Shahid Bhagat Singh had, in a dialogue with his compatriot Shiv Verma, described the ordinary people, who contributed to India’s freedom struggle, as the foundation of a building and, therefore, much more important.
“We as soldiers of freedom, love action, and in the action the most honoured are those who either achieve martyrdom in the field or at the gallows. But they are nothing but the gems on the top of a building. They only enhance the beauty of the building. But the stones which make the foundation are much more important. They strengthen the foundation and provide long life to the building. It is they who carry the burden for many long years,” Bhagat Singh has been quoted in the foreword of a new book that documents the role of 15 such ordinary men and women.
Describing them as “Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom,” author P Sainath writes that these were the people who really spearheaded India’s freedom struggle. The book, The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, accords these ordinary people ~ farmers, landless labourers, workers, couriers, forest produce gatherers, homemakers and domestic help ~ the recognition and respect as a freedom fighter that has mostly been denied to them.
“There are even a couple of rebel members from families of landed gentry,” writes Sainath in his introduction. “In one village the British called the Badmash Gaon, there were carpenters, leather workers and others.”
Coming out in India’s 75th year of Independence, the book is a compilation of oral testimonies of survivors of the freedom struggle whom Sainath had interviewed multiple times over the last two decades or so. The men and women, in their 80s and 90s, some over 100 years of age, were from different parts of the country, speaking different languages and from different rural regions, cultures and backgrounds.
“Sometimes, it’s worth listening to the history of that great struggle as understood by those who helped make it,” writes Sainath. “Not one of the people in this book became or sought to be ministers, governors, Prime Ministers or Presidents after 1947. One, though, served briefly as a reluctant and maverick MLA in Andhra Pradesh…They had this in common though: Their opposition to the Empire was uncompromising.”
In the next five or six years, the author writes, there will not be a single person alive who fought for this country’s freedom. “The youngest of those featured in this book is 92, the oldest 104. Newer generations of young Indians will never get to meet, see, speak or listen to India’s freedom fighters. Never be directly told who they were, what they fought for.”
Bhagat Singh’s nephew Professor Jagmohan Singh, who retired as Head of Computer Sciences at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, described the book in his foreword as a marvellous work done consistently over years to collect the stories of living freedom fighters. “They survived and waited for someone to come to not only listen to their stories but share them with the world as a part of our history,” Prof Jagmohan Singh writes.
Sainath interviewed an Adivasi girl, Demati Dei Sabar “Salihan”, who was barely 16 when she led a spectacular counterattack on a British police force raiding her village in Odisha. She and 40 other young tribal women took on a platoon of armed police with only lathis, and won. Salihan did not go to jail, she was not part of organized politics nor had any role in campaigns like the Civil Disobedience or Quit India movements. In her village of Saliha, where she led that death-defying charge, inhabitants still speak of her valour. In the same village, the names of 17 people are inscribed on a monument to the uprising. Her name is not among them.
Panimora village in Bargarh district of Odisha was labelled by the British as “Badmash Gaon”, or rogue village. In August 1942, Chamaru Parida and his comrades captured the district court of Sambalpur as part of the Quit India movement. “The police in the court were baffled,” chuckled Chamaru, who appointed himself Magistrate. “I told them, ‘If you are Indians, obey me. If you are British, go back to your own country’.” At the height of the freedom struggle, 32 people from this village were sent to prison in 1942 alone.
A poignant narrative of Partition was by Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, who rebelled against British rule at the age of 11 in school. He paid for his action by being soundly thrashed and thrown out of school. Jhuggian went on to become an underground revolutionary in Ramgarh village of Hoshiarpur, Punjab. He speaks about Partition as a sad witness of communal violence. “There were two sets of people here in August 1947,” he recounts. “One set killing Muslims, another trying to save them from the attackers.”
Sainath concludes by quoting Mahatma Gandhi, “These men and women are the salt of India; on them will be built the Indian nation that is to be. We are poor mortals before these heroes and heroines.”