Meet Shah Alam, the Young Revolutionary Continuing the Legacy of His Heroes

The solitary cyclist travels the Chambal valley through heat, dust and rain to meet and give voice to those who risk being forgotten in India's quest for development.

Shah Alam traversing the Chambal terrain on his bicycle. Picture courtesy: Shah Alam.

Shah Alam traversing the Chambal terrain on his bicycle. Picture courtesy: Shah Alam.

Living in times of neo-nationalism, when love for the country seems to be measured by who among our fellow citizens we denounce and how, it would serve us well to remember the strong threads of kinship and camaraderie that bound together the fate of revolutionaries who perished in the freedom struggle.

Shah Alam, a young activist and documentary filmmaker from Basti, Uttar Pradesh, who was educated at Faizabad and later at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, has been working tirelessly for over a decade to bring today’s Indians closer to the saajhi viraasat or shared heritage of the romantic revolutionaries of the 1920s – Ashfaqullah Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil, Gendalal Dikshit and other stalwarts of the Hindustan Republican Association.

Reaching out through documentaries

Awam ka Cinema, an initiative to screen documentaries in smaller towns and rural areas, was started in Ayodhya in 2006 by Alam and some of his friends. “We had no office bearers, no formal structure or funds. People just contributed in whatever way they chose,” says Alam. Nobody expected that once this annual tradition was established it would take firm root and extend itself to venues like Auraiya, Etawah, Mau, Bijnor, Kargil, Delhi, Jaipur, Patna, Jammu, Wardha, Azamgarh and Varanasi.

Awam ka cinema poster. Picture courtesy: Shah Alam.

Awam ka Cinema poster. Picture courtesy: Shah Alam.

Alongside documentary screenings, Awam ka Cinema has also held poster and photograph exhibitions, and staged performances, and has been supported by the presence of many articulate and well-known personalities like Anusha Rizvi, Acharya Satyendra Das, Seema Parihar, Parnab Mukherjee, Gautam Navlakha and Kranti Kumar Katiyar. Besides, Anand Patwardhan, Rajendra Sachar, Kiranjit Singh, Anwar Jamal and others have been directly associated with the group’s efforts or have given their films to the group to screen.

A screening can be held in the open air at a village chauraha (crossroads), or it can be at a press club or at a college. Although documentaries reflect reality and are far removed from the usual fare of entertainment that people in smaller towns are offered on a regular basis, not a single occasion goes by without a lively and responsive audience. This was evident to me when I lived in Faizabad during 2008-2011 and attended Awam ka Cinema screenings. Some of the films they screened include War and Peace, The Man Who Moved a Mountain, Development Flows Through the Barrel of a Gun, 1857 – Jung-e-Azadi and India Untouched.

Discoveries and evidence

The iconic poster of Awam ka Cinema features Khan and other revolutionaries from the freedom struggle. The martyrdom of Khan at Faizabad jail is observed as an annual event on December 19. Alam’s early exposure to this piece of history made him determined to find out more about Khan and his associates, including Bismil, who was martyred on the same day in Gorakhpur in 1927. Both men hailed from Shahjahanpur. When Alam set out to do some research into the life and times of this revolutionary duo, he came across many important findings.

“The revolutionary action at Kakori and the emergence of the Hindustan Republican Association has to be understood in the context of the British strategy of divide and rule, which had led to 1923-24 being a year of great bloodshed due to communal riots. In that year, in the United Provinces alone (modern Uttar Pradesh), there were 17 major riots. What appealed to me particularly was how these revolutionaries came together in spite of the negativity and hatred being spread by the British and their being driven by the sheer love for our country. That is what started me off on the path of my research, filmmaking, and finally, the journey through Chambal,” says Alam.

Among the valuable historical documents that Alam managed to unearth during his research into the Kakori action are the original constitution of the Hindustan Republican Association, the diary of Khan, the notes he wrote on the Quran masjid, the file of the supplementary case on Kakori (filed after the late arrest of Khan and Shachindra Nath Bakshi), as well as the judgement of the chief court of Awadh passed on a case against Bismil and his associates.

He also has the original copy of the famous nazm ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai’ generally attributed to Bismil, but actually written by Syed Jhabbu Shah Bismil Azimabadi and endorsed by his ustad, the renowned poet Shaad Azimabadi. The file of the Privy Council in the Kakori case, which was rejected as soon as it was heard in the UK, is also a part of the Awam ka Cinema collection of documents, as are telegrams relating to the Kakori case and letters written from jail by the various revolutionaries. All these have been displayed at various Awam ka Cinema events in the past few years.

