Monday, Oct 03, 2022
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The Freedom Trail

Chawls that tell underrepresented stories to temples that saw protests against caste oppression - here is a list of lesser-known sites that defined the many movements that led to freedom

The Residency Complex in Lucknow
The Residency Complex in Lucknow Hari Mahidhar / Shutterstock

MOIRANG

This small town in Manipur is the place where the Indian National Army (INA) first planted its flag on Indian soil

That Moirang, 45 kilometres from Manipur’s capital, Imphal, still lovingly retains its links to Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA) is evident from the fact that one of the planks on which the 2022 state elections were fought concerned whether Bose has received his dues adequately in the annals of Indian history. What’s more, the renovation work on the INA Complex (along with a statue of Bose) in the town was completed earlier this year.

Moirang’s tryst with freedom dates back to around 1944, when the INA set up their World War II headquarters in the town. The red-letter day in the town’s history is April 14, 1944 – it was on this day that Lieutenant Colonel Shaukat planted the Tricolour on Indian soil for the first time. The story goes that the INA and the Japanese soldiers marched on to Moirang on foot to liberate them from British occupation, and the city’s residents offered shelter and food to them irrespective of whether they were Indian or Japanese. The INA would go on to establish a short-lived provisional government in the town.

The relics from Moirang’s past are preserved in the INA Museum which houses a host of memorabilia. From Netaji’s impassioned letters to his soldiers to the guns used by INA soldiers to the currency and stamps used by the provisional government, the museum has it all – transporting audiences to a time in history when the cry for freedom became the greatest unifier.

Did You Know: Moirang is also well known for the Loktak Lake, Northeast India’s biggest freshwater lake, and the Keibul Lamjao National Park, both of which are present in its vicinity.

NEEL KOTHIS

One of few surviving indigo plantation bungalows, Balakhana marks an important chapter in the revolts that led to the freedom movement

Indigo was one of the many cash crops that British colonialists grew in the subcontinent. Due to its huge demand worldwide, indigo had a central role in the East India Company’s profits. However, it rendered fields infertile as it was a water-intensive crop. Despite protests by farmers, the British continued to force them to grow the precious ‘blue gold’. The protests eventually led to the famous Indigo Revolt or ‘Nil Bidraha’, which was considered to be the forerunner of the freedom movement. Several indigo plantation bungalows are still standing across the country. One of them is the two-centuries-old Balakhana Estate in Maheshganj, West Bengal. The mansion was a neel kothi once and housed indigo planters. It had an airstrip where planes like Kitty Hawks would land. Netaji was once ferried to an urgent meeting in this manner. A Frenchman was responsible for building Balakhana in the 18th century. You can visit the place and stay for a weekend at Balakhana today. The estate is spread over 12,000sq ft of living space, and has a verandah that stretches along the front of the house.

Today, many come here to spend a tranquil weekend with boat rides on the Jalangi river.

Did You Know: Satyajit Ray shot the wedding scenes of Apur Sansar in the old compound of the estate while the crew of the film occupied the house or notun bari as it was then called. 

SHANTARAM CHAWL

The public meetings held at the Girgaum Chawl were addressed by, among others, Gandhi, Jinnah, Tilak, and B. G. Horniman, an Englishman who edited The Bombay Chronicle

With its many chawls housing the working class, it is no surprise that Girgaum has played an important role in India’s socio-political movements. Most nationalist meetings took place in working-class neighbourhoods such as Shantaram Chawl, whose one-acre plot with
ten buildings was built in the mid-to-late 1800s. Its central courtyard has seen several political rallies. Annie Besant’s All India Home Rule League held their meetings here. The Home Rule movement was launched by Besant to nurture the idea of self-governance in British-occupied India. This is among the many smaller movements which laid the foundation for the Indian independence struggle.

It was at Shantaram Chawl that Lokmanya Tilak, Jinnah and Gandhi held a meeting in June 1918 to protest against British Governor Lord Wllingdon’s statements at the Bombay Provincial War Conference regarding the Home Rule League. It drew close to 12,000 people.

The nearby Girgaum Chowpatty was where a protest against the Rowlatt Act was held in April 1919, led by Gandhi.

