Celebrating unsung freedom fighters
If we had continued to fight for Gandhi’s India, if we had not forgotten those inspired by his vision, we would now be a very different nation, writes P Sainath in his new book
New Year’s Day is traditionally a time for looking forward and resolving to do better this year. The renowned journalist who writes on agriculture and rural matters, P Sainath, has called for us to look back by remembering the Indians we have forgotten. In The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, Sainath calls on us to remember those who fought in the freedom movement but have been forgotten.
In his prologue to the book, professor Jagmohan Singh, former head of the department of computer science at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, quotes a letter from Bhagat Singh, whose revolutionary activities and execution by hanging are well known.
In the letter, Bhagat Singh wrote, “The people generally get accustomed to the established order of things and begin to tremble at the very idea of a change. It is this spirit of lethargy that needs to be replaced by the revolutionary spirit. Otherwise, degeneration gains the upper hand and the whole of humanity is led astray by the reactionary forces. Such a state of affairs leads to stagnation and paralysis in human progress.” Sainath argues that our failure to remember the foot soldiers of the freedom movement has led to stagnation and paralysis in India.
To write the book, Sainath interviewed a variety of freedom fighters. They come from various regions and different backgrounds. They speak diverse languages. There are Muslims, Hindus, women and men in the 16 chapters of the book. They are foot soldiers who watched a new era in the Independence movement emerge with the arrival of Gandhi. He brought the masses into the freedom struggle, and with that came the idea of revolution and the revolutionary spirit, which inspired people to fight for goals, and not each other.
Freedom and Independence were the goals freedom fighters fought for. The goal was only half achieved. As Captain Bhau, one of Sainath’s fighters, said, “We fought for freedom and Independence. We achieved Independence. To win Independence, the revolutionary spirit had to be preserved. Unfortunately, it was not, and the masses who had been inspired by it were forgotten. Those who had been in power remained there. Money dominated and still dominates”.
The Independence movement landed another freedom fighter, Sankaraiah, in jail, preventing him from taking his final exam to get a degree. That didn’t worry him because he said, “We fought for freedom not pensions”.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who provided the revolutionary spirit for the freedom struggle. Baji Mohammad, a Muslim, told Sainath the greatest moment of his life had been meeting the Mahatma and hearing his voice. He said, “My only regret is that his vision of what we should be as a nation is still not realised.” This is the point Sainath is making. If we had continued to fight for Gandhi’s India, if we had not forgotten those inspired by his vision, we would now be a very different nation.
India is still, in so many ways, a dysfunctional pre-Independence nation with Parliament and assemblies, courts and police bent on following the government’s will regardless of the law. In his prologue, Singh asked, “Is it that the colonial frame which was kept intact post-Independence became a strangulating hand to crush the notion of freedom?”
I would say the answer to that question is “yes”. But Sainath suggests it’s not too late to commit ourselves to building a Gandhian nation, a country where the masses who fought for it are remembered and inspire Indians to win freedom and the Independence they have got.
The views expressed are personal