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‘When Two Streams Met: Lessons from India’s Freedom Struggle’ review: Tales of freedom

It’s a slim book, barely 150 pages, yet, When Two Streams Met is an important account of the freedom struggle, compiling profiles of freedom fighters that do not feature prominently in history textbooks. Jatindra Nath Das or Jatin Das was arrested by the British government for political activities, and began a fast in Lahore jail seeking better conditions for political prisoners. After fasting 63 days, he died on September 13, 1929. Bharat Dogra, one of the four authors of this book, suggests we should start observing September 13 each year as a ‘Day of Justice for Political Prisoners’. Given the number of political prisoners in Indian jails nearly 90 years later, this is a suggestion worth taking up.

Jatin Das’s body was taken by train from Lahore to Calcutta, and all along the route large numbers of people gathered to pay their respect. In Calcutta, Subhas Chandra Bose received the coffin. About seven lakh people gathered for the funeral procession in Calcutta, so one could not see the end of this large mass of people weaving through city streets.

Revolutionary struggles

“If Gandhiji had used the time of the martyrdom of Jatindra Das to launch a nationwide movement for protecting the rights of political prisoners and at the very least wresting an assurance from colonial rulers that there would be no capital punishment for political prisoners, then at this juncture he would have got the maximum response,” writes Bharat Dogra, examining the 1920s with the wisdom of a one living a 100 years later. The book describes how revolutionaries fed into that other stream of the freedom struggle represented by Gandhi and the Congress. Could action by Gandhi have prevented the death of Sri Dev Suman, who passed away after fasting for 84 days in Tehri Jail, aged only 29 on July 25, 1944? Who can tell?

It is this deeply personal reading of the lives of some lesser known freedom fighters that makes this account so engrossing. The description of the shooting at Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar on April 23, 1930, when non-violent protesters came forward in waves, taking bullets in the chest, falling dead, making way for more protesters to face bullets, is awe-inspiring. Since this massacre occurred in what is today Pakistan, schoolchildren in India are not taught about it.

The Khudai Khidmatgars — the army of peaceful soldiers — who were at the forefront of this peaceful struggle were able to gather many more people to their cause after this massacre. What is noteworthy too is that there is now an attempt to revive the spirit of this movement and a new crop of young people are now joining the ranks of the Khudai Khidmatgar in India.

Many of the freedom fighters described in the book lived short lives. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru were only 23 when they were hanged on March 23, 1931. This book offers an insight into Bhagat Singh’s vast scholarship and deep compassion, unusual in one so young. It also takes one back a few generations, acquaints a young reader with Bhagat Singh’s grandfather’s grandfather, Fateh Singh, and his role at the time of the 1857 struggle. What is also remarkable is how many of these young people, despite very modest means, travelled across the land — crossing not just the three nations that emerged from what was India before 1947, but also going far beyond, to Iran and Turkey, and making a home in the whole world to foster freedom for India. Bhagat Singh’s uncle, Ajit Singh, also lived more than half his life in Iran.

The story of Durga Bhabi

Among the profiles in the book is one of Durgawati Devi or Durga Bhabi, wife of Bhagwati Charan Vohra. On one occasion, when Bhagat Singh needed to escape without being noticed, Durga Bhabi and her son Sachindra, then a young boy of about three, travelled with Bhagat Singh from Lahore to Calcutta, pretending to be his family.

Dogra underlines how non-violence was the route that even the revolutionary leaders of the freedom struggle swore by: “Non-violence is a policy indispensable for mass struggles,” Bhagat Singh would write. Force could only be justified “when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity.”

Reading this book is also a reminder of the nobility of Indian leadership during the freedom struggle. They too are human beings, with their flaws and their errors of judgment; yet, there is deep and true friendship, a great spirit of sacrifice. Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan were so close, one popular story Dogra recalls is the time when Ashfaqullah was very sick, and his kin heard him mumble “Ram, Ram”. The devout Muslim family wondered if one of their own had become too steeped in Hindu tradition, realising later that he was calling for his friend Ram Prasad. The two friends were among those hanged to death for the Kakori Train Robbery case of 1925.

Dogra describes a deep goodness, dwelling on why Bismil never used the opportunities that presented themselves to escape jail. The jailors were kind to him and treated him with reverence; to escape would be to put them and their families through enormous suffering. This kind of honour, this consideration for the other, is what, one cannot help feel, has gone missing in leadership and life in general in India.

History lesson

The other trait a lot of the people who feature in the book share is an interest in scholarship and literature. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was a journalist. What Bhagat Singh wrote in jail was smuggled to him, and he was the one to publish them. When he was sent to jail for what he wrote or published, he used the time to translate the work of Victor Hugo. It was while trying to calm a communal conflagration in Kanpur that erupted after Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged that Vidyarthi died.

Dogra quotes from an interview that Vidyarthi’s daughter Vimala gave to a biographer of her father, in which she discusses the view that her father was killed by the colonial government. She holds that the communal flare-up was engineered by the government. History, we see, repeats itself.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, famous for her poem Khoob Lari Mardaani about Jhansi Laxmi Bai, features in the book. Schoolteacher Reshma Bharti describes how frequent spells in jail for Chauhan and her activist husband Lakshman Singh meant that her children were often left in the care of friends. Her youngest child suffered a disability too, and would be carried to prison.

Ideals of secularism and socialism

Bharat Dogra ponders over the ease with which communal forces attempt to co-opt the thoughts of Vivekananda, who described religion as oneness, to which one could choose a path of one’s choice. “It is very disturbing that people tainted with allegations of communal violence use the name of Swami Vivekanand,” he writes.

In a concluding chapter, Dogra describes how secularism — close bonds in public life between people of different religious persuasions — and socialism, the quest for justice and equality, inspired the whole freedom struggle. These ideals form the core of Indian nationhood, Dogra avers, even though there are “high-level efforts” at present to project a “much distorted vision of some aspects of the freedom struggle”.

Bharat Dogra is an activist-journalist; his co-authors Reshmi Bharti and Jagmohan Singh are teachers; the fourth co-author, Madhu Dogra, is a publisher. This is a book parents across the length and breadth of this country must buy for their teenage children; books like these will help us, as a nation, weather political storms and sail unharmed through ill-advised education policies.

When Two Streams Met: Lessons from India’s Freedom Struggle; Bharat Dogra, Reshma Bharti, Jagmohan Singh, Madhu Dogra, Vats/Vitasta, ₹299.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist.

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