Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2020 > In my own voice: Azaadi | Sagari Chabra

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

In my own voice: Azaadi | Sagari Chabra

Friday 21 August 2020, by Sagari Chhabra

It is the eve of Independence day, 14th August and as I write this the faces of the freedom fighters I have met and recorded over the years, flash before me.

Sushila Nayar was deep into meditation when I met her at her home. I waited and after what seemed a long time she opened her eyes and gave me an exquisite smile. She was soft-spoken and gentle but her memory was sharp. She recalled being jailed with Gandhi and Kasturba inside the Agha Khan Palace detention camp, shortly after the Quit India movement was announced. She said she was studying to be a doctor at Lady Hardinge College in Delhi but went to Bombay because ‘we knew something was going to happen’.

Once jailed, Sushila attended on Bapu during his 21 day fast and at some point she feared they would lose him as his condition deteriorated. Seeing the young Sushila distraught, Bapu told her, if God felt he (Gandhi) had any purpose left to serve he would keep him alive. Throughout the determination for freedom through non-violent means remained through a myriad ways; when Mahadev Desai and then Kasturba later died inside the jail, their bodies were cremated inside and despite the tragic deaths no one was prepared to surrender to the terms of the British.

She also said, Bapu felt that for nonviolence to be effective the whole country had to be non-violent. If violence broke out anywhere he would suspend the movement but then he said we are now surrounded by violence. Then the answer came from within, for non-violence to be effective it had to act in the midst of violence.

I also recall meeting Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal who was in Singapore when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose arrived. Under his leadership she set up the Rani of Jhansi Regiment the first all-woman military regiment with one thousand five hundred women volunteering from Malaya and Burma. These heroic women trained in arms, witnessed the bombing of the Red Cross hospital by the British and when asked to disband even gave a petition to Bose ‘signed in blood’ recalled Gouri Bhattacharya Sen demanding, ‘we want to go to the front and die for the cause’.

Netaji realized the tide was against them and marched with them through a grueling 21 day trek through the forests of Burma. Janaki Thevar the second to command the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, recalled how two of the Ranis — Stella and Josephine were killed in a firing but no one broke down.

When the British reoccupied Malaya, each of the Ranis were interrogated and put under house arrest but no one reneged.

Feedom is both indefinable and intrinsic to the dignity of a human being. Despite giving so much for the cause of freedom, the havoc of Partition caused many to return to Malaya. Gandhi Nathan, - a Tokyo cadet - recalled that he could not get admission to the Indian Military Academy nor get a job so he had to return to Malaya. His only dream was to serve India he said with a faraway look in his eyes as he sat in his home in Kuala Lumpur. Many gave so that you and I could walk in free India.

The idea of India was that people of all religions and those who professed no religion would live together in harmony and peace. Gandhi had envisaged the era of climate change and had urged that people consume, ‘each according to his need and not greed’. Ambedkar had warned we were entering an era of political freedom but not one of social and economic freedom. But we reassured him that this time it would be different, we were free at last and would extend the frontiers of freedom to all. This was fraternity.

14th August is also the birth anniversary of Kuldip Nayar the journalist who was jailed during the Emergency but who lit candles this day at the Attari-Wagah border. Delhi had been the city which beckoned all, as Netaji’s rallying cry was ‘Dilli Challo’ but the terrible carnage witnessed in February in which 53 people got killed - mostly of the minority community but also of the majority community, makes one wonder, whatever happened to that idea of India?

What breaks my heart is that those who have been writing for peace have been called in for questioning or had false charges foisted against them. Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University and his writings and conduct are a living breath of ahimsa. At a meeting when someone talked in anger he reminded him that ‘hamaari bhasha hamesha ahimsatmak ho’ — our language must always be non-violent. Harsh Mander who led the Aman Ka Karavan to the families of those who have been lynched in free India — unbelievable but sadly true — expressing remorse on behalf of the silent majority. His speech saying, ‘they will give us hate, we will give them love’ how can it be called a ‘façade of peace’?

And when three journalists from the Caravan magazine who in the course of their journalistic duties are stopped, beaten almost strangulated by a camera strap and the woman journalist — whose name has not been declared for safety reasons — is sexually molested with a man actually exposing his private parts to her, I hang my head in shame and wonder, whether the idea of India is being disrobed.

It was never a perfect society for it had sharp cleavages having lived with centuries of oppression but the vision our founding fathers and mothers embodied in a beautiful document — the Constitution — envisaged liberty and equality — both social and economic — and fraternity that extends to us, women too!

If what happened to Apoorvanand, Harsh Mander and the journalists of Caravan goes unchecked, the very idea of India — its plurality, free press and expression of dissent - will be dismembered forever. Perhaps if Kuldip Nayar were alive today he would light mombattis in Delhi, or Gandhi would fast, to remind us what we really are - ahimsatmak. But then again, for non-violence to be effective it will have to act within the violence.


Sagari Chhabra Is an award-winning author & film-director. She is director of the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ archive.

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