“If it weren’t for Batak Mian, India’s history would have been different…,” reads a letter written by actor Farooq Sheikh to his family in 1996.
Sheikh was acknowledging the nation’s debt to an unsung hero.
Everyone remembers Nathu Ram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi. But people know little of the cook who saved the Mahatma’s life. A resident of Motihari district in Bihar, Batak Mian saved Gandhi from being poisoned in 1917.
It happened when Gandhi, relatively unknown then, visited Motihari — then the headquarters of Champaran district, 160 km northwest of Patna — to probe the appaling condition of indigo planters. The Champaran agitation was his first in India.
According to the book Champaran ke Swatantatra Senani (Freedom Fighters of Champaran), Erwin (only one name is available), a British manager of an indigo plantation, invited Gandhi to dinner and told his cook, Batak Mian, to serve him poisoned milk. Batak Mian took the glass to Gandhi but revealed the plot. Dr Rajendra Prasad, later India’s first president, was a witness.
Batak Mian’s patriotism cost him. “The manager tortured, jailed our grandfather, turned our house into a crematorium and drove us out of the village,” said Aslam Ansari (45), Batak Mian’s grandson.
On a visit to Motihari in 1950, Prasad ordered that Batak Mian’s family be allotted 24 acres of land. “For years, he ran pillar to post in the hope of getting the land,” said Allauddin Ansari (55), another grandson.
Batak Mian died in 1957. Six decades later, his grandchildren live in penury. “We are hoping against hope,” said Zahid Ansari, another of his grandsons, unbundling files carrying documents of their communication with government agencies.