History books tell us about just a few who fought for India’s freedom: P Sainath

Sainath’s book ‘The Last Heroes’ is an attempt to tell the stories of unsung heroes behind freedom struggle from British colonial rule

By Anil Ashwani Sharma
Published: Tuesday 06 December 2022

The book 'The Last Heroes' by journalist P Sainath. Photo: Anil Ashwini Sharma

The book 'The Last Heroes' by journalist P Sainath. Photo: Anil Ashwini Sharma

The purview of the freedom struggle from British colonial rule in India is as vast as its geography and culture. Many who were part of the freedom struggle did not realise the crucial weight of their ‘simple’ actions. 

P Sainath’s The Last Heroes finds stories of the country’s Independence struggle from forests, villages, homemakers and farmers. His book tells stories like that of of Bhavani Mahto, who were left out of mainstream history books.

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Mahto would grow grains and cook for underground revolutionaries during the Bengal Famine. However, even she is in denial of her crucial role towards the freedom struggle because she believes it pertains to her household and domestic life. 

Here are a few highlights from Anil Ashwini Sharma’s conversation with Sainath:

Anil Ashwini Sharma: The writer decides who the heroes of the history books are. Several new centres of history have come up in the last few decades. How do you feel about the demands by marginalised sections for a new historiography?


P Sainath: History books make it seem like the freedom struggle against colonial slavery happened only in north India. But rebellion broke out in eastern India within three years of the Battle of Plassey.

The tribal people were the first freedom fighters who gave their lives against colonial rule. The Chuhad rebellion took place in the Jangal Mahal in eastern India and lasted from 1760 to 1806. 

The Santhal rebellion took place even before the revolt of 1857, but only the latter was properly covered in history books. There are no complete accounts of such struggles for freedom. 

Those who feature in our history books today are those who studied at Oxford-Cambridge Universities, but in reality, the country’s ordinary people had just as significant a role. Farmers, labourers, cooks, homemakers and more were just as involved. These people risked everything they had in the fight for Independence. 

The colonial powers could do anything to them — from torture to murder. The freedom struggle would have been incomplete without the consciousness of the common people. But only a few special people got a place in the history books.

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AS: How does your book look at the history of colonial Independence?

PS: We must look at what the youth is being taught today. The government celebrated the 75th year of Independence as the Amrit Mahotsav in August 2022. But if you look at the Amrit Mahotsav website, there’s no mention of the freedom fighters who are still alive.

The government knows about them but chooses to remain silent. I met 15 freedom fighters still alive today, but the Amrit Mahotsav website only covers the Prime Minister’s (PM) name.

If you go to any school or college in the country and ask them to name the heroes of the freedom struggle, there can tell just four or five. The new generation looks at the Amrit Mahotsav of Independence website and thinks our PM is a freedom fighter. 

I am worried that in the next five or six years, there will not be a single person alive who fought for the freedom of this country. The youngest freedom fighter is 97 years old and the oldest one is 104 years old. 

The new generation of young Indians may never get a chance to meet, see, speak or hear the freedom fighters. That’s why I have written this book for this young generation.

AS: What was your priority while choosing the characters for the book?

PS: The book has representation from all parts of the country, from north, east, west, south and northeast. But there’s just one character from North India deliberately. 

The book has three people from the South, three from the West and eight from the East. Bhagat Singh Jugyan is from Punjab and Shobharam Gahadwal is also in it. 

When a film based on Captain Bhau was shown to the youth, they cried over the sacrifices our freedom fighters made us. Then there’s Mahto as well. 

The young generation of Independent India is being deprived of their history. They have no idea of ​​the vast scope of the freedom struggle. Some people chose to fight for the country’s freedom by sacrificing everything.

AS: You tell us Mahto’s story and how an entire family becomes freedom fighters. What was her reaction when you met her? 

PS: She is so humble that she doesn’t accept her contribution to the freedom struggle. Mahto, who is from the Purlia district of West Bengal, was married off when she was just nine. 

She would cook for her husband, a freedom fighter and over 20 underground activists for two and a half decades. She also took care of his house, farm and cattle. 

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I asked her how she felt about getting credit for being associated with the Quit India Movement. She said her husband, Vaidyanath Mahato, played a part in it, but she had no contribution. 

Mahto said she was too busy taking care of a large family because she had to cook for so many people and her workload kept on increasing. She also took care of agriculture and cattle. This happened during the infamous famine in Bengal in the 1940s. 

She took care of so many revolutionaries during that tough period and still believes she had no part in the revolution. 

AS: It has been 75 years since Independence. How do you see the values ​​of the freedom struggle in independent India?

PS: The principles of the Constitution of India are the achievement of the struggle against colonialism. The values ​​of liberty, equality and fraternity are included in it and it talks about justice and economic and social freedom for all. 

The spontaneous civil movement in the recent past against the Citizenship Amendment Act was based on these values ​​of the Constitution. We have technically only achieved colonial Independence. Economic and social freedom is yet to be achieved.

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