The Last Heroes, The Foot Soldiers of India: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom – Book Review

by Brishti Sen Banerjee & Rajorshi Ray

‘Because I never went to jail, because I trained with a rifle but never fired a bullet at anyone, does that mean I am not a freedom fighter?’

—Laxmi Panda, Jeypore, Koraput, Odisha

On the 75th year of Independence, when the Indian government celebrates Azadi ke Amrit Mohotsav (budgetary allocation: 110 crores), this book honours the grass-root level freedom struggle against the colonial regime. Palagummi Sainath is the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India, a journalist covering narratives of rural India for forty-two years. Challenging the popular narrative, which overstates the contribution of a select few, Sainath brings forth a people’s history of the Indian freedom struggle. The distinction between freedom and independence is laid bare in this monograph. Sainath states that what we achieved from the freedom struggle is mere Independence for the Indian ruling elite to rule with impunity. Thus there was only a transfer of power from one elite class to another, without any effort to do away with social evils such as the caste system, communalism and growing wealth inequality. Further, this book highlights the hierarchization done among the freedom fighters, where one group of revolutionaries have been glorified and treated as idols due to their histories of incarceration, and the other foot soldiers of the freedom movement have been made invisibilized by the Independent state as their contribution was not thought to be ‘worthy’ enough of mention in the pages of history.

The Last Heroes Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom

This book is a treatise to the memories and lived experience of the Independence movement in contrast to the already-found hagiographic accounts of great personalities and their contribution. In the 75th year of independence, as a tribute, Sainath pens down the narratives of the foot soldiers of the Indian freedom movement in this book. Instead of focusing on the already known and acknowledged freedom fighters, he focuses on the individuals who have never gained recognition or acknowledgement from the government for participating in the freedom movement and hence have been erased from the pages of history. This book focuses on narratives of individuals who are farmers, home-makers, workers and labourers based on multiple interviews conducted over the years. In each chapter, the author focuses on the life of a revolutionary while they recollect memories of their struggle for Independence.

The book illustrates how individuals have participated and engaged with the Independence movement in different capacities. While some revolutionaries were involved in direct action against the British, some assisted or aided the movement in different ways. Demati Dei Sabar Salihan, an Adivasi activist, posed a counterattack on the British police force in a village in Odisha when she was only sixteen years of age, as the police attacked her father, who was also a freedom fighter. Similarly, the role of R Nallakannu, a prominent leader of the farmers’ movement, was initially to collect and send rice to the families of strikers in different factories and mills. Revolutionaries like Ganpati Yadav, Hausabai and  Bhagat Singh Jhuggian acted as messengers by carrying couriers of food and other essentials required for comrades throughout the nation. These small acts of resistance often led to a revolutionary outbreak but are mostly invisibilized. For example, Hausabai carried a chit of paper in her hair bun to pass critical information, which led to a successful jailbreak of a comrade. Instead of perceiving them as ‘mere messengers’, the book emphasises the significance of their roles in the freedom movement.

On the other hand, the narratives involving direct armed action ranged from train robberies, looting armouries, taking part in cultural revolution as well as being incarcerated. Mallu Swarajyam engaged in direct armed action, attended Marxist political classes regularly and led a fighter’s squad from an early age. Using writing as a tool of resistance, Harohalli Srinivasaiah Doreswamy, a writer, published newspapers and pamphlets criticizing the Raj. Further, revolutionaries like Lokhhi Mahato took part in the cultural revolution, making instruments and music their weapons against the British Raj. Many freedom fighters interviewed for this book have been actively engaged with the Toofan Sena. Getting directly involved in the movement, Hausabai joined the Toofan Sena, attacked British trains and even looted armouries and Ganpati Yadav gained recognition for taking part in the train robbery in Shenoli in Satara. Another member of the Toofan Sena was Ramchandra Sripati Lad, commonly known as ‘Captain Bhau’, who took pride in the fact that the government was even scared to intervene where the Toofan Sena was involved.

