Waiting For The Mahatma
He is not exactly the typecast kind of a freedom fighter, though like many of his ilk he remains virtually unsung and lost in wilderness. Meet Raojibhai Rathor, the 92-years-old nonagenarian of Khariar Road, in Nuapada, Odisha. He sits in his small office on the main road of this one horse town, watching the world go by. Very few of the locals are aware of the patriotic fervor that still burns in the heart of this Gandhian.
Raojibhai had first met the Mahatma when he was only thirteen years old. His childhood was spent in Khariar, where his father was employed by the Raja for building and civil works. With a twinkle in his eyes, Raojibhai recollects the memory about his childhood friend Anup Singh Deo, who later ascended the throne. They used to play cricket and football in the palace grounds, but the young prince was sent away to the Rajkumar College at Raipur for proper grooming. Raoji too went to Raipur, but he studied in the High School there and used to meet his friend quite often.
Raoji clearly remembers his first meeting with the Mahatma. Gandhiji had come to Raipur from November 22 to 28 in 1933 and was staying at the house of Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla in Budhapara. On November 26, the young Raoji went there and timidly made his way forward. There was a big crowd of people and many of them were giving money for the cause of the freedom struggle. Raoji too held out his quarter anna, which he had saved from his meager amount he got. Gandhiji beckoned the young lad to come forward and took the coin from his outstretched hand. The smiling Mahatma then returned the coin to him, asking him to keep it.
Raoji still has the coin that he had got back from Gandhiji. He got it out for me; it was his most prized possession. Since that day, the young boy was drawn into the freedom struggle. He followed Gandhiji’s movement by reading all the news that was published. He adopted Khadi and boycotted all foreign goods. Over a period of time, he emerged as an active follower of Gandhi and a proponent of Gandhian thought and philosophy.
After five years, he convinced his parents that his future lay in the cause of the country and he went to Gandhiji’s Ashram at Wardha. He spent a few days there, but conditions at home forced him to return. Raoji and his friend Maharaja Anup Deo parted ways, the ruler had joined the cause of the British in the war efforts, and the ideals of both clashed on many spheres. The family moved out of Raj Khariar and relocated in Khariar Road, which had now become a commercial hub because of the railways.
From 1938 to 1942, Raoji gave up the Gandhian principles and was active in underground freedom activities. “Though I vandalised government property and took part in violent political activities, I could always escape the prison walls,” he says with a tinge of sadness and pang. He was immensely inspired by the overflowing patriotic zeal and revolutionary fervour of national leaders.
On December 22, 1942, Raojibhai, along with his friend Jadu Rawat climbed up the roof of the newly set up Civil Court at Nawapara and removed the Union Jack, replacing it with the Congress tricolor. A big crowd gathered, and they were asked to come down by the policemen. However they remained atop the roof; shouting slogans of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Inquilab Zindabad and Mahatama Gandhi Zindabad.
Vividily recalling the incident, Raoji says that he along with his friends had walked the ten kilometers from Khariar Road to the Court Complex at Nawapara. The Quit India call given by Gandhiji had enthused them, and the dozen frenzied sons of the motherland decided to do their bit. After Gandhiji’s call, a strong wave of freedom struggle swept devastingly through the country. “How could we remain unaffected, even though we were too young,” quipped Raojibhai.
The British officer posted there was summoned from the nearby Coronation Hall. He arrived and asked the policemen to open fire. There were only three sepoys deployed at the court and they had no guns. They were ordered up the roof, but Raoiji and Jadu managed to push them back after each attempt, the crowds below cheered. The officer summoned more force from the Police Lines, and soon armed sepoys arrived. The angry officer asked them to open fire, but the sympathetic policemen only fired in the air. At the insistence of the crowd, both the young men jumped down from the rear of the building and ran towards the fields with the police in hot pursuit.
Raoiji told me that they remained hidden in the fields till sunset, and even when one of the policeman chanced upon them, he did not give them away. They returned to Khariar Road the next morning, but their audacity and outrageous act drew the attention of the authorities, and they had to remain in hiding for weeks.
Now, in the twilight of his life, Raojibhai has not lost his love for the country, and continues as a social activist and lends unequivocal support for the rightful public cause.
After Independence, he was not granted the freedom fighter’s pension as he was never jailed. But he has no qualms against anyone. “I never tried for it,” he says, however he helped many of the freedom fighters get their due. “I was doing very well in my business, the pension was not required,” he says.
“So what does independence mean to you”? I asked him.
“India has got Independence but people have failed to understand the real meaning of ‘azadi’. This is not the India we fought for. For us, it meant an opportunity to work selflessly for the nation and serve its people. But where is that seen today? Today no one can get their work done without bribery.”
Reminiscing about those days of the freedom struggle, he says: “A lot of sacrifices have gone into the gaining of our country’s Independence and this must be always remembered. Citizen’s love for the country and patriotism have declined. In our time, we had the pictures of freedom fighters in our rooms, now you only find posters of film stars and cricketers.”
He is a great admirer of Anna Hazare, and when the protest was on at Ramlila Grounds, he wanted to go and sit in a dharna at the Collectorate. However, his family dissuaded him because of his health, and he regrets that he could not participate in the movement.
It is time to acknowledge and honour the countless unsung heroes of the Indian freedom movement. Thousands gave their lives for the nation’s Independence but unfortunately only a few get talked about.
For the present generation, freedom struggle is but a glorious chapter in the annals of the nation’s history. In this 65th year of our Independence we are fortunate to have, amidst us, a few individuals who made the dream of a free India come true. This is an opportune moment to recreate the past and learn from the experience of these living legends. The air of freedom, which we breathe today, blows out of the supreme sacrifices of those unsung heroes and heroines who never sought fame or prosperity for themselves.
I had gone looking for the Court House where Raoji had raised the flag, but could not find it. It was only after making enquiries that I could locate the building. The flagpole was still in place. The signage on the building had been painted over, however I could read the inscribed words “Court Building—Nawapara—1942” which had been whitewashed over and over again. However, like Raojibahi’s memories, the words had not been erased till date. No one around knew of the significance of the building. I have written to the Collector of the District to ensure that the sign is restored, and to put up a board which tells of the significance of the small building.
By Anil Dhir from Nuapada