A freedom fighter who was killed at the age of 45 in prison in the most cruel way, Sagarmal Gopa was one of those who dared to challenge the might of the cruel royal kingdoms which often operated in even more arbitrary ways than the main colonial government and provided hardly any avenues for dissent. Gopa stood up against such arbitrary rulers time and again and finally sacrificed his life at a young age.
His life appears all the more courageous if one remembers that he came from a family which had generally served the royal family and lived under the patronage of the rulers of Jaisalmer, in the Thar desert (present day Rajasthan). A similar option of a comfortable life was clearly open to Gopa also but he clearly rejected this and opted for a life devoted to resisting injustice, no matter how high the cost for him.
The life of Gopa has striking similarities with that of Sridev Suman, who was also killed at a very young age in prison while fighting the unjust rule of the kingdom of Tehri, in Himalayan region. In fact both of them were tortured to death. Both of them were brilliant scholars and authors and represented the group of intellectual-activists in the freedom movement.
There is, however, one important difference. Sri Dev Suman, although still not known to some of the younger generation in Uttarakhand, nevertheless received state level recognition as a great freedom fighter, particularly in the Garhwal region. On the other hand, Gopa is now known relatively to a much lesser extent in Rajasthan. Yes, a postage stamp was issued in his honour and a stretch of the Indira Gandhi Canal is named after him, but that is about all. There should be more efforts to tell people, particularly the younger generation, about his sacrifice and courage.
Gopa was devoted to serious study from a very young age and to spread the reading habit among people he started a library at the age of only 15. At the age of 20 he participated in the national non-cooperation movement.
His study made him aware of the severe restrictions, suppressions and injustices within which the royal family tried to run the affairs of the kingdom and he just could not accept the comforts and security that came with accepting the patronage of such a royalty.
He wrote in a very courageous way against the injustices of the kingdom which at times appeared to warn and at times to even mock the royalty, using prose as well as poetry. Very few persons would have dared to think of writing a book with the title—Jaisalmer Rajya Ka Goonda Raj ( How Goons Rule in the Kingdom of Jaisalmer), but this is precisely what Gopa did. He also documented the inspiring work of other freedom fighters in a book Azadi Ke Deewane. He documented injustices and was a fearless orator as well.
As might be expected, his father soon lost his job and his family had to soon leave Jaisalmer. They shifted to Nagpur which became the new center of the activities of Gopa. He continued to champion the cause of the freedom fighters in various kingdoms. As a result his entry was banned not just in Jaisalmer but in Hyderabad as well. Clearly he was establishing wider connections.
A life based on writings and activism continued in Nagpur, but Gopa felt a special responsibility towards Jaisalmer. Attempts to set up Congress type movements in kingdoms called Prajamandals were being made in several kingdoms including Jaisalmer. Gopa was trying to reach out to people in Jaisalmer and it appears that he was able to get some sort of a commitment from official sources of safe visit if he tried to go back, which was actually a trap. He was taken prisoner in Jaisalmer and tortured to extract a false confession and apology from him which he refused. Thus this highly talented activist, scholar and author languished in prison for almost six years.
However as prajamandal activities grew stronger in Jaisalmer and India also appeared to be moving towards freedom, the kingdom was even more fearful of the mobilizing capacity of their prisoner and his popularity among people. Hence his torture was stepped up and one day even blistering hot oil was poured on him. This led to painful death of Gopa at the age of only 45 on April 4 1946. Later an official committee tried to cover up this torture and instead mentioned a suicide, but this carried hardly any credibility.
The great contributions of Sagarmal Gopa as a freedom fighter, writer and human rights activist will be remembered for a long time.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books on freedom movement include When the Two Streams Met and Azadi Ke Deewanon Ki Dastaan.