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Unsung Heroes of India

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Categories: India’s History & Culture: Creating a nation, Published: 5th Feb, 2022

History is about facts, narratives, story-telling, inferring causality and drawing correlations, but never devoid of the “perspective” from which events have been put into words intended to connect our past with our present. Whenever a historian attempts to achieve the same, it struggles to bring justice to many unsung heroes from the past. Heroes” can be considered as a “gender-neutral” noun while discussing the unsaid contributions made by numerous personalities from the past.

It takes a while when people become aware and assertive enough to peek into the annals of history to explore unsung stories and scrutinise mainstream narratives. This year we are entering into 75th year of our independence and it is long enough to add a new perspective to the manner how we know our past and bring the unsung heroes to light.

Who are those Heroes?

  • The moment this question arises, there emerges a pool contributor from thousands of unsung heroes across India, including those from the farmers, labourers, students, teachers, poets, Dalits, tribals and sometimes affluents too, with a special mention of women.
  • From Northern and North-eastern mountains to its Coastal Plains, from Thar deserts to Indo-Gangetic alluvial plains, one can find folk songs, shrines, folklore in praise of these heroes which has kept them alive in memories, who are waiting for their turn to break into mainstream history, after being overlooked for centuries.

Reasons for Unsung Heroes going Unnoticed:

  • Narratives about individuals have largely glorified the Indian freedom movement and the historiography is inundated with life and times of great leaders. This kind of history writing privileges a few as the shaper of history and portrays a handful of personalities as representative of larger nationalistic aspirations.
  • This approach undermines the aspirations and struggles of dispersed masses who were, equally contributing to the common cause of gaining independence but with different ideas or aspirations than the one that endorsed the homogenous idea of independence that was constructed.
  • During the 1970s, the “Subaltern School of History” in the Indian context came into existence. They have attempted to rewrite the history of freedom struggle through the lens of marginalised and tried to bring out smaller stories, regional struggles to mainstream narratives.

Subalternity: It emerges in relation to subordinate social groups and individuals whose historical activity is repressed, neglected, misinterpreted or ‘at the margins’ of hegemonic histories, discourses and social formations. In particular, subalternity represents the common theme circulating among interconnected intellectual endeavours that have offered different interpretations of the same issue.

The term subaltern designates and identifies the colonial populations who are socially, politically and geographically excluded from the hierarchy of power of an imperial colony and the metropolitan homeland of an empire.

  • During the 1980s, a subaltern studies project was developed, aiming to rewrite Indian history between colonialism and decolonisation from the perspective of rural subaltern masses. It criticises elitist approaches to the history of India because it has downplayed the role that subaltern groups had played in the context of India freedom struggle and the construction of the Indian nation.

Role of Marginalised Communities in Freedom Movement:

  • They get mentioned from the 1857 uprising, which is synonymous with the “First War of Independence” who were from the Balmiki Community (they have historically faced exclusion and oppression in society, and are frequently affected by anti-scheduled caste violence and repression by members of other castes).
  • To name a few, Banke Beer(Jatav), Matadin Bhangi and many of these Dalit icons were women which including Jhalkari Bai from koree community, was not only a member of the women’s army organised by Rani Lakshmi Bai but was a chief strategist and her close ally. As she closely resembled the queen, she helped the queen of Jhansi to escape with her son and foxed the British soldiers by pretending to be queen. Uda Devi is another such personality from the 1857 revolt, from the women’s battalion of Begum Hazrat Mahal, queen of then Avadh who gave a valiant fight against the British soldiers in the battle of Sikandar Bagh.
  • During the various stages of the Gandhian movement, such as the Khilafat Movement (1919), Non-Cooperation Movement (1920), Civil Disobedience Movement (1930), we can take notice of many Dalit icons like Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Palwankar Baloo of Maharashtra, Babu Masuria Deen of Uttar Pradesh, Karu Paswan, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Sukhari Paswan, Nandan Paswan and Yashoda Devi. These are heroes of the national movement but are on the periphery of freedom struggle and must be moved to the centre, only then we can become a more inclusive democracy.

Role of Students in Freedom Movement:

  • Student participation can be traced back to 1903, with the establishment of the Abhinav Bharat Society, which is also known as ‘Young India’. The main aim behind the establishment of this society was to initiate a platform for student to raise their voice against the corrupt British Indian government. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who was the founder of ‘Young India’ drew the idea of Abhinav Bharat Society from Garibaldi's 'Young Italy', which was an organization established to fight against the corrupt government in Italy and their main aim was to unification of Italy.

