ISSUR, is a hamlet in the Western Ghats in Shikaripura taluk of Shivamogga district of Karnataka, was the first village in pre-independence India to declare itself free from the colonial yoke.
In September 1942, that is, 79 years ago, Issur’s people raised a banner of revolt against the British Raj and declared “azadi”.
Issur’s rebellion caught the national attention. Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army), in a radio address from Berlin in 1942, saluted the people of Issur.
As in the Chittagong uprising (where a group of boys and girls, many of them in their teens, took part in the action of capturing a British armoury in April 1930), the rebellion in Issur saw youngsters run a parallel government for more than a month.
Forces of the Raj tried to reclaim the village, and in the riot that ensued two British officials were killed. The police troops dealt with the unarmed revolutionaries of Issur brutally. Five Issur residents were hanged in March 1943 and several of them were imprisoned.
Mahatma Gandhi seized on the failure of the Cripps Mission to secure Indian support for the British war effort and gave a call for “Do or Die” in a speech delivered in Bombay (now Mumbai) on August 8, 1942, which marked the start of the Quit India Movement.
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) launched a mass protest demanding that the British quit India. The entire leadership of the Indian National Congress (INC) was imprisoned within hours of Gandhi’s call.
Inspired by Gandhi’s clarion call, and on the direction of freedom fighters of the Mysore princely state such as T. Siddalingaiah, Dr Hanumanthappa and Kalli Tippanna Shastri, the people of Issur decided to take the lead in the Quit India Movement by declaring their village independent.
They set up their own prati sarkar (parallel government) and resolved against paying taxes to the imperial government. They hoisted the tricolour at the taluk headquarters in Shikaripura.
The spacious courtyard of the Veerabhadreshwara temple in Shikaripura became the venue of the activities of Issur’s freedom fighters. Sahukar Basannappa, a philanthropist and landlord, assumed the leadership in the village.
Village leaders appointed children below the age of 16 as ‘tahsildars’ and ‘police inspectors’ of the prati sarkar in order to circumvent prosecution by the colonial forces. They even came up with a set of rules and regulations for the revolutionary government of Issur.
As such, Veerabhadraswamy, the presiding deity of the temple, was named Deputy Commissioner of the parallel government. The freedom fighters would ring the temple bell as a warning signal whenever outsiders entered the village.
R.S. Basavaraj, grandson of Basannappa, said: “With the freedom movement at its peak in various villages, cities and towns of the then Mysore region, the police were extra vigilant. To avoid drawing the attention of the police to their activities, senior leaders would ring the temple bell to signal the convening of meetings.”
They got a signboard that proclaimed ‘Swaraj Sarkar of Issur’ lettered by local artist Vitobha Rao. The board had a tagline which said officials representing the British government were prohibited from entering the village and cautioned trespassers that they would be prosecuted under the rules of the ‘new’ government. This signboard remained at the entrance to the village for 47 days.
Before hoisting the Indian tricolour at the taluk office, the freedom fighters cut the telephone wires and demolished the bridges that connected the village to Shikaripura to prevent the entry of the police force. The problem started when shanbhog (the village accountant) Ranga Rao, who was responsible for the collection of taxes, came for tax collection.
The villagers snatched the records from him. Similar treatment was meted out to Patel Chennabasappa who was the revenue head of the village. Both officials were fined Rs.10 each. When the officials refused to pay the fine, they were asked to stand on one leg for over three hours before they were let off.
Villagers made them sign an undertaking stating that they would abide by the rules and regulations of ‘Swaraj Sarkar of Issur’. The two officials immediately complained to Chennakrishnappa, who was the amaldar (revenue collector) of Shikaripura.”
Following a directive from the colonial authorities, a large team of senior revenue and police officials descended on Issur on September 28, 1942. They tore down the signboard that challenged the Raj.
The villagers were angered as the board was a proud symbol of their independence.
