Veteran Journalist P Sainath On Independence, Freedom & The Unknown Indians Who Fought For It

24 Feb 2023 13 min read  Share

As India celebrates its 75th year of independence, the veteran journalist spotlights some of the unknown foot soldiers of the freedom struggle and the distinction they made between independence for India and freedom for all Indians.


Nashik: On the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, Magsaysay awardee and veteran journalist P Sainath’s new book ‘The Last Heroes. Footsoldiers of Indian Freedom’ places the spotlight on rural Indian men and women and the role they played in India’s freedom struggle and beyond. 

Based on reportage over 20 years from multiple states of the country, it narrates the life histories of a range of little-known and barely recognised, let alone feted, rural Indians and their neglected contributions, e.g. Sainath devotes one chapter to domestic work and cooking by women in service of the freedom struggle, another to social bandits.  

The former Rural Affairs editor of The Hindu and the founder-editor of The People’s Archive of Rural India, Sainath, calls the book “a more personal and emotional book” than his previous best-selling book on rural reportage, ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’.  

While it is hard to estimate how many living freedom fighters India still has, Sainath writes there are over 23,000 names on the Union government’s ‘Name-wise and State-wise list of Freedom Fighters and eligible dependents’ in 2022, even as official lists are biased, and filled with absences. The book, he writes in its introduction, is intended as a corrective to the mainstream historical record, even as time runs out:

“In the next five or six years, 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, and the oldest is 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.”

Many of the book’s subjects rue that while India has achieved independence, a vast majority of Indians are yet to experience freedom.  Edited excerpts of Sainath’s conversation with Article 14:

Why this book?

I wrote this book first and foremost, for the people in it. Their stories had to be told; they had a right to have their stories told. The conventional archives of the elite are not going to record the stories of such ‘nobodies’ as they would be in those eyes. Because, contrary to our romantic notions of the past, archives and libraries have actually been sites of censorship not of knowledge, of state censorship and exclusion. So the first thing is the book was written for those in it.

Second, it's written for the young generations of Indians that have been robbed of their history, who do not know these ordinary people as heroes. All that the book says is think about these people as well. Because historically, it was never an elite leadership that made the revolutions, it was the masses who made them possible. The first line of my introduction quotes a letter from Gandhi from 1931: ‘Great men seem to be the cause of revolutions in the world. In truth, the people themselves are the cause.’

By the way, he understood that 17 years earlier. In 1914, a very triumphant Gandhi, returning from South Africa to London, was given a reception in London, by a huge elite party including Sarojini Naidu and all the British liberal elite. And speaker after speaker poured praise on Gandhi. He got up and said, ‘Your felicitations are all being laid at the wrong address.’ I'm summarizing crudely but he actually says that ‘I did not make that victory. It was the achievement of the struggling indentured laborers and workers of Indian origin, of Indian workers and laborers in South Africa, without whom nothing could have happened.’ It is not false modesty, he cited example after example. He said, ‘You should be praising Huthee Singh, a 75 year old who was freed of his indenture, and he went back to his family and kin in Punjab. When he heard of the struggle in South Africa, he voluntarily returned to join the struggle. 

He ended up sharing a jail cell with Gandhi. And Gandhi reports the conversation. ‘How could you come back? You were a free man.’ Gandhi asks him testily. And Huthee Singh replies, ‘How could I not when my people are fighting for their freedom here? How could I not?’ It's a very moving recollection.

And by the way, Huthee Singh dies in jail; this was a free man coming back to fight the battle for freedom alongside his fellow labourers. I think that is what this book is about—the role of the mass in history. In India, this spectrum of people who fought for freedom was fantastic, but it has been reduced to half a dozen elite, mostly upper caste names in the history books.

Finally, the government of India has put out a website to celebrate 75 years of independence, Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav. There is not a single photograph, video, illustration, or article, not a single anything by a living freedom fighter. As my book shows you, such people are there. They are still alive. Also on the website, there is not a single paragraph I could find describing what colonialism did and what the British did—the famines, the dispossession and displacement that resulted from the British Empire, the millions of lives lost under British rule, the laws they passed such as the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) by which 200 Indian tribes were declared genetically criminal. 

