Wednesday, 27 April 2016

In Search of Freedom-Review of Sagri Chhabra Book

In Search of Freedom: Journeys Through India and Southeast Asia,(Paperback) Sagari Chhabra, HarperCollins, Delhi, 2015, 1st ed., pages 344, prie 499/ rupees

        Sagari Chhabra has been making films, writing plays, poetry and books for children since many years.Many of her films have earned her international laurels. Her films include-Now I will Speak, Tatva, Hunger in the time of Plenty, The word and the world, Asli Azadi, Brides are not for Burning and   Global Warming.
      Her publications prior to this book, include The Gift (Play) and The Talking Tree (For children).
    The present publication-In Search of Freedom: Journeys through India and South-East Asia, is ambitious book, written after many years research projects and after traveling to many countries of South-east Asia, including Mynamar, Thailand, Malayasia and Singapore. Book is dedicated to these freedom fighters and also to her daughter Sachi, whom she is briging up as single parent. Book brings out rare photographs of these unknown and unsung heroes of Indian freedom struggle, about whom, only few people know. Some of them are still alive, but mostly have passed away. Major focus of the book is on freedom fighters of Netaji Subhas Bose led Indian Naional Army (INA), which was formed abroad and which fought glourious battles in North East of India, before freedom came about. Sagari had taken up this journey in year 2004 with grant from Asian Scholarship Foundation Bangkok, which granted her Asia Scholar fellowship for few months and since then she has been working on this book, which came out only in 2015, but in a nice form from Harper and Collins, Delhi. There are certain photographs of freedom fighters on both front and back title of the book, as well as black and white photo of Janky Thever in the beginning of the book. Many other photographs are inside the chapters of the book.
          Book is divided into 22 chapters, apart from Introduction, Afterword, Notes, Bibliography, Index and Acknowledgements, following the standard format of an academic book. But the narration of book is not so academic, method of data collection, conducting interviews etc. has touch of academic research, but during interviews, human touch of author and freedom fighters emerges out and that makes book an interesting reading, apart from providing rich information, largely unknown to most of Indians.
   In the very first chapter of the book-Meeting the Gandhians, author dwells upon searching material on women in film institute of Pune, which she finds almost nothing. In Delhi, she tries her luck at Home ministry controlled office on freedom fighters and gets some connection by meeting INA veteran S S Yadav. Author moves with her friend Tanu to Gujarat, where she could meet Dandi salt march veteran woman Veerbalaben Nagarwadia, who was born in 1913 and with many women were at Sabarmati Ashram Ahmedabad on 12th March 1930, when salt march to Dandi was to take place. Interesting fact emerges from this meeting that Mahatma Gandhi after being arrested at Dandi after salt march, never returned to Sabarmati, he had shifted to Sewagram in Wardha later. 92 Satyagrahis had walked with Gandhi to Dandi, more than 200 miles or 386 kilometers away and 95 thousand Satyagrahis were arrested by May 1930. Auther further meets Nirmlaben Desai, Jyoti Singh and many others in touch with Mridulaben. They meet Sarlaben, who met and fell in love with Vimal Shah and they married in 1946 as activists, although they were ex-communicated by their families.
    Beginning from Gandhians, author moves to Revolutionary women in second chapter, starting with Lakshmi Sehgal in Kanpur, the heroine of INA, who was minister in Netaji cabinet and known as Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan, daughter of south Indian parents, whose younger sister Mrinalini Sarabhai had just passed away, she was in her eightees then. There is a detailed testimony of Lakshmi Sehgal. She was in Captain’s rank, INA defeated British at Moirang in Manipur, but got defeated in Imphal. With Lakshmi Sehgal reference, author meets Narayani Tripathy and Gouri in Delhi.
