The story of Simla in the 19th century was written by the British. It was their ideal retreat and they planned everything about Simla- from its shape and features to its social framework and destiny…or so, they thought. What they did not realize in their zeal and over-enthusiasm was that they had sown, within the town, seeds of racial bigotry, particularly with the division of Simla into the station and bazaar wards.
Simla was no longer the quiet, pristine beauty they had discovered almost a century ago. With the influx of people from all over the country to support the English lifestyle- traders, coolies, labourers, clerks, etc. there were more Indians in Simla by the beginning of the 20th century than the number of Europeans. With lavish construction of buildings and hotels, Simla was now losing its charm and hence the interest of the Raj too!
Simla was basically then a club of two opposite worlds- the British Simla (sophisticated and snobbish) and the non-British Simla (rustic, working class). The English were now worried…that the British Simla may soon be taken over by the non-British residents. The growing interests of Indian princes in the town did nothing to alleviate their fears.
Simla had been like a pearl for the British and they wished to guard it well in their shell. In fact, they wrote more accounts about Simla than about any other Indian city. But surprisingly, most of these accounts are about the Simla of the 19th century. For, in the 20th century, Simla turned from being just a recovery station for the English into a place for nationalist movement.
Though there are several stories that trace this change, we will first look at a very small incident that happened in the year 1925. Gaiety Theatre on the Mall was a place known for parties and dances and theatre. The English loved to spend their evenings there. On one such evening, the rickshaw pullers waited in the cold for a party to get over, to carry their passenger home. Of them, Jageshar, a rickshaw coolie, dozed off in the cold night. The moment his master, an English army official, Mansel Playdell, came out and saw him sleeping, he was enraged. He kicked the coolie so hard that the poor man died of a ruptured spleen. A case was registered against the official. But this episode also divided Simla into two- those who had their sympathies with the official and hoped for leniency to be shown to him and the enraged Indians who wanted a severe punishment for the English man. After a trial of six months the official was given 18 months’ imprisonment. The episode served as a means to awaken the dormant anti-British rants of the hill people.
In the year 1921, before this episode, Mahatma Gandhi had visited Simla for a meeting with the Viceroy. He had received a warm welcome and had addressed a gathering at the Idgah. His words had stayed with the locals. He had even written of the British government as ‘a government working from the 500th floor’.
The visit of Gandhiji, along with Madan Mohan Malviya and Lala Lajpat Rai, infused nationalist feelings in the hearts of people and many local leaders like Kedar Nath and Harish Chandra emerged as frontrunners for the cause of Indian independence. The formation of the Bicameral Legislation in the country, saw many Indian leaders visit the hill town and that was another reason that lighted the torch of a rebellion. By the year 1930, Simla was seething with anger against the colonizers.
Actually, if you see, the English were masters, but not in their own home. Definitely, they added much to the subcontinent, but no matter how many lamps they lighted, they couldn’t have been liked by the average Indian. Because, as stated in a previous chapter, imperialism can never outweigh nationalism. Their means were ultimately to achieve ends for themselves and themselves alone.
In the years of the First World War (1914-1918), the British were largely helped by the Hill Chiefs and rulers. But there was dissent among the other sections. There was a relationship of mutual advantage between the British and the Indian Princes, but that did not include the common man.
After the war, the English atrocities on Indians grew manifold. The year 1919 saw the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and the visit of some national leaders to Simla. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was staying at a hotel in the town, was barred from meeting an Afghan delegation that had come to visit the Viceroy and when he refused to comply, he was asked to leave Simla within four hours. This was a huge embarrassment to him.
Lala Lajpat Rai was one leader who often addressed rallies in Simla. The Edward’s Gunj was a wholesale open market for the sale of grains that was opened in 1847 by Herbert Edward. Lalaji chose this venue for his rallies. He was opposing the Rowlatt Bill. The trader community of Simla was an active participant in these rallies. In fact, there were three major unions formed that included the coolies, Kashmiri Muslim Labourers and the Balmikiyan Sweepers Association. We can thus understand that Simla had been turned into a town that was seeped in discrimination on the basis of workmanship.
