India is a country where emotional pictures of the prime minister touching the feet of his mother Hiraben send his supporters into raptures. The moment of Rahul Gandhi kissing his mother Sonia Gandhi on her forehead before formally taking over as the head of India’s largest opposition party, the Congress, assumes such significance that it literally pushes photographs of his first address out of the front pages of most newspapers. India also prides itself on the age-old invocation, ‘the mother and the motherland are more sacred than heaven itself’.
It is nothing short of a travesty then that in a country like this, there should be precious little acknowledgement of either the revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives in the struggle to liberate their motherland, or their mothers.
For their part, the revolutionaries had just a small wish – that a handful of earth of their motherland be placed in their graves. But such is the nature of the power apparatus and moral fibre of our society that the country is reluctant to do its duty by the mothers of revolutionaries who gave up their lives to see the birth of this very nation. For as long as they lived, these mothers were condemned to lives of extreme hardship and being witness to the machinations of successive governments in taking the country in the wrong direction. And now that they are no more, there is precious little effort to preserve their memory.
When one thinks of the plight of these mothers, the first to come to mind is Moolrani, the mother of martyr Ramprasad ‘Bismil’, leader of the historic Kakori conspiracy (August 9, 1925). Moolrani’s indomitable spirit was such that when she visited her son in prison in Gorakhpur on the eve of his hanging, she did not lose her courage even on seeing the moistness in his eyes. Summoning all her strength to keep her sorrow at bay she exhorted him: “I was under the impression that my son is brave, his very name makes the British government tremble. I didn’t know he was so afraid of death!” Then, as if this was not enough, she added, “If you meant to go the gallows with tears in your eyes, why did you choose this path at all?”
Moolrani was accompanied by the revolutionary Shiv Verma, whom she had described to the prison authorities as her nephew. According to him, Bismil vigorously wiped his eyes and said the tears had escaped his eyes of their own volition – not because he was afraid of dying but out of sorrow at the thought of being parted from such a brave mother. Immediately nudging Verma forward, she told Bismil, “He is a member of your party. If you have a message for the party, you can convey it through him.”
The harsh poverty that descended upon Bismil’s mother after his departure from the world turned her life into an unending ordeal. To keep herself together, Moolrani was forced to sell off their house in Shahjahanpur as well as the gold buttons that had been lovingly crafted for her son. She spent the rest of her life lost in a maze of distress, her only support being the memory of how she had named her son Ram because he was the son she had prayed for – a son like Rama.
Not just Bismil’s mother, his daadi (paternal grandmother) too had to pay the price for his martyrdom. In her days of abject poverty she was reduced to being dependent on the charity of religious-minded people on specific days such as edkadashi, not on the grounds that she was Bismil’s grandmother but simply because she happened to be a Brahmin.
Take the case of martyr Roshan Singh, who was hanged on the same day as Bismil (in Naini Central Prison). The price for having a martyr in the family was paid not just by Singh’s mother Kaushalya Devi but also by his daughters. The social and economic pressures experienced by the family were daunting. On top of that, every time a match was found for one of Singh’s daughters, policemen would threaten prospective in-laws that anyone who married Singh’s daughters would be considered by the British government to be as seditious as him. The timid ones would back off, seeing discretion as the better part of valour. It was with great difficulty that Singh’s daughters were settled into matrimony. In his absence, his mother and wife found their biggest support in Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, editor of the Hindi daily Pratap and a well-known freedom fighter, who often provided them financial assistance.
Also read: Remembering Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, an Editor Who Lived – and Died – for Communal Harmony
The family of Kakori martyr Ashfaqullah Khan, who was hanged in Faizabad jail, was counted among the elite, well-to-do families of its time. His mother’s family too was prosperous. But both families were virtually destroyed by the expenses they incurred in mounting a defence for Khan. Moreover, the British government forcibly took over many of their properties as well.
After Khan’s departure, there was no end to the tribulations of his mother Mazhoor-Un-Nisa Begum who encountered the inconsiderate face of relatives and society. Reading the emotional letters written by her son just days before his hanging, she drowned in unplumbed depths of sorrow. But rather than share her grief, her relatives looked the other way, afraid that the slightest show of sympathy for Khan’s mother and father would attract the ire of the British government.
