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India@69: Families of freedom fighters struggle to keep their legacy alive

68 years on, Hindustan Times catches up with descendants of 15 freedom fighters from the region to share their cause and concerns. Some are doing their bit to keep legacy alive, while a few have chosen a life in oblivion and others struggle with apathy

chandigarh Updated: Aug 15, 2015 17:21 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times
BABU KANSHI RAM,Bhagat Singh,Rajguru
Ashok Thapar (left) , president of All India Sheheed, Sukhdev Thapar Memorial Trust said that Sukhdev fought the British and laid down his life, his contributions being no less than any other freedom fighter. (HT Photo)

68 years on, Hindustan Times catches up with descendants of 15 freedom fighters from the region to share their cause and concerns. Some are doing their bit to keep legacy alive, while a few have chosen a life in oblivion and others struggle with apathy.


KAPURTHALA: Like many others, he too laid down his life for the nation. But the kin of freedom fighter and poet Dr Diwan Singh Kalepani, unlike descendants of several other martyrs, do not pine for any recognition for themselves from the governments. The family seems to be doing all it can to keep his legacy alive, instead.

The family set up a trust, Dr Diwan Singh Kalepani Memorial Trust, in 1998 to spread the vision and ideas of the martyr who was killed by the Japanese in the Cellular Jail at Port Blair.
Kalepani’s grandson Dr GS Dhillon (in pic, extreme right), who runs a public school in Dalhousie, had inaugurated a park in memory of the freedom fighter in the native town of Sultanpur Lodhi on April 10 this year.
In 2013, the family had set up a museum in Siswan village of SAS Nagar. “We organise a seminar there in January every year and invite writers so that coming generations remember his supreme sacrifice,” says Dr Dhillon, who is general secretary of the trust.


He was a Punjabi poet who participated in the freedom struggle. His poetry, including a collection titled Vagde Pani (Running Waters), was critical of the British Raj. In 1943, the Japanese captured the Andaman Islands and asked him to make a speech against the British on radio, but he refused. He was arrested and tortured to death.


LUDHIANA: Whenever anyone talks about patriotism, Bhagat Singh’s name figures right on top. His courage is legendary and his name has become synonymous with sacrifice. But his kin feel the state does not seem keen to recognise relatives of freedom fighters who lived not for themselves but for the country and its people.

Abhay Singh Sandhu (59) (in pic), the son of Bhagat Singh’s younger brother Kulbir Singh, says: “I may not be part of politics anymore, but I must say that relatives of freedom fighters are remembered only during national days such as August 15 or January 26. They are invited to functions but it’s more of a formality.”

Sandhu, settled in Chandigarh since 1997, runs an NGO, the Kulbir Singh Memorial Foundation, which is working to popularise thoughts of freedom fighters among the youth through its publications and events held in different parts of Punjab. He was active in politics from 2010 till 2014, first in the People’s Party of Punjab and then the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

His son Abhitej, who did his schooling from The Lawrence School,
Sanawar, is active in the AAP these days.

BHAGAT SINGH (1907-1931)

Known as Shaheed-e-Azam, he was a revolutionary freedom fighter. He jumped into the struggle for freedom at a young age. To avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, he and his associates planned to kill superintendent of police James Scott. However, in a case of mistaken identity, ASP John Saunders was killed. Later, Batukeshwar Dutt and he threw bombs in the Central Assembly Hall and shouted “Inquilab Zindabad”. He was hanged on March 23, 1931.


LUDHIANA: A revolutionary, Sukhdev was among the three young freedom fighters hanged on March 23, 1931, for killing British police officer John Saunders. Bhagat Singh and Rajguru were the other two. While Bhagat Singh emerged as one of India’s most admired heroes, Sukhdev is remembered occasionally. His kin feel he is lost in the pages of history. There are 10 families belonging to his lineage still at Naughara Mohalla here.

They have formed a trust in Sukhdev’s name to keep his memory alive. His house was in a dilapidated condition till last year when the Punjab and Haryana high court directed the state government renovate it.

