Freedom Issue 2018: Fighting Spirit

Gour Hari Das: The Second Struggle

Ritesh Uttamchandani
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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As a teenager, Gour Hari Das went to jail for the freedom movement, and then as an old man, spent 32 years trying to get the government to recognise his contribution

12th March, 1976

From: Gour Hari Das
To: The Collector of Greater Bombay
Sub: Tamrapatra and Sanmanpatra I, Shri Gour Hari Das s/o Shri Hari Das working in Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Bombay, is a freedom fighter and have suffered in Jail imprisonment in 1945 at Balasore Jail in Orissa State for which I have obtained the jail certificate which is enclosed herewith for your perusal and reference of the same. I therefore request you to issue a Sanmanpatra as well as recommend for Tamrapatra. I am staying here since 1956.
Your Faithfully,

4th March , 1981

From: Gour Hari Das
To: The Collector of Greater Bombay
Sub:-Tamrapatra to freedom fighter Shri Gour Hari Das
Please refer to your above letter where in you requested the Dy.Commissioner of Police to submit the report by return of post. It is a matter of great regret to inform you that after lapse of more than 3 years the pending matter could not be settled so far…I again request you to do the needful on priority basis…

17th June, 1989

From: Office of Dy Commissioner of Police
To: Shri Gour Hari Das
Sub:- Enquiries regarding freedom fighter Will you please make it convenient to call at this office within four days on any working day between 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.

16th February, 1992

From: GH Das
To: The Jail Superintendent, Balasore Dist. Jail., Balasore, Orissa
I, Shri Gour Hari Das originally from Jharpipal village Balasore district at present settled in Bombay was admitted to Balasore Jail as undertrial prisoner on 27-1-45. I was sentenced to eight months RI. I was released on bail on 23-3-45. Two separate certificates (copy enclosed) to that effect were issued to me for record. On the basis of those jail certificate I had applied to the government of Maharashtra for recognizing me as a freedom fighter and to sanction pension as per existing rules. In this regard the Collector of Bombay Suburban District has requested you under their letter number 1/G.E.N/ FF/91-92/361 dated 29-11-91 to confirm the correctness of those certificates after verification. Fortunately or unfortunately that letter was written to your office in Marathi language which you may find difficult for compliance. I therefore through this letter request you to please send your comments on the following address…

24th September, 2007

From: Undersecretary to Government of Maharashtra
To: Chief Secretary, Orissa State
Subject: Freedom Fighter Pension, Shri Gour Hari Das
Shri Gour Hari Das has applied for getting tamrapatra and recognition as the freedom fighter. Hence, you are requested to convey that if the applicant has been getting the Freedom Fighter Pension from your State, please send the Pension order & give the verification report about the jail Certificate from Superintendent, Balasore District Jail

THE YEAR AFTER this letter, Gour Hari Das finally got recognition from the Maharashtra government as a freedom fighter. The first letter was written in 1976. It took 32 years, when all his documents were in perfect order. What can be more lonely than fighting a battle in which there is no enemy on the other side? And how enormous is the betrayal if this invisible antagonist is something that you are not only a part of but also helped create?

There was a moment in Gour Hari Das’ life when he stood in the cabin of an under-secretary in the Maharashtra government. He was by then already an old man and as he stood there, he was tired.

Das therefore asked, “Sir, can I sit?” The IAS officer gestured him towards a stool even though there was a chair on the other side. Das sat on the stool.

He then told him, “Is this your etiquette? A senior citizen comes to see you. Won’t you even offer a seat to him? Forget those outside in your office. Over there people come and go. But at least you can offer a seat [in the cabin].”

The under-secretary stood up, apologised and then himself brought the chair to Das. It is a telling anecdote for what it illustrates. That a man can be reduced to a file even if those who do such a reduction have the capacity for empathy if aroused. It is, however, a rare occasion.

Born in 1931, Das’ childhood was spent in Jharpipal, a village in Orissa. His father had come here from Ikidi, another village at the Bengal border. He worked for a zamindar and also had some land. When sparks of the freedom movement touched Jharpipal, his father was among the first to join and in his wake followed Das and his elder brother. He was barely in his teens and was part of what was then known as the Vanar Sena, a group which had children contributing to the struggle. One of his roles was to get messages across to leaders who were underground.

