P Sainath’s 1996 volume, Everyone Loves a Good Drought, remains a relevant perspective into poverty in rural India, studying systems, processes and gaps that have not substantially changed in the 27 years since its publication. Small wonder then that his new book, The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, captures the same sense of systemic gaps and failures when it comes to acknowledging and validating the contributions of ordinary people – farmers, landless labourers, workers, couriers, forest produce gatherers, homemakers – who contributed to India’s great struggle for independence, but whose names do not appear on official lists of freedom fighters and who go unrecognised by the State and by the post-Independence generations they have helped shape.

“In the next five or six years, there will not be a single person alive who fought for this country’s freedom,” writes the author. Through a series of interviews conducted over a period of many years, sometimes decades, with freedom fighters as well as their families and friends, Sainath attempts to tell the stories of some of the forgotten many who fought the British Raj, fought other forms of oppression and exploitation alongside, those who were dismissed as rebels or the underground, and, unforgivably, as incidental to the larger concerns of the struggle.

A living archive

Each of the 16 chapters of the book re-constructs the life of one freedom fighter – or a small group of them – who made it neither to official records nor to pension schemes. Also in these pages are those who eschewed pensions, stating that they had fought for freedom and not for compensatory pensions. But fed into the bureaucratic maze of narrow definitions of “freedom fighter” and a severe lack of documentation, this has often translated into an act of erasure, not just of the individual but also of history.

As Founder Editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India, Sainath’s journalistic work over three decades and more has been to collate stories and embed them into a living archive. Each of the chapters carries a QR code that leads to a collection of photos and videos located in the Freedom Fighters Gallery at PARI. Despite the loss of a significant number of photographs and documents to unethical reporters and memorabilia hunters, this rich resource forms a fascinating insight into the lives and achievements of the everyday people who brought about such a radical transformation in Indian politics and social life.

The opening chapter, “Rebel, Actor, Soldier, Spy,” tells of the heroism of Hausabai Patil, member of the Toofan Sena, the armed wing of the prati sarkar, the provisional government of Satara that had declared independence from British rule in 1943. With almost 600 villages under its control, the prati sarkar had several teams of revolutionaries that collected intelligence, attacked British trains, looted police armouries, and set fire to dak bungalows in order to disrupt administrative functioning.

On a mission in Goa, in 1944, she and her comrades needed to swim across the Mandovi to evade arrest and Hausabai tells the magnificent tale of floating across the river at midnight, buoyed up on a big wooden box they found inside a fishing net.

Mallu Swarajyam, part of the Telengana People’s Struggle of the 1940s, was trained with a rifle and had a price of Rs 10,000 set on her capture, dead or alive, by the Nizam of Hyderabad’s government. Armed fighter and key organiser in the people’s war against the Nizam and feudal landlords, she headed first one and then multiple dalams, squads of armed fighters.

Shobharam Gehervar, committed Gandhian and Ambedkarite, who sees no contradiction in that ideological positioning, tells of an incident when the British attack on a bomb-making workshop in Ajmer was foiled because of the appearance of a tiger that the revolutionaries used against the soldiers. At 11 years of age, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, student of class three and on stage to receive a prize, shouted, instead of “Britannia Zindabad, Hitler Murdabad,” the slogan “Britannia Murdabad, Hindustan Zindabad”, and was punished by being blacklisted and pushed out of the educational system entirely.

“Captain Bhau,” also part of the Toofan Sena, led a daring train robbery that others like Ganpati Yadav participated in, to retrieve “money stolen by the British rulers from the Indian people.”

These are only a handful of stories of tremendous courage and sacrifice of personal privileges, comfort, even relationships, that define the unsung protagonists of The Last Heroes. That most of our school textbooks keep us oblivious of this subaltern history is in itself a major flaw in the narrativisation of the histories of the freedom struggle.

Freedom and Independence

The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Ramchandra Sripati Lad, popularly known as Captain Bhau: “We fought for two things – for Freedom and Independence. We attained Independence.” This seems to be a common sentiment amongst those who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of freedom, only to realise that freedom came with caveats and was not freedom for all.

In a telling comment, Chamaru Parida, resident of Panimora village, dubbed “Badmash Gaon” by the British administration of what is now Odisha, says, “The present rulers, too, are pretty shameless. They loot the poor as well. Mind you, I won’t equate anything to the British Raj, though. But our present lot are also awful.” He should know.

In defiance of caste taboos, the residents of Panimora marched into the Jagannath temple with 400 Dalits in the early 1940s, angering a large number of Brahmins but also winning supporters in the process. The fight against the Raj was not insulated from other social and economic concerns.

Mallu Swarajyam insist that their attack was on slavery of many kinds. They fought for the rights of farmers and workers and continued to do so for the rest of their lives. Both Captain Bhau and Hausabai, despite their inability to participate in person, sent messages to the farmer’s march on Parliament in 2018, calling on the government “not to sleep but to wake up and work for the poor.” The dream of an equitable, free country that would collapse class and caste and religious barriers, remains unfulfilled. Yet, the dominant voice in all these stories is that of hope; hope, not just that thing with feathers, but with talons and indomitable spirit.

A major contribution The Last Heroes makes is in its acknowledgement of the role played by women in the freedom struggle, not just unrecognised in most records but relegated to the shadowy realm of passivity, a fact driven home in the maana patra, the certificate of honour, issued to Demati Dei “Salihan,” an Adivasi of the Sabar tribe, whose defiance of the British Raj was effaced in words that acknowledged her father’s role and recognised as her primary achievement, the fact that she had borne three sons.

The author’s interview with Bhabani Mahato of Purulia, West Bengal, has her insisting that all she ever did was manage the fields and run the household in the absence of her husband, and cook food for many more people once he was back from his incarceration. The moment of revelation, when the author realises she was cooking for and keeping alive those in the underground resistance, hits the reader just as hard as it does the author. It also provokes the question of just how many aspects of women’s contribution to the greater cause were swept away in the numbing stereotypes of women’s work and domestic responsibilities.

Laxmi Panda, one of the youngest members of the INA, was perhaps the only Odia woman to have enlisted, but finds no mention in official records as freedom fighter. For this breaking of an unacknowledged silence, the reader owes PARI and P Sainath a tremendous debt of gratitude.

The Last Heroes, with its narratives that are as individual as they are representative, accomplishes many things. It traces the history (or, more appropriately, histories) of the struggle for Independence, from Satyagraha to the Quit India Movement, to the later years of the 1940s, with an acute awareness of the changes sweeping over the rural landscape. It forces the reader’s attention to questions of gender and caste parity. It details the many gaps in official documentation and the lack of recognition accorded to India’s foot soldiers, whether of the 1940s or earlier.

For students and enthusiasts of post-colonial Studies, it answers Spivak’s question of whether the subaltern can speak in the affirmative. While validating Spivak’s insistence on the heterogeneity of subaltern groups, Sainath amplifies the voices of the subaltern, excavating lives, and memories and stories that needed to be told but never were. As Sainath says in his introduction, “We need their stories. To learn what they understood. That Freedom and Independence are not the same thing. To learn to make those coalesce.” We must learn to do better.

The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom, P Sainath, Penguin Books India.