Calcutta robberies: 1968-69

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1968-69: Robberies at banks and post offices

The Times of India, Jul 16, 2015

Saibal Gupta

In 1968-69, a spate of daring robberies at banks and post offices shook Calcutta. It was widely suspected that the mastermind was the famous revolutionary Ananta Singh, who had taken part in the Chittagong Armoury Raid under the legendary Surya Sen in 1930. Though Ananta and 52 of his associates were arrested, police couldn't nail them for the robberies and they were released.

For the first time ever, Brojo Roy — a close associate of Singh — has told TOI of the true story behind the heists.

In 1962, frustrated at how the hard-earned freedom was being "wasted" in the country, Singh planned another revolution and formed the ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Council of India (RCCI). He was 59 years old then. The robberies were carried out to raise money for the revolution, Roy said.

Singh's men first targeted Park Street post office on July 1, 1968, looting Rs 3.97 lakh at gunpoint. Over the next nine months, there were three more holdups — two at the Alipore branch of National & Grindlays Bank and one at the Park Street branch of State Bank of India. The total booty: Rs 12 lakh.

More than the audacity, police were struck by the meticulous planning and execution of the robberies. It was the talking point across the city, from upscale living rooms to roadside tea stalls.

The robberies bore some common signatures: the gunmen would shout out that they were not dacoits but revolutionaries and wouldn't harm anyone unnecessarily. They would hand out leaflets detailing RCCI's agenda to terrified staff and customers. These leaflets led police to suspect Singh, but they could not gather any evidence because the robbers were thorough in erasing all traces.

Police files dating back to 1968 and 1969 detail how the robbers used complex signalling systems and cunningly blocked key roads to prevent police from reaching in time. They always had multiple getaway vehicles and would switch from one to another to throw cops off track. The robbers used coded messages like "biyer tarik pichhiye gechhe" (the marriage has been postponed), "bilet theke mashima ekhono pouchonni" (aunty hasn't returned from abroad) and "mokodommay amader jit hoyechhe" (we have won the case) over the phone.

"First, we would carefully study the route in and out of the targeted establishments. We had people along the way to give secret signals about the progress of the vehicle our comrades were in or to communicate the presence of police or other dangers. For example, on the way to Park Street post office, once our vehicle crossed the GPO, someone gave a signal, which was picked up by a person standing a little distance away. He then signalled another person. All three were positioned so that one could see the other and the signals were very innocuous — like opening an umbrella, crossing a road, and waving a white handkerchief," Roy said.

The group had a formidable intelligence network that penetrated the police ranks. For instance, they had planned to hit the Durgapur SBI branch but called it off after learning that police had got wind of it and had laid a trap, said Roy.

Singh, who was jailed in Cellular Jail in the Andamans in 1932, was indoctrinated into communist philosophy while in prison. After his release, he came to Kolkata and joined Communist Party of India (CPI) but soon got disillusioned with it and formed the radical RCCI in 1962. Between 1960 and 1966, he even produced films — including the blockbuster "Jomalaye Jibanta Manus" — and dabbled in the transport business. But these were only to camouflage his ambition of launching a revolution, says Roy.

Roy was responsible for four time-bomb explosions — at the USIS library, US consulate, and the Globe and Lighthouse cinemas. He was arrested but by then he, Singh and Subrata (Ananta's second-in-command) had completed planned the robberies that were to follow. "We used to plan the robberies while walking down Victoria Memorial and Brigade Parade Grounds. When someone came with hearing distance, we would switch to something else, like a recent cricket match or a movie," said Roy.

Singh and the others were arrested in 1969 and spent seven years in jail. Lack of evidence and pressure from bodies like Amnesty International and the United Left Front led to their release, said Roy. The case was subsequently forgotten and none of those arrested ever spoke about it.

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