Award-winning journalist P. Sainath’s latest book, The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, is an extraordinary chronicle of ordinary people who fought for India’s liberation but whose contributions have never been recorded in history books. By giving them the space to tell their stories, the book fills a void in the documentation of India’s freedom struggle. Sainath, the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), points out that in five years, not a single freedom fighter will be alive to narrate their experiences. Released in the 75th year of Independence, The Last Heroes is significant in more ways than one.
Each of the 17 freedom fighters who feature are presented alongside their supporting participants. Each character is distinct in their sacrifice and contribution. Sainath records the Adivasi and Dalit communities’ contribution to the freedom movement, British atrocities on the marginalised, conflicts in ideologies and leadership, and the role of women. Professor Jagmohan, nephew of Bhagat Singh, says in the Foreword: “These stories are from various regions, cultures, and backgrounds. They should convince us of how deep and widespread was the longing for freedom in our great struggle.” In addition, QR codes placed at the end of chapters allow readers to access hundreds of photographs and videos of the interviews. Sainath spoke to Frontline about making the book.
You have been interested in India’s freedom movement right through your student and professional years, even before you started reporting on India’s agrarian crisis. Why did you decide to publish the book now?
It began when I did a series in The Times of India called “Forgotten Freedoms” in 1997. I did those articles after visits to five villages where huge rebellions and uprisings had occurred against British rule. In 2002, I started the stories on individuals through a series in The Hindu. It made me realise a book had to be written. The agrarian crisis disrupted the work on the freedom fighters, so I researched it alongside. But the farming crisis was escalating and getting very grim, therefore those stories took over.
I grew up with these stories which many, including my mother, told me about my grandfather [former President V.V. Giri] and other family members who spent time in prison. I would watch people of different social strata and backgrounds call on my grandfather. He would tell me after they left that it was people like these who brought us Independence.
The urgency to bring it out in 2022 [the book released on November 30, 2022] was that since September 2021, seven characters in the book had died. It had to come out in 2022. Many of them wanted to see their stories, and I had a commitment to deliver that for them.
When you covered the agrarian crisis, did you actively look for people who fought in the freedom movement as many of them hail from the same areas where many of your farming distress stories are based?
I was consciously looking for it. If I was covering the agrarian crisis in a part of the country where I knew there were major revolts, I looked for men and women who participated in the struggle. Furthermore, I had been a rural reporter by that time for more than a decade. I had a massive network of rural contacts and journalists who would also look for me.
The 1857 uprising rose from an agrarian crisis. My background as a student of history gave me a better perspective. I knew something about land relations, tenurial systems, relation between landlords and peasants. Every character in the book originated from villages. I am trying to establish that it is all connected.
Your unique method of telling the story through the individual is impactful. Could you explain your process?
The stories come alive because the characters who feature in them are doing the talking. It becomes a monologue if the author writes it as an essay. For instance, the cackling humour of Hausabai Patil when she speaks about staging a fake fight with her husband to rob a police station. It is spellbinding. What she said had to be there in her own words. When you place these people in their context, they tell the story. It is our job to know the historical background and weave it into a context.
One of the most serious losses to journalism is that it has turned into a carnival-yelling by anchors. We have forgotten how to tell a story. Storytelling is at the heart of journalism. This was very important for me.
“I believe idealism is the default mode of youth. And they have been robbed of their history, their story, of what happened in the freedom struggle.”
What is your aim in writing the book?
I wrote this book for the people in it. We, the post-1947 generation, need their stories in order to better shape our own. If we do not know where we came from, we do not know where we are going. My experience with my previous book tells me that the largest readership is made up of those in the 17-25 age group. I targeted The Last Heroes at them because I believe idealism is the default mode of youth. And they have been robbed of their history, their story, of what happened in the freedom struggle.
There is a government website called Azadi ka Amrut Mahotsav. The astonishing achievement of this website is that it does not have a single photograph, quote, video, or illustration of a living freedom fighter. There are videos and photographs of Narendra Modi. A teenager would be forgiven for thinking of Modi as a freedom fighter. You do have people who believe this. This is being reinforced by a website.
It hurt me bitterly that there is not one paragraph about what British colonialism was and what it did. If you do not know this, what will you know about the freedom struggle and Independence?
My aim is to prove that Independence came from the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary people and not from Oxbridge and bar-at-law returnees. I wanted to show that freedom was not a result of some British sense of fair play: I want people to know that the freedom struggle was not just up north. It was a pan-India movement where people fought in distant corners.
The book opens with a powerful line: “We fought for two things—for freedom and Independence. We attained independence.” Can you elaborate?
All the people in the book make a distinction between independence and freedom. When I ask in journalism schools, why we fought for freedom, the responses and ignorance are appalling.