Freedom fighters in the village had started an ashram and undertook constructive social and political activities, making people aware and getting leaders from outside to speak. In 1945, when Das was in his 7th or 8th standard, a flag hoisting function was to be held in the village. The previous day, they gathered to make preparations, struck some posts and marked areas for who would stand where. Two constables came and demanded to know what was happening. When informed of the next day’s function, they said it was prohibited. “We said ‘We will do it’ and they said ‘We will have to arrest you. We said ‘We are doing our work, you do yours’,” recounts Das.

After the flag had been hoisted the next day, the police came and courteously told them that they had broken the law and took five or six of them, including Das, to the police station. The next morning, they were taken by train to a court in Balasore town. After a few hearings, they were sentenced to eight months rigorous imprisonment. “We had not told our homes yet and asked to be allowed to go and arrange our affairs. They said, ‘You will have to go straight to jail’,” he says.

After one month and 26 days, they were let out on bail. Their reputation had got a leg up. It impressed people that they had been imprisoned

Jail wasn’t much of an ordeal. In fact, Das says, as a 14-year-old he had a lot of fun there. “Political prisoners and criminals were separately kept. But the boys would get together and play,” he says. He participated in a small agitation. Prisoners were only allowed to clean their eating plates with brick powder so that they would look polished during inspection. “It was only being done in this jail. We told the jailer we wanted to wash it with water. He said, ‘Tumhara kanoon nahin chalega’ [your law won’t work]. We came back and started banging the plate with the katori and making noise. We also complained to the jail superintendent. Finally they agreed to let us wash with water,” he says.

After one month and 26 days, they were let out on bail and returned to Jharpipal. Their reputation had got a leg up. “People felt that we had been in jail and it was not a small thing. We started doing propaganda for the movement. Since the British were going to leave, we wanted to keep up the pressure and hasten it,” he says.

Once, a few of them went to West Bengal to take part in Mahatma Gandhi’s public meeting. Gandhi said while they got money from businessmen, he also wanted common people to contribute in whatever way they could. He asked the Vanar Sena boys to go across the crowd and present their topis for people to contribute. “Some gave one anna, 2 anna, 4 anna, ring, earring. When we went to Bapu to give the collections, the other boys were bigger and ahead of me. I went last. Bapu looked at me and put his hand on my head. After the meeting, as we were returning home, the other boys stared complaining that only I had been blessed and their coming has gone waste. My father and other elders explained that if I got his blessings, it meant all of them had got it,” says Das.

On August 15th, 1947, he was at a stream washing his clothes when he saw a procession with flags and slogans being shouted move through the village. Independence had come. Das joined them and in the evening they had a meeting to decide what what to do next for nation building. After Independence, Das took part as a volunteer in a conference in Uttar Pradesh called by the Akhil Bharat Charkha Sangh which would later go on to merge with the Sarva Seva Sangh. Das and other volunteers organised food, drink, bathing and toilet arrangements. After the conference, a leader of the organisation invited Das to work at Wardha, where the Sevaragam Ashram established by Gandhi was. “I said I would have to ask father. He gave the address. My mother was not ready to let me go and kept crying the whole night. I saw she was not going to be consoled. In the night, I took a small bag of cloth, a jug for water, a sleeping mattress and left,” he says.

He reached Wardha by train and began work at the ashram the very next day. “The main thing then was svavlamban , self-sufficiency. All of the ashram’s requirements needed to be made in the ashram itself. I was asked to work on the farm in one of the many groups of boys and girls,” he says. He also continued his studies there. Three months later, he was put into a training programme that involved four courses of nine months each in spinning, agriculture, dairy and education. Towards the end of it, Vinoba Bhave started his Bhoodan Movement in Telangana and Das joined him. “Vinoba Bhave took us all over India,from Bihar to Orissa to Andhra,” he says. After Das returned to Sevagram, he finished his training, specialising in spinning. While still there, he became associated with the Khadi and Village Industries Board.

“We were mandated with developing the spinning wheel to make it better. In Tamil Nadu someone had made a model that we were given to test, develop and make ready for the market. I was sent with the charkha model to Bombay to give a demonstration,” he says. The charkha was being tested in a textile technology laboratory. The person in charge of it asked Das to stay back and learn textile technology. “I stayed there for three months. For the final test of the charkha model, I was sent to an institute in Ahmedabad. The results were published and we decided to give this model in the market. I became well known in this field. I knew everything, from A to Z of the model. Wherever the charkha would go, I would have to go, train spinners and check for problems,” he says.

