A Great Robbery that shook the Raj

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    On a busy street at Red Cross Place in Kolkata, three canons stand guard outside a doorway. In present times, an iron collapsible gate is all it takes to keep thieves and vagabonds at bay, so why bring out the heavy artillery?

    The canons, upturned and ornamental, are clearly markers from another era. Along with a memorial nearby, they are all that remain of the ‘greatest daylight robbery’ that sent shock waves through the British administration in India. It was a heist pulled off by Bengal’s revolutionaries with nothing more than great ingenuity and a bullock cart. Also called the ‘Rodda Arms Heist’, the incident left the British administration flabbergasted and outraged at being outwitted under their very noses!

    The Rodda Arms Heist took place in 1914 and refers to the theft of a huge consignment of pistols and cartridges from a Calcutta-based British arms retailer Rodda & Co. The arms and ammunition, stolen by Bengal’s revolutionaries and then distributed among their ranks to be used during the freedom struggle, was described by the British as the “event of the greatest importance in the development of revolutionary crime in Bengal”. The pistols from this stolen cache were used in events such as the famous ‘Kakori Train Conspiracy’ and even by revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad.

    What makes the Rodda Arms Heist so fascinating is not only the way it was executed, but the cast of characters involved and the events that it influenced. Here’s a snippet from the era.

    In the early hours of 21st July 1916, the neighborhood around Zakaria Street in Calcutta was rudely awakened when the police raided the house of a 22-year-old Marwari businessman. The young man had already been packed off by his family to Mukundgarh village in Shekhawati in Rajasthan. By afternoon, his associates were arrested in connection with a large arms robbery that had taken place two years earlier. But till the end of his life, the young businessman ‘officially’ denied his involvement in this revolutionary activity. The man was none other than India’s future business tycoon and founder of the Birla Group – Ghanshyamdas Birla or G D Birla.

    This story finds a mention in Akshay Mukul's book Gita Press And The Making of Hindu India (2015) . Interestingly, Mukul in his book confirms that a cache of stolen arms was indeed kept at G D Birla’s house in Kolkata.

    To understand just how important the arms heist was, let us proceed to the events of 26th August 1914 in Calcutta.

    The Background

    In 1914, as the international spotlight was firmly focused on World War I (1914-1918), the freedom struggle in India continued to gain momentum. Bengal had already been in the grip of revolutionary fervor since the region was partitioned in 1905, and was a tinder box at the heart of the freedom movement.

    In 1914, as the international spotlight was firmly focused on World War I (1914-1918), the freedom struggle in India continued to gain momentum. Bengal had already been in the grip of revolutionary fervor since the region was partitioned in 1905, and was a tinder box at the heart of the freedom movement.

    There had been several high-profile assassinations of British officials carried out by revolutionaries from 1908 to 1912, and even shifting the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 had not diminished their zeal and determination. The situation was ideal for a pan-India revolt; all the revolutionaries needed were arms and ammunition. A daring assassination attempt was made on the Viceroy Lord Hardinge on the streets of Delhi in December 1912, which had him fatally injured. In short, the revolutionaries felt that the situation was ideal for a pan-India revolt with Bengal. All they needed was plenty of arms.

    The man behind the assassination attempt on the Viceroy, was Rash Behari Bose, who had then gone into hiding. Towards the end of 1913, Rash Behari Bose visited Benaras accompanying another equally famous revolutionary Jatindra Nath Mukhopadhyay alias Bagha Jatin outlining the prospects of a pan-Indian revolution with his comrades at Jugantar party. Bagha Jatin ( was in talks with the Germans for three ships full of arms from Germany, which eventually never arrived. Meanwhile, another group of revolutionaries, called “Atmonnati Samiti” under revolutionary Bipin Behari Ganguly, made their own plans to acquire arms in collaboration with “Mukti Sangha” of Dacca and set their eyes on gun retailer Rodda & Co in Calcutta.