As I said, there are no photos of living freedom fighters, but there are plenty of photos of you know who. Yes, full of (Narendra) Modi photos, plenty of pieces on Modi speaking. Young people can be forgiven for thinking that Modi got them their freedom—that is, by the way, the Kangana Ranaut School of History, which believes that we got azaadi in 2014. But these people in my book were fighting the horrors of colonialism. And every one of them makes this distinction between independence and freedom. The first line of the book is by Captain Bhau who said, ‘We fought for freedom and independence. We achieved independence.’ Freedom is still the monopoly of the few.

All of them in different ways brought up this difference between freedom and independence. It is hard to read this book and not think about what is happening today. What did the subjects of your book think about this difference?

Freedom was a much bigger, ongoing, perhaps endless project than independence. You know, when they sought independence, they sought independence for a purpose. There may have been some for whom the only purpose was to kick the British out. Like for a Salihan, it was the right of her tribe to their forests. I went to meet her grand nephew. And he races off into the forest, because he thinks I am a Forest Department official, since I've come there in a jeep. The same people who terrorized his grandaunt and her people are still the people he's up against. So freedom is a much larger project. And Captain Bhau says it: we achieved independence, but freedom remains the monopoly of the few.

Everyone of them, let me put it in a nutshell, what were those ideals that they fought for, that they saw as freedom? I think the Constitution of India is the finest distillation of those ideals—not just the fundamental rights, but the Directive Principles of State Policy, which must be fundamental to governance. When I look at the Constitution, and I look at all the rights, explicit and implicit, the right to food, right to nutrition and so on, I think the Constitution of India, for all its compromises, was a very fine distillation of the ideals of the freedom fighters. All of them are constitutionalist in that sense, meaning they fought for those ideals. And they keep complaining that those ideals have not been realized.

And that feeling is still persistent and resilient—after all, when the anti-CAA and anti-NRC agitations were taking place across the country, what were the thousands of young people reading? They were reading aloud, justice for all. social, economic and political liberty, equality, fraternity. And that is what these people in the book believe. Freedom—a much larger project than independence and an ongoing project.

There are so many fascinating people in the book Sainath. Who are one or two of your favorites?

I have to say all 15 because you know each one of them was unique in his or her own way. For instance, I could not believe what we were experiencing when we were in the presence of Baji Mohammad. I started his story with him having his skull fractured, not by the British, but by elements of the Sangh Parivar. And how the man could speak about it with zero anger, zero resentment, and all he had to offer in return was love. Or Salihan, who chased British security personnel out of her village (in 1930), and the only recognition she had is a wretched certificate that eulogizes her father. She was starving, emaciated, and she was just so happy that we had come to see her (in 2002), and except when she spoke about the shooting of her father, there was no anger in her. She had a fixed smile, completely genuine. No resentment, nothing along the lines of ‘I did so much, the country should look after me.’ Nothing, she asked for nothing. 

After each of these meetings, we would ask ourselves,  ‘Placed in that situation, thrown into that situation would you and I show that same courage that they did?’ Invariably, the answer was ‘Not likely. Impossible. Can’t even dream of it.’

A Laxmi Panda (former Indian National Army member and now domestic help in Koraput, Odisha) only wanted dignity, saying, ‘I also fought for this country.’ As one of the freedom fighters in the book (N. Sankariah) tells you, ‘We fought for freedom, not for pensions.’ And the entire Left refused to take the pension in 1972 when it was announced. Though looking back, I so badly wish they had, because I'm looking at the condition of the Telangana fighters in their late 90s, and it is horrifying. Some medical support or free medical treatment, we could have done for them.  

