Forgotten heroes: Hearts aglow with memories, burning with despair

People in the city’s hinterland recall their deep connections with the freedom struggle and Partition that still evoke feelings of pride over the past and disappointment with the present.

Published: 15th August 2022 07:31 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th August 2022 07:31 AM   |  A+A-

Mamkaur at her house at Budella village in Janakpuri;

Mamkaur at her house at Budella village in Janakpuri;

Express News Service

Flecked with the tricolour fluttering every few metres, the city is ready to herald the 75th year of Independence. Installations and paintings paying homage to freedom fighters mark several key locations of the city, in tandem with the government’s celebration of ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, and campaigns like ‘Har Ghar Tiranaga’ aiming to evoke the emotion of patriotism in citizens.

However, mere token respect is not enough, says Raj Singh Dabas, the 70-year-old grandson of freedom fighter Tau Bihari. Dabas rues that his grandfather never received any recognition from the government despite several programmes launched to honour them.

“In 1912, a bomb was thrown to assassinate the then Viceroy of India, Lord Charles Hardinge. My grandfather, Tau Bihari, also played a significant role in that moment of the freedom struggle,” says Dabas, adding that Bihari had a good relationship with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Mahatma Gandhi.

“While battling against the persecution by the British, my grandfather also spent a substantial part of his life behind bars,” Dabas stresses, talking about his two grandmothers, known at the time as ‘Badi Nihali’ and ‘Chhoti Nihali,’ who also took part in the freedom struggle and were imprisoned as well. Tau Bihari was also lured by the British, who offered him a job. But he turned down the offer. “He was so committed to the cause of India's freedom that he vowed to remain barefoot until the nation attained Independence, says Dabas, sharing historical records from the 1930s.

“The government never did anything for our welfare. We don't need any financial aid from them, but they can at least recognise our ancestors’ contribution to the freedom struggle,” Dabas laments. “We intend to commemorate my grandfather's birth anniversary on Nov. 14 at an all-India level. His birthday coincides with that of Jawaharlal Nehru,” he adds, with a slight laugh.

The issue is also close to the heart of Bijendra Singh Kotla, a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Swatantrata Senani Samiti, which works for giving recognition to forgotten freedom fighters, and helps them gain benefits from the various government policies. Kotla, who uses the name of his village as his last name, says, “Nowadays, political parties recognise freedom fighters as per their convenience. The Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab seems to be trying to get a copyright on Bhagat Singh and BR Ambedkar. Politicians make freedom fighters their idols just to attract voters. In between all this politics, the government somewhere forgot those who do not fit in the voting arithmetic.”

Talking about the “gumnaam” and “bhule bisre” freedom fighters, Kotla says those leaders who entered the political arena in post-Independence India, went on to receive heaps of recognition, while those who followed their own paths were sidelined despite their major contribution to the freedom struggle.
“In 2014, I filed an RTI asking for the names of freedom fighters recognised by the Delhi government,” Kotla says. “I got the reply that it is private information, and so the details cannot be provided. I was shocked that information related to our freedom heroes is a private matter,” he adds, pointing out that he subsequently wrote several letters and emails regarding this issue but did not receive any productive result.

“Once when I visited the Delhi Secretariat, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal happened to be present there as well. As soon as I saw him, I asked him about this issue, but he repeated the same words as the RTI reply,” recalls Kotla. “I immediately sat on a dharna in front of him without any second thought and began shouting slogans against the government. Then he acknowledged my grievances and after a few months, the list of freedom fighters was posted on the website.”

Kotla’s organisation helps freedom fighters avail the benefits given by the government and also tries to make people aware of their local heroes. “There are several benefit schemes for the freedom fighters, but because of their old age they were not aware of these, and most of them are excluded from drawing these benefits. So we helped them in filling up the forms and with other government paperwork,” he says.

According to the website of the Delhi government, there are 592 freedom fighters recognised in the national capital. They can avail government benefits like monthly pensions and free medical treatment, which were handled by the Freedom Cell of the general administration department of the Delhi Government, which was formed in 1988.