  Sagari moves to Calcutta on her way to Burma for more interviews. At Kolkata they met Aruna Ganguly, Pratima Sen and traced Parul Bhattacharya in Delhi, who had joined Rani Jhansi brigade of INA under Lakshmi Sehgal and her young son became part of ‘Balak Sena’, formed by Neta ji. They met Momota Mehta also. In 3rd chapter author tells us that they made many trips to Ahmedabad, in Chandigarh they located Sarla Sharma, friends with IK Gujral mother Pushpa Gujral, Savitri Ramkrishan, Subhadra Khosla and Vijaya Chauhan. Later meeting Krishna Thapar, daughter of Lala Achint Ram, cousin of martyr Sukhdev. Savitri Ramkishan, who had married Comrade Ramkishan, Chief Minister of Punjab for short period. She records the accounts of Lahore jail.. Subhadra Khosla, becoming Subhadra Joshi defeated Atal Behari Vajpayee. Sagari Chhabra’s big achievement was tracing Janki Thevar, one of Major INA woman commander after Lakshmi Sehgal.
 In 4th chapter author focuses on Sushila Nayar’s relations with Mahatma Gandhi, with whom Gandhi had been sleeping in his experiments of celibacy. Here is the reference to Gandhi’s attraction towards Tagore niece and Punjab Congress leader Sarladevi Chaudhrani. Sushila Nayar’s testimonies are interesting and refer to many historic events in Gandhi’’s life in jails, including death of Mahadev Desai in Agja Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was imprisoned.
   After covering lot of Indian women freedom fighters, author Sagari Chhabra moves to South East Asian countries, starting with Malayasia. She notes that though getting independence ten year after India, its cities are more developed albeit on westwen model. Her experience in Malayasia was not very good with too strict Islamic laws enforced, which did not allow women’s photographs on I cards. She had met Janaki Thevar in Delhi, but she lived in Malayasia and had been member of Parliamet for two terms, her late husband Athi Nahappan was even minister in Malayasian cabinet. Author has reproduced Janaki Thevar’s diary pages relating to INA acitvities during 1940’s, which make a fascinating reading. There were many women comrades with Janaki, one being Gurupdesh Kaur, another Anjali Suppiah and her sister, plus Jeeva Mudialiar. Janaki Thevar advised author to meet Gandhi Nathan, another senior INA cadrewho lived bit away in Malayasia. Sagari Chhabra was taken care of by a Punjabi Jasvinder Singh now. Gandhi Nathan gave interview with a bit of difficulty, He had met Colonel Habib-ur Rehman, who was with Netaji in air crash and still had burn marks on his skin. He confirmed that Netaji ashes are kept in Renkoji temple in Tokyo. He gave exact time of Netaji’s death at 8 pm. Two nurses and Habib-ur-Rehman were present at the bedsisde of Netaji at the time of his passing away. There is reference to Amreek Singh Gill of INA, who had passed away. Another Tamilian INA cadre Vellu Sami, who was born on 15th August 1917 was introduced to author. P Meenakshi, another member of Rani Jhansi brigade, born in Malaysia in 1924, was also introduced to Sagri Chhabra, her husband had encouraged her to join INA. Gandhi Nathan introduced many more INA old guards, all 80+ in 2004 visits of author, many have since left the world.
    In the centre of the book, there is photo section, in which 32 RARE colour and black and white photographs have been reproduced, some are of recent visit of author with old freedom fighters. Photographs are from India and abroad, include those of Subhadra Joshi, Janky Thevar, Savitri Ramkishan, Lakshmi Sehgal, Sarla Shah, Rajkumari Gupta, Manvati Pandey, Gandhi Nathan, P Meenakshi, Beant Singh Kukreja of Balak Sena, blind K Chinnaya, Lata Bhardwaj, U NU and Gandhi, Than Than Nu and Bahadurshah Zafar tomb in Yangoon.
         Sagri Chhabra drove through secret headquarters of INA through Penang jungles,
    In Thailand, author met members of Balak Sena (Childern’s army)-Beant Singh Kukreja, Rajkumar Sachdeva and Kishan Lal Matta, all Punjabis.