The Mall Road was the biggest example of racial bigotry set up by the English. The Simla Municipal Traffics bye-law was passed that stated that no job porter or coolie or ill-dressed Indian and Congressmen was allowed on the Mall between 4-8 PM from 15 March-15 October (the ‘season’ that was chosen to make it the Summer Capital and when most English frequented the Mall).
All this had agitated the people. And a town that had been conceived by the British only for themselves and that was never supposed to be a part of India, was now more Indian than they had ever imagined!
By the year 1930, nationalist movement in Simla was in full swing and the interest of the British in the town began to wane out. Important freedom fighters emerged like Dr Y S Parmar and Baba Kanshi Ram (popularly called Pahari Gandhi). One major demand of the movement in the town was the transfer of jobs to Indians. There was immense pressure and more and more English educated Indian clerks were employed. This led to an inflow of people from all over the country, who chose Simla to be their home. They belonged to different states but had a common thread of being government officials in Simla. This explains the settlement of different communities in the hill town. With very few original inhabitants, Simla became a town for denizens- Bengalis, Sikhs, Kashmiris, Punjabis, Soods and Europeans!
The 1900s were important in other ways too. Most shops on the Mall were now owned by Indians, many beautiful houses had been bought by Indians and the Simla branch of INC became active from 1914.
Another important man who was responsible for the rise of an uprising in Simla was Samuel Evan Stokes. An American, who was initially moderately tolerant towards the British Raj, rose to speak against the practice of begar in 1918. Begar was a practice for hiring locals for work without paying them for the same. It was just like slavery. The English who went for hunting to the hills employed the people living in suburban villages to carry their loads without giving them any money for it. Stokes rebelled against the practice and it was finally abolished in 1921. The hill people now realized how they had been robbed of their human rights.
The Praja Mandal movement in the hill state also led to the awakening of the docile hill people against the English as well as acknowledgement of their own democratic rights. By the year 1925, the English were allowed to go to England in summers and this also reduced their visits to Simla.
In the year 1941, the Army Headquarter was moved to Delhi. While the town continued to boil in the nationalist fervor, the English interest diminished and many schemes of development that were in the pipeline were then stalled.
(Gandhiji in Simla for the Simla Conference in 1945. Image source here)
In June 1945, the famous Simla Conference (for self-rule in India) took place where 21 Indian political leaders were invited. There were primarily three parties- the Congress, the Muslim League (read Jinnah) and the Viceroy, Lord Wavell. The Simla Conference was counted as a failure owing to differences between the Congress and Jinnah, and it can be said that it laid the foundation for the finale of the two-nation theory.
The English had already abandoned Simla by then. They were now ready to leave India.
Before we end this chapter, it must be added that the partition chapter was as much soiled in blood in Simla, as in any other part of the country. There were thefts, loots, riots. An emergency care centre was set up in the green room of Gaiety Theatre. For the first time a convoy of vehicles was permitted on the Ridge to carry the Europeans back to safety in Delhi. In BCS, arrangements were made to move many English and Muslim Boys who were studying there. This happened in the dark of the night and an emotional account of the time was once read by me in the books of Ruskin Bond, who happened to be a student of the school back then.
This marked the end of the ‘season’, the end of an era in Simla.
India was then an independent country and Simla, the inconspicuous hamlet, was a town therein, that would grow to be a popular tourist destination.
- Sonia Dogra
Information source: Urban History of Shimla by Pamela Kanwar
Simla: The Summer Capital of British India by Raaja Bhasin
This is the seventh post in the series “A Not-so Historical Tale of Shimla Town” that is being done for #MyFriendAlexa by #Blogchatter
Read the next chapter here.
Read the other posts in the series here.