A Flag, A Song and A Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of India

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Item Code: IHL384
Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 9780143330424
Pages: 196
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.8 inch X 5.2 inch
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Book Description


Subhadra Sen Gupta was born in Delhi and holds a Masters degree in History. She has been writing since college and has worked as a copywriter in many advertising agencies.

She specializes in historical fiction and non-fiction, travel writing, detective and ghost stories as well as comic strips. She has published over twenty-five books for children and adults, with Puffin, Rupa, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Pratham, India Book House and Ratna Sagar. Three of her books—A Clown for. Tenali Rama, Jodh Bai and Twelve O'Clock Ghost Stories (Scholastic) have won the White Raven Award at the Bologna Children's Book Fair.

A Flag, a Song and a Pinch of Salt

Freedom Fighters of India

Subhadra Sen Gupta

Illustrations by Ravi Ranjan


For Ian Baker, the kind of Englishman Indians will always admire.

And if you are lucky, he joins your family. Here's to many more arguments over nimbu pani... With love.



Foreword: Mission Freedom


Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar


Abul Kalam Azad


Annie Besant


Subhas Chandra Bose


Bhikaiji Cama


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


Aurobindo Ghose


Gopal Krishna Gokhale


Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan


Birsa Munda


Sarojini Naidu


Dadabhai Naoroji


Jawaharlal Nehru


Vallabhbhai Patel


V.O. Chidambaram Pillai


Lajpat Rai


Chakravarti Rajagopalachari


Bhagat Singh


Bal Gangadhar Tilak


Afterword: Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Partition


What Happened and When



'Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by

narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the

dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening

thought and action—

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.'

—Rabindranath Tagore

They were all pilgrims who had chosen the long and rocky path towards a dream called freedom. They were ordinary men and women—schoolteachers, lawyers, traders, students, housewives, peasants and craftsmen.

When they marched along the dusty and narrow streets of India's towns and villages, they faced policemen armed with sticks and guns and men on horses carrying spears. They had no protection against the lathi blows or the bullets and their only armour was their spirit of determination and raw courage. They did not fight back or run away. They did not pick up stones or guns, set fires or destroy other people's property. There was no uncontrolled rage and no wish to harm innocent people. They just marched on.

India's long march to independence is the story of these people and their leaders who fought a prolonged battle against the might of the biggest empire in the world. The freedom fighters were able to mobilize millions to join the biggest mass movement the world has ever seen. And what made it one of the greatest freedom struggles in the history of the world was that it was, for the most part, a resolutely non-violent one. It was as if the will power of India's quiet millions finally defeated the empire over which the sun never set.

Our greatest freedom fighters are these forgotten men and women because they put their trust in Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha and put their lives on the line for India's freedom. Kazi Nazrul Islam once sang to them:

'Battle-weary rebel, I shall embrace peace Only when the wailing of the tortured Is heard no more.

Only when the oppressor lays down his sword

In the battlefield.

Battle-weary rebel,

Only then shall I embrace peace.'

The Sepoys of 1857

Ninety years before India finally became independent, the people had risen in a violent uprising that had shaken the hold of the East India Company over its Indian colony. The Great Uprising of 1857 was very different from the nationalist freedom movement. It was an armed uprising and was met with an armed response; the superiority of the British army in arms and organization had finally won them the war. It began with the uprising of the sepoys in the army of the East India Company and drew into it all the people who had grievances against the British. The sepoys were protesting the introduction of a new rifle that was greased with the fat of cows and pigs. The deposed Indian rulers were making a final attempt to reclaim their kingdoms. The zamindars who had lost their ancestral rights to the land wanted them back. Each group had a different motive for joining the uprising.

On 1 May 1857, when the sepoys from Meerut swept into the Red Fort and declared the old Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar their king, no one really knew what they would do next. All they had was their fear that the British were trying to attack their religion and an unclear resentment of their officers. its the rebellion spread across the many army battalions stationed across the Indo-Gangetic plain, it gathered into this whirlwind people making a desperate, final attempt to get back the privileges they had lost to the British.