During Swadeshi Movement:

  • The Swadeshi movement was to avoid British Raj in all aspects of society whether it is in education or administration or trade or politics. This ideology attracted thousands of young generation people from all over India. Students came out in huge numbers for the first time in the Indian freedom struggle. Another important issue of the Swadeshi Movement was National Education.
  • Manjappa was a prominent educationist and a national leader who criticised national leaders whenever the occasion demanded. But he was not just a critic of national leaders, he also tried to implement those views of these leaders which appealed to him. For instance, he was very much influenced by the Swadeshi movement of Tilak, particularly his four-fold program: Swadeshi, boycott, Swaraj and National Education. That is why he exhorted his people to implement the ideas of Tilak over his as he liked Tilak's views on national education. That is why Manjappa said, “education which is not conducive to self-reliance and comfortable living among the people, does not deserve to be called by that name. He believed that we should not remain content with the existing system of education which makes us fit only for subordination and servitude. Therefore, he laid stress upon technical and religious education. By technical education, he meant that education should provide a sense of self-security.
  • Closely analysing his idea about education blows one’s mind, that how ahead was he from his time. Presently, we talk about the India-centric education system, decolonised education that can help us to foster entrepreneurship among youth, with digital advancement India is becoming a centre of evolution and New Education Policy 2020 makes a mention of the National Educational Technology Forum (NETF), to encourage the free exchange of ideas on the use of technology. It’s important to have a broader outlook while imparting education, but at the same time, it is equally important to have an India-centric education policy, which can reflect the history and spiritual diversity of India.

During Civil Disobedience:

  • It had a special appeal to the students of schools and colleges. Soon after the summer vacation of 1930, the educational institutions became the strongholds of youth agitation. The King Edward Memorial College at Amravati was closed indefinitely. The students in the hostel were asked to sign a pledge that they would not participate in the movement. They refused to do so. At Hoshangabad, students of the Government High School hoisted the national flag on the school building. Even in the second phase of the Civil Disobedience Movement students, young boys took an active part in it. In Raipur, Balbhadra Azad formed the Vanar Sena. The young members proudly called themselves soldiers. They led Prabhat Pheris and took out processions. They also worked as messengers, distributed literature and pasted posters on walls.
  • For the first time in India in 1936, the All-India Students Federation was established under the guidance Indian National Congress. A huge number of students from each corner of the nation showed the growth of student’s activities in the country and the success of the Indian National Congress in the objective of bringing students into the freedom struggle. It was a milestone for Indian National Congress (INC) to gain such huge support from students. This helped Indian National Congress a lot to carry on their freedom struggle and demonstration against the British in various ways.

During Quit India Movement:

  • In 1942, in the Bombay session of INC, Gandhi gave the clarion call of ‘Do or Die’ in the backdrop of the ‘Quit India Movement’ and attracted a huge number of students from different parts of the country. Irrespective of any organization in this movement students directly joined the movement and supported Gandhi. Schools and Colleges were closed and students organized mass demonstrations with patriotic zeal. As a result of these activities, numerous students suffered massively in terms of loss in their educational careers. The zeal and enthusiasm shown by the students and the industrial workers were unparallel in the chronicles of our country.
  • It is important to mention the remarkable role of students in Assam during the Quit India movement. Golok Saikia, a fifteen-year student of Sootea High school hoisted the Congress flag in the compound of Sootea police station at 5 A.M. despite the presence of armed police. It is worth mentioning that a group of students and youths also participated in the Quit-India movement following the path of violence and revolution were known as ‘Agusteers’. Students played a very effective and vital role in the overall freedom struggle of India and without their contribution it would very difficult to get independence from the British.

Role of Women in Freedom Movement:

  • We rarely talk about the women leading the march during the freedom struggle. These legendary women and their roles must be brought to focus. The women had led the charge and lit the flame of protest and rebellion throughout the country. They have dedicated and even laid down their lives for the cause of the motherland. If we go through Indian history, we find that the Indian culture was the one that celebrated women and there was no place for gender discrimination. This is evident from the fact that women had the courage and physical strength to fight like soldiers on the battlefield. Personalities like Gulab Kaur, who had abandoned her dreams of living abroad to mobilise Indians against the British Raj, Padmaja Naidu, the daughter of Sarojini Naidu and a freedom fighter in her own right, who later became Governor of West Bengal.
  • We as a nation are still striving to at par treatment and equal access to opportunity in every sphere of life. The Supreme court in its recent judgement has paved the path for women into National Defence Academy (NDA). Armed forces which are primarily a male-dominated establishment had limited scope for women in occupational and bureaucratic structures. But such rulings, in a way, contemplates and acknowledges the combative spirit that women had has shown during the freedom movement and even before that.