   In Singapore, author visited archives, gurdwara and met Ram Prakash, who was in INA. She also met Rani Jhansi brigade member Dharma Kaur’s daughter Deepa, met Bhagyalaskhmi another cadet. Sadhu Singh’s son, who had joined Baba Hari Singh Usman’s party.
     In a return journey to Malayasia again, author gives the title of her chapter as-Used and Discarded Freedom fighters.In this trip she meets Anjali Punnaswamy, Ahilandam V Pillai. Estamate of INA acdres in Malayasia was 15000 to 20000.
   After Malayasia, Thailand and Singapore, author Sagari Chhabra moves to Mynamar or Burma, the last leg of her journeys and the most difficult one also. She lived close to Aung San Suu Kyi there, but not meeting her.She visited Bahadur Shah’s Grave, from where Netaji Subhas held a solomn ceremony on 26th September 1943. Though author did not visit Namdhari Guru Ram Singh’s memorial, who also died in exile at Rangoon or Mandely jail, where Lala Lajpar Rai and Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh were imprisoned during 1907-09. She met grand nephew of INA cadet Subramaniam. Indian freedom fighters in Burma have suffered most, as they lived there in stateless status, neither they were given Burmese citizenship, nor were given Indian status by Indian government. She met Lieutenant Perumal, who was born in Rangoon in 1928. Yet neither he nor even his grand children were given Burmese citizenship and in India, INA committee told that freedom fighter pension can be given only to Indian citizens. Then there was Chinnaya in interior Burma in same condition. There was Rajan, who spent five months in prison due to his INA membership, but without citizenship of any country, as a wreck he just wished to be recognised as ‘a freedom fighter’! Author spoke to Indian diplomats in Burma about the plight of these freedom fighters, but they had no concern. With difficulty author could get permission to visit Ziawadi, where numerous INA veterans lived, there was an INA camp. Author met Shankar Nath, 87 year old Ganesh Chadha, she visited Netaji ki Chhavni of 1944. She took this risky journey with his driver Bhim Singh spying on her.
  Author knew late Burmese Prime Minister U Nu’s daughter Than Than Nu before coming to Burma, she had met her in Delhi. For carrying Lt. Perumal’s humble letter to Indian foreign secretary visitng Burma, she was later summoned by Burmese officials and admonished. Author met interestingly Nyi Nyi Mint, widow of dead dictator Gen Ne Win. She met some poets too. Author refers to struggle of Aung Suu Ki for democracy in Burma. She could come across even sex industry in Burma Author visited Mandley also, where many Indian freedomfighters were imprisoned. She went upto Maymyo, where Lakshmi Sehgal has set up an advance camp as hospital. She was able to meet INA vetran D R Sharma, whose two sisters in Rani Jhansi brigade and a brother in law who were killed in action. Author was betrayed by some of her accomplice in journey, as as she returned to Rangoon, she was summoned. After returning to Delhi after her adventurous trip, author looked for monument ot INA or Netaji Subhas Bose in Delhi, she found none! And she comments-‘so much for Dilli Chalo’ the favourite slogan of Netaji.
   In afterword to her book author has referred to pro democracy movement of Burma by Aung Su Ki and expressed the desire for ‘true freedom’.
                   In Search for Freedom is an important publication to look for Indian freedoms struggle fighters in different countries. Netaji Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army was an internationally spread out force, remnants of which have been accounted here to some measure.There had been other international movements of Indian freedom struggle, most notably Ghadar party formed in USA, it had its impact in many more countries, than even INA had. It spread from Latin America to Europe and Asia. If some researcher could do data collection on that also.
    Author Sagari Chhabra has passion for freedom fighters, that is how, she has been able to connect with them and interview them. All this has resulted in getting this significant book published. Harper Collins brought it out also in nice manner. It is a must book for anyone wishing to know about Indian freedom struggle in depth. 09646494538
H. no. 2690, Urban Estate, Phase-2, Patiala (Pb.-147002

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