It’s bad enough that our freedom fighters lie forgotten. It’s worse that their descendants are languishing in poverty.

The shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan had always wanted to perform at India Gate in memory of those who had sacrificed their lives for the country. But by the time journalist Shivnath Jha got permission from the Home Ministry to invite him to do so, Bismillah Khan had passed away. Jha, who had collected funds so that the legendary musician’s last years could be spent in dignity, found another way to honour the maestro’s wish — and honour the memory of those freedom fighters.

He managed to locate the families of some of those heroes whose names adorn our history books but about whom not much else is known. Among these are Udham Singh, the man who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by killing General Dyer; Mangal Pandey, who lit the spark that grew into the 1857 blaze in which Tantia Tope played a major role; Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal who was forced to lead that first war and exiled for it; Rajguru, who was hanged alongside Bhagat Singh; and Ram Prasad Bismil, who was executed for looting a train to fund his revolutionary activities in the Kakori Conspiracy Case.

Jha found some of these families living in absolute poverty. The quest led Jha to write a book 1857-1947: Forgotten Heroes & Martyrs of India’s Freedom Movement, which included accounts of how their families fared after Independence, the goal for which they had chosen martyrdom. At his book’s release in Mumbai, Jha quoted the famous lines: “Shaheedon ki chitaaon par judenge har baras mele/watan par marnewalon ka yahi baaki nishaan hoga” (“Every year throngs will gather at the pyres of martyrs/this will be the only sign left of those who died for their country”). Alas, no throngs gather to remember these martyrs; if at all they are remembered, it is to complete a meaningless annual ritual. 

Take the case of Udham Singh’s family. Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab (and later President), got Udham Singh’s ashes from England in 1974 and handed them over to his sister. A memorial was built where his ashes were buried; the doors of this neglected memorial are opened just four times a year to pay tributes to the martyr.  

When Jha traced Jeet Singh (Udham Singh’s grand-nephew), he was working as a labourer at a construction site for Rs.120 a day. Given the family’s circumstances, his son Jagga Singh managed to study only till Std. X. 

“Of course we acknowledge Udham Singh’s sacrifice,” says Kumar Rahul, Deputy Commissioner of Sangrur district, where the martyr was born. “We’ve re-named his hometown Sunam after him; we are spending crores to build a museum for him.” But giving his sister’s great-grandson a job? That’s out of question, though the young man has a letter of recommendation from former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh himself.  “A job is a recurring expenditure; besides, rules don’t permit us to give jobs to anyone but the direct descendants of freedom fighters,” says the DC. “Once we bend the rules, who knows how many sisters of Udham Singh will come crawling out? He can’t claim a job as a right; out of courtesy, we have helped him. We’ve given him a bus pass.”

Jagga Singh flashes an angry look: “I am not asking for crores; I want a job. I will work, I don’t want charity.” But there should be an opening, shrugs the DC; and for years, there’s been a freeze on government jobs by the Punjab government. “We are a poor government,” he adds. 

Ram Prasad Bismil didn’t even get that much. His descendants donated land for a memorial, and their village contributed the funds to put up his bust. “Politicians come and garland it sometimes,” says Bijendra Singh, whose father was Ram Prasad Bismil’s brother. He makes a living off the land they have in Barwai, a village in Madhya Pradesh. His 17-year-old son Sonu Tomar has made it to Std. XII, the only one of Ram Prasad Bismil’s descendants to have come this far. He doesn’t know if he will be able to go to college next year, but he would love to.

Early this year, the government released a stamp in honour of Shivaram Hari Rajguru. His brother’s grandson Satyasheel Rajguru attended the function at Rashtrapati Bhavan and also provided the photograph for the stamp. The government didn’t have a picture of Rajguru. How did it wake up after 66 years to issue this stamp? “People who revere Rajguru have been trying for years to get this done,” says Satyasheel. They got the Mantralaya junction in Mumbai named after him; it was inaugurated by the martyr’s nephew. But, acknowledges Satyasheel, Maharashtra had one Chief Minister who made it a point to honour the state’s freedom fighters. A.R. Antulay set up 105 memorials across the state, including one to Rajguru.  