All the leaders were fighting for their own demands. Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, wanted the kingdom for her son Birjis Qadr. Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the last Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao II, wanted the pension that the British were refusing to give him. Rani Lakshmi Bai wanted the kingdom of Jhansi for her adopted son. There was no common national goal; no one was thinking of the welfare of the common people.

This was the last stand of the moth-eaten, feudal past, distrustful of change, hankering for the old days. Men like Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah, suspicious of western civilization, were leading a campaign against the influence of modern education and technology—everything from schools to the railways and telegraphs made them nervous. Zamindars like Kunwar Singh and Beni Madho wanted the return of the old feudal system where they, not the British, could exploit the peasants. Khan Bahadur Khan and Prince Firuz Shah dreamed of the revival of the Mughal Empire. Poor Bahadur Shah, an old pensioner of the British, was probably only trying to stay alive.

Still, they fought with remarkable courage against an opponent better armed and organized. Even the British spoke in admiration of the indomitable spirit of Rani Lakshmi Bai. The sepoys often lacked experienced leaders or a proper battle strategy, but even then for months held on to a large chunk of north India. Sadly, there was no clear vision of the future, and as the objectives of the various leaders were not the same, there was no central leadership with a common plan. One wonders what would have happened if this ragtag force of disorganized warriors had actually managed to defeat the British.

The war of 1857 was not a national revolt as most of India did not join the rebels. The Sikhs, fearful of the revival of the Mughal Empire, stayed loyal to their British officers and Sikh soldiers were inside the Residency in Lucknow facing the siege by the sepoys. Most of the Indian princes offered their help to the East India Company and the land south of the Vindhyas remained peaceful. After the first shock of quick defeats the British reorganized quickly, and with the death of Lakshmi Bai on 17 June 1858, the rebellion was effectively over. It was a cruel, ruthless war with vicious attacks by both sides and the reprisals of the British afterwards were even more brutal.

In the long struggle for independence, the greatest achievement of the Uprising of 1857 lay in opening the minds of people to the idea of freedom. For long Indians had believed the British to be invincible but the sepoys proved them wrong. For the first time Indians realized that the mighty Company Bahadur could be defeated and that the god-like gora sahibs were human, after all. The people who led the uprising became heroes and would inspire freedom fighters in the future, making later leaders like V.D. Savarkar call it India's 'First War of Independence', despite the lack of the concept of a nation or of what could be called 'independence'.

Gentlemen of the Congress

All that would come with the struggle for freedom that began with the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and a band of freedom fighters who were secular, democratic humanists. The poet Subramania Bharati captured the soul of these freedom fighters the best when he wrote:

'All human beings are equal

Joy will abound if we but see

That we are all one humankind . . .

Sound the drum, the message of unity;

Proclaim, flourish in love,

Proclaim welfare to all mankind on this

Our vast and variegated planet.'

The biggest difference between the leaders in 1857 and the people who met in Bombay to form the Congress was that these were modern, western educated men—lawyers, teachers, businessmen and social reformers. Many of them like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale were equally involved in education and social reform. They were not only seeking political progress but were equally keen to modernize society. Over the years the issues that would be taken up included opening schools and colleges with a modern curriculum for both boys and girls; the emancipation of women; a fight against the caste system and untouchability; the rights of peasants and artisans; and religious tolerance. What was being sought was a transformation of society because the leaders understood well that India could not be a truly independent nation without equality, education and freedom from traditions that kept them from thinking as one people.

For the first two decades the Congress was a constitutional organization that met once a year to discuss political reform and the ways in which they could gain more rights for Indians. Their petitions to the government were usually about Indians being taken into the Indian Civil Service, more Indians in the legislative council and the opening of schools and colleges. The members of the party were all western educated, upper-middle-class men like Surendranath Banerjea, Pherozeshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Later their work was often ridiculed as being one of prayers and petitions that were ignored by the government, but it is these men who set in place the basic principles of the party—equality, secularism, political and social reform, and democracy. They were the first to understand that if the country was to survive as a nation, it had to be strictly secular, with everyone having the right to vote.

