Remembering Forgotten Heroes

It is often said that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Unfortunately, Indians by and large have lacked a sense of history. When global community looks at ancient India, they look at it from Chinese perspective, because the accounts of such history are primarily available from the writings of Chinese travellers Fa-Hien, Huen-Tsang and I-Tsing. Megasthenes from Greece gave us the account of Mauryan Empire. Subsequent travellers from different part of the world like Al Beruni, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Abdul Razzak, Nicolo Conti, AfanasyNikitin and many others also enlightened the world about medieval India, its people and its rich culture. This was followed by number of Portuguese visitors starting with Vasco Da Gama, who again wrote about the riches of India. Surprisingly, during this period, with the sole exception of Kalhan’s Rajtarangini, no Indian wrote a good historical treatise. Consequently, Indians have got used to looking at Indian history from others perspective. This has created numerous aberrations in the way most Indians look at their own history.

Most Indians formulate their views based on popular perceptions or by reading one book or article. It is essential for a student of history to read the historian, before reading history to understand the perspective from which he had seen the history. It is equally important to understand from which angle he had approached the history before forming an opinion of your own. It is therefore necessary to read as many books as feasible on a particular subject and only then form an independent opinion of the event. This however, requires extensive reading on the same subject. Indian independence movement was a huge gigantic movement. Millions of people participated in this quest for Home Rule. Unfortunately, it has not been documented that well. Thus, the contribution of many individuals, who sacrificed their lives and time have not been analysed or acknowledged adequately. There is therefore very strong need for revisiting India’s Independence Movement.

The first important factor that needs to be considered is that the Indian national moment was not confined to what is India today. It embraced what was India then. So, when we talk of leaders of independence moment, Master Surya Sen or Master Da as he is known was an iconic figure. But how many in India today even know his name? He planned the Chittagong Armoury Raid—undoubtedly one of the most daring attempts at overthrowing the British, and was hanged by the British after being brutally tortured and his body was thrown into the sea.His last letter to his friends is extremely poignant. “Death is knocking at my door. My mind is flying away towards eternity …At such a pleasant, at such a grave, at such a solemn moment, what shall I leave behind you? Only one thing that is my dream, a golden dream—the dream of Free India….Never forget the 18th of April, 1930, the day of the eastern rebellion in Chittagong…Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of the patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom.” Ironically, hardly anyone in India remembers either the date or the freedom fighters. Of late some attempts have been made by Bombay film industry to acknowledge the stellar role played by this great revolutionary, but it is probably too little too late. Consequently, he still remains an unknown individual for most Indians. It appears as if the fact that Surya Sen was born and lived in a part that is no longer part of India has contributed to this collective amnesia. However, it needs to be appreciated, that he did not fight for creation of Bangladesh or creation of Pakistan. In fact, he and many others like him fought for India when the idea of partition had not even germinated.

It is therefore the bounden duty of every Indian to look at these heroes of independence movement, whose theatre of activity was not confined to what is India today. The first provisional government of India set up by Raja MahendraPratap had talked of Sindh to Kalinga. Unfortunately, not many Indians are aware of HemuKalani from Sukkur (Sindh), who was hanged by the Britishers in Sindh at a tender age of 19. Obviously, there is no monument for him in Sindh. The park named after him in Sukkur has been renamed as Qasim Park. Some Indian cities have started making amends for it by naming roads, parks and institutions after him, but it is primarily driven by Sindhi community. He did not fight for Sindh; he fought for Indian independence, so it is India, which has to recognise his contribution, not Pakistan. In Pakistan, attempts to rename the chowk where Bhagat Singh was hanged, as Bhagat Singh Chowk, have faced stiff opposition from fundamentalist and conservative elements. Considering the nature of Pakistani State, they are not ready to accept it. It is for the Indian State to recognise them as they fought for Indian independence.

This amnesia is not only restricted to those freedom fighters, who were born in territories that are no longer part of India, but anyone who worked outside India. Most Indians have not even heard of Raja MahendraPratap, who was the president of first provisional government of India that he had set up in exile in Kabul on 01 December 1915. Although, he was nominated and shortlisted for Nobel Peace Prize in 1932, he remains unknown in India. He fought for Indian independence outside India. He went across the globe to garner support for the movement. He not only set up a provisional government in Afghanistan, he also met Kaiser Wilhelm II and managed to get a letter of support from him. They tried to seek support from wherever they could in those formative years, when the freedom moment was in its nascent stage. While highlighting the role of Raja MahendraPratap, there is also a need to acknowledge the huge contribution of Shyamji Krishna Verma, who died in remote Switzerland working for Indian independence. His immense contribution is virtually unknown in India. Similarly LalHardayal’s immense contribution to the independence movement has been glossed over. He left a career in the Indian Civil Service to pursue his goal of Indian independence, traversing the globe in days when air travel was scarce. He set up a newspaper by name VandeMataram, which used to come out from Paris. He set up Bharat Mata Society. Unfortunately the immense contribution of these great intellectuals, who left lucrative avenues, to enhance global awareness about Indian independence, have neither been studied nor analysed by Indian academia.

Similarly, no attention has been paid to Gaddar party, the first organised movement emanating from across the oceans to overthrow British rule in India. People who left comfortable lives in Americas to fight for Indian independence, their huge contribution have never beenrecognised. Leaders of the movement like Kartar Singh Sarabha, Sohan Singh Bhakna, BhaiParmanand, VGPingleetc are still unknown entities for most Indians. Similarly, the role of RasBihari Bose, who led the Indian independence moment abroad before the advent of Netaji, has not been acknowledged adequately. Even Netaji and Indian National Army’s huge contribution to attainment of Indian Independence has not been acknowledged. There is an immediate necessity to study the role and contribution of Indian National Army. Its operations and organisation have not been studied adequately. There are so many warriors of Indian National Army, who are alive and languishing in complete obscurity and anonymity. India Foundation recently did a programme in Chennai, where it brought one of the members of Rani Jhansi Regiment and felicitated her. Before this generation is wiped off, is it not essential to document that history? It would be a criminal folly, if this history is allowed to die with them.

