In Search of Freedom

Chaman Lal

The *Book under review -In Search of Freedom : Journeys Through India and Southeast Asia, written after many years of research and painful journey to many countries of South-East Asia, including Mynamar, Thailand, Malayasia and Singapore.

The book brings out rare photographs of unknown and unsung heroes of Indian freedom struggle, about whom, only few people know. Some of them are still alive, but mostly have passed away. Major focus of the book is on freedom fighters of Netaji Subhas Bose led Indian National Army (INA), which was formed abroad and which fought glorious battles in North East of India. Sagari had taken up this journey in 2004 with a grant from Asian Scholarship Foundation, Bangkok, which granted her Asia Scholar fellowship for few months. There are certain photographs of freedom fighters on both front and back cover of the book, as well as black and white photo of Janaki Thever in the beginning of the book.

This book is divided into 22 chapters, apart from Introduction, Afterword, Notes, Bibliography, Index and Acknowledgements, following the standard format of an academic book. But the narration of book is not so academic. Interactions with freedom fighters make the book an interesting reading, apart from providing rich information, largely unknown to most of Indians.

In the very first chapter of the book—Meeting the Gandhians—the author dwells upon searching material on women in the Film Institute of Pune, where she finds almost nothing. In Delhi, she tries her luck at Home Ministry controlled office on freedom fighters and gets some connection by meeting INA veteran S S Yadav. The author moved with her friend Tanu to Gujarat, where she could meet Dandi Salt March veteran woman Veerbalaben Nagarwadia, who was born in 1913 and with many women were at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad on 12th March 1930, when salt march to Dandi was to take place. Interesting fact emerges from this meeting that Mahatma Gandhi after being arrested at Dandi during salt march, never returned to Sabarmati, he had shifted to Sewagram in Wardha later. 92 Satyagrahis had walked with Gandhi to Dandi more than 200 miles or 386 kilometres away and 95 thousand Satyagrahis were arrested by May 1930. The author further meets Nirmlaben Desai, Jyoti Singh and many others in touch with Mridulaben.

Beginning with Gandhians the author moves to Revolutionary women in the second chapter, starting with Lakshmi Sehgal in Kanpur, the heroine of INA, who was minister in Netaji cabinet and known as Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan, daughter of south Indian parents. There is a detailed testimony of Lakshmi Sehgal. She was in Captain's rank, INA defeated British at Moirang in Manipur, but got defeated in Imphal. With Lakshmi Sehgal's reference the author meets Narayani Tripathy and Gouri in Delhi.

Sagari moves to Kolkata on her way to Burma for more interviews. At Kolkata she met Aruna Ganguly, Pratirna Sen and traced Parul Bhattacharya in Delhi, who had joined Rani Jhansi brigade of INA under Lakshmi Sehgal and her young son became part of 'Balak Sena', formed by Netaji. They met Momota Mehta also. In the 3rd chapter the author says that they made many trips to Ahmedabad, in Chandigarh they located Sarla Sharma, friends I K Gujral mother Pushpa Gujral, Savitri Ramkishan, Subhadra Khosla and Vijaya Chauhan. They also met Krishna Thapar, daughter of Lala Achint Ram, cousin of martyr Sukhdev. Savitri Ramkishan, who had married Ramkishan, Chief Minister of Punjab for a short period. She records the accounts of Lahore jail. Subhadra Khosla, becoming Subhadra Joshi defeated Atal Behari Vajpayee in election. Sagari Chhabra's big achievement was tracing Janaki Thevar, a Major INA woman commander after Lakshmi Sehgal.

In the 4th chapter the author focuses on Sushila Nayar's relations with Mahatma Gandhi, with whom Gandhi had bean sleeping in his experiments of celibacy. Sushila Nayar's testimonies are interesting and refer to many historic events in Gandhi's life in jails, including death of Mahadev Desai in Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was imprisoned.

