There could not have been a better time than the 75th year of India’s Independence for P Sainath’s book The Last Heroes — Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom. The book poignantly brings out the contribution of ordinary people to India’s freedom struggle. Forget being feted, many were not even recognised, but they brought energy and grassroots strength to the freedom struggle. For instance, Panimora village of Bargarh district of Odisha, which had 32 of its people in jail in 1942, was labelled by the British as Badmash goan or notorious village.
Millions of ordinary people from different social spectrums — Dalits, Adivasis, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Brahmins — spearheaded the freedom struggle, but chronicled in the book are the stories of 15, five of them women.
Most of those who narrated their stories are dead and the oldest living ones were 92 and 104. History books and story books do not mention them. Many do not even figure in the government pension lists but this did not bother them. “We fought for freedom, not pension,” was their refrain.
What makes the book eminently readable is its journalistic, story-telling format. Sainath looks at the political dimensions of the struggles as well the current status of these foot soldiers and their families.
The contribution of Hausabai Patil, of Sangli district in Maharashtra is fascinating. She was a member of the Toofan Sena, the armed wing of the prati sarkar or provisional government of Satara, an amalgam of 600 villages that declared independence from British rule in 1943. She and a colleague enacted a drunken brawl between husband and wife at a police station to distract policemen on duty and facilitate arms looting by comrades. British trains were attacked, armouries looted and dak bungalows set ablaze.
Hausabai even crossed the crocodile-infested Mandovi river lying on a big wooden box that served as a raft. Five other women joined the revolution. “The real dramas enacted were many, their risks real — and the results – constant harassment by the colonial raj,” writes Sainath. However, she says modestly, “I did some little work in the freedom struggle. I did not do anything great”.
Since Hausabai was never jailed, she did not have the ‘proof’ required to be recognised as a freedom fighter in 1972, when many got recognition on the 25th year of India’s Independence. Official recognition came only in 1992. She died in 2021 at the age of 95.
In 1930, when Demati Dei Sabar, 16, of Saliha, Purena village in Bargarh district, Odisha, heard that the British were torching homes and assaulting her father, she and 40 other women raced home with lathis and chased away the raiding force. A bleeding Kartik Sabar, a key organiser of the anti-British movement, was picked up and taken to safety.
Known as Salihan after the place of her birth, Demati was nearly 90 when the author met her in 2002. Like Hausabai, she was modest about her contribution. “They destroyed our homes and our crops. They attacked my father. Of course, I had to fight them,” she said. She lived in poverty, had no pension or state assistance till 2002. Her most prized possession was an official certificate of her heroism. In that, too, she was the footnote to her father’s role in fighting the British.
Demati Sabar’s children and grandchildren still live in abject poverty. Journalists had taken away her certificate of heroism and even the monument built to commemorate Saliha’s role in fighting the British does not bear her name. Only Sainath’s People’s Archives of Rural India (PARI) has immortalised her role and that of others in the freedom struggle.
Lack of recognition also bothered Laxmi Panda of Odisha, who cooked and ran errands for Netaji’s Indian National Army even in Myanmar. She asks, “Because I killed no one, did not go to jail, was an underground worker in forest camps — am I not a freedom fighter? Members of the Toofan Sena who fought for “Freedom and Independence”, maintain “Independence has been attained but their dreams for freedom remain unfulfilled.”
This book is a must for school children who are growing up without understanding the valour and sacrifices made for our Independence.
Usha Rai is a veteran journalist