Role of Tribal communities in Freedom Struggle:

  • The fight against the British-imposed system by the Paharia, Chuar, Kol, Bhil, Ho, Munda, Santhal, Khond, Koya, Koli, Ramosi, Kuki, Khasi, Singpho, among other movements was led by people from the tribal community with indomitable spirit, who encouraged the masses to revolt.
  • The Mangarh hill massacre, which is sometimes also known as the “Jallianwala Bagh massacre of the Vagad region” was led by Bhil social reformer and spiritual leader, Govind Guru. He united the community, spread awareness about their identity, established schools, and addressed the spiritual hunger of the masses. He initiated the Bhagat Sampradaya (sect) in 1908 to socially and morally uplift the Bhil community. On November 17, 1913, on the hillock at Mangarh, a congregation was called by Govind Guru. British forces surrounded the gathering from three sides and fired indiscriminately. The sacrifice of the Bhils became a beacon of strength for others, inspiring them to achieve freedom.
  • We have been unfair in recognising the role of tribal people in every sphere of the freedom movement. They had given mighty blows to the British and had challenged the legitimacy of action that led to the destruction of natural resources, which directly affected the economic and social framework of tribal communities.

There is much to learn from tribal communities and bring those learning to reality:

  • Preserving indigenous art
  • Preserving culture, environment and forests
  • They have a better sex ratio (990) than the national average (940)
  • Relatively less dowry in the tribal community
  • Sense of togetherness ensures that the girl child is welcomed
  • In the present scenario when our prime minister has committed, that India will achieve net-zero emission by 2070, it is worth appreciating the integrity of the Tribal Community in preserving the environment.
  • India has been glorified by the luminaries like Marry Kom, Bhaichung Bhutia, Deepika Kumari and Lalremsiami from the sports fraternity. The decision of celebrating the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Divas’ is a significant milestone in recognising the contribution of the tribal fraternity. Though there are laid down provisions for the upliftment of tribal society in the fifth and sixth schedules a lot is need to be done.

Role of Poets in Freedom Movement:

  • Most poets are unsung heroes of the freedom struggle as they work behind the scenes inspiring people through their writings. Remarkable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore (penned “Jana Gana Mana”), Shyamlal Gupta (penned Jhanda Uncha Rahe Humara), Hasrat Mohani (penned slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”), Mahadevi Verma, Sarojini Naidu, and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar needs to be celebrated for their behind scene work that inspired many.

Their contribution can be summarised briefly as follows:

  • Evoking emotions: It helped to increase the sensitivity of elites and others towards the suffering of the common man.
  • Raising nationalist sentiments: Their writings portraying atrocities of British soldiers created a nationalist discourse.
  • Spread of Patriotic feelings:  It highlighted the patriotic acts and sacrifices through words. A National song, Bande Mataram, was first published as a poem in this novel as the rallying cry of the characters who used it to give themselves the courage and to urge people to fight against the British.
  • Spreading awareness: It provoked and encouraged Indians to fight for the country.
  • Overcoming linguistic barriers: As the writing was in local languages, it helped people to overcome linguistic differences across the country and take part in India’s freedom struggle.
  • It must be noted that poets across India used different languages to convey the idea of freedom. The use of languages like Urdu, Bangla, Hindi, Assamese, Punjabi and English dominated the writings that instilled patriotism and amplified freedom struggle throughout. It highlights how vivid ideas in different languages engaged and influenced the masses from different geographies, caste, cultures and helped them to play a pivotal role in the Indian freedom movement. It is still relevant how the usage of different languages exemplifies the coexistence of peaceful linguistic diversity in our country and has helped in maintaining harmony among its subjects.


History is the “narrative of what happened’’, but it is not fixed, it continuously evolves. Many times, we do not realise how a leader impacts the masses or how the masses inspired their journeys. These unsung heroes from the past are like treasures that have not been given enough attention. We are a country of diversity but that should not be seen as synonymous with the difference. Our history is not just a picture showcasing time, that has passed. It’s a living entity that is still evolving and spreading spiritual oneness. Acknowledging the unsung heroes will result in an informed and inspired new generation which will go a long way in helping them to appreciate the contribution made by them towards freedom struggle in a better way.

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