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Jagdishwar Nigam


Mr. Jagdishwar Nigam, ICS

The name Jagdishwar Nigam brings to mind the fascinating story of the extraordinary courage of an officer of the British Indian Civil Service who openly aligned with the national movement and Gandhiji's principles of non-violence. A member of the 'Steel Frame' of the British government, Nigam listened to the voice of his conscience and stood for the freedom of the people of India. His iconic words 'Mai khoon se sani roti nahi khaunga' (I will not eat bread soaked in blood) speak volumes of his principles and all he stood for.

Mr. Nigam was born in Mauranipur, in Jhansi, on 7 April 1902. He was the son of Madhav Prasad Nigam, a reader in the court of Jhansi, and his second wife, Sundari Nigam. Being the youngest in the family, he was pampered and loved by all. As a child, Jagdishwar Nigam used to accompany his father to the court, where he would attentively listen to the proceedings and discern the rampant discrimination that the Indians were facing. He would feel saddened when Indians were sentenced to jail. Moreover, Jhansi was a part of the Bundelkhand region, where the revolt of Rani of Jhansi remained alive in the people's collective memory. This fact also played a role in the making of young Jagdishwar's worldview. At age 7, he told his father, "One day I will be sitting as a judge, and sitting in that seat, I will do justice to my people."

Jagdishwar realized that the best way to do justice to the people of India was to become a part of the British administration and work from within the system. He aimed to become an officer of the British Indian Civil Service (ICS), who wielded great powers. He burnt the midnight oil and studied with great dedication to achieve this. He was a topper in the Government High School at Faizabad and studied at Allahabad University. In those days, Allahabad was a hub of political activity and the university witnessed visits by national leaders who urged the young Indians to join the freedom movement.

United Provinces of Agra and Oudh

A map of Bundelkhand which shows Mauranipur, where Jagdishwar Nigam was born.

United Provinces of Agra and Oudh

Allahabad University, where Jagdishwar Nigam earned a B.Sc. degree with distinction in 1921.
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In 1923 Jagdishwar Nigam was selected for the ICS after successfully passing a very tough examination in which Indians were pitted against the British, who got their education in the best British schools and colleges. He was amongst the four Indians who made it that year. He was sent to England for training and had to leave behind his young wife, Saraswati, whom he had married before his selection. In England, he studied for two years at Queens College Cambridge.

Jagdishwar returned to India in 1925 and was appointed as the Assistant Magistrate and Assistant Collector in Mirzapur on 24 October 1925. Subsequently, he served in different places and was promoted many times until he was posted as the District Magistrate and Collector of Ballia district on 7 April 1939. The governor of the United Provinces, Morris Hallet, took this decision considering Mr. Nigam’s ability as an astute administrator and his familiarity with the place and its people. Mr. Nigam had been posted in Ballia earlier in 1932 and during his tenure he had made several connections with the people, including the head of the District Congress Committee, Chittu Pandey. Moreover, Ballia was known for political unrest, as its people had participated in the Non-cooperation and the Civil Disobedience movements, and important leaders of Congress often visited the district. The governor also posted another trusted hand, Mr. Riaz Ahmed Khan, as the Superintendent of Police, in the hope of playing the communal card between the two officers.

United Provinces of Agra and Oudh

Queens College, Cambridge, UK, where Jagdishwar Nigam studied after his selection in the ICS

Galawti Kebab

Jagdishwar Nigam with his wife, Saraswati Nigam

During this time, Mahatma Gandhi once had to stop at Kanpur around midnight on his way to Calcutta by train. Mr. Nigam received a message to meet Gandhiji and take care of his needs. This unofficial meeting lasted for an hour. It is no surprise that only a few years later, Mr. Nigam went on to play a role in the Indian freedom movement, which had no parallel in the annals of history.

When Gandhiji started the Quit India Movement in 1942, Mr. Nigam got the opportunity to bring into action his long-held wish to contribute to the freedom struggle. In response to Gandhiji's call of 'Do or die,' the Imperial government arrested Gandhiji and the top leaders of the Congress on 9 August 1942. When this news reached Ballia, people came out on the streets, shouting slogans, while shops and schools were closed down. Looking at the situation, M.H.B. Nethersole, the Commissioner of Benares, who was in charge of Ballia, stationed himself in Ballia on 10 August. Mr. Nigam, following the orders of his British superior officer, arrested the two main local leaders of Ballia, namely Chittu Pandey and Radhey Mohan Singh. Nethersole left the district, reassured that Ballia would remain quiet.

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District Map of Ballia

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A stamp depicting Gandhiji with his mantra of ‘Do or Die’.
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

On 19 August, Mr. Nigam, along with Mr. Riaz Ahmed Khan, openly revolted against the British. Mr. Nigam used his powers as the District Magistrate to make legal arrangements to release Chittu Pandey and other leaders unconditionally. He threw down his hat, stamped upon it and said, "There goes the British Raj". He took down the British flag with full honour, folded and kept it in a safe place. The Indian flag with the Gandhian Charkha was hoisted on the Collector's office and residence. He then escorted Chittu Pandey to the Town Hall Maidan.

