The Unsung Heroes

Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom

Joydip Ghosal

P Sainath in his ground-breaking book ‘The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom’ (Penguin India) made a distinctive commencement of journey where he emphasised and stressed the roles of rural poor in the glorious freedom struggle of the country. He traversed across rural India and his interaction with common people revealed to him the sagas of ‘extraordinary in ordinary ‘day to day lives. Many freedom fighters who laid down their lives and held aloft the flag of courage did not find mention in the official freedom fighter’s list. For decades the struggle and chronicles of India’s freedom movement were filled with the deeds and valours of heroes. This book by P Sainath attempted to change the trajectory. It brought into the sanctum sanctorum of history books the courage and unstinting devotion of ordinary folks. This book also brought to the fore the glaring truth that the generation who stridently marched towards freedom gradually breathed their last.

This book documented fifteen such stories of extraordinary individuals. Hausabai Patil was part of Toofan Sena. The Sena was part of provisional government of Satara. Her father Nana Patil was part of the force that spearheaded the movement of pratisarkar. Its headquarters was in Kundal and both peasants and workers took part in that. Hausabai was a part of group of revolutionaries which was involved in the cases of arson in the dakbungalows owned by British. They looted armouries. Apart from that she also took part in the covert operation in Portuguese ruled Goa. She was unhappy with the recent developments. She felt that farmers were discriminated against in the Modi-led dispensation. Like many of her contemporaries she strived hard to achieve both independence and freedom. She was driven by the zeal to liberate the countrymen from imperialism. A spirit laced with secularism coursed through the urge to gain freedom. Demati Dei Salihan resisted the British force with the spirit ‘hard to rival’. She fought to defend her village and family against colonial forces. She challenged the imperialism, its codes and Raj. But when the author interviewed her they found to their utter astonishment that their name did not appear on the list inscribed in the pillar built in the memory of fighters in her own village. Bhagat Sigh Jhuggian, a revolutionary from Hoshiarpur , Punjab while discussing with the author declared unequivocally that there were two sets of people in August 1947. ‘One set trying to kill Muslims another trying to save them from attackers.” He did not like the state of freedom for which they struggled so arduously. According to him these people had no legacy of freedom struggle. “They will destroy this country if not checked.”Shobharam Gehervar found nice balance between Gandhi and Ambedkar. He remained a vocal critic of ruling dispensation. Mallu Swarajyam, a freedom fighter from Telangana exhorted the young techies in a seminar to fight for a better society that would value justice and liberty and equality. Apart from fighting against Nizam and Rajakars they also fought against forced ’vettichakri’ which was unpaid and forced labour. She called upon women to play pivotal roles against feudal forces. They rose up and asserted their own rights. Echoing the sentiment of the common people of that era ‘Captain Bhau’ or Ramchandra Sripati Lad said ‘It is unfair to say we “looted” the train’. It was money stolen by the British rulers from the Indian people that ‘we brought back.’ Together with their co-fighters they inflicted the British rulers a fatal blow. He remained unsung and unhonoured by the nation he ‘fought for’. But he was venerated by thousands who knew him personally because he rose up to challenge the mighty empire. N Sankariah’s fight remained a fight for the hapless of the nation. No thought of personal gain did ever occur to him. He clarified to the author the major events that provided major momentum for the fight against the mightiest empire. His commitment to the downtrodden remained undiminished. His interview with P Sainath published in People’s Archive of Rural India on 20th July, 2020. New DMK government led by M K Stalin presented him ThagaisalThamizhar Award. While accepting the award he refused the cash prize. He donated the sum to chief minister’s relief fund to help the victims of COVID 19. A veteran of India’s freedom movement Baji Mohammed was attacked by barbarian British forces. After fifty years he was a part of peace team that visited Ayodhya during the demolition of Babri mosque. There he faced vicious attacks by communal bigots. It was painful to see Laxmi Panda of Koraput , Odisha expressed her indignation. She was trained with rifle but she never fired a bullet at anyone. Did that mean she was not a freedom fighter? She was the youngest member of INA and she participated in the camp activities in Myanmar and then called Burma). Netaji chose to address her as Indira in order to avoid confusion with famous Laxmi Sehgal.

The British authority labeled Panimora village of Bargarh village of Odisha as Badmash village .Its 32 inhabitants were sent behind the prison during the historic struggle of 1942.Ganapati Yadav served as freedom fighter in the ranks of Toofan Sena or whirlwind army in Satara, Mahaarastra. He took part in the rebellions against the British imperialism. Freedom fighter Doreswamy continued his tireless struggle even at the fag end of his life. During his struggle against mighty British Empire he launched one newspaper after another. British forcefully shut the newspapers. The imperialists aimed at curbing criticisms by implementing draconian acts. In 2020 he had to face vicious attack by ruling Hindutva brigade. Even an MLA of the ruling dispensation claimed that he was never a part of the freedom struggle. His admirers published a bulletin responding to the attack titled ‘A Gaandhivaadhi replies to Godsevaadi’ to combat the barrage of invectives. Thelu and Lokkhi Mahato, R Nallakannua and Bhabani Mahato were the hero and heroines who were not feted or felicitated. But they were the embodiment of valour and sacrifice.

The uniqueness of the book was that it covers various people cutting across different sections of society who spearheaded the struggle against the British. This book is a fitting tribute to the fighters of India’s independence in 75 years. P Sainath indefatigably chronicles the fighting spirit of common men, village folks that aspect seemed to have disappeared from people’s consciousness. As freedom and independence is not the same thing the post-1947 generations need their stories to understand the real worth of both these words.

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Vol 56, No. 2, Jul 9 - 15, 2023