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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 28 New Delhi July 4, 2015

Recollections of Legendary but Forgotten Freedom Fighters

Monday 6 July 2015, by Sagari Chhabra

The following are a few excerpts from Sagari Chhabra’s recently released book, In Search of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia (Harper-Collins Publishers India).

Interview of Subhadra Joshi, New Delhi, 1998

‘And tell me about your work during the communal riots?’

‘During the riots we brought out an appeal that looted things should be returned. We wrote it by hand, saying that whatever happened in the labour area was distressing. To our surprise whatever was stolen was actually being returned. There was a big collection in the office and we guessed that if one was sorry for what happened, the looted stuff would come back. Everybody was saying that they were sorry. I used to work in that area, so I knew what the people were feeling. Besides, there were no killings there, only looting.’

‘What happened after that?’ I was intrigued.

‘One day I saw a worker making a list of things. When I asked him, he said the thanedar had asked him to and the thanedar sent an official to my house. He asked me if I was collecting the looted things. I said, “Yes.” He told me to send it all to the police station. I said, “I won’t.” He asked me with whose authority I was collecting everything and I said to him, “Tell the inspector with the same authority he got the looting done.” That is what the police officials had actually done. If they wanted to save the people, they could have. Would so many have died?’

She had put her finger on the truth there, the connivance of the authorities.

‘At that time I met Gandhiji again. He was staying at Birla House. Dr Lohia was in the Congress Committee then, and he took us to him. Gandhiji asked us, “What is happening in Delhi? How many Muslims have been killed there?” We said, “It’s impossible to count since there were bodies all around, but our estimate is that around 10,000 Muslims died in the riots.” Gandhiji asked us, “What did you people do?” We told him, “We tried our best to save them, but were not able to.” Gandhiji asked for the number of Congress members—which the general secretary gave—and inquired, “How many of you have been killed?” We said, “None.”

‘Gandhiji then said, “You said ten thousand Muslims have been killed and you tried to save them? How can I believe you when none of you have been killed?” We told him that the people listened to us but the police did not. He said, “What is this I hear from the Congress workers? You fought against the British police, but today you cannot face your own police?”

‘We told him we won’t be scared now. This talk with Gandhiji really encouraged us. We formed a group of volunteers called Shanti Dal and we used to guard the Muslim area day and night and we never let anyone into that area.’

I listened in stunned silence, aware that no politician dared to have such a dialogue with the people today, much less with such an impact. It was Gandhi’s moral fortitude that inspired them. It was not that we didn’t have a Gandhi any more; he was there. We just had to reach inside and tap into him, somewhere deep within us. Somewhere we had lost touch with our own heritage. I knew now I was in the presence of a statesman. Not a politician, not a self-seekr but a servant of the people.

I was aware that in independent India, Subhandra Joshi had been elected several times and had been in Parliament for years. I wanted to know more: how does a woman, scrupulously honest, secular and socially committed, survive in a vicious system? I asked her to share some of her experiences.

‘I fought Atal Bihari Vajpayee.’

‘What?’

‘He lost the Lok Sabha seat from the Balrampur constituency.’

‘Which year?’

‘1962.’

Subhadra continued, ‘Now Atal Bihari Vajpayee pretends to be a very refined man, but he got the shock of his life. He said in his speech, “Some Subhadra Joshi has come. Nobody knows her, nobody has heard of her and nobody knows anything about her parents. She does not have any relation with the Hindu culture. She neither puts sindoor nor wears bangles.” Congress workers came up to me and asked me to start wearing bangles and a bindi. I said, “What has this got to do with elections? Have I come to fight an election or participate in a drama? I will remain as I am.”

‘I said in my meeting, “What he is saying is right. No one knows a soldier or his caste when he goes to fight for his country. Does a soldier wear bangles or a bindi? Everybody knows the flag. He must know the flag of the Congress. I have come to fight an election.” The people really applauded me and no longer bothered with what I was wearing.’

She continued recounting her speech. ‘Then I said, “We are familiar with that Hindu culture. When Lakshman was not able to recognise Sita’s jewellery, he said if it had been on Sita’s feet, he would have been able to recognise it, because he has only seen the feet of Sita.” Now, how does this keeper of Hindu culture know whether I put sindoor or not? The people really clapped!’

Subhadra added, ‘They (the Sangh Parivar) did a survey of 3000 masjids and declared that they had been built after demolishing temples and that a temple should be built in the same place. What happened in Ayodhya was only the beginning. In Mathura, a masjid was there on a hill, then a temple was built and they had a common wall. A trust was made and a deed was registered. The Hindu Right-wing then began saying the masjid should be demolished. They are traitors. Crimes happen everyday but does one go after the relatives of the robber to kill them?’

She asked me this rhetorically but I responded with a question I had been seeking to put to a woman who had spent a lifetime within the Congress party. ’But what did the Congress do? They knew that the Babri Masjid was being demolished.’

‘That is everybody’s fault. It was being shown on television and they said, “We are in touch.” What does being in touch mean? They just kept watching.’