Ashok Thapar (in pic, left), president of All India Shaheed Sukhdev Thapar Memorial Trust, said that Sukhdev fought the British and laid down his life and his contribution was no less than any other freedom fighter, but people rarely visited his home. The government functionaries, according to him, were also responsible this neglect.

SUKHDEV (1907-1931)

He was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and organised revolutionary cells in Punjab, propagating the idea of free India among the youth. He and his associates were charged with the murder of British police officer John Saunders and hanged on March 23 after a controversial trial.


DHARAMSALA: Aruna Thapa (in pic) was three when her father, Captain Dal Bahadur Thapa, died fighting the British in 1945.
A life of hardships followed as her mother, Champavati, had to fend for the two children. When the country got independence two years later, the family was in dire straits, but no help came till the early ’70s when her father’s sacrifice was finally recognised.

“We did not care for it then as my mother raised us all by herself. She took up the job of teaching Nepalese women at Dharamsala cantonment. We studied with the little money she earned,” Aruna, a retired teacher, told Hindustan Times.
Rohit Thapa, the grandson of Capt Dal Bahadur, said he also did not avail the quota for freedom fighters’ wards or any benefit.

“We don’t expect much from the government, but do get an invitation for Independence Day or Republic Day functions sometimes,” he said.

However, the Gorkha community remembers and reveres the freedom fighter with enthusiasm. An all-India football tournament is held on his martyrdom day, May 30. Besides, a park has been developed near Dharamsala where his bust has been installed.


He joined the 2/1 Gorkha Rifles of the British Indian Army in 1924. His patriotism brought him close to the Indian National Army raised by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Thapa was caught by the British army and put on trial in February 1945. He was convicted for “waging a war against the King” and sent to the gallows on May 30, 1945.


DHARAMSALA: His grandfather, ‘Pahari Gandhi’ Baba Kanshi Ram (in pic), spent his life fighting the British and writing poems and songs to spread the message of the freedom struggle, but Ravikant feels today’s India is not the nation his forefathers fought for.

Upset over corruption scandals and controversies plaguing the country, Ravikant, a retired assistant general manager of Kangra Central Cooperative Bank, told HT that governments have recognised the contribution of his grandfather but the recognition was not worth it because they never followed what the freedom fighters preached. “Whatever happens every day in the country and Parliament reflects how much our political leaders and parties respect our freedom fighters. Following their ideals and fulfilling their dreams will be true recognition,” he said.

The Himachal art, culture and language academy organises a
symposium on July 11 to commemorate the freedom fighter’s birth anniversary. Besides, a ‘Pahari Gandhi Baba Kanshi Ram State Award’ for Paharibhasha (language) carrying a prize of Rs 10,000 is also given to writers.


He joined the freedom struggle after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He was arrested in 1920 and jailed in Dharamsala with Lala Lajpat Rai. Sarojini Naidu called him Bulbul-e-Pahar (Nightingale of the hills), while Jawaharlal Nehru gave him the title of Pahari Gandhi. He was arrested nine times between 1930 and 1942.


JALANDHAR: Kishan Singh Gadgajj, the jathedar of the Babbar Akali movement that rocked the foundations of British rule from 1921-26, is among the leaders revered by the Akali leadership, but when it comes to recognising his contribution, it has nothing to show.

There is not only no monument in his name, the Punjab government also never acknowledged his descendants among the wards of freedom fighters. “Though we have never demanded jobs or other benefits from the government, it hurts when the state does not recognise his contribution or count us among families of freedom fighters,” Sukhdev Singh (in pic), the grandson of Gadgajj, told HT. He is a local Akali leader.

The family and other villagers have together erected a small statue of Gadgajj at the entry gate of the village, though. “The statue was installed at a cost of Rs 10 lakh. We got some money from local leaders and the rest was pooled in by the family and the villagers,” he said.

Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, according to him, had announced Rs 5 lakh for the monument in 2010, but the money was not released to the local committee looking after the monument despite repeated requests.


He belonged to Baring village of Jalandhar and was a key figure of the Babbar Akali movement. Babbar Akalis opposed the imperialist policies of the British. Gadgajj was arrested from Bhunga Haryana in Hoshiarpur district in 1923 and hanged by the British in 1926.


KARNAL: Kartar Singh Virk ‘Jhabbar’ (in pic) was not only active in the freedom struggle but he was also instrumental in the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC).
Today, he is a forgotten hero. His kin, who live in Habri village of Kaithal district, blame the indifference of the political leadership for the neglect of someone who fought for the country and ‘qaum’.

Jhabbar’s grandson Jugraj Singh told HT that his grandfather’s name was not there in the district administration’s list of freedom fighters. “Though his photograph is installed in the Golden Temple complex, the SGPC has forgotten his contribution. The Haryana government has also ignored him. And, he never got due recognition,” said the affluent farmer.

Jugraj said that after his grandfather’s death in 1962 and the
formation of Haryana four years later, the Akali leadership preferred to fasten its grip on politics through the Panthic agenda, dumping its veteran leaders. However, his Patiala-based cousin Brigadier Amrik Singh Virk (retd) blamed poor documentation in Punjab for the situation.

“The family thought of requesting the state government to institute an academic research chair in a university in his memory, but then we realised that only political affiliations work and not real contribution of such freedom fighters,” he said.


Born in Sheikhupura district (now in Pakistan), he was an active member of the gurdwara reform movement and liberated several gurdwaras from British-supported mahants. He was imprisoned in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


CHANDIGARH: “Kaun yaad rakhta hai ji freedom fighters ko? Sab neta apne apne bande hi dhoondte hain…haan, sirf kuchh akhbaar yaad kar lete hain,” rues Ashok Saigal, 79, one of the four children of freedom fighter Lala Kedar Nath Saigal (in pic).
Ashok, who lives in Ambala city, recalls how his father shed his sweat and blood for freedom while the family struggled. “He sold off his entire property in Lahore to support the family. We had to toil hard all along,” he recounts.

Ashok, whose wife died a few days ago, said his father was elected MLA from Lahore and got an honorarium of Rs 292 a month on which the family lived. “While the kin of some pined for political posts, many, like my father, chose a frugal life. My father was offered plots and other favours, but he refused.”
In 1963, Ashok was given the job of field publicity assistant in the public relations department by then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon. He shifted to Haryana in 1966 from where he retired as joint director. His two sons, Vivek and Rajesh, run small businesses in Chandigarh and Mohali.


He took active part in the farmers’ movement and founded two nationalist papers, Khabardar and Urdu Akhbar. He was imprisoned several times. He was general secretary of the Punjab Provincial Congress from 1933 to 1936. He wore black all his life as a mark of protest against the British.


SHIMLA: Pandit Padam Dev and his contribution to the freedom
struggle are remembered by politicians on Independence Day every year. There is a shopping complex named after him on the Ridge here.

Ironically, no one remembers the freedom fighter’s descendants. They live in oblivion in their native village, Bhamnoli, in Rohru. Padam Dev had two daughters, Dev Kumari and Nirmala. While Dev Kumari passed away a few years ago, Nirmala is a spinster and lives alone at Sharithatch village in an interior area of Rohru.

“My father was not only a freedom fighter but also a great statesman. It is sad that he has almost been forgotten by the government,” she told HT. Padam Dev’s other relatives are equally cut up. “We are thankful that a complex has been named after him but the government does not remember him even on his birth or death anniversaries,” rues his grandson Satyadev Sharma.

A retired government employee, he wants the government to erect a gate or install a statue at the entrance to Rohru Bazaar to keep his memory alive.