Did You Know: Girgaum has many firsts to its credit. It was one of the first localities – outside the British-dominated Fort - to be developed. It also has Mumbai’s first ever girls’ school - the Kamalabai High School.

ALIGARH MUSLIM UNIVERSITY

A melting pot of India’s syncretic thread, the university alumni also spread the message of the freedom movement far and wide

One of the most visually aesthetic campuses in India, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was founded by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who believed in the synthesis of cultures, and democracy. The college alumni include many who contributed to the freedom movement in their own ways – for instance, enduring literary icon Saadat Hasan Manto, and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, whose best-known fictional work, Inquilab, on the freedom movement made him a household name in India. Then there was Captain Abbas Ali who was among those who joined Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Ali was eventually arrested, court-martialled, and sentenced to death by the British. But he was released from prison when India gained independence.

Another noted alumni was freedom fighter, journalist, and writer Raja Mahendra Pratap who was also President in the Provisional Government of India, which served as the Indian Government in Exile from Kabul in 1915, during World War I. A testament to India’s cultural pluralism, Pratap was born in a Hindu family, educated and trained at a Muslim institution and married to a Sikh.

Did You Know: The first lifetime membership given by the university’s student union was to Mahatma Gandhi who shared a close relationship with both the city of Aligarh and AMU. He had visited the campus many times during the freedom movement.

VAIKOM

This is where one of the most organised and non-violent agitations against caste oppression took place. It ensured the freedom of movement for all, on the roads leading to the Vaikom Shiva Temple

Between 1924 and 1925, Vaikom, a part of the princely state of Travancore in Kerala, barred the entry of so-called lower-caste communities to any temple premise. Labelling it a regressive and outdated practice, the people of Vaikom launched what came to be known as the Vaikom Satyagraha. This was the first-ever organised, regional, and localised protest for the rights of socially ostracised communities in Kerala. The movement has significant relevance in the formulation of Kerala’s Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936. The
protest lasted for 604 days, from March 30, 1924, to November 23, 1925. Eminent leaders like Gandhi, Periyar, Dalit revolutionary T.K. Madhavan, Kesava Menon, Chattampi Swamikal and Sree Narayana Guru also came forward in support of the movement. The movement started with people (called ‘satyagrahis’) forming batches and entering the temple. As each person was arrested, more would take their place. Eventually, the temple gates were opened to everyone.

Did You Know: Located on the banks of Vembanad Lake, Vaikom is considered to be among the oldest townships in South India. Kumarakom is 18 kms from here and Kottayam is around 35 kms away.

SHIBNIBAS

The Day of Inclusion observed on August 18 in Nadia and few other parts of West Bengal is a little-known but significant event connected to the Indian Independence.

The much-awaited announcement came on the fateful day of August 14, 1947. When it did, the people of Nadia were dumbstruck. Nadia had been annexed to East Pakistan, the radio announcement said. Led by the then ruler of Nadia, Raja Sourish Chandra Roy and other eminent citizens, the dissatisfaction of the people was made known to the British government, who subsequently ensured the border division was struck off and Nadia restored to India. The border rectification was announced late on August 17, 1947.

Next day, on August 18, jubilant residents marched to the Krishnagar Public Library grounds, brought down the flag of Pakistan that had been hoisted there previously, and raised the Indian Tricolour. Owing to technical reasons, August 18 was later designated as the ‘Day of Inclusion’. However, it was largely due to the efforts of a local resident of Shibnibas, a village not far from Krishnagar, that this little-known piece of history attracted people’s attention. After gathering proof and the required permission from the state and central administrations, he set the ball rolling for an annual function on August 18 since 1998. Since then, Shibnibas has been the best place to observe the Day of Inclusion celebrations.

Other places, which were later included in India under the rectified plan, have also started observing the day recently. Apart from the flag hoisting by a special guest, cultural and sporting events are held throughout the day. Stay back for the boat race, locally known as the ‘nouka baich’, held in the adjoining Churni River. Cheered on by spectators, country boats, decorated with the Indian Tricolour and rowed by local women, slice through water coloured by the rays of the late afternoon sun.