I asked her about the Sikh carnage of 1984 where over 2000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi.

‘Yes, it is true. Sikhs were killed in the 1984 riots. If the police had stopped it, it would not have been possible to kill so many people.’

Being a member of the Congress and having represented it in so many elections, she had the honesty and the courage to criticise her own party. She was pure like ether and very precious. I cherished her honesty.

(pp. 93-96)

Interview of Ahilandam V. Pillai, Kuala Lumpur, 2004

My next meeting was with Ahilandam V. Pillai, also a member of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Diminutive, frail and thin, wearing a sari and a tilaka—two vertical lines made of paste on her forehead—denoting that she was a Brahmin, she told me, ‘I heard Netaji at the Selangor Club, here in Kuala Lumpur. I got inspired and I joined him.’

‘What did you do?’ I asked.

‘Military training.’ Her response was brief, her voice clipped.

’And after that?’

‘After the war was over, I came back and got married.’

‘Did you study?’

‘Only up to the fifth standard.’

‘And did you work?’

‘My husband did not allow me to.’

‘You went to fight the British and you ended up being controlled by your husband?’ I was taken aback by this abject compliance after having been exposed to the exhilarating ideas of the freedom struggle. Was she empowered only to be brought down to her knees by tradition?

‘After I came back, I got married. I had to listen to my husband only,’ she said rather plaintively. There was no criticism here, just a deadpan acceptance.

‘Did you have any children?’

‘Eleven children,’ she responded listlessly.

‘Eleven children!’

Nonplussed, I searched her face and asked, ‘After being exposed to political ideas and military training, you went ahead and got deluged by children?’

Ahilandam looked at me sorrowfully. ‘I had no choice,’ she said. ‘When you marry, you have to listen to your husband.’

(p. 225)

Interview of Lieutenant Perumal, Rangoon (Yangon), 2004

Since he was born in Burma, I asked him, ‘Are you a citizen of this country?’

He responded, his grief palpable, ‘I am not a citizen of any country. I applied in 1951 and again in 1996. Till now I am not a citizen, nor are my children or grandchildren. This is extremely tragic for the young ones. My granddaughter is now in the eighth standard, but she cannot go to college without citizenship. I want the Indian Government to help us get citizenship. We have to pay Rs 50 per person to get the Foreigners Registration Certificate renewed and I ahve eight grandchildren.’

I was beginning to understand that the deprivation of citizenship was inter-generational.

‘The Indian Government did not help us in our capacity as INA personnel or as freedom fighters. We do not get even a paisa as pension from the Indian Government, nor do we have citizenship from the Burmese Government.‘

‘Have you written to India for a pension,’ U asked, dumbstruck.

‘Yes, I have.’

‘And have you received any response?’

‘Yes, the INA committee has said I have to be a citizen of India to receive a pension. I am a citizen of no country.’

I felt a small dark moth fluttering around my heart. Here was a man who had joined the INA, collected funds for the cause, spent a month in Rangoon jail but was bereft of citizenship of either country.

‘Not only that,’ Perumal added, ‘We really want to teach our children their mother tongue. We want them to read Tamil, but the Indian embassy has stopped the supply of free Tamil newspapers and magazines. Something we can ill afford to buy with our meagre incomes. Our children do not know what is happening in India and they do not even know their language.’

‘So are you saying you have no citizenship nor do you receive any ex-gratia payment, pension or even a newspaper?’ I clarified.

‘Yes, we get nothing. Nothing at all,’ he said, and now a shadow crossed his face. The dark moth folded her wings and dipped her head into my heart.

(pp. 250-251)

Interview of Chinnaya, Rangoon (Yangon), 2004

‘And how did you join the INA?’ I asked.

‘Well, there was a call for freedom. I just joined. My job was to carry the injured to the hospital.’

‘And now,’ I asked, looking around the poverty-stricken hovel. ‘Do you regret everything you sacrificed?’

‘I feel happy I could do something for my motherland,’ he responded.

‘How do you live? What is your livelihood?’ I asked Chinnaya.

‘My son is a schoolteacher and he supports me and my wife.’ He opened a black tin trunk with the help of his wife. He showed me a document carefully preserved in plastic. It was a Foreigners Registration Certificate (FRC).

‘You are not a citizen of Burma?’

‘No,’ said Chinnaya quietly. ‘We are not citizens of Burma, we are foreigners and we have to get this renewed every year.’

I learnt that those on the FRC could not get a job, buy property or even travel within Burma without getting permission from the Ministry of Immigration. Chinnaya clutched onto the document—his only identity—as I questioned him. I found out that he, who has been in Burma for over sixty years, and his son, who was born here, wrere foreigners like Perumal and many others.

Chinnaya sang the anthem of the Indain National Army for me: ‘Sukh chain kee barkha barse...’ (May peace and contentment be showered on my motherland), and my eyes brimmed over. I was grateful at this moment that Chinnaya was blind and could not see the tears of shame and anger streaming down my face.

(p. 253)