After covering many Indian women freedom fighters, Sagari Chhabra moves to South East Asian countries, starting with Malayasia. She notes that though getting independence ten years after India, its cities are more developed, albeit on western model. Her experience in Malayasia was not very good because of strict Islamic laws that did not allow women's photographs on I-cards. She had met Janaki Thevar in Delhi, but she lived in Malayasia and had been a member of Parliament for two terms, her late husband Athi Nahappan was even a rninister in Malayasian cabinet. The Author has reproduced Janaki Thevar's diary pages relating to INA activities during 1940's, which make a fascinating reading. There were many women activists with Janaki, one being Gurupdesh Kaur, another Anjali Suppiah and her sister, plus Jeeya Mudialiar. Janaki Thevar advised the author to meet Gandhi Nathan, another senior INA cadre. Gandhi Nathan gave interview with difficulty. He met Colonel Habibur Rehman, who was with Netaji in air crash and still had burn marks on his skin. He confirmed that Netaji ashes are kept in Renkoji temple in Tokyo. He gave exact time of Netaji's death—at 8 pm. Two nurses and Habibur Rehman were present at the bedside of Netaji at the time of his passing away. There is a reference to Amreek Singh Gill of INA, who had passed away. Another Tamilian INA cadre Vellu Sami, who was born on 15th August 1917 was introduced to the author. P Meenakshi, another member of Rani Jhansi brigade, born in Malaysia in 1924, was also introduced to Sagri Chhabra, her husband had encouraged her to join INA. Gandhi Nathan introduced many more INA old guards all 80+ in 2004, many have since left the world.

In the centre of the book, there is photo section, in which 32 RARE colour and black and white photographs have been reproduced, some are of recent visit of the author with old freedom fighters.

Sagri Chhabra drove through secret headquarters of INA in Penang jungles.

In Thailand, the author met members of Balak Sena (Childern's army) Beant Singh Kukreja, Rajkumar Sachdeva and Kishan Lal Matta, all Punjabis.

In Singapore, the author visited archives, gurdwara and met Ram Prakash, who was in INA. She also met Rani Jhansi brigade member Dharma Kaur's daughter Deepa, met Bhagyalaskhmi, another cadet, Sadhu Singh's son, who had joined Baba Hari Singh Usman's party.

In a return journey to Malayasia again, the author gives the title of her chapter as Used and Descarded Freedom Fighters. In this trip she meets Anjali Punnaswamy, Ahilandam V Pillai. INA caders in Malayasia numderd 15000 to 20000.

After Malayasia, Thailand and Singapore, Sagari Chhabra moved to Mynamar or Burma, the last leg of her journey and the most difficult one also. She lived close to Aung San Suu Kyi without meeting her. She visited Bahadur Shah's Grave from where Netaji Subhas held a solomn ceremony on 26th September 1943. Though the author did not visit Namdhari Guru Ram Singh's memorial, who also died in exile at Rangoon or Mandely jail, where Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhagat Shgh's uncle Ajit Singh were imprisoned during 1907-09. She met grand neplew of INA cadet Subramaniam. Indian freedom fighters in Burma suffered most, as they lived there in stateless status, neither they were given Burmese citizenship, nor were given Indian status by Indian government. She met Lieutenant Perumal, who was born in Rangoon in 1928. Yet neither he nor even his grand children were given Burmese citizenship and in India, INA committee told that freedom fighter pensions can be given only to Indian citizens. Then there was Chinnaya in interior Burma in the same condition. There was Rajan, who spent five months in prison due to his INA membership, but without citizenship of any country, as a wreck he just wished to be recognised as 'a freedom fighter'! The author spoke to Indian diplomats in Burma about the plight of these freedom fighters, but they had no concern. With difficulty the author could get permission to visit Ziawadi, where numerous INA veterans lived, there was an INA camp. The author also met Shankar Nath, 87-year-old Ganesh Chadha, she visited Netaji ki Chhavni of 1944. She took this risky journey with his driver Bhim Singh spying on her.

The author knew late Burmese Prime Minister U Nu's daughter Than Than Nu. Before coming to Burma, she had met her in Delhi. For carrying Lt Perumal's humble letter to Indian foreign secretary, she was later summoned by Burmese officials and admonished, met interestingly Nyi Nyi Mint, widow of dead dictator Gen Ne Win. She met some poets too. Author refers to struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi for democracy in Burma. She could come across even sex industry in Burma; the author visited Mandley also, where many Indian freedom fighters were imprisoned. She went upto Maymyo, where Lakshmi Sehgal set up an advance camp as hospital. She was able to meet INA veteran D R Sharma, whose two sisters in Rani Jhansi brigade and a brother-in-law were killed in action. After returning to Delhi the author looked for monument of INA or Netaji Subhas Bose in Delhi, but she found none! And she comments—so much for Dilli Chalo the favourite slogan of Netaji.

In Search of Freedom : Journeys Through India and Southeast Asia (Paperback) By Sagari Chhabra
Harper Collins, Delhi, 2015 1st Edition,
Pages 344, Price Rs 499.00

Vol. 48, No. 41, Apr 17 - 23, 2016