The Chambal connection

His research into the group of revolutionaries tried by the British and martyred in the 1920s led him to Chambal. It was in the deadly ravines and hostile terrain of the Chambal valley, which spreads across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, that Alam began to return time and again to learn more about Dikshit. A school teacher who was inspired by revolutionary ideals, Dikshit was disappointed by the apathy and insularity of educated people in towns and cities.

This is what made him turn to the beehad of Chambal, to seek supporters from among the dreaded dacoits of the time. He founded Matruvedi, the first revolutionary group in North India. He also succeeded in lighting the flame of the freedom struggle among the fierce dacoits of Chambal and would have succeeded in a dramatic fashion if he had not been betrayed by informers working for the British. As it was, the betrayal caused the martyrdom of 35 revolutionaries in the forests of Bhind – 35 young men who laid down their lives against the British and remained largely unknown until recently.

“These revolutionaries remained unknown in their own native villages and towns,” says Alam. “On August 12, 2015, through the efforts of some of my Chambal-based friends, the municipality of Auraiya finally installed a bust of Gendalal Dikshit at a crossroads in the town in order to commemorate the man who had shaped the character of so many revolutionaries against the British. This year, the centenary year of the formation of Matruvedi, we are getting the whole-hearted support of many citizens, scholars and youth. Before we began the ‘Chambal Samvad’ (Chambal dialogue) in Auraiya on May 29, 2016, the Matruvedi centenary had already been celebrated at Barhaj, Gorakhpur, Faizabad and Shahjahanpur. It gave me immense pleasure and hope to be a part of these events.”

The present – a picture of neglect and despair

Alam has been cycling through Chambal since the end of May this year in his quest to explore the terrain. He finds the present conditions in Bundelkhand extremely distressing. “Starving cows roam the parched earth looking for fodder, while their owners themselves have nothing to eat. I reached the home of Phoolan Devi in Sheikhpur Gudha village to find that her mother and younger sister Ramkali had never had a Below Poverty Line card or ration card issued to them – this, in spite of Phoolan rising to the status of a Member of Parliament. Their kitchen was absolutely bare of any edible items except two kilograms of atta and a quarter kilogram of onions. They showed their hospitality to me by sharing a bowl of dried ber.”

With villagers surrounding him to relate their difficulties in getting any compensation for crops that had been destroyed or any welfare measures that would see them through the drought, Alam spent some days collecting their stories and meeting the commissioner, district magistrate and superintendent of police at the district headquarters at Alha, Mahoba and Jalaun.

Shah Alam with Phoolan Devi's mother in her bare kitchen. Photo courtesy: Shah Alam.

Shah Alam with Phoolan Devi’s mother in her bare kitchen. Photo courtesy: Shah Alam.

He is bitter about the false propaganda being promoted today in the name of development. “I have spent over three weeks cycling through Chambal and covering over 550 kilometres, but I have yet to meet any person who could answer to the name of a ‘dacoit’. Instead, I see only the vacant eyes and listless bodies of people who are racked by hunger and starvation, and who have not picked up a sickle to harvest their crops in the last six or seven years. There has been largescale migration, but not due to the factors now being made much of in the media. You only have to see one of the locked huts of a villager here to know why he left. Such abject poverty is shameful so many years after Independence. And yet, the media reports mention Kairana at the national executive meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Allahahabad, where Bundelkhand did not cross anyone’s lips, nor find any mention in the rally that followed. Why are we making heroes of those who gain strength from stoking communal passions? When will we begin to focus on the issues that matter to the people?”

With the delivery of government welfare schemes to actual beneficiaries remaining a problem, Alam and his associate Kuldeep have compiled a list of 3,165 drought-affected farmers in Jalaun and have handed this list over to the district magistrate, as well as informing the district authorities in Mahoba about 1,175 drought-affected families there. “Are these people not human? Are they not listed as India’s citizens? Don’t they have voting rights and will they not be voting in Uttar Pradesh’s forthcoming elections? Why is no political party coming forward to even meet them or reach out to them?” asks Alam.

Alam’s personal quest has required a lot of sacrifice. When he returned home after months of absence, he found that termites had destroyed many of his valuable books and papers. His family in his village in Basti has been attacked on petty matters in his absence. He has no sponsors or funding agencies, but survives on the hospitality of the villagers he meets – often making do with a single meal in a day. But meet him and you notice immediately that the fire in his eyes remains undimmed – the fierce desire to keep the memory of revolutionary freedom fighters alive and to give a voice to those who risk being forgotten in the present.