Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022
India's Independence @ 75

An Unsung Hero From Bihar Who Saved Gandhi's Life During Freedom Struggle

From a man who saved Gandhi's life to an elderly woman who faced bullets on her forehead in her bid to unfurl the Tricolour at a police station, there were many unsung freedom fighters who did not get their due in history.

Matangini Hazra, who died to British bullets while hoisting Tricolour
Matangini Hazra, who died to British bullets while hoisting Tricolour

The celebrations to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Independence will continue throughout the year. It is high time we looked back at the contributions of all those unsung freedom fighters whose stories should be told afresh to the new generation of Indians.

Matangini Hazra

During the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930 when yatras were taken out in different parts of the country, Tamluk in Midnapore of Bengal province also witnessed a yatra against the British regime. When a 60-year-old woman living alone in a hut by the roadside saw the yatra passing by, she instinctively became part of it. It took her on a new journey that changed her life forever.

Responding to the call of Mahatma Gandhi, she later started participating in every satyagraha. She broke the salt law and was jailed for six months. By the time she came out of jail, she had become such a spirited freedom fighter that people of the area began to address her as Budhi Gandhi (elderly Gandhi).

That was Matangini Hazra. Before going to jail, she did not know much about the freedom movement but she was aware of the atrocities that the British had committed in India. In fact, her family had also subjected her to a lot of hardships in her young days. At a very young age, her poverty-stricken parents married her off to a 60-year-old. She was only 18 when her husband passed away. When her step-children subsequently threw her out of the house, she started living in a hut outside her village and worked at people's homes to make a living.

But everything changed. From 1930 to 1942, Matangini ignited the flames of revolution in the area. Her frequent satyagraha and dharna gave the British officers a really tough time. In 1942, at the age of 72, Matangini took charge of the Quit India Movement in Tamluk. It was decided to hoist the Tricolour at all government offices and police stations in Midnapore to announce the end of the British Raj in India.

On September 29, 1942, a big procession comprising about 6,000 people, mostly women, headed towards the Tamluk police station. The police warned them and forced many people to make a hasty retreat. But Matangini was made of sterner stuff. Singing Vande Mataram and holding the Tricolour, she came out of the crowd to declare courageously that she would hoist the Tricolour. When she remained firm on her resolve and began to move ahead despite repeated warnings from British officials, the police fired a bullet at her right hand. The injured Matangini immediately took the Tricolor in her left hand and kept moving ahead without fear. When the second bullet hit her left hand, she held the Tricolor with both hands and marched on. Even though she was bleeding profusely, she kept on moving forward, but the third bullet hit her forehead.

Matangini fell down but she did the let the Tricolor slip out of her hand. She held it tight on the chest, shouting Vande Mataram for the last time, and became an immortal name in the history of freedom struggle.

Ramesh Chandra Jha

Renowned litterateur Kanhaiyalal Mishra Prabhakar writes about

in the preface to a book, “The history of Ramesh Chandra Jha and his family is like laughing aloud in the face of ruin during the freedom struggle. He is among those who themselves put handcuffs to break the shackles of slavery. He also enjoyed the life of a dreaded absconder and is among those who did not get freedom but earned it.”

Influenced by his family background as well as his father Laxmi Narayan Jha, Ramesh Chandra Jha became a freedom fighter in his formative years. His father was sent to jail on the very first day of Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Champaran and was sentenced to six months of rigorous imprisonment. At the age of 14, during the Quit India Movement, Ramesh Chandra was accused of attacking a British police post and looting weapons from there. At that time, only a few trains ran, and fewer at night.

Often in the summer, British railway workers would hang out on the railway tracks, eating, drinking and even sleeping there. Once when some British officers were sleeping on the tracks near Raxaul, Ramesh Chandra and his companions pushed the bogie of a goods train that was stationed next to them. As a result, the bogie ran over several Britishers leaving many others injured.  However, they were all identified while they were trying to run away from the scene. Ramesh Chandra was also among a few people for whom the administration issued a shoot-at-sight order.

Ramesh Chandra Jha gave a befitting reply to British at an early age. When his father would be in jail, he got ample support from his uncle Nandji Jha who owned a pair of bullocks.  Ramesh Chandra would often use them to travel about 50 kilometers at night on a bullock cart on his mission.

