Harking Back: How ‘chapattis’ thrown from Delhi Gate scared the Raj

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 16, 2017

During the 1935 riots erupting in Lahore after the Lahore High Court decision in the famous Shaheed Ganj Mosque case, a strange incident occurred. From Delhi Gate, along with bricks thrown at the police, people started throwing ‘chapattis’.

The Royal Scots regiment fired into a crowd at Delhi Gate and soon matters were under control. But the British got scared by the ‘chapattis’ thrown. Immediately the Punjab Police got their intelligence people to present a detailed report on these mysterious ‘chapattis’ of Lahore to the Privy Council, and so it was that file number C.T.C.7.S of 7.10.35, now in the Cambridge University Archives, reached the desk of Sir J. Anderson. My dear friend Dr Kevin Greenback, the university’s chief archivist and a world authority on conserving documents, rushes to me every time the word ‘Lahore’ props up.

The wife of Sir John Anderson had donated her husband’s entire record while in British India, and before me was this amazing ‘chapatti’ Minute Paper of the Intelligence Department of the Punjab, 1935. A certain Mr Peel had initiated the ‘paper’ and the photographs by a ‘young police officer’, all eight of them, were attached. Sir John saw the file on 4.10.1935 and immediately circulated it to Mr S K Brown of the Lahore Police, who saw it on 5.10.1935, with Sir S J Stewart, the Deputy Commissioner, seeing and marking it the same day. On the evening of that day a special intelligence operation started in Lahore.

The British were scared and wanted to understand what this ‘chapatti’ throwing symbolised. There is mention of almost 24 operatives scanning the entire walled city, interviewing people and gathering intelligence. Strangely most people thought it was a British trick. Others said it was a symbolic act the meaning of which they did not know. Some had no idea. So it was that the famous police officer, Sir Charles Tegart, was consulted. Tegart was well-known as a ruthless policeman who killed thousands in the Bengal uprising, in Palestine and in other trouble spots of the British Empire. He immediately suggested that a council meeting be called. The council mulled over the matter on 16 October, 1935, and reached the conclusion that “there is a need to be very vigilant and to report any re-occurrence of this dangerous symbol”.

But before I dwell on what the ‘chapatti’ symbol meant, a word about the photographs. The first shows police and a crowd peacefully facing each other outside the iconic Delhi Gate. All the policemen are wearing short trousers and the people all wearing ‘dhotis’, which was the norm before the ‘awami suits’ came along in 1972 onwards. The police used to wear these shorts in summer till some ‘pious’ religious scholar pointed it out as being vulgar. The second picture has people standing on their roofs throwing bricks. The next two have similar brick-throwing from their roofs.

The next two are of Delhi Gate with people shouting slogans inside the gateway and a sole British defiantly standing waiting for them to come out. The sixth has people rushing out and the sole officer blowing his whistle. The seventh picture has the Royal Scots in position with one soldier firing above the crowd. The last photograph has the crowd dispersed and police on both sides of the gateway with bricks and a lot of ‘chapattis’ on the ground.

So it was that these ‘chapattis’ scared the British Raj to investigate the matter. Amazingly this was not the first time these ‘chapattis’ had appeared out of nowhere. During the First War of Independence of 1857, known among the British as the Indian Mutiny, these ‘chapattis’ had appeared, and they were interpreted as a sure signal of an uprising. A little research helped out. The book titled ‘The 1857 Mutiny’ by Colonel G.B. Malleson says that Maulvi Ahmed Ali of Faizabad started this by asking a simple villager to take five ‘chapattis’ and give it to five people asking them to cook another five each and pass it on with the same message.

What shocked the British was that within a month at least 90,000 policemen serving the British had got a ‘chapatti’ and had followed the instruction assuming it was to bless them. Another book by Andrew Ward titled ‘Our Bones are Scattered’ claims that most Brahmin priests told him that the guru of Nana Sahib by the name of Dassa Bawa had said that his disciple’s empire would span the area the ‘chapattis’ reach in 99 days. The fact is that the ‘chapattis’ spread faster than British mail as one account tells us.

But the best description of this ‘chapatti chain’ is by Dr Gilbert Hadow, an East India Company surgeon, who wrote in March 1857 that there was “a strange movement afoot. It is the most mysterious affair throughout the whole of India. The ‘chapattis’ are small and round and handed over from village to village. The speed with which this is spreading is tizzying, it is faster than the mail service. The first to catch this was Mark Thornhill, the magistrate of Mathura, who claimed it was travelling at the speed of 200 miles a night. People think that if they break the chain they will get unlucky, or something might happen to them. It is shocking the effect for even police chowkidars are doing ‘chapatti running’.

“British officers are panicking and women are scared of even seeing this ‘chapatti’. Most officers think it is some sort of code for action. The ‘Chapatti Movement’ has shaken the British Empire”, he wrote.

But no matter who started it, or what it meant, there is no doubt that the ‘chapatti movement’ was a classic piece of psychological warfare carried out without any expense. If in the history of warfare there ever was a psychological scare, this was it. When in May 1857 the mutiny did break out, most soldiers thought that the trigger was the ‘chapatti chain’.

That is why when the ‘chapattis’ were thrown outside Lahore’s Delhi Gate in October 1935, the British were appalled and thought it was the beginning of another massive mutiny. One comment in the file says: “This time the Indians are better informed and armed. We must prepare and be alert”. But then the daring deputy commissioner of those days was to laughingly comment: “Who says only Indians are superstitious”. He was Ram Parsad Singh Grewal, the only Indian ICS DC of Lahore during the Raj.


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