PAYING respect to a freedom fighter is one of the most sacred public relations exercises when it comes to the government of India. The list of Indian nationalist freedom fighters, as compiled by the government of India, is an ever-expanding pantheon. But very often, in such freedom fighter list expansion, when ‘forgotten heroes’ do not exist, it is necessary to manufacture them. This was exposed when the government of India decided to include the legendary Mizo hero Pasaltha Khuangchera as one of the ‘freedom fighters’ from the north-east who were to be honoured posthumously in a public ceremony in Ailawng village, to be attended by union minister of state for railways Rajen Gohain. This was part of NDA government’s idea to have union government ministers visit sites associated with ‘forgotten heroes’ of the Indian nationalist freedom struggle. The Mizos were not amused and they protested at this immediately by assembling in their thousands and blocking the two roads leading to Ailawng till Gohain cancelled the public ‘honour’ expedition. The ‘forgotten hero’ yatra scheme was botched precisely because Khuangchera is far from forgotten and the Mizos remember exactly who he was and who he was not.
The facts are plain and simple. Khuangchera was no ‘Indian’ freedom fighter. There is no evidence that he had any fraternal feelings towards ‘mainland’ brown people or wanted the Zo country to be ruled a New Delhi-based brown administration. The two biggest students organisations of Mizoram, MSU and MZO, composed of people who have known Khuangchera for ever as opposed to the ‘mainland’ which wants to own him, jointly issued a statement that stated what every Mizo knows — ‘Khuangchera did not die for India but for the Mizo people. Pasaltha Khuangchera and all other warriors that fought the British were not Indians and they did not fight for India’s freedom. They were the defenders of the Zo country from the invading and occupying force and, therefore, should not be counted among the freedom fighters for Indian independence. During that time, Khuangchera or any Mizo did not know anything about India, let alone fight for its freedom. Our respected hero is being wrongly portrayed. Khuangchera fought against British expansion and occupation of Zo country, not for the freedom of India’. By ‘all other warriors’, the statement refers to the comrades of Khuangchera, who valiantly defended their Mizo or Zo country against three advancing British forces during the Chin-Lushai expedition of 1889–90. White people commandeered the British forces and the rank and file largely composed of an assorted set of brown people from the subcontinent, who are today known as Indians. One of the stated goals of this expedition was to extract the ‘recognition of British power’ from the Mizo people whose sovereign homeland the British were invading. The Zo country, which was formally incorporated into the British empire in 1895, was part of the greater Zomi homeland, which now lies arbitrarily divided between the Indian Union and Myanmar, due to administrative whims of the British — a phenomenon that has happened in areas occupied by European colonial forces. The Naga country was another such example that was randomly divided in 1937 between India and Burma, two pre-1947 administrative units of the British empire.
Before the advent of the British, the Mizo people and their country were not ruled from Delhi or Calcutta. Khuangchera and his comrades were, indeed, freedom fighters, but fighting against losing their freedom to a political entity that would eventually rule them from Calcutta till 1911 and, thereafter, from Delhi. On August 15, 1947, the British transfer of power to natives whose capital was at Delhi also meant that the power to rule all lands and peoples whose sovereignty had been destroyed by the British also passed on to the new rulers at Delhi. Having lost their independence to an external entity as recently as 1890, the memories of the erstwhile sovereign Mizo people were probably fresh as they revolted repeatedly even after 1947. The extent of the insurgency can be fathomed by the fact that the Indian Air Force repeatedly air-bombed Aizawl and other parts of the present state of Mizoram in 1966. In short, the Indian Air Force conducted aerial bombardment of human beings that it considered to be its own citizens. In those times, that was not an unheard event among other new native rulers to whom British had transferred power in 1947 as the rulers of Islamabad aerially bombed its ‘own’ citizens of Balochistan in 1973. Khuangchera was among the earliest martyrs against outside invaders of the Zo country. He was not the last.
This is not the only case where tags such as ‘Indian freedom fighter’, dutifully handed down and drilled into Indian citizens by official textbooks, ‘mainstream’ narratives and repeated ad nauseum, fail to capture the complex realities of the past. This is especially the case when fraudulent claims of Indian official history are at odds with the living memory of people and unofficial public knowledge. U Tirot Singh, another ‘forgotten hero’, was much in the mould of Khuangchera, fighting not for Indian nationalism but to protect the sovereignty of the Khasi country from colonizers during the Anglo-Khasi war, not some Anglo-Indian war. Much to the government of India’s displeasure, many peoples have steadfastly held on to facts and memories that have been deliberately twisted, suppressed and airbrushed out of the official Indian version of history that exists to justify the present territorial limits of the Indian Union, among other reasons.
A living freedom fighter who was honoured by the government of India on August 22 was Darthawma, a Mizo member of Subhash Bose’s Indian National Army. While he passes the test of being connected to a pan-subcontinental liberation vision, the INA itself provides a curious case study. Various reports surfaced earlier in August about Shripatji of Jhansi, an INA veteran who now a street beggar. Contrast this with the one-rank pne-pay protests by Indian army veterans, who all get five figure pensions. Why does an INA veteran not get the same pension as an IA veteran? Notwithstanding their freedom fight, the INA is not considered a legitimate army by the government of India, white or brown. What is ironical is that when the INA was fighting for India’s freedom, the pre-1947 predecessor of Indian army was actually fighting for the British against the INA’s Indian freedom fighters. After August 15, 1947, those who were fighting loyally for the British and against the Indian freedom fighters of the INA became government of India’s official army, rank and pension protected. To this day, Indian army cherishes the memory of the exploits of its regiments, in assisting British colonial invasion and suppression of native peoples and their free countries in the subcontinent and beyond.
Uprisings such as that of the Chuars, the Santhals, the Kols, the Mundas, the Palaiyakkarars (Polygars) were as much for freedom from British as they were for freedom from other Indian natives, many of whom constitute the present Indian ruling class. Official history textbooks want to expand the idea of the Indian nationalist movement as far backward in time and stretch it as much in geographical space to suit present political needs. In light of such India-washing of all anti-British freedom fights, one may re-examine the meaning of that famous war cry raised by Jhansi’s Laxmi Bai Jhansi — ‘Mazi Zashi mi denar nahi’, deliberately Hindified as ‘Main meri Jhansi nahin dungi’, meaning ‘I will not give up my Jhansi’. I have a feeling that Jhansi’s Laxmi Bai probably had not read Sunil Khilnani’s book The Idea of India.
Garga Chatterjee is a brain scientist at MIT. He writes columns from Kolkata for newspapers in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.