There was someone, though, who helped Khan’s mother once, namely Chandrashekhar Azad who went in. disguise to Shahjahanpur. An unexpected visitor, he sat in the verandah and before a lone family member could seek his introduction, he asked for a beedi and a glass of water. When the family member returned, there was no one there. The stranger had left, leaving behind a bag of money. Azad, who was not a smoker, had asked for a beedi to hide his identity.
The other companion of Bismil, Singh and Khan, was Rajendra Nath Lahiri, whose birthplace now falls in Bangladesh. He was hanged in Gonda jail two days before the others for fear that there might be a move by the revolutionaries to rescue him. But in the same Gonda district today, the name of his mother has been forgotten and there is no acknowledgement of her unplumbed sorrow at being parted from her son. She has been deprived even of the natural recognition due to her as Lahiri’s mother.
The story of revolutionary Manindra Nath Banerjee and his mother Sunaina is no less poignant. This mother lost not one but two revolutionary sons. Not even a month had passed since the martyrdom of Lahiri when Manindra, intent on avenging his death, shot an intelligence man Karkun Jitendra Banerjee who had been awarded the title of ‘Rai Bahadur’ by the British. Manindra chose to execute this act on January 13 – which coincidentally happened to be his birthday – at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi. After opening fire, he fled the scene but returned shortly to ask of the man he had shot, “Rai Bahadur, you have got your reward for the hanging of Lahiri.”
Manindra Nath received a ten-year prison sentence. In 1934, he breathed his last in Fatehgarh central jail after a mammoth hunger strike in the presence of Manmathnath Gupta and Yashpal. His valiant mother, also marked by a rebellious sensibility, was not fated to see him one last time. Just a year ago, she had lost another son, Bhupendra Nath Banerjee. Later, rather than ask anyone for assistance she had sold off her property to garner the funds required to fight Manindra’s case. In 1937, when Gupta was released from jail, Manindra’s mother not only gave him refuge but also showered all her affection on him.
The only reward this mother got from the country, before she succumbed to a nameless death on February 23, 1962, was described thus by Sudhir Vidyarthi, a chronicler of the revolutionary nationalist movement: “Who knows what you suffered and endured, mother Sunaina!”
What of Jagrani Devi, the mother of Azad who preferred to let go of his life rather than be captured by the police surrounding him in Alfred Park (now Azad Park)? For a long time Jagrani Devi lived in poverty with nothing but kodu grains to stave off hunger. When Jawaharlal Nehru came to know about her plight, he sent an amount of Rs 500 for her. Later she was blessed to discover a steadfast son in Sadashiv Malkapurkar, one of the most loyal followers of Azad. Until March 22, 1952, when the woman who gave birth to Malkapurkar’s general died, he fulfilled all the duties of a son, right up to performing the funeral rites. Malkapurkar’s devotion to her was such that he even took her on pilgrimages, which was antithetical to his beliefs.
Jagrani Devi had wanted her son Azad to become a Sanskrit scholar of high stature; he became a martyr instead. For years she held on to the belief that her son would return. She tied a thread around two fingers vowing to remove them only when her son returned. Crying tears of grief damaged her eyes. But after Malkapurkar started taking care of her, her life took a happier turn. She would tell her neighbours, “Had Chandu been alive, what more than Sadashiv could he have done to take care of me?”
To put things in context, Malkapurkar’s mother passed away when he was serving a 14-year prison term for his part in the historic Bhusawal bomb case in the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (known as ‘Kaala Pani’). He saw shades of his mother in Jagrani Devi and felt proud that the mother whose grief made her oblivious to hunger and thirst during the time he was in prison, finally breathed her last on his lap. It is rare, however, for the deafening silence around this brave mother’s memorial in Jhansi to be broken by human presence. The memorial is virtually orphaned.
