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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Birth of a Nation

He was 18 and the time for independence was nigh. A 90-year-old looks back at those heady days.

Written by Sarah Hafeez | New Delhi | Published: December 31, 2017 1:13:11 pm
Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya , Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya freedom fighter, Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya Allahabad, freedom fighters Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya, aged around 90, an Indian freedom fighter, poses with his Bugle instrument, inside his house, in Allahabad. (Photo by Ritesh Shukla )

Like an invisible spectre he glides between guests, trees and chairs, his hand going up to his forehead in a feeble salute every time “Jai Hind” is pronounced at a gathering in Allahabad to pay tribute to the martyrs of the 1925 Kakori train robbery. Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya is a magnificently wrinkled and bent 90-year-old, dressed in an oversized fawn suit, a clumsily stitched tricolour cap, a tricolour scarf slung around his lean neck, and a badge on his chest. It says “freedom fighter”.

By the time he turned 18 in 1945, Bhartiya was a committed activist. He was also married — to a 14-year-old called Lakshmi. Forced to choose between home and the world, he chose the latter. With him was his brass bugle, which he carries still: it is old and dented now, but he slings it over his shoulder by a thick skein of cotton threads.

“I wouldn’t stay home for long hours, late into the night. I would either be at meetings with students deciding which villages to visit to educate rural folk of the evil nature of the British and how we ought to fight them in every way possible. Either by not paying taxes or boycotting goods or simply disrupting their modes of communication,” he says.

(Express Photo by Ritesh Shukla)

His story dates back to the year 1942. As a boy of 13, he used to visit the local government school but his heart wandered to the streets of the city where the Indian National Congress workers had been constantly clashing with the British in the last leg of the struggle for Independence.

“My father used to be a Congress party worker and every time he went to attend meetings, I used to tag along. The rest of my siblings, eight of them, were never interested but I was. I remember how angry I felt at the way the British were beating up and rounding Indians for just about any small thing,” he recalls thoughtfully.


At 18, Prasad was a young student walking miles and miles around Allahabad or cycling to far off villages calling more and more to join the freedom struggle. World War II had come to an end and things were a little calm in India. “Those were heady times, full of hope. The struggle which had gained momentum, especially around the time Quit India has fizzled out. But we all watching closely the political developments abroad. That was the time the wheels of Independence began rolling. The British knew they had lost all rights to reign over India and they had become too weak. Two years later we became Independent,” he says.

At his squalid two-roomed house in the shadow of upscale residential societies in Allahabad’s Civil Lines, rummaging through a trunk full of old paper cuttings and sheaves of xerox copies, he recounts how he came to be a bugler.

Bhagwati Prasad Bhartiya , aged around 90, an Indian freedom fighter, plays his bugal instrument , during a programme, in Chandra Shekhar Azad Park, Allahabad. (Express Photo by Ritesh Shukla)

“All of us, young boys in search of meaning and purpose, used to go for meetings at the Anand Bhawan, Nehruji’s house. When the Quit India movement has been announced, he met us and told us all to spread the word in Allahabad and beyond. He had five brass bugles made in Meerut. He gave me one of them. That is how I came to be a bugler,” Prasad says, holding up his small bugle.

He says he went around the countryside, blowing his bugle while four other friends distributed pamphlets and shouted out slogans like “Angrez bhagao, Bharat bachao”. Other young boys cut electricity wires to disrupt power supply and communication. He said, “All of us were jailed. I was jailed for six months here in Allahabad.”

Prasad, a Pasi who falls among the lowest in the caste order in UP, said there was no discrimination he faced as a young boy among his fellow freedom fighters. “There is caste-based violence even today. But the people I used to stay with were full of fraternal love. We were all equals in this fight,” the frail thin old widower said.

(Express Photo by Ritesh Shukla)

His wife is no more and the local lockup he was confined in was converted to a hospital in Allahabad. No one really acknowledges Prasad as a freedom fighter unlike other fortunate ones who the Indira Gandhi government had felicitated with the Swatantrata Sangram Senani and pension. But, for Prasad his bugle and its ringing call is the only true legacy he holds of his valorous days of youth.

With his bugle tucked in his knotted fingers behind his back, he rides around a decadent Allahabad, hopping from one patriotic function to another, one of the city’s last living testimonies to its legacy of the Indian Independence. “Abhi azadi adhoori hai, poori nahi mili hai. We got Independence from the British but our freedom has been bought off by contractors and businessmen. We are a long way off and that is why I come out on the streets every day,” he says earnestly.

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