    R.B Rodda & Company

    Originally listed as Brown & Rodda & Co, R B Rodda & Co manufactured guns in Birmingham, England, but was better known as a luxury retailer catering to colonial British and Indian society in the Victorian era, with shops in Birmingham, London, Calcutta and many other Indian cities. The Calcutta office was at 2 Wellesley Place (now Red Cross Place, Kolkata) while its godown was near present-day Standard Assurance building in Dalhousie Square, alias BBD Bagh, in Kolkata.

    In June 1914, the British government placed an order of 50 Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistols and 46,000 7.63×25mm Mauser cartridges with Rodda & Co. Mauser C96 was a very popular weapon during the Boer War, World War I, Russian Civil War, Spanish Civil War, Chinese Civil War and, later, even World War II. The store manager handling this important order was F W Prike.

    Little did Prike know that Rodda & Co’s Jetty Clearing Clerk, a man named Srish Mitra, whose job it was to take delivery of the consignment, was a mole for the Indian revolutionaries and had been planted by Bipin Behari Ganguly.

    Mitra informed his colleagues that the arms consignment would be arriving on a ship named Tactician, and was to be unloaded at the dock near the Customs House. The Customs Office was located where the Reserve Bank of India building stands today, about 500 metres from the godown of Rodda & Company.

    Mitra was responsible for clearing the consignment from the Customs House and delivering it to the godown.

    There were several meetings planned between the revolutionaries and a plan was made. Several of them thought it was too absurd, and backed out of the heist. A revolutionary named Srish Pal convinced the rest and they decided to go ahead with the plan.

    The Heist: D-Day

    On 26th August, 1914 Mitra left the Rodda & Company office at 11 am for the Customs House, with the documents and money given to him by the unsuspecting Prike. When Mitra emerged, members of the Atmonnati Samiti stationed on the other side of the street started walking towards Dalhousie Square, to keep watch on Intelligence Bureau agents during the heist.

    What is truly fascinating about this operation is its simplicity – it was pulled off without any fancy gadgets; only a bullock cart!

    After it was cleared at the Customs House, the arms consignment was to be loaded onto six bullock carts and delivered to the Rodda & Company godown. A revolutionary named Anukul Mukherjee had arranged a seventh bullock cart, which was to tag along as if it was a part of the other carts. It was driven by another revolutionary Haridas Datta, who was dressed as a garowan (bullock cart driver), thanks to excellent make-up by a young Marwari, Prabhu Dayal Himmatsingka.

    To throw off possible suspicion, Datta deliberately arrived a little late, and Mitra ‘scolded’ him, to make it all seem real. Mitra then loaded the 50 Mauser pistols with shoulder stock and bullets into the seventh bullock cart.

    Datta was to guide the bullock cart from the Custom Office to the Malanga lane, from where the arms were to be transferred to a house of another revolutionary at Jelia Para Lane, in a car. The sky was cloudy and through brief showers, Datta drove the bullock cart on the streets of Dalhousie Square. As he pressed ahead, revolutionaries Srish Chandra Pal and Khagen Das emerged from the shadows, armed with loaded guns, and started walking on either side of the cart.

    Accompanied by Mitra, the six bullock carts turned into Vansittart Row but the seventh cart driven by Datta kept going straight. The cart wended its way through several lanes and by-lanes till it reached the intersection of Malanga Lane with Nirmal Chandra Street at Wellington Square. Since it was raining now, visibility was low and the road was quite deserted. The wooden boxes were unloaded in front of the Ironyard of one Kanti Mukherjee on Nirmal Chandra Street. A car was supposed to arrive to pick up the consignment.

    Meanwhile, Mitra rushed to Malanga Lane from his office, on the pretext of locating the seventh cart. He immediately left for Rangpur on the Darjeeling Mail, departing at 17:06 hours, to go into hiding.

    However, the designated car did not arrive on time. As a result, the revolutionaries convinced two hackney carriage (horse-drawn taxis) drivers to deliver the boxes to Jelia Para Lane, where they were to be unloaded at the colleague’s home. From the entrance of Jelia Para Lane, the boxes were then dragged inside the house of a revolutionary named Bhujanga Bhusan Dhur. It was evening now, and at Dhur’s home, the arms were packed into a few steel trunks for distribution. The empty wooden boxes and packaging papers were burnt.