Or Shobharam Geharwar (96, a freedom fighter in Ajmer, Rajasthan), and how he told me, ‘Dono nadiya mein thay hum, Gandhivaad and Krantivaad (the Gandhian path and the revolutionary path).’ Here is a guy, a self-declared Gandhian who spent many years making and couriering bombs. The other lesson I learnt is to not pigeonhole these people. They were open to many influences. Take Thelu and Lokki Mahato: their big hero was Netaji Bose, their national hero was Gandhi, and their immediate local heroes were 3 bandits, in the tradition of (the historian Eric) Hobsbawm’s bandits. So it is hard to pick one or two - all of them startled me in one way or the other.

Do you think the freedom struggle has receded from public memory in India, in that it does not have the same hold over Indians.

I think the freedom struggle, and its telling has been erased for many years now, and not just by the present regime. The way we define who is a freedom fighter—all those laws came in Congress rule. For instance, if we ask a person from your generation or my generation to name top freedom fighters, it is unlikely that they will name Babasaheb Ambedkar amongst them. Some of them even accuse him of being a collaborator. The fact is, that if we believe the Indian Constitution as the finest distillation of the ideals of the freedom struggle, then the chief architect of that Constitution must be recognized as one of our greatest freedom fighters ever. And again, there is the same distinction between independence and freedom—Ambedkar launched the battle for human dignity, the single greatest battle for human dignity on the face of the earth, against the oldest and most sophisticated system of oppression, the caste system, a battle that continues to this day. If he was not a freedom fighter, I don't know who was, and that erasure took place much earlier.

So I would say the younger generation has been robbed of this history, and I see it in the reactions from younger readers - from exuberance to disbelief about not being told by their parents and grandparents about these people beyond the 5-6 heroes of the freedom movement. Every young group I have spoken to about the book, I have advised them that you have grandparents, great grandparents, go talk to them about their lives in the pre-Independence years. You will find every family has a story because that's how all encompassing the freedom struggle was. Some youth have written to me for example saying my nani (grandmother) told me about this, that she spent two days in jail after Satyagraha. 

The book is meant to spur young people to explore their own history, their own family. Some of them might discover some nasty tales, but I think a very very small percentage. I think the default mode of the young is idealism but who were the heroes they were given in the last 30 years—(former MP, liquor baron and economic fugitive) Vijay Mallya? Vijay Mallya was a role model, those were the bankrupt role models we have offered to them.

I always look at my generation as the betrayer. In 1991, we embraced this new, brave new world where we embraced inequality, while our freedom struggle was about fighting inequality. We celebrate inequality now by celebrating the lists of the richest, and how many new billionaires we have added to the Forbes List. 

We celebrate that, we don’t say these gaps are not ok. On the other hand, look at someone like Shobharam Gehervar. He has been a municipal councilor twice. He lives in the very spot in the Dalit basti where he was born almost a century ago. He hasn't acquired a big mansion anywhere, nothing to enrich himself or make money. And what is he living for? He is living to see that the Swatantrata Senani Bhavan, the bhavan of the freedom fighters in Ajmer, becomes state property. He says the moment I am gone, all these vultures in real estate around this area will grab it. He's not thinking about capturing that property and handing it down to his family. He wants that the nation should have it, and that the kids should know about it. There is a spirit of resistance in them, a respect for the ideals of the freedom struggle as enshrined in the Constitution.

What would you want readers to take away from the book?

The single greatest thing is that there is a distinction between independence and freedom, and that the fight for both came from ordinary people. People even less privileged than us. Even less privileged than the middle classes. And therefore, you have a responsibility. And you cannot say, ‘What can I do? There's nothing I can do.’ These people show you what ordinary people can do. As Mallu Swarajyam told a gathering of techies in Hyderabad who gave her three or four standing ovations, showing you the default mode of idealism. She told them, ‘There is a continuity (between our fight and yours), and it is your responsibility.’ The book tells people, it is your responsibility. And if they could do it, could we not? They are demanding that we fight to defend the ideals of the freedom struggle, that we fight to realize the principles of the freedom struggle. And that brings us very heavily into a defence of the Indian constitution. At least justice for all - social, economic, and political.

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 (Chitrangada Choudhury is a journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board. She works on issues related to the environment, justice, indigenous and rural communities.)