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In Search of Freedom

Sagari Chhabra

HarperCollins India

Pages: 344 Rs. 499

The painful stoicism of Indian freedom fighters

Sagari Chhabra went in search of freedom fighters in the subcontinent and beyond. The stories she gathered form a remarkable, revelatory document, writes Payel Majumdar.

Payel Majumdar  4th Jul 2015

Sagari Chhabra.

he third and fourth generations of free Indians in our times have only a distant memory of what the Independence struggle must have been like, travelling like a tempest through people's lives. Beyond the token names of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh, what freedom fighters meant for India's sovereignty or what they did beyond participating in the Quit India movement and the Dandi March is at its haziest worst in public memory, reflected in the paltry pension given to freedom fighters, from an office in the capital city that faces an odour-infested public restroom.

In the book In Search of Freedom, journalist Sagari Chhabra goes to seek out and document the personal accounts of freedom fighters in the Indian subcontinent; they are now long-forgotten, sometimes not present on the Indian mainland due to the circumstances they found themselves in, post Independence. What she found makes for fascinating stories that form important in piecing together the political climate in which India found itself during the struggle.

As Chhabra travels from Sabarmati Ashram to Kuala Lumpur, interviewing the "priceless pearls" who complicate the narrative, she is full of admiration for their courage, "the light in their eyes" and their surprisingly unconventional attitude to life. As their narratives unfold, so do the stereotypes of orthodoxy and rigidity in our society, especially where women fighters were concerned. Often enough, Chhabra is forced to ask questions such as, "So your marriage was breaking up. Was it not difficult in those times when women hung on to their marriages at all costs?" and "It must have been an unusual decision to stay on in a foreign country as a single woman and practice medicine?" to her interviewees who come from all kinds of backgrounds: Brahmin and Dalits, privileged and poor, conservatives and radicals (or both).

Chhabra begins her journey at the site of the genesis of the Dandi March — Sabarmati Ashram, where she interviews Veerbalaben, who had walked with Gandhi during the Salt satyagraha. Veerbalaben narrates to her the intricacies of the Swadeshi movement, the stealth operations where anything from cyclostyle machines and stencils to bombs were transferred by members of the movement for the "cause". She draws an atypical picture of the women who were a part of the movement, "The prominent women who were active then were Yashaswatiben Bhatt, Guniben Vaid, Vidya Gauri Neelkanth — the first woman graduate of Gujarat — and her sister Shardal Mehta. But none of these women wore khadi saris, they were westernised. They were all members of the AIWC (All India Women's Conference). They worked largely for women's education and remarriage. It was Gandhiji who infused the spirit of the freedom struggle in the women."

Chhabra traces the roots of women involved with the freedom struggle through the Rani Lakshmi Bai regiment, the first all-women military regiment in India. She goes back to its inception with members such as Lakshmi Sahgal, to its trajectory in Burma (Myanmar) and Singapore, where the cadets were recruited from and trained.

s she rakes accounts for her documentary, the narrative is not always smooth or congratulatory. There are people whom Independence passed by, such as Jasvinder Singh in Malaysia who says, "I want to forget it. It brought us nothing but pain and hardship." Then there were ones such as Dato Krishnan in Singapore who worked for the INA, then the Japanese and the British while the Second World War was on, and finally ended up as a doyen of the Malaysian film industry.

Chhabra traces the roots of women involved with the freedom struggle through the Rani Lakshmi Bai regiment, the first all-women military regiment in India. She goes back to its inception with members such as Lakshmi Sahgal, to its trajectory in Burma (Myanmar) and Singapore, where the cadets were recruited from and trained. There were women who gave up their regular lives to become freedom fighters, and then there were people such as Bhagyalakshmi Davies, who chose to become a part of the militia to escape the confines of a regular marriage at that time. She tells Chhabra candidly, "I thought it was better to die for a good cause than to get married." Bhagyalakshmi remembers her eventful time spent as one of the "Ranis" in the regiment fondly, even while they were fighting exhaustively in the tepid jungles of Burma. Now married, Chhabra notes how she looks back with a wistful nostalgia — "She kept repeating the same phrase — 'Married life has its ups and downs, but then we were free, so free.' — with an intense longing in her eyes. This time I understood that working towards a cause liberated one unconditionally." After the war, Bhagyalakshmi worked in a hospital under the British military, and never uttered a word about her former history with the INA.

As Chhabra's narrative about long-forgotten freedom fighters becomes more complex, we are introduced to nuances of the geo-political situation in South-East Asia at that point of time which in turn affected the life choices of people involved with the movement. Surety about sovereignty and independence was a privilege that generation did not have. Many freedom fighters confess to being influenced and enthused by the twin dissenting voices of ideologues Mohandas Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose, after which they joined the freedom movement. The INA or Indian National Army even had an underage wing called the "Balak Sena" that had young adults who participated in the freedom struggle. As Chhabra pieces the different elements of INA together, the narrative underscores how vast and varied the independence struggle had been on all fronts and how people's lives are affected till date.

 
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