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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

Review of Sainath’s The Last Heroes | KS Subramanian

Saturday 21 January 2023, by K S Subramanian


Reviewed by KS Subramanian

The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom
by P Sainath

(Penguin India) 2022

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother whose stories of freedom fighters including those of her father who spent years in British jails inspired him. The author’s grandfather was VV Giri who became President of India after its independence.

While at university, the author had learnt that almost all the major uprisings against the British had begun in the rural areas and not the cities. In 1857, the elites in the cities in Kolkata and Mumbai had actively had supported the British.

Thousands of Indian soldiers in British India, had turned nationalistic. Then, as now the Indian soldier is in essence a peasant in uniform and reflected the mood in his village gripped by agrarian despair.

The author, due to his agrarian concerns, became an expert on rural India. As a journalist and reporter for 42 years, he covered rural India full-time for thirty of those years. He has founded and edited the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a digital channel of far-reaching significance on rural India. He is grateful to his editor N Ram of the Hindu for the support and encouragement while editing the rural affairs section the paper from 2004 to 2014.

The author has received many national and international awards and fellowships. His book ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’ 1996, is a justly famous publication.

In this important book the author makes an original departure by emphasising the role of India’s rural poor in the making of its freedom struggle. This is an extraordinary book in extraordinary times.

The author’s brilliant introduction critiques the official lists of eligible freedom fighters in India and points out many deficiencies in them. Thousands of freedom fighters do not appear in them. A prominent freedom fighter told the author: ‘We fought for freedom, not pensions’.

Major freedom fighters such as the 16-year-old Demati Dei ‘Salihan’ of Odisha (Chapter 2) and Laxmi Panda (Chapter 9) do not find mention in the official lists. Further fabrications abound including the attempt in the recent period to push back the freedom struggle by 800 years!

In his selection and collection of materials for the book, the author indicates the several Indian states that he has visited and in the case of some states, more than once: Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tamilnadu, West Bengal, and Karnataka.

Neither Kashmir nor the states of the Northeast find mention in the book though perhaps they would appear in subsequent editions adding to the richness of this book.

Professor Jagmohan, nephew of the legendary revolutionary Bhagat Singh, has contributed a thought-provoking piece on the spirit of Indian Freedom @ 75.

Who brought to India its Independence? The author quotes Ramchandra Sripati Lad, also known as ‘Captain Bhau’ who set up the ‘Toofan Sena’ (1943-46) in the Satara and Sangli districts in colonial Maharashtra, (Chapter 6), who declared: ‘we fought for freedom and Independence: we achieved Independence’. ‘Captain Bhau’ declared in a later context: ‘Freedom remains a monopoly of the few’. The Toofan Sena was perhaps a parallel organisation to the Indian National Army (INA) of Subash Chandra Bose.
n 1997, when independent India turned fifty, the author visited the villages where some of the heroic struggles against the British had taken place and published a number of stories about ‘forgotten freedoms’ fought for by the rural poor. This book is a compilation of gripping stories on the freedoms sought by the rural poor, and their leaders. Many of them are not with us today but a shrinking few are still alive and can help young Indians understand the nature and causes of their freedom struggles.

The author has admirably expended his energy in elucidating rural poor struggles, which represent the millions who had participated in them and are still struggling today. The author’s visit to rural India and meetings with the poor revealed to him ‘stories of the extraordinary in the ordinary’.

The agrarian crisis in independent India became manifest sharply in the so called ‘Naxalite’ movement of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The Union Home Ministry where I worked, produced a well-known report on The Causes and Nature of Agrarian Tensions, which was circulated to the state governments recommending far-reaching agrarian reforms. This communication was ignored. The ‘Naxalite Movement persisted and became the Maoist movement active today. The author would have us believe that the Indian elite has moved away from the values of the freedom struggle.

He notes that in the 1990s the agrarian crisis assumed serious proportions. Though not a Maoist, the author paid serious attention to rural poor struggles from 2004 to 2014. He managed to revisit and meet many of the rural fighters or their descendants. He also ran into many of them while working on other subjects. His more recent rural visits were in March and April 2022.

The author notes that ‘in the public and political domains the freedom struggle in India is being dated back 800 years’. This gives fiction a bad name’! Further, those who volunteered to fight underground were not eligible for recognition. The pension was extended only to those who went underground as a result of being ‘proclaimed offenders’ as decided by the Raj. There were several other limitations as well. Meanwhile, those who fought for freedom are rapidly vanishing. As many as six of those who feature in the book have died since May 2021. Some are alive. Some survived such as Mallu Swarajyam (chapter 5) and HS Doreswamy (Chapter 14). Others may have difficulty surviving because of advancing age.

Among the people included in the stories in the book are Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs, Brahmins, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Also, women, men and young children who spoke different languages; they were from different religions, cultures and backgrounds. All were uncompromising in opposition to Empire. They were aware of the risks they were taking and had a vision of the freedom they were seeking. The stories were first published in The Hindu and later in the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). The reader may like to peruse the PR Code at the end of every chapter in the book for more details.