Giving an account of the prison, P Sankariah stated he had done quite a prison tour in Tamil Nadu, being a freedom fighter. He talks about the solidarity among political prisoners inside the jail and how they resort to collective actions like hunger strikes to display solidarity. At a later stage in his life, he was acquitted of the Madurai conspiracy, was put in solitary confinement and was finally released on the day India gained independence.

Adding to the fascinating experiences of resistance was the story of Badmash Gaon. A village which was ill-named due to its visible resistance against the British Raj. During a jail incident, the villagers refused to tell their names, which further put the police in a confused position making them more wary of this village. Apart from fighting against the Raj, the villagers also fought actively against casteism which can be reflected by the incident where the villagers, along with 400 Dalits, went to the Jagannath temple, which was not looked at positively by the Brahmins of the village.

With regard to government acknowledgement and provisions for freedom fighters, Baji Mohammad, who was engaged with the Congress National party, stated that they fought for freedom and not for provisions like a pension. Even after being forcefully given the pension, he spent the entire amount for the welfare of the Adivasi community instead of spending it on himself and his family. Further, highlighting the conditions in which the freedom fighter lives, the author pens down the heart-breaking story of Laxmi Panda. Once a freedom fighter, she lives in a chawl and works as a domestic help to sustain her livelihood. She has been one of the youngest members of the Indian National Army but is not recognized as a freedom fighter by the government as she has not been to jail in Delhi. Till her last breath, she fought for her recognition but unfortunately passed away without getting the due recognition.

Apart from focusing on the freedom fighters alone, the book also explores the narratives of the caregivers and family members of the freedom fighter, Shanti, wife of freedom fighter Shobharam Gehervar, who a bullet hit in his leg, stated that he wouldn’t have been alive if she and his children were not there. Adding to this, Bhavani Mahato, the wife of a freedom fighter, states how difficult it was for her to look after her husband and maintain the entire family on her own after he got back from jail. Instead of taking pride in participating in the movement, she was disappointed by the work she had to do, which increased when her husband was released from jail as she had to constantly cook for the fellow revolutionaries her husband brought home. Though the others recognized this act of cooking as contributing to the movement, she was doing it voluntarily is a question to think about.

The book puts forth the narratives of the forgotten freedom fighters who had to fight for their recognition as freedom fighters by the government. It is interesting to see that most of these unrecognized revolutionaries come from marginalized backgrounds and still live in deplorable conditions. Instead of focusing on the lone revolutionary, the book humanizes these individuals by putting light on the narratives of their families, which shows how certain acts of glory might be seen as a ‘burden’ by the families. Further, this book questions the dichotomy of supporting either Ambedkar or Gandhi, either Communism or Gandhian non-violence, as most of the revolutionaries don’t compartmentalize them in such a manner and perceive these forced dichotomies to be futile. The book leaves us with the question of why don’t these innumerable women and men who took part in the struggle for independence matter? Why are the ones who fought for freedom living in such deplorable conditions while the select few are enjoying the same fruit?

Bhagat Singh (1907-1931), an Indian revolutionary and a political ideologue aptly stated “Gore angrez chale jayenge, bhure anrez aa jayge[1]. This statement does justice to the current politico-economic state of India. The havoc that was reeked by the colonial dispensation is being continued by the subsequent Indian governments where economic inequality, gender disparity, ethnic nationalism and caste-based discrimination still runs amok. Sainath’s book is a wake up call towards the future generations of India, to build up people’s solidarity and movements to attain our much-awaited ‘freedom’.

Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin[2]

  • Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Poet (1911 – 1984)

[1] The Britishers will be overthrown but the Indian elite will start ruling the country.

[2] This is not the dawn (Independence) that one waited/fought for.

Brishti Sen Banerjee is a sociologist and columnist, her earlier works has been published in Feminism India. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree from IIT Kanpur

Rajorshi Ray is an independent filmmaker and reseracher. He is interested in the political economy of marginalisation and State.

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