The struggle for Indian Independence was one of the greatest nationalist movements in history. Staggered, repressed, divided and derailed by British imperial forces at multiple junctures, it eventually prevailed in 1947, as a compelling culmination to the contributions of innumerable fighters.
In the years since, the legacies of the most prominent of these fighters have naturally endured – the moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the pluralist commitment of Jawaharlal Nehru, the administrative acumen of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the enigmatic bravado of Subhas Chandra Bose, the pioneering vision of Sarojini Naidu, to name but a few.
There remain, however, the stories of several others who have not received the due recognition of posterity. Reduced to historical footnotes, shrouded in oblivion, and consigned to the narrowest corners of memory, these champions have been largely forgotten.
As India celebrates its 74th Independence Day, it is time to revive the stories of some of these champions, men and women whose actions deserve a central place in the collective consciousness of Indians.
Arguably among the most eclectic women of her generation, Kamaladevi played an instrumental role in the rehabilitation of refugees alongside the resurgence of handicrafts and theatre in independent India. But prior to 1947, she had excelled in an astonishing range of positions – a sterling actor in silent films, the first woman to run for a legislative seat in India, the first organising secretary of the All-India Women’s Conference, a distinguished member of the Gandhian Seva Dal, a global messenger and representative of India’s situation, and a leading member of the Salt Satyagraha of 1930.
Despite losing her father and sister in her formative years and becoming a widow at 16 (before remarrying at 20), Kamaladevi never relented in her quest to make women an important part of the nationalist cause. She not only paved the way for fellow females to take a more active part in traditionally male bastions like mass protests and marches, but also built the foundations that have sustained indigenous art and crafts in the country. A powerful proponent of political resistance, entrepreneurship, and feminist ideals, Kamaladevi breathed her last in Bombay in 1988, aged 85.
Sometimes, a single moment becomes emblematic of the nationalistic fervour that had permeated several generations. One such moment was born out of Kumaran’s tenacity during a protest march in January 1932. As a member of the Desa Bandhu Youth Association, which would catalyse several agitations among the youth of Tamil Nadu, Kumaran had participated, against the will of his family members, in a peaceful protest march in his home province.
Standing at the forefront with the Indian tricolour in his hand, Kumaran, then 27, was assaulted by the imperial police officers for refusing to let go of the flag that had been banned by the British. Even as he was beaten up relentlessly, Kumaran clung on to the Indian flag, sacrificing his life at the symbolic altar of his motherland. Succumbing to his injuries from the beating, Kumaran became a martyr and was honoured by the locals with the epithet of Kodi Kaththa Kumaran, which in Tamil means, “Kumaran who protected the flag”.
A spiritual leader who became a political protester, Gaidinliu joined the Heraka movement of the Nagas as a 13-year-old. Originally a religious movement, the Heraka morphed into a political campaign as it sought to drive out the British from Manipur and the adjoining Naga areas. As a fierce advocate of the Heraka, Gaidinliu was arrested at 16 and sentenced to life imprisonment by the colonial masters.
Following her release after independence, she continued to work tirelessly in her life-long mission for the upliftment of the Nagas. Airbrushing Gaidinliu from the annals of Indian history was not merely a result of sidelining the Nagas, but also a product of a long-lasting ambivalence that vacillated between the political and spiritual credentials of Gaidinliu.
Even though Jawaharlal Nehru had met her in jail in 1937, where he conferred upon her the title of “Rani”, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has observed that Gaidinliu had not been “remembered adequately”, both the Indian National Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party have shown greater interest in appropriating Gaidinliu’s heritage for political convenience instead of making a concerted effort to restore her heroic status.
Like many young freedom fighters across India, Ashfaqulla Khan was dismayed and disillusioned when Mahatma Gandhi abruptly called off the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, in the wake of the Chauri Chaura incident. Bringing together like-minded youths, Khan set up the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) shortly after, intending to organise armed revolutions to attain independence for India. The HSRA’s manifesto sought to guarantee universal suffrage and eliminate all forms of exploitation among Indians.
In order to supplement the resources of the HSRA, Khan and his associates planned to loot British government money, which took the shape of the Kakori train robbery of 1925. Even though the other conspirators had been arrested within a few months, Khan reamined untraceable, travelling between Banaras, Bihar, and Delhi. Targeting a move abroad in order to learn engineering and further assist the freedom struggle, Khan’s cover was finally blown in the capital by a close aide and childhood friend. The tragic outcome led to his arrest and eventual death sentence in December 1927.
Commonly referred to as “Captain Lakshmi” during her lifetime, Sahgal headed the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the women’s wing of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). A huge admirer of the INA, Sahgal had managed to convince Bose to set up a separate contingent for women after a five-hour meeting in Singapore in July 1943. Fighting valiantly, Sahgal and her division were vital in the INA’s promising, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at Indian liberation.
In 1945, she was arrested by the British army and kept as a prisoner of war for over a year in erstwhile Burma. After independence, Sahgal added new feathers to her cap by stepping to the fore as a volunteer at various critical moments, from the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war to the anti-Sikh riots and Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. A woman of infinite courage, energy, and commitment, Sahgal was also trained as a doctor, and believed that India, having achieved political independence, was yet to gain economic and social emancipation.
A stark example of the vagaries of remembrance lies in the story of Dutt, who had, alongside Bhagat Singh, exploded bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in 1929, as a protest against colonial injustice. While Singh has rightly been canonised and celebrated, similar recognition has mysteriously eluded Dutt, who outlived most of his revolutionary contemporaries, dying, in destitution, of a chronic illness in 1965. Dutt’s achievements are not simply a tale of outrageous audacity, but also a chronicle of remarkable resilience.
Following the end of his prison term for the bomb case, Dutt had joined the Quit India Movement, and extended his selfless service for his nation throughout the last phase of the movement. And yet, once independence was secured, there was little mention of Dutt’s exemplary efforts, and the man who had once raised the electric cries of “Inquilab Zindabad” was compelled to shuttle between selling biscuits and bread, working as a tourist guide, and engaging in other part-time occupations in order to sustain himself.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.