Satyasheel has a valid explanation for the apathy towards these heroes. “We have grown up learning that we got our freedom under Gandhi through non-violence. But so many martyrs shed their blood for freedom. That’s not highlighted.” Certainly, that explains why most of the eminent Congress freedom fighters had stamps in their honour long before Rajguru.  But if the Congress has appropriated the freedom struggle for obvious reasons, what stopped the other parties from honouring our martyrs?

Shivnath Jha does not blame the government. “What about our responsibility?” he asks. “Our children know Mangal Pandey as Aamir Khan and Bhagat Singh as Bobby Deol. A Horlicks ad shows a boy memorising the names of these martyrs. We can use them to sell a product but we can’t ensure that their descendants don’t beg?”

Jha has done more than his bit. He managed to get the freedom fighter’s pension for Vinayak Rao Tope, the third generation descendant of Tantia Tope whom he found running a small grocery store near Kanpur. He also helped Sultana Begum, the great-grand-daughter-in-law of Bahadur Shah Zafar whom he found living in a Kolkata slum, get her daughter married; got media baron and MP Vijay Darda to collect Rs.11 lakhs for Jeet Singh, which was handed to him at a function; and got a commitment from Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak to finance the wedding of Bijendra Singh’s daughter.

“These families should be considered ‘families of the nation’ and be invited to all national functions; their education and medical care should be the government’s responsibility,” he says. What about the families’ responsibility towards their illustrious forefathers? That was a question raised by Justice (retired) C.S. Dharmadhikari, who released Jha’s book. Blaming his generation for the indifference towards these martyrs, the retired judge, who was jailed during the 1942 movement, asked the families: “The government does not understand the worth of these heroes, that’s expected.  What’s surprising is that the media and society don’t either. But do you know them? Biological descent is not in anyone’s hands. Nor can you add to the legacy they left behind. But you have to make sure your conduct doesn’t disgrace them.”

Jha, however, feels such questions are valid only when the martyrs’ families have had the means to educate themselves. Like Mangal Pandey’s fifth generation descendant, Raghunath Pandey, who retired as vice-principal of a Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Delhi. Does his family remember the 1857 hero? “I wear his picture on a ribbon round my neck,” says Pandey proudly. His son filed a petition against the way his ancestor was portrayed by Aamir Khan, resulting in a disclaimer about the incidents shown in the film.  “The film showed him visiting dancing girls,” says Pandey. “We objected to that.” Satyasheel Rajguru’s son has taken it on himself to trace his ancestor’s life and gone all the way to Punjab to meet Bhagat Singh’s family.

For the rest, survival takes precedence over remembering their illustrious ancestors. One reason for this could be that the revolutionaries died young. Had they not chosen to give up their lives for their country, it is possible they would have contributed to their families’ prosperity. But their path left no time for marriage. So no direct descendant remains to qualify for jobs under government rules. The Sangrur DC had no answer except: “Rules are rules, how far can we extend them?” 

Governments have been known to extend largesse on many grounds. The Central Government recently gave Sarabjit Singh’s family Rs.25 lakhs, points out Jagga. The Chhattisgarh government has offered jobs to the descendants of the Congressmen killed by Maoists in May. Indeed, Congress leaders are offended that only Class IV jobs have been offered! What about a Class IV job for Udham Singh’s sister’s great-grandson, or a scholarship for Ram Prasad Bismil’s grand-nephew? That’s asking for too much from governments that have forgotten the original heroes.

Jha quotes Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poignant verse written while in exile:  “Pay-faatiha koyi aaye kyun/koyi chaar phool chadaye kyun,/Koyi aake shama kalaye kyun/main woh be-kasi ka mazaar hoon” (Why should anyone recite prayers/lay flowers/light a lamp/on me/I am that destitute grave”).