Other than this, they can also avail of free lifetime railway pass in 2nd and 3rd AC in Duronto, and 1st Class and 2nd AC on any train, including Rajdhani and Shatabdi Express. They are also entitled to free treatment at 36private medical hospitals. In case of the death of a freedom fighter, the pension is transferred to their spouse or unmarried daughter. The Delhi government has sanctioned a monthly pension of Rs 4,500 to freedom fighters, which was last increased in 2010.

Mamkaur with her son Momin

Kotla, whose maternal grandfather Lalheri Rai Singh, had joined the Indian National Army and participated in the 1942 war in Japan says, “For us, recognition is more important than financial aid. Tell me the name of any statue or road in the name of Lalheri Rai Singh or Tau Choudary, even though their contribution is major in the Independence struggle in the rural parts of the city.”

Delhi’s villages are indeed full of stories of ordinary lives getting impacted by how events turned at the national level. The nondescript Budella village in Janakpuri, for instance, still bears deep marks and memories of the years gone by.

Sitting at her doorstep, 60-year-old Mamkaur is busy threading a needle in a sewing machine, while adjusting her spectacles for better vision. She remains undeterred by the children running around her, waving tricolour flags, and generally loving creating a commotion, as kids do. She lifts her face briefly from the sewing machine, looks at nothing in particular at a distance, and takes a deep breath.

“I have only heard stories of Partition,” she says, “but I am quite sure that things were better at that time than they are now.” As Mamkaur starts listing her woes, from the high inflation to the current problem of unemployment in the country, her son, Momin, rushes down the stairs. He too says that stories of Partition and Hindu-Muslim camaraderie are not an unusual thing to hear from the elderly people in the neighbourhood who had experienced the traumatic occasion firsthand.

Momin’s family is one of the Muslim families who have been living in the Budella village in Janakpuri before the Partition. The hamlet in West Delhi is predominantly occupied by Jats, and Momin, who works as a cab driver, asserts that the area has never witnessed religious animosity, not even at the time of Partition.

A few steps away from Momin's house lives Paras Tyagi (31), who runs an organisation named Centre for Youth Culture Law & Environment (CYCLE), which works on bringing about reforms in urban and rural villages. Tyagi too has grown up hearing stories of Partition from his family elders. “When Pakistan was created, looting and massacres happened all over the city. At that time, my grandfather’s younger brother, Afraz Tyagi, protected several Muslim families who used to work in our fields.

Momin's family was also among them.” Tyagi continues to recount how Afraz locked up the Muslim peasants at his house to hide them from the attackers. Later, Afraz also provided them with a home to stay in.

Momin too talks about how his family came to find a permanent home here. “During Partition, my grandmother used to work at the same spot where we are currently standing. The local residents of Budella village helped her when communal tension engulfed the city. After that, this village became our permanent house,” he says.

“Unlike today, at that time, humanity was greater than money,” says Tyagi. As we walk around the village with him, he adds, “Their lives may have been saved at that time, but they are still leading a miserable existence. The government never looks toward them. Their education, welfare and standard of living are the same as earlier.” And as if showing tangible proof of his words, he points at the piles of wood collected outside houses. “Many people still use firewood for cooking,” he says.

Back at his house, he unfolds a map of Delhi and puts his finger on the top of the paper. “This is the main Jat belt of the capital, comprising areas like Najafgarh, Alipur and Bawana. Residents, there are full of stories of bravery, about people who participated in the war against the British rule in 1857,” he says, again talking about how the living condition in these villages is still poor.

“Our patriotism has remained shrunk to the Lutyen’s zone,” he says. “No one talks about the participation of the city’s villages in building its history.”

Far from the pomp of Lutyen’s Delhi, as the national capital gets ready to celebrate the 75th year of Independence, people in the city’s hinterland recall their deep connections with the freedom struggle and Partition that still evoke feelings of pride over the past, and disappointment with the present finds Amit Pandey


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