The Khadi and Village Industries, which later became the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, took him on as a full-time employee. Das shifted to Bombay and worked there till he retired in 1989.

THE TRIGGER FOR Das’ second struggle was his eldest son applying for admission to VJTI, one of the country’s leading engineering colleges. Das told him there was a freedom fighter’s quota. His son was reluctant but he said why not avail of the facility if it exists. But his son came back from the institute saying they were demanding evidence. Then Das himself went there and was told nothing could be done without a document. A government document called Tamrapatra recognises a freedom fighter and Das hadn’t applied for it.

His son subsequently got into an Indian Institute of Technology on merit, but it rankled Das that his son had been asked whether his father was actually a freedom fighter. He wrote his first letter to the Collector of Greater Bombay in 1976 asking for the Tamrapatra. And then waited. Without any reply, he wrote again. He went and met bureaucrats. The police came, verified his existence and jail certificates which he had. Then again there was silence. And Das wrote again. He met the bureaucrats again. And so, in a journey that took superhuman patience, he kept at it. “The Collector gave the green signal. But the middlemen blocked it,” he says.

Das would be told the file had gone to Mantralaya, the seat of the state government, and was directed there. He kept going. Once a man who had seen Das being shuttled around approached him. “He was like a broker. He said, ‘Kya dhakka khaate ho. Maine aapke baare mein suna hai. Main sab karke doonga’,” says Das. The catch was that whatever benefit he would get, the broker would take a percentage. Das refused.

It became Kafkaesque. His jail certificate clearly mentioned both the date that he had entered and left the jail. The number of days added up to one month and 26 days. According to the government formula, a freedom fighter would be recognised if he or she had been inside jail for a minimum one month. “Even after seeing this, they still said it was only 19 days. After many years, they accepted it. A letter came from the police asking to verify. One policeman came, talked to me and submitted his report. Then one more letter came asking to meet the police again,” he said.

Once he was told that his file couldn’t be located and then a clerk took pity on him and asked him to go to a department on the ninth floor of Mantralaya. “Till then my file had not been traced. Where it was lost was not known,” he says. He was also told that since he had participated in the movement in Orissa, he should try there. “I wrote to them that I won’t go to Orissa. When I was in the movement, there was no Orissa, only India,” he says.

Finally, a clerk from Mantralaya, responding to a query from a minister as to why the matter was pending for so long, called Das and asked whether he had complained. “I said, ‘Of course. If you do like this, won’t I complain? I will go even further.’ She wrote a letter that I had gone for 1 month, 26 days in jail. Meanwhile, a letter from Orissa government had also come that I wasn’t getting any benefit from there which meant that I was eligible here. Then I got it. A clerk’s letter was acceptable.I had spent decades on this and they didn’t believe me,” he says. In his home, Das has six files that has correspondence going back to 1976. It was in 2008 that he finally received his Tamrapatra.

In 2011, the filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan read about Das in a newspaper article and his story moved him. He felt it could be a movie. “It was a human drama, a man against the system in a country that he had helped free,” he says. What struck Mahadevan about Das was the total absence of negativity in his long struggle. “It is extraordinary that he went through this without anger or hatred,” he says.

The movie Gour Hari Dastaan was well- received at film festivals but didn’t do as well commercially because of the manner in which the film industry’s distribution network is structured, Mahadevan says. A plea by him to get a multiplex chain to reduce its ticket prices went unheeded. Some critics called the movie slow. But despite all that, even now, three years later, Mahadevan receives messages of appreciation by those who see the movie. “I am not disappointed. These are timeless stories that will go on forever,” he says.

When Mahadevan was in the process of making the movie, he told Das to pen down whatever came to his mind about his life and it ended up as a book of sorts. Das often gets invited to speak in schools and he uses those notes. His message for the younger generation during such talks is to get out of an obsession with their own well-being. “I tell them, ‘You only think of yourself. You ignore even your parents, forget society. First, serve parents, then home, then society. Don’t forget society. You are there because society is there. If society is good, good will happen to you. If there is vileness in it, you will also have to suffer it.’” It is a somewhat ironical message from a man who didn’t get nearly as much from society as what he gave it.

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