With the partition of Bengal in 1905 by the British, the national movement moved into the next phase. For the first time there was a popular upsurge that included people from every section of society. This was the time when Bai Gangadhar Tilak began Swadeshi—a mass movement of the boycott of foreign goods and the celebration of popular patriotic festivals around Ganesha and Chhatrapati Shivaji. Now the common people in the cities also became a part of the political movement, but this made the old-style constitutionalists very nervous. They felt that a mass movement would be hard to control and could turn violent. What Tilak understood and they did not was that no freedom struggle could succeed without the involvement of the people. This was the time when the Congress split between the Moderates led by Gokhale and the Extremists led by Tilak. It paralyzed the national struggle for many years, and the government, taking advantage of the confusion, arrested and jailed Tilak.

That Man from South Africa

The massacre of innocent people at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in 1919 finally made everyone realize that they were wrong to believe that the British government was a 'benevolent' one and that it cared for the people. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about how he was shocked to discover that General Dyer was not going to be punished for ordering soldiers to fire at an unarmed and peaceful crowd. At this time Gandhi became the leader of the Congress and unveiled his plans for Satyagraha—peaceful protest by the masses. His experience in South Africa had shown him the futility of a violent uprising against a powerful opponent and he knew that violence only led to a spiralling of death and destruction, and to the suffering of innocent people. If this national movement was to succeed it had to be a peaceful mass uprising.

The strategy of Non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience was to make it impossible for the government to operate. Schools, colleges, law courts and government offices closed as people walked out, farmers refused to pay their taxes and factory workers went on strike. There was a boycott of foreign textiles and liquor, shops selling foreign goods were picketed and huge bonfires of foreign clothes were lit by the Satyagrahis. What was amazing was that, on the whole, this mass demonstration was kept peaceful. During the Non-cooperation Movement when policemen were killed by a mob in Chauri Chaura, Gandhiji immediately called off" the agitation. Such an incident never happened again.

Many people thought ahimsa, the creed of non-violence, was a clever political strategy devised by Gandhi. Chauri Chaura proved that for him it was a matter of principle and he would never compromise on it. To organize an all-India protest movement and then ensure that it remained non-violent sounds like an impossible task even today when we have so many means of communication. At a time of only postcards and telegraph messages, the leaders of the Congress made it possible. It was because of their discipline, their complete dedication to the cause and their faith in Mahatma Gandhi.

The most awe-inspiring example of this dedication to ahimsa occurred during the Salt Satyagraha when Sarojini Naidu led Congress workers to a picket at the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. The Satyagrahis marched up to the gates of the factory, were brutally beaten by the police, and when they fell down injured, another group replaced them—but no one raised a hand to hit back.

As always Jawaharlal Nehru captured the mind of the Mahatma the best. He wrote in The Discovery of India:' . . . the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear, pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear . . . It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhiji's quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid.'

Freedom's Dream Team

This spirit of sacrifice and passion for the cause among the people is at the core of India's freedom struggle. People died, were seriously wounded, lost their livelihood, were jailed and tortured—and they still went on. Among these leaders were successful lawyers like C.R. Das, Motilal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari who gave up lucrative practices, donned khadi and began to live simple lives. Jawaharlal Nehru, the pampered only son of a very affluent family, wandered around the countryside in the heat and dust, talking to peasants to find out their problems. In twenty years he spent nearly eleven years in jail and used this time to write books. Patel, who enjoyed playing bridge at the exclusive Ahmedabad Club, spent months in a thatched hut in Bardoli coordinating a no-tax campaign by the farmers. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the son of a tribal chieftain, spent weeks in chains in a jail in Peshawar.

The Congress was a modern organization that did not hark back nostalgically to some mythic, perfect past—it looked forward. The campaign against untouchability, for the emancipation of women and for building religious tolerance formed the content of the speeches of the Congress leaders. Gandhi would sit in the village courtyards talking of sanitation and the need for education, and against untouchability. Many dismissed his insistence on the spinning of cotton and wearing khadi as one of his crazy ideas but in fact there was an economic rationale behind it. He understood the importance of self-respect for the poor and wanted the villages to be economically self-sufficient. One of the biggest champions of farmers was Nehru who wanted land reforms that would give poor peasants rights to the land that they cultivated.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah criticized Gandhi for using 'Hindu' terms like Satyagraha, ahimsa and Ram Rajya, and called the Congress a 'Hindu' party. However, the truth is that in spite of the majority of the Congress members being Hindu, not one resolution was passed by it demanding any special privileges for Hindus. Gandhi was a deeply religious man, who was also completely secular. His prayer meetings were held not in a temple but in the open air, everyone was welcome and prayers from every faith were recited. He never believed in rituals and took off" his sacred thread when he discovered that Dalits were not allowed to wear them. And this reluctant mahatma wore the khadi dhoti of a peasant. If India has stayed secular till today it is because its freedom was won without any call to religion.

