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Friday, September 24, 2021

In the Shadow of Freedom: Postcard from Chauri Chaura

Once a hamlet that made Mahatma Gandhi call off his Non-Cooperation Movement, Chauri Chaura residents now worry about the future

September 5, 2021 6:26:28 am
Chauri Chaura Railway StationChauri Chaura Railway Station in Gorakhpur. Express poto by Vishal Srivastav 09082021

Nearly a century ago, a little-known place in the far-off eastern corner of the United Provinces, Chauri Chaura (now a tehsil in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district), changed the course of India’s freedom struggle. A mass demonstration had led the police to open fire. In retaliation, the police station was set ablaze, killing 23 policemen. Condemning the incident, Mahatma Gandhi withdrew his Non-Cooperation Movement to reinforce the principle of non-violence. This year, as the country moves towards its 75th year of Independence, the government launched the Chauri Chaura centenary celebrations with an upgraded Shaheed Smarak. For the locals, however, especially the fourth generation of freedom fighters, the struggle continues – to get jobs, better roads, and a proper drainage system.

Most young people migrate in search of jobs but the pandemic has made that difficult. The villages surrounding the police station, under Chauri Chaura tehsil, which has a population of 4.5 lakh and an average literacy rate of 56.42 per cent according to the 2011 census, have recently been included into the town area. The transition, however, is still in process.

chauri chaura The memorial to the British police officers (Photo: Vishal Srivastav)

A plaque at the Chauri Chaura railway station declares it has “adarsh” (model) station facilities, but there are hardly any functional amenities to be found. While about 100 trains pass through the station, not all stop here, and hardly seven-eight passengers alight. Rainwater has colonised the police station. A newly constructed waiting area with a raised platform is the only access for the aggrieved. The town, which once witnessed a historic uprising, appears bleak.

The elderly, living on freedom fighter pension, seem proud of their history but equally worried about the future. They wish that instead of beautifying the memorial, the government had rather set up a factory. For now, the small jobs at the memorial is the only hope of income for some.

“Ek bhaari udyog lag jata, sugar ka. Ladke sab idhar udhar ghumte hain, unko kaam mil jata (If a heavy industry, a sugar mill was put up, the vagabond boys would have got something better to do), says Ram Narayan Tiwari, 75, grandson of Lal Bihari Tiwari, one of the 19 freedom fighters who were hanged in the 1922 incident. Family members of freedom fighters were felicitated at the refurbished Shaheed Smarak hall last month as part of Azadi ka Amrut Mahotsav celebration. “After much struggle, we got this memorial built,” says Tiwari, one of whose grandsons, Ravi Tiwari, is a librarian at the memorial. Initially, the village had only one memorial, for the 23 dead policemen – with individual compartments to each, for anybody to light a candle/diya – next door to the Chauri Chaura police station. It was hardly visited by anyone. In 1982, then prime minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone of the Chauri Chaura Shaheed Smarak, commemorating the 19 hanged freedom fighters and the hundreds persecuted. Today, it has been upgraded, with a hall and library.

Chauri Chaura Inside the hall of the upgraded Shaheed Smarak. (Photo: Vishal Srivastav)

Tiwari points towards the great-grandson of Deep Yadav, who was sentenced to the gibbet, too. Lal Babu, 35, is a chowkidar at the memorial. The fourth generation of freedom fighters have no other source of income in the area, rues Tiwari. “There was nothing else, so when I got the opportunity to work as a chowkidar, I grabbed it. It is a contractual job for Rs 300 per working day,” says Lal Babu.

Two kilometres away from the memorial, facing the police station, stands the Chaura village, the eyewitness to the fires of yore. Among its 4,000 voters today is Moinuddin Shah. A kaccha road leads to his home, where Shah, 57, is seated with his two sons and a black-and-white photograph of his grandfather Lal Mohammad, another slain martyr. “Ladai toh jaari hai (The fight is on),” says Shah, “it was with the Bartania sarkar (Britannia/ British government) then, it is of a different kind today. We had great hopes when Yogi ji became the CM (from the Gorakhpur constituency itself). He could have put up a factory here.”

Like Tiwari, Shah, too, proudly cites historical instances he’s heard from elders, and counts the freedom fighters on his fingertips, but he is worried too about the future.

Basic medical facilities, even for pregnant women, were hard to come by during the pandemic, and the lack of testing facilities left them unsure if the virus killed their kin, says Shah. The closing of business and work opportunities hit them the hardest. Shah lost his small-cosmetic-shop customers to the lockdown. Most youngsters go to Saudi Arabia, Mumbai and Gujarat for jobs, but the coronavirus has stalled that. “It’s been 13 months, my son has been sitting at home,” says Shah. His elder son lost his job as a driver in Saudi Arabia. The remittances have stopped. His younger son sits at home with a bachelor’s in pharmacy degree. He hopes at least one of them gets a job at the memorial, if nothing else. But his 17-year-old daughter, Muskan, was made to drop out of school after Class IX.

The young girls have dreams, too. Muskan wants to study further to become a doctor. “Bahar bhejte darr lagta hai (we’re afraid to send her outside),” he says, asking his sons if something online can be arranged for her. Going for coaching or to school is an uphill task for the girls, it requires crossing a highway and the railway station on foot, in addition to being harassed.

At the village entrance, 16-year-old Annu Gupta stands waiting, with a school bag, under a shade, for the rain to subside. The Class X student, who aspires to be a police inspector to make her farmer-father proud. Her brother is pursuing a bachelor’s in Arts in Gorakhpur. For her, matters of the present are of greater concern than stories of the past, about which all she has to say is, “I’m proud.”

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