It felt like one was visiting the pre-Independence era as one walked into Sangam Hall in Marine Drive, yesterday. Seventeen freedom fighters from different parts of the city had gathered at a felicitation function, organised by Arise Free India (AFI), a non-profit trust. The function was held to honour those who contributed to India’s independence movement.
A banner, which read ‘Zara yaad karo kurbani…’ was put up in honour of the freedom fighters, who in spite of failing heath, had come from as far as Ulhasnagar, to interact and share their stories with their contemporaries. Discussions ranged from the Quit India Movement of 1942, to the number of years they had spent in jails. Some personal accounts were so vivid that it felt one was witnessing history unfold right before one’s eyes. While Harshadray C Shah (87) from Andheri (W) recalled his encounter with one Deputy Superintendent of Police called Mr Green, Navneet C Shah (90) rolled up his pyjamas to show an injury mark on one of his thighs. “I was hit by a bullet, during an attack at a police station on 1942.
I had stones; they (the police) had bullets. Hence, I was severely injured.” Though Shah never went to jail, his wife, who passed away years ago, did. “She was always a step ahead, you know,” said Navneet C Shah. Rukshmani Bhatia (84) from Nepean Sea Road said in a voice defying her age, “I went to jail thrice.
The first time I went to prison, I was barely 14.” She added, “The first time is always memorable, you know.” One could detect a childlike enthusiasm in her as she continued. “It was a change of plan, which got me arrested. Instead of going to the cinema, I went to participate in a protest after Mahadev Desai, personal secretary of Mahatma Gandhi had passed away. We thought the Britishers had killed him. During the protest, the police had arrested eight of us.
The case went on for almost a month and I was the last one who was allowed to leave, as I was considered slightly more notorious than the others. I remember this incident. Eight of us, who were arrested, were standing near Versova station, where Australian and Canadian soldiers camped. At that time, a new system was started by the British government. We had to form queues for tickets or to get on trains, so you would see ‘Q’ written everywhere. All of us would carry a piece of chalk with us, so wherever we saw the word ‘Q’, we would make it ‘Quit’. That day, when we were arrested, there was an Australian soldier standing in front of me.
So I wrote the word ‘Quit’ on the back of his shirt. But someone saw me doing it and another case was filed against me,” said Bhatia, flashing a mischievous smile. While Bhatia was arrested thrice, Manibhai S Doshi (92) was sentenced to death by the British government. He narrated the incident, “I was the Minister of Manpower for the Provisional Government of Free India under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. We came to Burma and then Imphal. We even took Chittagong (currently in Bangladesh) then. I had to face court-martial in Burma and was given a death sentence. Finally, we were set free only after Gandhiji intervened.”
M T Gangwani (85) from Thane shared an interesting anecdote. “There was a British train carrying arms and ammunition and seven of us wanted to derail that train. Alas! Our plan failed and we were arrested,” said Gangwani, originally from Pakistan. While freedom fighters spoke about the pre-independence era, they were equally concerned about the rampant corruption prevalent in our society. One freedom fighter aptly said, “This is not the India that our forefathers died for.”
Arise Free India (AFI), a non-profit corporation in the US as well as a non-profit trust in India, intends to, 'document, archive and disseminate narrations, personal stories and experiences of people who were involved with Indian freedom movement.' AFI is recording interviews of common people who had participated in India's freedom struggle, with an aim to prepare an oral archive of India's Independence movement. Further, AFI intends to make a documentary film connecting their stories for a renewed, contemporary examination of the events leading to India's independence in 1947. The oral histories can be heard at the website arisefreeindia.org For Queries send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org