The Sunday Guardian

Look­ing be­yond the stars of In­dia’s free­dom strug­gle

Jour­nal­ist and film­maker Sa­gari Chhabra, who has re­cently won the Laadli Me­dia Award for her book on the ne­glected fig­ures of In­dia’s free­dom strug­gle, speaks to Anirudh Vohra.

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be­ing doc­u­mented by film makes, jour­nal­ists. So both film mak­ers and jour­nal­ists ba­si­cally be­long to the same genre. If you are not in the busi­ness of en­ter­tain­ment it’s the same thing. It’s the ques­tion of get­ting the word out.”

“I started re­search­ing for my documentar­y in 1997, since it was In­dia’s 50th year of In­de­pen­dence. So I started re­search­ing what women free­dom fight­ers had done. And I stum­bled upon the fact that they were fan­tas­ti­cally un­der-recorded. There were no sub­stan­tive doc­u­ments talk­ing about what they had done. For ex­am­ple I met this one woman who told me that she was in­side La­hore’s women’s jail and on 9Au­gust 1942 the cell mates had put charpai upon charpai and raised our na­tional flag in­side the jail. So I was able to track down the oth­ers who were with her at the time. Women like Sav­itri Ra­makr­ishn, Sarla Sharma, Vi­jay Chauhan,” says Chhabra, while sit­ting on a couch in her liv­ing room in Delhi.

Her book, which re­cently won the Laadli Me­dia Award, was pub­lished in 2015, sev­eral years af­ter Chabbra’s trav­els. “Af­ter 20 years of work if one gets an award the way it helps is that it makes more and more peo­ple aware about your work. For the thing with work­ing with the marginal­ized is that even your work gets marginal­ized. So the only ben­e­fit of high­light of get­ting an award is that more and more peo­ple know what you have done. It ba­si­cally in­creases your au­di­ence which helps in spread­ing the aware­ness about the mes­sage that you are try­ing to give,” says Chhabra.

In Search Of Free­dom can­not be con­fined to a par­tic­u­lar genre, since at times it reads like a trav­el­ogue, and at oth­ers like a more se­ri­ous work of his­tor­i­cal jour­nal­ism.

The book is based upon in­ter­views and meet­ings con­ducted by Chabbra dur­ing her time in Sin­ga­pore, Thi­land, Burma and Malaysia, glimpses of which can also be seen in her film Asli Azaadi, which was se­lected for the Golden Gate Film fes­ti­val and the Nor­we­gian Film Fes­ti­val.

Sa­gari adds, “When I re­alised that th­ese kinds of heroic sto­ries had gone un­recorded, it seemed to me to be a moral duty to record them. For this is not only our his­tory but the trea­sures of In­dia. If noth­ing is done, there will be a time when peo­ple will com­pletely for­get about th­ese things. So I made my film which was also tele­cast on Dor­dar­shan. And af­ter which th­ese women started get­ting some recog- ni­tion. One of them, Gouri Bhat­tacharya Sen was even awarded the Pad­mashree.”

Chhabra’s pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive in the book man­ages to res­cue sev­eral of the brave and sac­ri­fic­ing free­dom fight­ers from the void of his­tor­i­cal obliv­ion. The ma­jor rev­e­la­tions that the book makes are about the role played by In­dian women in the over­all free­dom strug­gle, not just in the Gand­hian move­ment, but also in the cam­paigns for In­de­pen­dence that raged in the east­ern prov­inces of In­dia along with the other east­ern coun­tries within Asia. Places that saw a sig­nif­i­cant par­tic­i­pa­tion of women.

“When I found out that there was a mil­i­tary wing in Ne­taji’s army which was called the Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment and that it was the first women’s reg­i­ment in the world. Don’t for­get that in the ’40s, women were in pur­dah in In­dia and un­der the lead­er­ship of Gand­hiji they were go­ing to jail, while Ne­taji in­spired them to join the Army,” ex­plained Chhabra.

The book fea­tures a lot of peo­ple who were part of the In­dian Na­tional Army formed by Bose’s Rani of Jhansi Reg­i­ment. We’re told sto­ries of peo­ple who sac­ri­ficed every­thing they had for their country’s in­de­pen­dence — a country some of them would never live in.

But this doesn’t mean that the book only con­cerns it­self with the role women played in the free­dom strug­gle.

A lot has al­ready been writ­ten about the In­dian Na­tional Army’s march to Ko­hima, but in In Search Of Free­dom, Chhabra brings recre­ates those days with the ac­counts of peo­ple who were ac­tu­ally part of the march, some­thing that is of great his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est. And the ex­tent to which th­ese men and women have been ig­nored over the years comes to the fore when Chhabra in her book quotes D.R. Sharma, an INA vet­eran from Maymo near Man­dalay in Myan­mar. “In 60 years,” Sharma says to Chabbra, “no one has both­ered to see me. No one ever came from In­dia. I am so grate­ful to you.”

Even though Gandhi and Bose were the com­plete op­po­site of each other, in terms of their meth­ods, there were a few sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween them, one of them be­ing their take on women. For both be­lieved in the up­lift­ment of women and that women were as ca­pa­ble of be­ing part of the strug­gle as men were. And who­ever was in­flu­enced by ei­ther one of them was mas­sively trans­formed.

“I met Laxmi Se­h­gal, who is now fa­mous for hav­ing un­suc­cess­fully con­tested for the po­si­tion of Pres­i­dent of In­dia. But even back then she was not re­ally known and th­ese women had never even had a re­union of sorts. So I wanted to find the oth­ers who were in Sin­ga­pore, Thi­land, Burma and Malaysia — not just women but also men who had done so much for a country they couldn’t even live in,” says Chhabra.

Sev­eral of the free­dom fight­ers that Chhabra met with were women who were in­de­pen­dent of mind and free- spir­ited. They went about their du­ties in tire­less spirit be it the Gand­hi­ans like Nir­mal­aben Desai, who along with Jy­oti­sangh, an ini­tia­tive es­tab­lished in Ahmed­abad that trained vol­un­teers for the free­dom strug­gle; or Veer­bal­aben Na­gar­wadi who was at the Dandi March.

While women like Sarla Shah or Ela Bhatt of SEWA among oth­ers con­tin­ued down their path even af­ter in­de­pen­dence, Ra­jku­mari Gupta, an as­so­ciate of Chan­dra Sekhar Azad, ad­dressed the author on ev­ery­one’s be­half and said, “Humko jo karna tha, kiya”.

Ex­cept a few like Colonel Lak­shmi Sahgal, Dr Sushila Nay­yar and Sub­hadra Joshi, most of Sa­gari’s sub­jects are peo­ple who have no men­tion of any sort in his­tor­i­cal records or books that talk about the In­dian free­dom strug­gle.

Chhabra has writ­ten three books till date, as well as a play called The Gift, a chil­dren’s book called The Talk­ing tree. Talk­ing about her work as a chil­dren’s author, Chhabra says, “Writ­ing for chil­dren came nat­u­rally to me, for I have the bless­ing of be­ing a mother my­self. Writ­ing for chil­dren is sim­ply pen­ning down things that you would like to tell a child in a sim­ple man­ner us­ing char­ac­ters or sketches that will in­trigue them and keep them hooked to the book.”

 ??  ?? Sa­gari Chhabra.
Sa­gari Chhabra.

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