Captain Bhau, who utters that sentence in The Last Heroes, saw Independence as a project of liberation from the British empire. Freedom is much larger. The finest distillation of the freedom struggle is enshrined in the ideals and dictates of the Constitution of India. Justice for all, social, economic, political. We have not attained any of it.
“The book challenges the idea of how a freedom fighter is to be recognised. It includes cooks, homemakers, couriers, forest gatherers, farmers, labourers.”
After 75 years as an independent nation, we still have extreme poverty. The clarion call of “Bhumi, Bhukti, Vimukti” (land, livelihoods, liberation) has not lost its relevance. Your thoughts.
People do not know British colonialism brought 31 famines; excess mortality estimated anywhere between 160-168 million. If 1 per cent of that had occurred in a European country, it would have been called a genocide. Economist Utsa Patnaik calculates that 200 years of British colonialism looted India of $44.6 trillion.
This should give you an understanding of where our development problems come from. The gigantic issues under the British Raj continue to be mimicked. In the Forbes list of billionaires, Indians rank among the top. We are seeing today astonishing levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s. Issues of the rural poor remain. They are becoming more complicated in a period of alarming climate change. There is an old saying: “Those who don’t know the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.”
Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Subhas Chandra Bose are central figures in the lives of many of your characters. Can you tell us something about the meeting of faceless freedom fighters such as Baji Mohammed with their heroes?
For Baji Mohammed, that one meeting with Gandhi meant everything. Right up to the last interview before he died, he said meeting Gandhi was the defining moment of his life.
I found while researching this book that Gandhi’s position was very peculiar during the struggle. For instance, Thelu and Lokhi Mahato were devoted to Gandhi, Netaji as well as to the local Chambal bandits —the Robin Hoods of their area. They do not see any contradiction in admiring all three.
Gandhi was this distant colossus who exuded an aura of moral authority, asking people to look into the good in themselves, which Thelu and Lokhi followed. At the same time, they were planning attacks on police stations. Shobharam says in his story: “Must I chose between Gandhi and Ambedkar? I follow what I want in Mahatma and Ambedkar.”
One of the most moving incidents was when PARI and All India Kisan Sabha organised a felicitation for the Toofan Sena (Whirlwind Army) and prati sarkar (provisional government) in Sangli, Maharashtra. These groups had broken away from Gandhi. I took Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, to felicitate them. Captain Bhau, head of Toofan Sena, embraced him hard and cried. They were telling us that disagreement with Gandhi did not mean they hated him. Most of the characters, not all, were leftist by political persuasion, Gandhian by moral code and example.
Every narrative has several poignant moments and a sprinkling of humour. It is clear you have had a long and trusting association with the characters.
It was certainly a very emotional exercise. Perhaps the most emotional moment was leaving Salihan [Demathi Dei Sabar, known as “Salihan” after the village in Nuapada district, Odisha, where she was born. She took on an armed British officer with a lathi and saved her father, Kartik Sabar, who was a key organiser of anti-British meetings in the area, as recorded in PARI]. She was illiterate and very poor. At no point in the interview did she cease smiling. Not a word of complaint about a society that had done nothing for her, for which she had risked her life. She was gracious, with no demands. She proudly showed us the certificate that praised her not for her participation but for being the daughter of a great man.
We knew that she did not have much longer to live. After leaving her, our usually raucous gang was silent for 130 kilometres, each lost in private tears. Such sacrifice, such selflessness force you to reflect on your life.
We were aware that we were in the presence of very ordinary people who stood up for something much larger than themselves. That was extremely powerful. I was so upset I could not write that story for a long time. The challenge was, how do you write about it. The answer is to focus on their emotions and let those speak.
You question the definition of freedom fighter by bringing in women such as Salihan or Purulia’s Bhabani Mahato, who played a supportive role in the struggle.
The Last Heroes challenges the idea of how a freedom fighter is to be recognised. It includes cooks, homemakers, couriers, forest gatherers, farmers, labourers. We need to give faces to these ordinary people and reveal that women were at the forefront of the struggle. They were excluded simply because of stupid definitions of what participation in the struggle meant.
People need to know about Hausabai’s midnight river-crossing using a wooden box to deliver messages to imprisoned revolutionaries. The Swatantrata Sainik Samman Pension Scheme talks about the “widow”. They assume the freedom fighter is always male. It was important for me to include women.
Do you see the narrative on the freedom movement changing?
What you are seeing as nationalism today is really Hindutva nationalism. Were Gandhi and Mandela anything like this? This is jingoism, chauvinism, Hindutva nationalism. It is intriguing that those defining nationalism and dominating the discourse played no role in the freedom struggle. They are moving the clock backwards.