P. Sainath’s The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom: Bombs, Azad, and a tiger by the tale

An excerpt from P. Sainath’s new book where he profiles the extraordinary people who joined the freedom struggle

November 11, 2022 09:00 am | Updated 01:25 pm IST

The chapter, ‘Must I Choose Between Gandhi and Ambedkar’, is on the life of Shobharam Gehervar, who vividly recalls the battles against the British.

The British had surrounded the place where we made bombs. This was out in the jungle near Ajmer, up a hill. It was also near a stream where a tiger would come to drink water. That tiger would come and go. From the fact that we would fire in the air with pistols sometimes, it learnt that it should come, have water and walk away. Else we would fire at him and not in the air.

“But that day, the British had learnt of the hideout and were closing in. Those were the days of the Raj, after all. So we blasted some explosives — not me, I was far too young, my older friends there — at the same time the tiger showed up for his water.

“The tiger didn’t drink the water and fled, running right behind the British police. All of them started running. With a tiger somewhere behind them. Some fell down the hillside, some fell on the road. Two policemen died during that mayhem. The police did not have the guts to return to that place. They were scared of us.

The tiger apparently got out of the mess unscathed. And lived to drink water another day.

Shobharam shows where a police bullet hit him during a 1942 Quit India protest action in Ajmer.

Shobharam shows where a police bullet hit him during a 1942 Quit India protest action in Ajmer. | Photo Credit: People’s Archive of Rural India

Brave fight

That’s veteran freedom fighter Shobharam Gehervar, now 96, talking to us at his home in Ajmer on April 14, 2022. He lives in the very Dalit basti he was born in almost a century ago, never seeking to leave it for more comfortable quarters. Which this two-time municipal councillor could easily have done had he wished to. He paints a vivid picture of his 1930s and 1940s battles with the British Raj.

Shobharam is a Dalit and self-declared Gandhian. He also deeply admires Dr. Ambedkar. In the picture, he is seen garlanding the statue of Ambedkar.

Shobharam is a Dalit and self-declared Gandhian. He also deeply admires Dr. Ambedkar. In the picture, he is seen garlanding the statue of Ambedkar. | Photo Credit: People’s Archive of Rural India

Was that some kind of underground bomb factory he is talking about? “Arre, it was a jungle. Not a factory... Factory mein toh kainchi banti hain [they make scissors in a factory]. Here we [the underground resistance] made bombs.”

“Once,” he says, “Chandrasekhar Azad visited us.” That would have been in the second half of 1930 or in the first days of 1931. The dates are uncertain. “Don’t ask me about exact dates,” says Shobharam. “I once had everything, all my documents, all my notes and records, right in this house. There was a flood here in 1975 and I lost everything.”

Chandrasekhar Azad was among those who, together with Bhagat Singh, reorganised the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association in 1928. In 1931, on 27 February, Azad took his own life in a shootout with British police at Alfred Park in Allahabad when left with a single bullet in his firearm. Honouring his pledge never to be captured alive and always remain ‘azad’ or free. He was 24 when he died.

After Independence, Alfred Park was renamed the Chandrasekhar Azad Park.

“Azad came and visited the place [the bomb-makers’ camp],” says Shobharam back in Ajmer. “He guided us on how we could make our bombs more efficient... Then he said to us that he would like to see the tiger. We told him to stay the night so that he could get a glimpse.

“So the tiger came and went, and we fired in the air. Chandrasekharji asked us why we fire. We told him that the tiger knows that we can harm him, so he just walks away.” An arrangement that allowed the tiger to have his water and the fighters their security.

Clever decoy game

“But that other day I am telling you about, the British police had got there first. And as I said, there was mayhem and chaos.” Shobharam claims no personal role in that bizarre battle or related skirmish. He was witness to it all, though. He could not have been much more than 5 years old when Azad came, he says. “He was in disguise. Our job was simply to escort him to the place in the jungle and hill where the bombs were made. Two of us boys took him and a colleague of his there to the camp.”

It was, in fact, a clever decoy game. An innocent looking uncle-out-with-nephews scene.

“Azad saw the workshop — it was not a factory — and patted our backs. And told us children: “Aap toh sher ke bachche hain [you are lion cubs]. You are brave and do not fear death...”


“The bullet did not kill or maim me permanently. It hit me in the leg and went on ahead. See?” And he shows us the very visible spot where it hit him on his right leg, a little below the knee... “I fainted and they took me to a hospital,” he says. That was around 1942, when he was a “lot older” — meaning around 16 — and taking part in direct action. Today, at 96, Shobharam Gehervar seems to be in very good shape — over six feet tall, fit, ramrod straight and active. Talking to us at his home in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Shobharam is a Dalit and self-declared Gandhian. He also deeply admires Dr. Ambedkar. And tells us this: “I was also with both, Gandhivad and krantivad [Gandhian path and revolutionary movement]...” So, while primarily a Gandhian, there were three political streams he associated with.

The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom; P. Sainath, India Viking, ₹499.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.