Marching through Mumbai’s Freedom Trail
In the colloquial reprise of roles played by different cities in India’s freedom struggle, Mumbai is not always iterated with the abandon reserved for nerve centres like Bengal and Delhi. But in reality, Mumbai—then Bombay, a port city headquartering the administrative subdivision of the Bombay Presidency—boasts a deep involvement in the country’s resistance against her British occupiers. After all, this is the city that birthed the Indian National Congress, also launching the Non-Cooperation and Quit India movements.
Ashwini Nawathe, who leads the heritage walk Freedom Trails and Tales of Bombay, digs into the archives. “The Non-cooperation movement was flagged off from Mahatma Gandhi’s house Mani Bhavan, and the Quit India Movement was initiated at the Gowalia Tank, now known as the August Kranti Maidan. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Queen’s proclamation was announced on the steps of the Asiatic Library. KaevanUmrigar, from the Azad Hind Walk for Khaki Tours, points out how salt collected in local salt marches as a part of Gandhi’s defiance of the British salt tax was auctioned off in the Bombay Stock Exchange.
Here’s a loving, lingering look at the nooks and crannies of Mumbai that harbour traces of its patriotic past 73 years after independence.
Kick-start the trail at Sheth Gokuldas Tejpal Auditorium—the birthplace of the Indian National Congress (INC)—near the August Kranti Maidan.The first session of the INC was initially meant to be held in Pune. However, a sudden cholera outbreak in the city prompted a last-minute shift of the venue to neighbouring Mumbai, with the seminal event taking place on the grounds of the auditorium on December 28, 1885.
The venue was initially a water tank called Gowalia Tank. (Gaieis Marathi for cow). Its nomenclature is a nod to local cattle-owners, who would bring their cows to for baths, at a time when pipelines didn’t exist. Years after the first session, the Gowalia Tank would be immortalised as the spot where the iconic Quit India Session of the INC took place, where on August 8, 1942, Gandhi made a historic speech ordering the British to leave India immediately, or suffer the consequences of nation-wide mass protests. Following Gandhi’s address, Aruna Asaf Ali hoisted the Indian National Flag here for the first time—setting off the freedom struggle to one of its final legs.
Two important roads flank the August Kranti Maidan. To its left, is a road called Forjett Street, named after Charles Forjett, who was the superintendent of the police during the 1857 revolt. To the right of the Maidan lies Nana Chowk, named after Jagarnath Shankar Sen. Sen was suspected of planning rebellions against the British, in rumoured coalition with Nana Sahib Peshwa, who had led and been martyred in the uprising in Kanpur. Charles Forjettsent detectives disguised as beggars to Sen’s house to investigate, but in the end exonerated Sen.
As you turn the corner at Nana Chowk, up ahead are a pair of railway tracks—and an archetypal compound that houses a cluster of seven buildings, which made up the Congress House. What many don’t know is that just like the legendary Dandi March, Gandhi’s brainchild to protest the British salt tax, there were simultaneous salt marches in Mumbai, with a very important one commencing at the Congress House and tracing all the way to Haji Ali. Another salt march was conducted at Girgaon Chowpatty.
Raghavji Road,between the August Kranti Maidan and Kemp’s Corner, houses the residence of Yusuf Mehr Ali, who came up with the most iconic slogans of the freedom movement, such as ‘Quit India’ and ‘Simon Go Back’. Around the corner here is a statue of Nasarwanji Petit, brother of Parsi entrepreneur Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, who was the grandfather-in-law of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Jinnah People’s Memorial Hall
Located close to the Congress House is a building built as a tribute to Jinnah around 1919. Early in Jinnah’s career as a lawyer and politician, he crossed paths with Lokmanya Tilak with whom he co-founded the All India Home Rule League in 1916. Around this time, Lord Willingdon was the Governor of British India and on June 10, 1918, he held a war conference in Mumbai’s Town Hall (now The Asiatic Society of Mumbai) to enlist Indian support for the war. Tilak and Jinnah were both invited. When Tilak demanded that the British give in to the demands of the Home Rule League in return, the governor refused. After this, Tilak and a few other local leaders stormed out of the conference. However, Jinnah stayed back and put forward Tilak’s views in a more amicable fashion. Later, as Willingdon reached the end of his term, talks arose of building him a memorial. It is said that Jinnah led those who protested this notion, and took the matter to court. In his refusal to cower, he managed to impress the masses, who then decided to build him a memorial hall instead. In a span of one short month, 65,000 people contributed a rupee each, and with that money, the Jinnah People’s Memorial Hall was built.
Within walking distance of the Raghavji Road lies Ajit Villa. Following a massive British crackdown on anyone deemed a freedom fighter during the Quit India Movement, the INC devised a new way to protect themselves, while also staying connected to each other. Thus formed the Underground Congress Radio, an illegal movement where members of the party would carry portable radio equipment and operate out of multiple buildings, so as to not get caught. One of these buildings was the Ajit Villa.
A 15-minute walk away from Ajit Villa will have you standing outside one of the oldest theatres in the city—the Imperial Cinema.The building’s importance is ascribed to the fact that this is where Jinnah met Gandhi for the first time.The story goes that when Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, there was a celebratory reception held in this building by the Gurjar Sabha, a leading Gujarati political organisation at the time. Jinnah, due to his Gujarati origins, was also present at the event. It is said that he even offered a welcome speech for Gandhi.
Chowpatty’s connection to the freedom movement runs very deep. Following the news of the unconstitutional Rowlatt Act of 1919, a mass demonstration took place on this beach, with men, women and even children donning black clothes and observing a ‘Black Sunday’. A statue of Tilak stands proudly at Chowpatty now, said to have been built exactly at the spot where he had been cremated.
Conclude the trail at Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s residence from 1917 to 1934. The launchpad of the Non-cooperation movements, Mani Bhavan still stands as a loyal testament to the Father of the Nation, preserving his letters, portraits, and even the cloth which he learned to spin here. After launching the Civil Disobedience Movement, Gandhi was arrested from these very gates.
An amble along these historic spots is a timely reminder that Mumbai, with its repute of hurtling forward, is forever entrenched in the country’s courageous past.