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At the Hutatma Chowk, Memorial Remains, Martyrs are Forgotten

CultureAt the Hutatma Chowk, Memorial Remains, Martyrs are Forgotten

Hutatma Smarak Chowk in South Mumbai is a tribute to the 117 martyrs across Maharashtra who laid down their lives fighting for the creation of a unilingual Marathi speaking state.

Flora Fountain, Hutatma Chowk (Martyrs’ Square) Hutatma Smarak Chowk (Martyrs’ Memorial Square in official communication) all indicate the same location. A veritable landmark in South Mumbai that has become a site of national importance, a tribute to the 117 martyrs across Maharashtra who laid down their lives fighting for the creation of a unilingual Marathi speaking state. Situated at the entrance to the Fort Precinct, the city’s main commercial hub, the fountain and its surroundings are witness to the daily hustle bustle of office goers, jostling crowds and hawkers shouting themselves hoarse in a bid to sell their wares.

Hutatma Chowk, Mumbai.

The Fountain itself and the adjacent Martyrs’ Memorial constructed almost eight decades later, stand at the junction of five main thoroughfares Veer Nariman Road (Churchgate Street), Mahatma Gandhi Road (Esplanade Road), Homi Modi Street (Bruce Street), and Nagindas Master Road Meadows Street), making it one of the busiest areas of the city on week days.
On weekends incidentally the area is completely deserted. Missing are the crowds and the traffic. Instead one can see tourists admiring the site while trying to get a brief insight into the city’s history, or youngsters playing cricked in the lanes and by lanes as well as in the car park. Though the name has been changed to Hutatma Chowk seldom is that term used. Buses carry the destination boards “Hutatma Chowk” but as the stop approaches the bus conductors continue to yell “Fountain! Fountain!” in an all familiar tone.
The Fountain today stands at the exact spot where the Church Gate, one of the three entrances to the erstwhile Fort, was located. The gates and the walls of the fort are now history, having been demolished in 1862 by the then Governor of Bombay Sir Bartle Frere, to facilitate the expansion of the city which was fast developing as a prime port and commercial hub.
The Fountain was constructed in 1864 by the Agri–Horticultural Society of Western India, at a cost of Rs. 47,000/ – out of which Rs 20,000 came by way of a donation from Cursetjee Fardoonjee Parekh, a local philanthrophist. It is named after Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers and the season of spring, whose majestic statue carved in pretty Portland stone  adorns the top of the fountain. Designed by Richard Norman Shaw, it was sculpted by James Forsythe. The four corners of the fountain are decorated with mythological figures.
The area was officially renamed as Hutatma Smarak Chowk in 1961 in memory of those martyrs who sacrificed their lives demanding the creation of the unilingual Marathi speaking state of Maharashtra. The martyrs were victims of police firing on protestors when the Samyukta (Unified) Maharashtra agitation was at its peak in 1955 – 56. The deaths and the subsequent renaming have successfully elevated the site to a level of national awareness.

A flame in a glass casing glows continuously to keep alive the memory of the sacrifices.

A memorial for the martyrs, comprising a bronze statue of a “Martyr with a Flame” stands adjacent to the Fountain, hoisted atop a pedestal 16 feet high. The memorial was constructed in 1963 at a cost of Rs 47,000/-. The bronze statue, sculpted by the renowned sculptor Harish Talim, consists of two figures, an urban labourer and a farmer, depicting the statewide reach of the movement across all sections and strata of the Marathi speaking community.
The history of the demand for a unilingual Marathi speaking state dates back to 1920 when a bill for the formation of such a Linguistic Region was passed in meeting organized by the Congress party at Nagpur. The bill was proposed by Mahatma Gandhi himself. The colonial Government however paid no heed.
The demand was revived in the form of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement in 1955, when the Union Government succumbing to pressures from various parts of the country, agreed to the demand for reorganizing the states on a linguistic basis. The sole objective of the Movement was the merger of all Marathi speaking areas into a unilingual Maharashtra state.

Flora Fountain.