Professor Jagmohan, 78, nephew of the legendary Bhagat Singh, who went to the Ambala Central Jail with his mother in 1945-46 at age one and a half, has written a moving piece on the spirit of Indian freedom@ 75.
The sixteen narratives in the book are of absorbing interest.

In 1972, when India completed 25 years of independence the author had taken the initiative to recognise India’s freedom fighters. Many like Hausabai Patil in Maharashtra who escaped jail or imprisonment lacked the proof required for formal recognition by government; official recognition came only in 1992.

The stories in the book were done over many years and multiple interviews. Among them were people from multiple communities who speak different languages, belong to different regions and religions, and cultures. Complete diversity characterised them. They sought to be recognised for what they were: fighters for freedom and independence. They knew that freedom and independence were not the same thing; they needed to coalesce.

Not one of those interviewed became or sought to be Ministers, Governors, Prime Ministers after 1947. Their opposition to Empire was uncompromising. They had an idea of the freedom they were seeking. They did not stoke hatred against other communities or fellow Indians. They did not write pitiful mercy petitions to the British nor seek to collaborate with them. Those who volunteered to fight underground were not considered eligible for recognition or reward. There were restrictions about the grant of official recognition to freedom fighters. Very large groups of those who fought for freedom do not appear on the lists.

To go back a bit to Chapter 6, Demati Dei Sabar ‘Saliha’ never went to jail nor was she part of organised politics. She was not part of the civil disobedience or the Quit India movement. She was however a courageous freedom fighter who repelled a police officer who attacked her village, family and homes and grievously hurt her father by firing at him.

While 17 villagers were named in the memorial monument erected on the Salihan Village in celebration of the freedom struggle led by Demati Dei ‘Salihan’ in her village against the police attack on September 30 1930. Her name did not find mention in the memorial erected put up. The official reports failed to mention her role as a freedom fighter.

The author visited the Salihan village in 2002 and met ‘Salihan Dei Sabar’. He was moved by her story and penned her a poetic tribute to her.

To go back to Chapter 9 on the story of Laxmi Panda, an Odia woman who worked in with Netaji Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) in his forest outfit, is not officially recognised. She did not fire a single bullet on anyone but worked in the forest camp, which was targeted by the British. She asks: ‘simply because I never went to jail, nor fired a bullet but only worked in the forest camp, it did not I was not a freedom fighter’.

Again, in Chapter 7, on the story of N Sankariah, a prominent leader, he said: ‘we are not job hunters, we are freedom hunters!  This meant that thousands of freedom fighters never appeared on the official lists of freedom fighters.

In Chapter 6 on the story of Hausabai of the ‘Toofan Sena’ or ‘whirlwind army’, the armed wing of the ‘Prati Sarkar’ or provisional government of Satara and Sangli, declared independence from British rule in 1943 and functioning as a government with 600 villages under control. Satara region included the present Sangli district. Between 1943 and 46, Hausabai was part of a team of revolutionaries who attacked British trains, looted police armouries and set ablaze dak bungalows which functioned as post offices, and rest houses for British officials or makeshift court rooms. These facts are largely unknown to the Indian public today.

The activists of the ‘Prati Sarkar’ undertook various tactics and techniques to cheat the British police and the difficulties they encountered. Hausabai’s the father Nana Patil headed the parallel ‘prati-sarkar (1943-46) government in Satara district in Maharashtra.

Chapter 1 carries another story on Hausabai and the ‘Toofan Express’.

In Chapter 2, on the Salihan Uprising at Purena Bargar, Odisha in 1930, the British were cracking down on pro-independence meetings in the rebellious tribal region and met with resistance from the Demati Dei, a 16- year-old tribal who led a group of forty women, armed only with lathis, and pushed back the well-armed British police platoon which had destroyed crops and villages and fired at and injured the tribal woman’s father. The author met Demati Dei in 2002 found that the brave story of the Demati Dei found no mention in any official record or in pillar monument created to celebrate the occasion of the 1931 ‘Salihan Uprising’.

Chapter 8 brings out the remarkable of ‘Baji Mohammad’s Nine Decades of Non-Violence.  Baji was a Muslim and Gandhian freedom fighter who practised absolute non-violence at all costs including when his skull is cracked by violence from Hindu Kar Sevaks at Ayodhya in 1992. He had no hatred for the ‘Kar Sevaks’ He was a gentleman with a charming smile and a firm Gandhian. He was a colourful remnant of a vanishing tribe. In 1942, he was incarcerated in a miserable prison cell at Nabarangpur in Koraput district Odisha by the British.

Pl see PR Code in the chapter.

In Chapters 7 and 16 the author narrates the stories of the renowned leaders N Sankariah and R Nallakannu.

Chapter 5 carries the remarkable story of Swarajyam, a militant leader of women, who adopted a unique tactic to fight the British.

 Chapter 13 reveals the story of the great woman, Bhabani Mahto who feeds the revolution in her own way by physically feeding renowned freedom fighters.

There are very similar and fascinating stories of freedom fighters in the entire book.

I have learned from this book the great lesson of the difference between Freedom and Independence and the essential need to work towards coalescing the two.

Our congratulations must go to the author for writing this stupendously important book.

(Author: KS Subramanian was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development in Tripura)      

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