There were many threads in our freedom struggle along with the Congress party. There was the revolutionary movement led by men like Bhagat Singh, Surya Sen and Chandrashekhar Azad. There were peasant and tribal uprisings that took place from the nineteenth century. All these inspired the people and made them aware of the national movement. If the main thrust of the freedom struggle was led by the Congress party, it was because it was a rainbow organization that allowed many ideologies to thrive within its fold. There were conservatives like Patel and Rajagopalachari, socialists like Nehru, and revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghose and Subhas Chandra >Bose. Every decision was taken after prolonged discussions; Gandhi did not get his way each time and often had to give in to the majority opinion.

In the sixtieth year of our Independence, is there any relevance in remembering these long-gone men and women? India's freedom struggle affected events around the world. When the British left India in 1947, it activated the end of imperialism in Asia and Africa. In the following decades colonial states would virtually vanish from the map of the world. This is because India, the jewel in the crown of the British king, showed the colonies that freedom could be won. After Independence India took the lead in the fight against imperialism and soon the European powers withdrew from their colonies. India was the first brick to fall; the entire colonial edifice followed soon after.

Many people think Mahatma Gandhi's ideologies of Satyagraha and ahimsa are irrelevant today at a time when children make heroes of suicide bombers and blind, hate-filled intolerance is taught by religious leaders. Many of us now wonder—can non-violence still work in our ever-violent world?

Three extraordinary men made it the core of their freedom and civil rights movements in these past six decades and showed us that it is the only way for unarmed, powerless people to make their voice heard. First there was Martin Luther King and the civil rights battle in the United States. Then Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress won equality and freedom in apartheid South Africa—that would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi immensely. Finally Lech Walesa and Solidarity brought democracy to Poland. All of them acknowledged their debt to Gandhi's philosophy of Satyagraha and ahimsa.

Satyagraha does work. Violence in any form is an endless spiral that always spins out of control. A violent uprising only] gives the oppressor an excuse to use more violence and the] only result is that more innocents die. Mahatma Gandhi knew it—there is no solution in the barrel of a gun.

The greatest gift to us from these freedom fighters is democracy, which allows us to choose the leaders who can build a great nation. They gave the power to the people, and as every election proves it, the people understand this power very well.

The selection of freedom fighters whose life stories this volume recounts is by no means exhaustive. There were many, many more, whose extraordinary stories will hopefully be told in forthcoming volumes. The legacy of all these men and women is the knowledge that ordinary people can demand— and fight for—justice and equality. Read the stories of how they triumphed over the greatest adversities, how they failed and picked themselves up, and tried again.

A poet who led a protest march, a revolutionary who became a saint, a man who walked for weeks to make

salt—read the amazing stories of the great men and Women who inspired generations, united a nation and

led its people to freedom.

Police batons, prison sentences of the hangman's noose—nothing could stop them. They stood up against the biggest colonial empire in the world and all they had was their courage and passion for freedom. The) were the builders of independent India, the strategists of democracy, the soldiers of liberty They were in extraordinary band of lawyers, poets, businessmen, teachers and philosophers who became the founders of a free, democratic and This volume brings together the extraordinary lives of freedom fighters from Mahatma. Gandhi to Birsa Munda, Sarojini Naidu to Bhagat Singh, Aurobindo Ghose to Subhas Chandra Bose-life stories that recount little-told events, capture their personalities and remind us of their role in our nationalist movement

Relive the exciting story of our struggle for freedom through the lives of our greatest freedom fighters as they carried the defiantly fluttering tricolour towards a dream called India

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