Republic Day may mean a national holiday for most, but for Harish Chand Mehra, the day will always hold a special place. For it was over 50 years ago that Mehra, then 14, prompted the creation of the National Bravery Awards by saving Jawaharlal Nehru’s life.
He still remembers the incident like it happened yesterday. “It was on October 2, 1957, during the Ramlila celebrations in Old Delhi’s Ramlila Ground that Nehru along with some foreign delegates was watching the fireworks that preceded the function, when some sparks fell on the tent in which they were standing and it caught fire,” he says.
Without thinking twice, the young lad, then a Boy Scout assigned to Nehru’s stand, grabbed Nehru’s hand and pulled him towards the dais. “Then, I climbed onto one of the poles, and with my scouts’ knife cut off the burning portion of the tent,” Verma, now 70, remembers.
A few days later, Jagjivan Singh (then railways minister) awarded him a certificate. About three months later, his principal called him to his office and told him that he would be receiving the country’s first gallantry award for children.
The following year, on February 4, 1958, a special programme was organised to honour Mehra and he was presented the award by Nehru at Teen Murti Bhawan. “Nehru had said that I needed no introduction, as he was himself an eyewitness to the whole account. He said it would be better if we could have more children of undoubted courage,” Mehra recalls.
On January 26, 1959, Mehra led the Republic Day parade in the capital, becoming the first civilian to do so. And thus began the celebrations. But, that’s when the celebrations also ended for the young boy. Due to financial constraints, he was forced to quit his studies five years later. He worked as a clerk in UPSC, before being transferred to the controller of publications, where he served till he retired in February 2004.
“I am from a poor but reputed family. My father was a freedom fighter. The award made me think for a while that I was destined to do great things. But I guess I am just another ordinary guy,” says Mehra, who now lives with his family of 12 in a dingy bylane of Chandni Chowk.
His wife, Renu, however, disagrees. “I remember about two decades ago, there was a big fire at Kasturba hospital. He went inside the hospital and single-handedly saved the lives of many children by pulling them out. He can’t help it. He sees someone who needs help, he goes, without caring about his life. Not many people do that,” she says.
Mehra’s only regret is that the government didn’t help him enough. “Each year, 24 children win these awards and then they are forgotten. No one knows what happens to them. I had suggested ICCW to form a committee to track the children and help them out with aids and scholarships, so that they don’t end up like me,” he says.