In the India we live in, all sorts of people are proclaiming their undying attachment to the motherland. Claims of rashtravad (nationalism), deshbhakti (patriotism), etc, are made loudly on social media, television, and, especially, at election rallies. The swiftest way to conclude — if not win — an argument is for one to insist that one loves Bharat Mata more, or more fully, than the person one is having the argument with.
I have spent much of my professional life writing about the men and women who built this country, men and women who never thought it fit or seemly to wear their deshbhakti on their sleeve. It was their deeds, not their words, that told us how deeply Indian they were. It has been a privilege to have researched the lives of — among others — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and MA Ansari, and to learn of how they made this hierarchical and divided land into a democratic Republic
This column is also about my encounters with patriots, albeit those whom I met in the flesh rather than in the archives. This was in the early 1980s, when I was doing research in the Garhwal Himalaya on the origins of the Chipko Andolan. I did a bout of fieldwork in the Badyar valley, which had seen a major Chipko protest against the depredations of commercial forestry. I spoke to men and women who had taken part in this agitation, and wrote about what they did and said in my dissertation (which became my first book).
What I left out from my published work on Chipko, however, were two meetings with elderly Garhwalis. The first was with a former soldier named BS Pundir, who had won a Vir Chakra in the India-Pakistan war of 1947-48. We walked together from one village to another to attend a wedding. He limped as a consequence of his battle injuries, but I found it hard to keep up with him on those hill paths, even though he was 30 years older than me. His injury notwithstanding, Pundirji was entirely erect in body and soul, and I could see how much respect he commanded among his fellows, for what he had once done to safeguard his country’s security, and for returning to live with them after retirement. I tried to get the Vir Chakra awardee to talk about his heroic past, but he shrugged off the questions and got me to talk about my own research instead.
The other encounter was perhaps even more moving. One morning, I was directed to the house of an old swatantra sainani, or freedom fighter, named Sher Singh Mewar. He was small and emaciated, his body racked by the continual coughing of a chronic asthmatic. This precluded him from talking at length, but he asked me to come back before I left for the plains. When I returned two days later, he handed over a handwritten manuscript entitled, ‘Tehri Garhwal ka Krantikari Itihas: The Revolutionary History of the State of Tehri Garhwal’.
This was an extraordinary document, 40 pages long, and suffused by a spirit of patriotism that age could not wither nor ill-health crush. An outsider’s visit had sparked memories of a time when history happened; and he, Sher Singh Mewar, had helped make it happen. For he had been part of the great peasant upsurge of 1946-47 whereby the princely state of Tehri Garhwal became part of the Union of India. Beginning as a movement over land rights, this became a wide-ranging campaign against the Maharaja’s rule itself. Its climax came with the capture of the capital of Tehri, and the proclamation of an azad panchayat, or autonomous council, there. The Maharaja, while driving back to his palace, was blocked at a bridge across the river Bhageerathi. Us taraf raja, is taraf praja, to use the words of Sher Singh Mewar. On one side of the river was the monarch; on the other side his masses and no longer loyal subjects. Seeing the writing on the wall, the King immediately signed up with the Indian Union.
The manuscript that Sher Singh Mewar handed over to me was a foot soldier’s account of this non-violent transition from autocracy to democracy. Sher Singh had written here of the peasant upsurge and its leaders, of the help and encouragement they got from outside Tehri Garhwal, of the Maharaja’s confusions and capitulations. Notably, he downplayed his own role. Sher Singh had, in his account, merely carried messages from one leader to another, from one valley to the next.
The soldier who kept out the invaders and the satyagrahi who helped bring down the King both wore their deshbhakti very lightly. Theirs was a quiet, understated patriotism, not a loud or hectoring one. They commanded an abiding respect among those who knew (or knew of) them; but without asking for (still less demanding) it.
In the early 1980s, when I met them, it was 35 years since BS Pundir and Sher Singh Mewar had each expressed, in deeds rather than words, their patriotism. It is now 35 later, yet memories of those meetings are still vivid in my mind. I can see Pundirji walk with his cane along a narrow mountain path, answering my questions with dignity and restraint, and see Sher Singh emerge coughing from his hut, the manuscript in his hands for me to take back. It was a privilege to have met those two patriots back then, and an obligation to write about them now, when the Tiranga (Tricolour) has been so rudely appropriated by men who know so little and care even less about what it took to make and defend our Republic.