to hire professional musicians to accompany him during his kirtan, so he trained his children to do so.
The father and children became proficient in their art and were admired for their work. The Chapekar brothers received little formal education, but the “company of good people, hearing of kirtans, travelling, witnessing darbars of great princes and seeing assemblies of eminent scholars” was a source of knowledge far more enriching than a few examinations passed in school”, writes Damodar Hari in his autobiography. Hari Vinayak, father of the Chapekar brothers is credited to have authored Satyanarayanakatha, of the Skandapurana, a Sanskrit text with translations.
The Plague in Pune
Plague struck Pune in late 1896, and by January 1897, it reached epidemic proportions. Colonial government sources report that, when the Governor of the presidency inspected the city on 8 February 1897, he was told that the people would rather have plague than go to a government hospital. In 26 days of February, 657 deaths (0.6% of the city’s population) were attributed to plague, and half of the population had deserted the city.
To suppress the epidemic and prevent its spread, it was decided to take drastic action, accordingly a Special Plague Committee, with jurisdiction over Pune city, its suburbs and Pune cantonment was appointed under the Chairmanship of W. C. Rand, I. C. S, by way of a government order dated 8 March 1897.
The governor’s direction included that no Muslim and high caste Hindu women be examined and no quarters entered except by a woman, that the people should be impressed upon that the measures taken were for their own good. Orders included respect of caste and religious practices of the people.
On 12 March 1897, 893 officers and men – both British and native – under command of a Major Paget of the Durham Light Infantry were placed on plague duty rather than doctors. The measures employed included forced entry into private houses, examination of occupants, evacuation to hospitals and segregation camps, removing and destroying personal possessions, and preventing plague cases from entering or leaving the city.
It was required of the principal occupant of a house or a building to report all deaths and all illnesses suspected to be plague. Funerals were declared unlawful until the deaths were registered. The Committee had the right to mark special grounds for giving funeral to corpses suspected to have succumbed from plague, and prohibit use of any other place for the purpose. Disobedience of the orders would subject the offender to criminal prosecution. The work of the committee began on 13 March and ended on 19 May. The total estimated plague mortality was 2091.
Diverging opinions of the British measures
In his report on the administration of the Puna plague, Rand wrote, “It is a matter of great satisfaction to the members of the Plague Committee that no credible complaint that the modesty of a woman had been intentionally insulted was made either to themselves or to the officers under whom the troops worked”. He also writes that closest watch was kept on the troops employed on plague duty and utmost consideration was shown for the customs and traditions of the people.
A missionary, Rev. Robert P. Wilder, quoted in a contemporary New York Times article, asserted that the cause of plague was native practices such as going bare-foot, the distrust of the natives about the government segregation camps; further, that houses have been shut up with corpses inside, and search parties have been going around to unearth them. The same article included reported rumours that the plague has been caused by grain hoarded for twenty years by the banias or grocers being sold in the market, while others felt it was Queen Victoria’s curse for the daubing of her statue with tar.
In contrast to the above British accounts, accounts based on local Indian sources quote, among others, Narasimha Chintaman Kelkar as stating that the appointment of military officers introduced an element of severity and coercion in the house searches, the highhandedness of the government provoked the people of Puna, and some soldiers were beaten in Rasta Peth locality. “[British soldiers] either, through ignorance or impudence, would mock, indulge in monkey tricks, talk foolishly, intimidate, touch innocent people, shove them, enter any place without justification, pocket valuable items, etc..
His close associate, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, wrote: “Her Majesty the Queen, the Secretary of State and his Council, should not have issued the orders for practising tyranny upon the people of India without any special advantage to be gained. …The government should not have entrusted the execution of this order to a suspicious, sullen and tyrannical officer like Rand.
Gokhale alleged, while on a visit to Britain, that British soldiers “let loose on the town” of Pune were ignorant of Indians’ language, customs, and sentiments. Moreover, he claimed – in marked contradiction to Rand’s above-quoted statement – to be in possession of reliable reports regarding the rape of two women, one of whom committed suicide rather than live with shame.
In Independent India, a Maharashtra government agency published school textbook describes the Pune plague as follows, In 1897, there was an epidemic of plague in Poona. To control the epidemic, an officer named Mr. Rand was appointed. He used tyrannical methods and harassed the people.
The shooting of Rand
On 22 June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of the coronation of Queen Victoria was celebrated in Pune. In his autobiography Damodar Hari writes that he believed the jubilee celebrations would cause Europeans of all ranks to go to the Government House, and give them the opportunity to kill Rand. The brothers Damodar Hari and Balkrishna Hari selected a spot of Ganeshkhind road(now Senapati Bapat Road), by side of a yellow bungalow to shoot at Rand. Each armed with a sword and a pistol. Balkrishna in addition carried a hatchet. They reached Ganeshkhind, they saw what looked like Rand’s carriage pass by, but they let it go, not being sure, deciding to attack him on his way back. They reached Government House at 7.00 – 7.30 in the evening, the sun had set and darkness began to set in. A large number of people had gathered to witness the spectacle at the Government House. There were bonfires on the hills. The swords and the hatchets they carried made movement without raising suspicion difficult, so they cached them under a stone culvert near the bungalow. As planned, Damodar Hari waited at the gate of the Government House, and as Rand’s carriage emerged, ran 10 – 15 paces behind it. As the carriage reached the yellow bungalow, Damodar made up the distance, and called out “Gondya ala re”, a predetermined signal for Balkrishna to take action. Damodar Hari undid the flap of the carriage, raised it and fired from a distance of about a span. It was originally planned that both would shoot at Rand, so as to ensure that Rand would not live, however Balkrishna Hari lagged behind and Rand’s carriage rolled on, Balkrishna Hari meanwhile on the suspicion that the occupants of the following carriage were whispering to each other, fired at the head of one of them from behind. Lieutenant Ayerst, Rand’s military escort who was riding in the following carriage died on the spot, Rand was taken to Sassoon Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries 3 July 1897.
Damoder Hari was arrested in connection with the above, on the basis of information given by the Dravid brothers. In his statement, recorded on 8 October 1897, Damodar Hari, said that atrocities like the pollution of sacred places and the breaking of idols were committed by European soldiers at the time of house searches in Pune, during the plague. Chapekar tells that they wanted to take revenge of this. His statement was treated as a confession and he was charged under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, tried and hanged, on 18 April 1898. Balkrishna Hari absconded, and could be found only in January 1899, betrayed by a friend. Police informants: the Dravid brothers, were eliminated by Vasudeo Hari, Mahadev Vinayak Ranade and Khando Vishnu Sathe, who were arrested in their attempt to shoot police chief constable Rama Pandu later the same evening, of 9 February 1899. All were subsequently apprehended and tried. There the Chaphekar brothers Balkrishna Hari, Vasudeo Hari, and Ranade were sentenced to death and executed by the gallows, Vasudev Hari: 8 May 1899, Mahadeva Vinayak Ranade: 10 May 1899, Balkrishna Hari :12 May 1899. Sathe, though a juvenile, was sentenced to 10 years’ Rigorous Imprisonment.