At the Town Hall, the Indian flag was hoisted in front of a crowd of nearly 40,000 that had converged at Ballia from Lucknow, Benaras and the nearby districts. A parallel government was announced, with Chittu Pandey as its head. Thus, Mr. Jagdishwar Nigam peacefully transferred power to Indians without bloodshed. Thus, Ballia became a short lived republic. He made sure that no violence took place. He asked Chittu Pandey to ask the crowd to remain peaceful. Mr. Nigam ordered the Police not to open fire or lathi charge. When the Deputy Magistrate, Mr. Kakkar, defied orders and shot down 25 people, Mr. Nigam issued orders to seize all guns, including those held by the British Sepoys, to avoid further bloodshed. Earlier, when the crowd had surrounded the treasury, Mr Nigam addressed the people from its rooftop and told them to be patient. He gave orders to his officers to note down the serial numbers of the currency notes. The people co-operated whole heartedly. Once the parallel government was announced, the Police retreated to the police lines and took up the duty to protect government property.


Chittu Pandey, the Tiger of Ballia (Sher-e-Ballia)

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An image of Ballia Jail

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The Treasury at Ballia which was surrounded by the crowdof 40,000 people.

It took time for the news to trickle out of Ballia as communication lines had been disrupted. However, it eventually became apparent to the British government that one of their most trusted officers had revolted. Nethersole, along with the British military, entered Ballia on the intervening night of 21 - 22 August 1942 to 'recapture' it. He unleashed a reign of terror and used machine guns on the people who were caught unawares. Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan refused to resign and stood with the people. They also refused to promulgate any unlawful order of the British forces. Mr. Nigam managed to alert the Indian leaders, and Chittu Pandey went underground.


The District Magistrate’s Office, Ballia.

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Another view of the District Magistrate’s Office, Ballia

Once the British forces had taken over the district, Nethersole instructed Mr. Nigam to proceed on leave. Mr. Nigam refused to do so and, in turn, wrote to the Home Secretary and Chief Secretary to stop Nethersole's inhuman acts. His letters caused a stir in the political circles in London, and there were debates in the House of Commons about the brutal repression that was being carried out in India.

Nethersole wanted tough action to be taken against Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan. However, the British government merely ordered the suspension of the two on 13 November 1942 on the ground of 'dereliction of duty’. Mr. H.D. Lane was appointed as the new District Magistrate of Ballia, while Mr. Pearce took over as the new Superintendent of Police. It was clear that the government could not bring itself to hang officers of His Majesty's Indian Civil Services for treason as it would have created political embarrassment and further trouble.

An inquiry was set up against Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan which was undertaken by the United Provinces government and the Federal Public Service Commission. The Viceroy and his Council accepted their recommendations and forwarded a letter to the Secretary of State for India for the removal of the two officers for "grave errors in judgement and weak and misguided policy". Since the case had gone on for some time it was requested that the Secretary of State communicate his decision through a telegram.

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Letter from Viceroy Wavell and his Council proposing the removal of Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan from their respective services.

The Secretary of State gave his assent to the proposal and both Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan were removed from their services. They were given only two-thirds of their respective pensions and thus had to suffer monetary loss as well.

Mr. Nigam was not deterred by this and he, in turn, sued the Secretary of State, by filing a case in the court of the civil judge in Lucknow. Summons were issued to the defendants through the Home Member of the Interim Government of India and on the United Provinces government through its chief Secretary. Mr. Nigam claimed 3 lakh rupees as the damage for the loss of his post.

Mr. Nigam decided to plead his own case, despite leading lawyers such as Tej Bahadur Sapru offering to fight his case. Mr. Nigam was persuaded to withdraw his case, but he refused. His case was discussed in official circles and he got messages of support. On the other hand, the government under Viceroy Wavell, adopted strategies that would isolate Mr. Nigam and complicate the case further. Each and every important officer in Ballia, who was present during the 1942 uprising, was approached and summoned as a witness by the government and some close confidants of Mr. Nigam even went on to give evidence against him.

However, despite all odds, the court case was decided in favour of Mr. Nigam, and he was reinstated in 1948 after India gained Independence from the British. He was offered the post of Chief Secretary in the state of United Provinces (name changed to Uttar Pradesh in 1950). He declined this as he was more interested in land reforms. He took up the independent charge as the Revenue Secretary of the state government and the President of the Revenue Board. He was also given the additional charge of the Labour Department. The agrarian reforms implemented during his tenure stood the test of time. He took on the powerful lobby of Zamindars, estate holders, and Jagirdars and worked for the abolition of zamindari in UP. The latter also meant that he had to face the wrath of his own family. His success led him to implement the same reforms in other states, such as West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha.

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A letter from the Under Secretary to the Government of India to the Chief Secretary to the Government of the United Provinces, communicating that the Secretary of State for India has removed Mr. Nigam and Mr. Khan from their services.

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The text of the Telegram sent to the Secretary of State for India, informing him about the case filed by Mr Jagdishwar Nigam

The exemplary life of Mr. Jagdishwar Nigam and his brave deeds earned him the title 'Nationalist Nigam'. He was dearly loved by the people for whom he was the 'Collector Babu' and was called Ballia's 'Devta' (God). He combined in himself the roles of an efficient and able administrator as well as a patriot. As a true Gandhian, he never left the path of non-violence. He showed that it was possible to fight for the country's freedom while being part of the system. His unprecedented revolt against the British government opened the eyes of the colonial rulers to the fact that one of their best officers, trained in their own system, could openly defy them even without firing a shot. It is no surprise that after the events of the Quit India Movement of 1942, it took only 5 years for the British Raj to dismantle.

(The story and all images, other than those from Wikimedia Commons, have been sourced from the book “The Real Story: The Administrator Jagdishwar Nigam (I.C.S) vs The British Raj 19th August 1942” by Mrs. Sheila Darbari, Dr. Janice Darbari and Dr. Raj Darbari)

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The procession taken out in Ballia on 19th August