It is not intended to belittle anybody’s contribution. But the fact is, the Britishers decided to leave India only when they realised that they could no longer bank on the loyalty of the Indian armed forces. It needs to be appreciated that the largest number of soldiers who fought for the allies in the First World War were Indians, not Americans, Britishers or Russians. It is this army which sustained the British Empire and with the creation of Indian National Army, Britishersrealised that the Indian independence moment had percolated into the armed forces. They unfurled the tricolour in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, they unfurled it in Imphal and Kohima. Their immense contribution to the Indian independence moment has not been adequately recognised. One odd structure built to commemorate them in Imphal and Kohima does not do justice to their huge contribution.
There are so many sites in Myanmar, which are actually associated with Indian National Army. So many of the soldiers from INA, sacrificed their lives there. Numerous commissions have been established to ascertain what happened to Netaji; however, it would also be worthwhile to know how INA functioned and what were its military contributions. The nation also needs to know as to who all joined INA and what happened to all those who were once part of INA. It is important because the country and its governments have left them in the lurch. There were no pensions for all those who sacrificed everything at the altar of Mother India. In Myanmar, there are still people, who fought for India even though they may not be part of India today. India has unfortunately, not reached out to them. Many Indian soldiers went abroad, even to European countries to try and liberate India. Although, they failed and many of them perished in alien lands, some spent rest of their lives in foreign prisons or in foreign countries; the country owes them a huge debt of gratitude. It is a chapter that has been kept under complete wraps. Obviously, Britishers did not want Indians to know about it, because that would have instigated others in Indian armed forces to follow suit, so Britishers never mentioned it. More regrettably, Indian historians have followed suit.

It has been revealed by many historians that what actually made Britishers leave India, was not Congress or any other independence movement, but it was INA and the Naval mutiny, which has again been overlooked by Indian historians. In 1946, in the naval mutiny, naval ratings took over the ships, and flew tricolour on them. This actually shook the foundations of the British Empire. The organisations that had been sustaining the British Empire had started shaking. This actually convinced the British that they could no longer sustain what had been going on and they had to leave. These have not been documented at all. Some of the mutineers were hanged. Those who took part in that mutiny were not simply mutineers; they were fighting for India’s independence. To term it as a naval mutiny is actually a misnomer. It is like calling the first war of India’s independence in 1857 as mutiny. It is actually insulting. A time has come, when India, its scholars and its government need to have a relook at all these issues.

Aforesaid reasons make it important for Indian scholars to revisit the Indian independence movement. Even a cursory reading of those phenomenal movements acquaint you with dedicated intellectual geniuses like LalaHardayal, a man who went from India to Paris, started VandeMataram moment, then went to Algeria and from there to some isolated desolate island in Martinique, where hewas virtually starving. From there he resurrected, gave ideological thrust to the Gadar party, started the Gadar newspaper, and when arrested by Americans, he fled to Berlin, from there went to Sweden. Acquired his PhD from London and eventually died in US. Most of these freedom fighters died young, in early youth, dedicating their life to this particular movement. There is a couplet in Urdu,“Shahidon ki Chitaon par lagenge har baras mele, watan par mitne walon ka yehi namon nishan hoga”. Unfortunately that has not happened in independent India. India has so many martyrs who are unsung and unheard. Their contributions have been eclipsed by contributions of just a few. It is not intended to belittle the contributions of those, who are attributed with Indian independence movement, they did phenomenal work. However, this by no means should eclipse the contribution of those who have been unsung and unheard till date.

People from different spectrums, from North to South and East to West, played immense role in India’s independence movement. It is even more important to realise that this movement, at that stage, in its inception, was a unified moment of people belonging to different communities, religion and castes for India’s independence. The movement had MaulaviBarkatullah and MaulaviAbaidullah Sindhi with Raja MahendraPratap as his advisor. It hadPanditKanshi Ram, VG Pingle and LalaHardayal to supportSohan Singh Bhakna and Kartar Singh Sarabha in Gadar party. There has been an attempt by certain subsequent historians to communalise this particular moment, by terming it as only a Sikh movement. However, a dispassionate analysis of the movement and its initial founders shows that it comprised of people from all communities. There has been an attempt, to denigrate this phenomenal moment, which was for the independence of India, for creation of a unified India.

It is essential that extensive research is undertaken about this movement in various universities and research institutes. It is time that young scholars in India should do PhD on Surya Sen and his movement, on HemuKalani, or Shyamji Krishna Verma and his contribution to Indian Independence Movement. Young researchers could look at LalaHardayal, whose biography, reads like a novel. In those days, when air travel was scarce, that man travelled across Asia, Europe, Africa and America. Even within India, the role of revolutionaries like Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandra Shekhar Azad and Ashfaqulla Khan have not been acknowledged adequately.

A dispassionate historical research into Indian independence movement and its heroes, would give Indians a better perspective on how a movement for unified India was subverted and tainted by the colonial powers. This gigantic movement was not only a pan Indian movement, but it spanned across continents. It was sustained not only within India, but outside India, from America to Europe to Africa, to Far East. It should be feasible to find solutions to various problems plaguing India, by analysing this movement.

(This article is the summary of the inaugural address delivered by Capt. Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation, at the national seminar on “Revisiting Indian Independence Movement” organized by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017. Views expressed are personal.)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal)

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