While serving his jail term, he was drawn to reading Indian and world literature. After coming out of prison, he became a writer instead of joining any political party. He kept on writing until his last breath in his village Phulwaria. He wrote more than 70 books of stories, novels and poems in his lifetime and passed away at the age of 66 in 1994.

Marang Baba and Usha Rani Mukerji

In the 1930s, Marang Baba was on top of the hit list of British spies in Santhal Parganas. His real name was Lambodar Mukherji but the local Santhali people used to address him as Marang Baba. Marang Baba had to serve the jail term twice in that decade. With the help of Marang Baba, the conversion of the local tribals by the Christian missionaries was stopped. He also helped Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose establish Forward Bloc in the area.

Marang Baba and Usha Rani Mukerji
Marang Baba and Usha Rani Mukerji

Usha Rani Mukerji, the wife of Lambodar Mukherjee, was made the first woman president of Forward Bloc in Santhal Parganas. The revolutionary influence of Usha Rani and Marang Baba was such that the British government was unable to curb their activities whenever they would be out of jail. It was also difficult for the administration to keep him in jail.

The Mukherji couple was once arrested from Santhal Parganas for instigating people. Usha Rani Mukerji was subsequently sent to Bhagalpur Jail while Lambodar Mukherji was put under house arrest in Motihari. After his release, he resumed his activities against the British regime. The administration gave orders to shoot at sight against him.

Usha Rani, who was out of jail at that time, chalked out such a plan from Motihari to Santhal Parganas that made the local authorities fear that the people’s protest would turn into a rebellion if something happened to Marang Baba inside prison. At that time, Netaji had captured the imagination of the nation and Usha Rani became one of his chief soldiers.
One night without informing anyone, Lambodar Mukherjee was shifted from Patna camp jail to Hazaribagh Jail where the

Deputy Commissioner gave it in writing that Lambodar Mukherjee died in jail. But he was not dead.

After his release from prison in 1945, Lambodar began to play an important role in the plans for the formation of the interim government. Later, he was elected unopposed as an MLA from the Dumka constituency for the Interim Government. When the country became independent in 1947, Usha Rani dressed like a bride and Lambodar Mukherjee put a bracelet on her hands to celebrate it. When Usha Rani was in prison, she gave birth to a daughter, who later became the first woman paratrooper in the Indian Army.

Batak Mian

This incident happened after Mahatma Gandhi reached Motihari in 1917. The leader of the managers of the indigo factories in Champaran named Irwin called Mahatma for a discussion one day. This was the time when the British government allowed Mahatma Gandhi to record the statements of indigo cultivators. Alarmed by the success of Gandhi's Satyagraha experiment, Irwin hatched a conspiracy to slow-poison Gandhi to death in order to please his masters. Irwin planned to kill Gandhi by mixing poison in his food.

Batak Mian happened to be a cook at Irwin's bungalow at that time. Irwin and his associates threatened him to execute their sinister plan. Batak, who was a farmer with a small land holding, was in a dilemma. He not only had the responsibility to look after his family but had the fear of the British. On that day, he was told to go to Gandhi with a glass of poisoned milk on a tray after serving him the meal. Fearing that he would be subjected to the atrocities of the British, he could not refuse. He did exactly as Irwin had ordered.

However, when he reached near Gandhi, he could not summon the courage to put the tray in front of him. When Gandhi raised his head to look at him, he started crying. Gandhi became apprehensive and asked him to sit down. Batak told him about the plot to kill him. Irwin and his close associates got flustered after their sinister plot was revealed.

After that incident, Batak was imprisoned and nobody in his family survived the atrocities of the British. His land was auctioned and his family was persecuted in various ways. It is said that Gandhi had given a word that he would never reveal it.

This incident finally came to light as late as 1957. At that time, President Dr. Rajendra Prasad was in Motihari to attend a programme. While he was addressing at a public meeting there, he recognised Batak standing at a distance and called him out. "Batak Mian, how are you?" he asked. Batak was thereafter called on the stage and he told his story to the people.

His story has since become part of folklore turning Batak Mian into a real hero in Champaran.

(The author is doing research in England on Indo-Europe relations.)