“My father and his forefathers – they were forced to grow indigo by the British. Our parents and grandparents could not resist the British might.”

— Thelu Mahato, Puruliya, West Bengal

“There were around 1,500 of us gathered to gherao the police station in Manbazar. We were sick and tired of the torment and torture of British rule. Besides, there had been recent attacks by their agents, the feudal Raj’s goondas, on our villages. People were very distressed.

The call had gone out as part of the Quit India agitation, and people began marching on 12 police stations in Puruliya from September 29, 1942. The next day saw them converge at those stations. I was with the crowd in Manbazar. Some of our leaders intended to raise the national flag atop the station. A few protestors climbed the roof of the building and started removing its terracotta tiles.

The British police opened fire and two people died. Chunaram Mahato died on the spot. Gobinda Mahato died in the hospital. They were the ones trying to raise the flag. They were unarmed and were gunned down in front of our eyes. Girish Mahato was hit by a bullet that lodged in his body.

The police fired recklessly into the crowd as well. That’s when a gherao turned into an attack on the station. People thought those two – Chunaram and Gobinda – might still be alive and were being held captive. And our intent was to free them. Some others, like Tularam Mahato, died later in British jails.

Magaram Mahato and Baidyanath Mahato, both organisers of the protest, had been to jail before. They were hunted down again and thrown into Baghalpur Jail [now in Bihar],” says Thelu.

“There were seven of us from my village in the action that day in 1942. At age 105 today, I am the only survivor from that group.”

Thelu Mahato is gentle, self-effacing, bright-eyed and alert. He is surely the oldest survivor of the police station attack. And maybe the oldest freedom fighter still alive in Puruliya (also spelt Purulia) district and all of West Bengal. He is, as we later learnt, somewhere between 102 and 105 years old. Thelu – meaning ‘one who pushes’ – got his name from a Brahmin purohit. The priest tagged him with it because he was born at the fag end of his father’s funeral rites. In other words, he had pushed his father away from this world.

Seated beside him is his lifelong friend Lokkhikanto Mahato, aged 97. “Lokkhi” was not part of the events of September 30, 1942 at the police station. He was probably just a tad under the age limit of 17 set by the leaders of the agitation for participation in the gherao.

In any case, Lokkhi was far more involved in the cultural side of the resistance. He was part of troupes that performed on tribal instruments such as dhamsa (a large kettle drum) and madol (a hand drum). These were commonly used by Santhals, Kurmis, Birhors, and other Adivasi groups. Lokkhi’s troupes also sang what at one level seemed to be innocuous folk songs.

In the context of that time, however, these songs took on a different meaning. The drum-beating messengers and singers also spread the message of rebellion against British rule. Lokkhi is still a handsome man of impressive bearing. With a visage that at once reminds you of Rabindranath Tagore. And a clear, resonant voice for a singer aged 97.

“We also used to shout Vande Mataram now and then,” says Lokkhi. They had no real affinity for the cry or the song. “But it angered the British,” he says, smiling.

“It was all chaos,” resumes Thelu about September 30. “We took Girish Mahato to a doctor. His name, I think, was Dr Annindo, and he was pro-British. “You deserve it,” he told us and refused to help. So we took Girish to another doctor – and there were not so many in those days. But we found one to help extract the bullet.” However, Girish too would soon be captured and sent to Bhagalpur Jail.

“Meanwhile, in the crackdown that followed, many of us fled into the forests and went into hiding.” But hold on, we ask. This was part of the August Quit India agitation? In end-September 1942? “Yes,” says Thelu smiling. “It took a long time in those days for news from outside to reach these parts. We got to know only a month after August 8 of the Mahatma’s call. And all different groups took time to come together, organise, and act.”

They are speaking to us on March 26, 2022, at Thelu’s dismal one-room semi-pukka home in Pirra village of Puncha block in West Bengal’s Puruliya district. Almost 80 years after the march on the police stations. Both have been denied freedom fighter’s pensions. And have long ago given up on trying to get those. Thelu lives on a Rs 1,000 old-age pension. Lokkhi received his old-age pension for all of one month. Then it mysteriously stopped.

Thelu and Lokkhi are keen, even anxious, to tell their story. They want newer generations to know that they stood up for their country and are proud of having done so.

Bipin Sardar, Digambar Sardar and Pitambar Sardar. Three dacoits and bandits revered by Thelu and Lokkhi, who had a profound impact on both in their formative years. All three were from the Bhumij tribal community.

“They stole from the rich landlords and gave a lot to the poor peasants and labourers,” says Thelu. “Digam and Pitam Sardar were brothers from Kusumdihi village. Bipin Sardar was from Dihagora village. The feudal landlords lived in terror of these three. But poor people revered them as “Gurudev”. You have to understand what a terrible feudal society existed here. The Raja – Karuna Sindhu Patar – ran the cruellest regime you could imagine. His family, also of the Bhumij community, had control of hundreds of bighas of land. They collected taxes for the British. Apart from their own thugs, the police often camped at their house.”

The Raja, Lokkhi says, “would order five to six villages to come with their ploughs [on a given day] to his place. And order them to “prepare my land for cultivation this season”. They were paid nothing, it was begari [forced labour]. All they got was a few fistfuls of broken, flattened rice. This outrage was repeated at harvest time.”

Both he and Thelu say that no matter how bad things are today, they were worse then. The British police and the feudal thugs would very often beat up people. “They would grab our valuables and livestock. Often, they set fire to our huts and morais [traditional silos for unthreshed paddy]. They would even set ablaze gowals [cattle-sheds],” they recall.

The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom

Excerpted with permission from The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, P Sainath, Penguin.