When one thinks of another towering revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, what immediately comes to mind is the fact that the revolutionary instinct was part of his legacy. At the time of his birth, on September 28, 1907, in Banga village (now in Pakistan), his father (Sardar Kishan Singh) and uncles (Sardar Ajit Singh and Sardar Swaran Singh) were serving a prison term for taking part in revolutionary activities. Since all three of them were released on that very day, the newborn was believed to have brought good fortune to the family. He was given the name Bhagat which in Punjabi also means fortunate. His mother Vidyawati lovingly called him ‘Bhagata’ – that is, one with a good fate.
What happened was very different. An atheist, Bhagat Singh had no belief either in god or fate. After Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom following the Lahore conspiracy (December 20, 1928) and Central Legislative Assembly bombing case (April 8, 1929), Vidyawati may not have experienced many vicissitudes, but she also did not enjoy, or was deprived of, the status she deserved – as the mother of a martyr of martyrs. The title of ‘mother of Punjab’ that was bestowed on her in a way denigrated not only her but also her son.
No wonder the popular Punjabi poet Santram Udasi wrote a poem of protest by asking whether Bhagat Singh had sacrificed his life only for Punjab? He gave his life for the country, so why was his mother not honoured with the title of ‘mother of the nation’, asked Udasi. The question is, was the title ‘mother of Punjab’ given to belittle the significance of Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice?
The parents of Bhagat Singh’s comrade Sukhdev too – mother Ralli Devi and father Ramlal – experienced society’s cruel indifference. As recently as a few years ago, their family house in Ludhiana’s Naughara locality was virtually in ruins. Worse, there was no one to feel the slightest sense of shame. Now, finally, there is a trust that is looking after the place.
Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev’s comrade Shivram Hari Rajguru hailed from village, Kheda (in Pune district). Although the village has renamed itself after its valiant son, the memory of his mother Parvati Bai and father Harinarayan have been consigned to oblivion.
Be it revolutionary nationalists or their families, the country has little desire to acknowledge them. Take the case of Batukeshwar Dutt, who also took part in the Central Legislative Assembly bombing along with Bhagat Singh and his comrades. His mother Kamini Devi died in his lifetime. Had she lived, the plight of her revolutionary son in independent India would have made her die a little bit every day.
When Dutt was awarded life imprisonment, Bhagat Singh had this to say to him: “You will stay alive and prove to people that revolutionaries are not people who only know how to die; they also know how to stay alive and face every hurdle with a bold resolve.” In the years Dutt spent in independent India before departing from the world in 1965, even as he faced extremes of helplessness and poverty, the tragedy of being forgotten as well as of unbearable humiliation, he honoured the spirit of Bhagat Singh’s words. For a brief while he even had to undergo the torment of taking up a job in a cigarette company.
This account would be incomplete without a mention of the revolutionary Sinha brothers – Rajkumar and Vijaykumar – from Kanpur. Elder brother Rajkumar was sentenced to life imprisonment for taking part in the Kakori conspiracy and Vijaykumar was sent to the Cellular Jail for being part of the Lahore conspiracy. Unable to withstand police persecution, their sister became insane. The courage and fortitude shown by their mother in such trying times was immense.
When a well-known revolutionary visited her and became emotional on seeing the family’s travails, she scolded him into silence and said: “Look at me. Don’t you know the mothers of tigers do not cry, and I am the mother of not one but two tigers. When I myself do not cry, how can I allow someone else to weep over my condition out of pity?”
The question is this: for a country said to hold dear the idea that ‘the mother and the motherland are more sacred than heaven itself’, how long will it keep the memory of the mothers of revolutionary sons at an arm’s distance? Will there ever be any acknowledgement of the sacrifices they made, living lives that were more of punishment; or will they be condemned to carry the burden of being the victims of cruel indifference on the part of the state and society?
As the veteran commentator Sudhir Vidyarthi, puts it: Is there any public remembrance, let alone celebration, of the martyrs themselves? Have we even attempted a comprehensive evaluation of their contributions? Then why would we feel any gratitude towards their mothers? If this state of affairs continues, there may come a day when they will be erased from our very memory.”
Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist based in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.