    Distributing The Arms

    The next morning, the trunks were to be distributed to various revolutionary groups but, before that, they were temporarily stored at some hostels and the godowns of various Marwari businessmen, including G D Birla. The man who helped hide the cache was Hanuman Prasad Poddar, a member of the Marwari Sahayak Samiti and founder of the famous Gita Press. The arms were later distributed to various revolutionary groups including those who had initially doubted the success of the heist.

    Aftermath of Robbery

    It was only on 29th August that Prike discovered that Mitra had been absent from work for three days. He sensed something was wrong and it was only after the consignment of guns and bullets were found missing that he linked the two events. The police were immediately summoned and the heist made headlines all across India. The Statesman newspaper called the heist ‘The Greatest Daylight Robbery’.

    Deputy Commissioner Sir Charles Augustus Tegart was in charge of the case. After locating the hackney carriage drivers, several arrests were made. Revolutionaries who had participated in the heist like Kalidas Basu and Narendra Nath Banerjee and Bhujanga Bhushan Dhar were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Haridas Datta was imprisoned for four years. It took another three years to arrest Srish Chandra Pal and Khagen Das. Also arrested were Hanuman Prasad Poddar and his friends. GD Birla somehow escaped arrest but the Marwari community shunned these revolutionaries.

    The key planner of the heist – Srish Mitra alias Habu – was never arrested. From his hideout in Rangpur, he had fled to a tribal village. From there, he vanished without a trace.

    The significance of the Rodda Arms Heist can be gauged from a statement in the report prepared by the President of the Sedition Committee, Sir Sidney Rowlatt, in 1918. On Page 56 of the report, Rowlatt notes, “The authorities have reliable information to show that 44 of these pistols were almost at once distributed to 9 different revolutionary groups in Bengal, and it is certain that the pistols so distributed were used in 54 cases of dacoity or murder or attempts at dacoity and murder subsequent to August 1914. It may indeed safely be said that few, if any, revolutionary outrages have taken place in Bengal since August 1914, in which Mauser pistols stolen from Rodda & Co have not been used.”

    Shaken by this audacious revolutionary act, Sir Rowlatt would later impose the draconian Rowlatt Act (suspending civil liberties), protests against which later led to the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.

    The arms from the heist were distributed across India and were used in some of the most iconic revolutionary events that took place. Revolutionaries like Bagha Jatin used them in gun battles with the police; they were used in the Kakori Train Robbery of 1925; and the famous Chittagong Arms Robbery of the 1930s was executed using these weapons. Rash Behari Basu carried one of these pistols with him, and even Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad received at least one Mauser pistol each.

    Lest We Forget

    As a reminder of the Rodda Arms Heist, Gopal Mukherjee (popularly known as ‘Gopal Pantha’), nephew of the heist’s chief planner, Anukul Mukherjee, erected a memorial on Ganesh Chandra Avenue on behalf of a local committee called ‘Jatio Artotran Samitee’. The memorial comprises four busts – of Bipin Bihari Ganguly, Anukul Mukherjee, Girindra Nath Banerjee and Haridas Datta – where they stand to date. There is also an artwork of a Mauser C96 pistol with its wooden shoulder stock at the memorial, and an artwork of Srish Mitra walking towards oblivion. Gopal Mukherjee’s grandson Santanu Mukherjee takes care of the memorial. Bhujanga Bhusan’s son Purna Chandra Dhur and nephew Barendra Chandra Dhur are still alive till date. They still remember first hand account of the robbery and possess important documents of the case.

    The Rodda Arms Heist was a dramatic milestone in the freedom movement, especially for Bengal’s revolutionaries, yet it is largely forgotten. There is little mention of it even in most history books. The arms retailer at 2 Wellesley Place has long since shut shop and its signboard has vanished but the stoic canons at the doorstep appear determined to prevent the events of 26th August, 1914 from being completely erased.

    Author Bio

    Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.

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