Did You Know: The place has mid-18th century temples – two dedicated to Shiva and another to Ram-Sita. They are the reminders of a glorious past when Shibnibas was the capital of the Nadia Raj.

THE RESIDENCY

It is a signpost of the momentous events of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 in the city of the nawabs. The Residency or the British Residency is home to historical objects and other memorabilias dating back to the first war of Indian Independence.

History may not have been kind to the Residency Complex in the heart of Lucknow, but even in its ruined state, the place forms an interesting study in urban architecture. Constructed between 1775 and 1800, it was built for the British Resident General (a representative in the court of Nawab of Awadh). More buildings were added later. During the Indian Revolution of 1857, it bore the brunt of the attack by the rebel forces who had laid siege to the complex after the British officers and their families had taken shelter here. Now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, some of the key structures include Bailey Guard Gate, Dr Fayerer’s House, Sago’s House, Brigade Mess, Banquet Hall, Kanpur Battery, Sikh Square, Cemetery, among others.

A building in the heart of the complex has been converted to the 1857 Memorial Museum. A model of the Residency as it was before 1857 is kept here. Besides, displays of photographs, lithographs, paintings, documents, period objects, and more, enlighten visitors about the Indian Revolution and life and times of the British occupants.

Did You Know: You can watch documentary shows at the Memorial Museum at fixed hours between 10:30 am and 4:30 pm. 

SANKALGIRI FORT

This 15th-century fort perched on a hilltop and built during the time of the Vijayanagara Empire was an important military base for
Tipu Sultan and, later, for the British army.

Kongu Nadu assumed prominence in the Palaiyakkarar Wars (1799 to 1802) – between the Polygars of the former Tirunelveli Kingdom and the British East India Company forces. The Sankagiri Fort stands witness to the story of these wars, particularly of the valiant Kongu chieftain Dheeran Chinnamalai, who was one of the main commanders in the Palaiyakkarar Wars.

Among other things, Dheeran is known to have intercepted and seized tax money from British troops, and had redistributed it among the locals. Getting to the fort, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, involves a steep uphill climb. But it’s worth it. Among the things to check out here are the fourteen walls that have been built across the Sankagiri Hills. The final construction was done by the British.

Did You Know: You can sign up for heritage fort walks led by organisations like Salem Historical Society and Tamil Nadu Heritage Volunteers of Salem District.

KALLIASSERI

This place lends its name to the famed Kalliasseri Planning Model, long considered to be a shining example of community and people participation in development programmes. 

Kalliasseri’s story is an inspirational one. This census town in the northern Malabar region in Kerala’s Kannur district fought for its independence against not one but three threats, from within and without – British rule, feudalism and caste. At the heart of the never-give-up outlook of the villagers was a thriving socio-political consciousness that allowed it to host and protect notable local Leftist leaders, who were calling the shots in Congress in northern Malabar, at the height of the anti-British movement in the 1940s.

But the roots of their struggles go two decades prior to this to the 1920s when the people raised their voices against the exploitative and greedy landlords (called janmis) and the all-prevalent rigid, caste-based discrimination. As noted journalist P. Sainath points out, this is the village that once saw a massive congregation of nationalist leaders and personalities (including the noted social reformer Charles Freer
Andrews) in the region when a Dalit boy was thrashed by upper-caste students and denied entry to a board school.

The struggles continued well after independence, but the desire to ensure equality has always shone strong. Movements against the landlord class continued well into the 1960s and even beyond that to ensure that people from backward castes have as much access to lands and properties as the influential class. And the road to ensuring a near 100% literacy (comparable to urban centres), among Dalits as
well, was only possible through grassroots-based, community interventions such as the setting up of night classes, reading rooms, libraries and unions to ensure adequate access to learning facilities.

It’s quite fitting that Kalliasseri’s ethos can also be seen in the Parassini Kadavu Temple near the city. It is one of those rare temples which welcomes people irrespective of religion and caste, where toddy and meat are the choice of offerings and where the priests are from the backward classes. It too once sheltered politicians at the height of the independence struggle.

Did You Know: The Parassini Kadavu Temple is dedicated to Muthappan, Lord of the Hunters. Dogs, the vehicle of Muthappan, are considered sacred here.

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