The freedom fighters considered the entry of officials as ‘trespassing’. After stopping them at the village entrance, they forced them to wear khadi caps. Understanding the gravity of the situation, the amaldar wore the cap without any objection. However, sub-inspector Kenche Gowda regarded the defiance of the villagers as an obstruction in the discharge of his official duty.
The freedom fighters knocked his police cap off with a stick. Offended by this, Kenche Gowda ordered a lathi charge on the villagers. It was the children of the village who initially faced the wrath of police brutality.
At that time the temple bell began to ring, and people from every household rushed out to assemble at the temple. Taken aback by this show of brotherhood, Kenche Gowda fired in the air despite being cautioned by Chennakrishnappa.
The villagers retaliated forcefully. In the melee, bullets fired by Kenche Gowda, pierced through the left arm of Phaniyappachar and the right cheek of Gurushanthappa. Infuriated by the firing, women, children and the aged, armed with clubs and pestles, attacked Chennakrishnappa and Kenche Gowda. In the violence that ensued, Chennakrishnappa and Kenche Gowda died on the spot while hundreds of villagers were injured.
The incident came as a brazen challenge to the domination of the British government. An order was issued to the military unit stationed in Haveri to march towards Issur. Aware of the consequences of the entry of armed soldiers, the freedom fighters took shelter in a nearby forest, leaving only children, women and the aged in the village. But what happened later is a black chapter in the history of Karnataka.
Empty streets greeted the British forces when they reached Issur. In a week-long operation, the frustrated soldiers unleashed violence on whoever remained in the village. The atrocities meted out by them were heart-wrenching.
The soldiers raided houses and seized money and gold and set houses on fire. Several villagers were arrested.
The colonial authorities registered a criminal case against the freedom fighters for the “murder” of the two government officials. Huchurayappa recalled the court proceedings with tremendous clarity:
Issur’s violence was the 123rd criminal case for 1942-43 in the newly opened Special Magistrate Court in Sagar. It was Judge Sundar Rajaram who heard the case on December 5, 1942.
Well-known advocates of Shimoga appeared on behalf of the villagers. The court finally sentenced nine freedom fighters to death and 32 people to life imprisonment. The higher courts, hearing an appeal against the verdict, confirmed the death sentence of Gurappa Kammar, Jinahalli Mallappa, Suryanarayanachar, Badekalli Halappa and Shankarappa Gowda. Even the mercy petition filed with Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the Maharaja of Mysore, was rejected.
All the five freedom fighters were hanged to death between March 8 and 10, 1943, at Bangalore Jail. The revolutionaries who took shelter in the dense forest area of the Malnad region continued their struggle until the country got its freedom.
When India became independent on August 15, 1947, the jailed revolutionaries of Issur were released. They were given a rousing reception by the people of Shimoga.
Decades have passed since the revolt but tales of Issur’s bravehearts live on. Stories of their fearless sacrifice are proudly shared by their second and third generation descendants. Issur Lakshminarayana wrote and directed a 120-minute play titled Issurina Ee Shooraru (These Heroes of Issur) with a cast of 100 artistes while K. Virupakshappa narrated the story of the Issur freedom struggle in his PhD thesis titled “Freedom Struggle in Malnad region of old Mysore region from 1920-1947”.
IIn the history of the freedom struggle of Mysore region, it was only in Issur that five revolutionaries were hanged by the colonial forces. The Issur uprising is the only incident of the kind where the British government unleashed violence on helpless residents who remained in the village [while the freedom fighters went into the forest].
People still remember the radio address of Subhas Chandra Bose, who saluted the martyrs of Issur from Berlin on Azad Hind Radio in 1942. Both Nehru and Gandhi mentioned the Issur rebellion in their public addresses and the same was reported elaborately in the widely read Kannada daily, Vishwa Karnataka, at the time.
The wheels of time have turned. India is in its 75th year of Independence on August 15. But the incidents at Issur have largely been forgotten by everyone except the residents of the village who have ensured that the glorious stories of their forebears are passed on to their descendants.