The Movement saw the coming together of all major opposition parties in the bilingual Bombay state, namely the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the Praja Samajwadi Party (PSP), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Republican Party of India (RPI). A Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (Unified Maharashtra Committee) was set up under the leadership of Keshavrao Jedhe (PWP) and included opposition as well as Trade Union leaders like S. A. Dange, the well known Journalist P. K. Atre, Madhu Dandavate, Prabhodankar Thackeray (father of Balasaheb Thackeray) Senapati Bapat and Shahir Amar Shaikh, to name a few.
Simultaneously with the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, the Mahagujarat Movement launched an agitation for creation of a separate state comprising the Gujarati speaking areas of Bombay State. The bone of contention as the city of Mumbai, then Bombay, with both states demanding that the city be made its capital.
The contention of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti was that the Marathi speakers then estimated at around 52%, formed the majority of Mumbai’s population. Besides, the Maharashtrians had a thumping majority the areas contiguous to Mumbai. The leaders of the Mahagujarat Movement on their part claimed that the development of Mumbai had taken place largely owing to the initiative of the Gujarati Community which had provided both the entrepreneurship and the capital. Also they claimed the city’s industry, stock market and businesses were largely controlled by the Gujarati community.
Realising the complicated nature and sensitivity of the issue, the Union Government deferred any decision and was in favour of maintaining a status quo. The Fazal Ali Commission appointed to determine the state boundaries for the reorganization also recommended a bilingual Bombay State, with Vidharbha remaining a separate entity. On 15 November 1955, in the Lok Sabha, two Congressmen took opposing stands on the issue. Surprisingly S. K. Patil the Congress M.P. from South Mumbai asked the Marathi people to give up their claim on Bombay in the spirit of compromise. Opposing him was another Congress stalwart N.V. Gadgil popularly known as Kakasaheb Gadgil, who warned that should Maharashtra be formed without Bombay in it, then the future of Bombay would be decided on the streets of the city.
Eventually it was the Left parties and trade unionists who took the fight to the streets. On 18 November 1955, the Left parties observed a strike in Bombay. On 21st November nearly 4.5 lakh mill and dock workers struck work. A morcha (procession) heading to the state legislature was fired upon by the police, leaving 15 dead and 200 injured.
Subsequently on 15 January 1956, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came out with a proposal that while unilingual states of Maharashtra and Gujarat would be formed, Bombay would remain a union territory. Immediately protesters came out on the streets. A night-school student Bandu Gokhale fell to police bullets. Numerous Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti leaders including Comrade SA Dange and Senapati Bapat and hordes of protestors were arrested.
In the seven days from 16th to 22nd January 1956 a call as given for a continuous Bombay Bandh. Riots and disturbances broke out in different areas in the city. The police firing resulted in 90 dead, including an 11 year old girl, and over 400 injured. Simultaneously seven people died in incidents of police firing in Pune, Nashik, Kolhapur, Belgavi and Nippani, bringing the total number of people killed to 112.
Several heads rolled as a result of the police firing and resultant deaths. Morarjee Desai the then Chief Minister of Bilingual Bombay, who was said to have given the go ahead for the firing, was shunted out and given a berth in the Union Cabinet. Moreover his opposition to Bombay being surrendered to Maharashtra was well known.
C. D. Deshmukh, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the then finance minister resigned from the cabinet in protest against the police action as well as in total disagreement over the proposal to designate Bombay as a Union Territory.
Finally the issue was resolved after Indira Gandhi became the President of the Congress in 1959. She was of the firm view that neither a bilingual Bombay State nor the option of Bombay as a union territory would work. Largely on account of her intervention the aspirations of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti reached fruition.
A unilingual Marathi speaking state was created with Bombay as its capital on 1st May 1960, incorporating the regions of Marathwada and Vidharbha. On the same day a unilingual Gujarati speaking state was formed with its capital at Ahmedabad incorporating the regions of Saurashtra and Kutch. The day continues to be celebrated as Maharashtra Day and Gujarat Day, with both states declaring it a public holiday.
The sacrifice did not in vain. The Hutatma Smarak commemorates the Martyrs. Beside the Memorial a marble platform was later put up atop which the map of Maharashtra had been demarcated with a lawn grown over it. A flame in a glass casing glows continuously to keep alive the memory of the sacrifices made by some protagonists of Maharashtra. On the sides of the marble platform in a fading golden colour, are inscribed the names of all the martyrs. Sadly few people even notice this and the individual identity of each martyr seems to have faded into oblivion.

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