PANDIT PADAM DEV (1901-1989)

He was influenced by Mahtama Gandhi’s satyagrah and joined the freedom movement in 1922. He participated in the Salt March and Quit India Movement, going to jail for two years. He was a founder member of the Himalaya Riyasati Praja Mandal. He remained Himachal Congress president from 1950 to 1952 and later became MLA, MP and minister.


LUDHIANA/FARIDKOT: He was the first Sikh President, but few in his home district of Faridkot know about Giani Zail Singh’s contribution to the freedom struggle. Zail Singh belonged to Sandhwan village in Faridkot where there is a memorial in his name. The village railway station has been named after him too. The cell in the old jail at Faridkot, where he spent five years during the freedom struggle, is also being preserved.

“He had an unblemished career and that’s what we are proud of,” says his son Joginder Singh (in pic). He lives in Sandhwan. However, Dr Manjit Kaur, the youngest of Zail Singh’s three daughters, is disillusioned with the indifference of Punjab and central governments towards freedom fighters and their kin. “I have not even received an invitation from the district administration to attend the Independence Day or Republic Day function for over a decade,” says the Ludhiana resident.

ZAIL SINGH (1916-1994)

He was involved with a group of revolutionaries at the age of 12 and went to jail in 1933 for taking part in a protest. In 1938, he established a branch of the Congress in Faridkot and was sent to prison for five years. After independence, he became the chief minister of Punjab from 1972-77 and President of India from 1982-87.


LUDHIANA: Kartar Singh Sarabha was among the youngest martyrs of the freedom struggle. His kin, though immensely proud of his contribution, remain bitter and do not intend to celebrate Independence Day. The reason: the Centre is yet to officially declare Kartar Singh and some other freedom fighters “national martyrs”.

Kartar Singh, born at Sarabha village in Ludhiana district, was executed when he was only 19. Sukhdev Kaur, 55 (in pic), the great-granddaughter of his sister Dhan Kaur, told HT that the state government had also ignored the long-pending demand to rename Pakhowal Road after him. This road leads from Bhai Bala Chowk to Raikot via Sarabha village. Kaur resides at Piccadily Park near Daad village. While the state government is maintaining the freedom fighter’s house at his village, his kin want a stadium in his memory.


A member of Ghadar party, he was executed for his role in the Ghadar conspiracy in November 1915 at Lahore. In 1913, a paper titled Ghadar was started in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and other languages to unmask the British Raj. Kartar was looking after all the work for the paper. He was declared a rebel and hanged.


AMRITSAR: Baba Gurdit Singh ‘Komagata Maru’ etched his name in history a little over a century ago.
But his descendants feel neglected by successive governments in Punjab. His granddaughters say they are proud of his selfless nature and contribution, but cannot forget the adversities their parents had to face because of which even they suffered and could not get their education.

“My grandfather did not go to school, but at a very young age he could speak a fluent English, Thai and Japanese. He was the son of Punjab, but did not get due recognition,” says Harbhajan Kaur (in pic, centre), who is one of the four granddaughters of Baba Gurdit. “My husband, TS Virk, wrote to the chief minister, requesting for pension to descendants of Baba Gurdit Singh, but our request has fallen on deaf years,” she says.

The Centre took an initiative to celebrate 100 years of the Komagata Maru incident and honoured the family, though.


He was the central figure in the Komagata Maru incident of 1914. He hired a ship (Komagata Maru) from Hong Kong to ferry a group to Indian emigrants to Canada. The Canadian laws were designed to keep out immigrants of Asian origin. The government did not allow the ship to anchor. The ship was attacked at night and the passengers repulsed it.


ROHTAK: Located in a congested street near the Rohtak railway station, the old house of freedom fighter Shri Ram Sharma wears a deserted look.

Though there is a statue of the freedom fighter in the middle of the house, its caretaker Ravi does not know anything about the man who once stayed there. Anshu Sharma (in pic with his family), the grandson of the freedom fighter, was the last occupant from the family. He too left the house after the death of his mother, Nirmal Sharma, in 2013.

Anshu, who is an assistant excise and taxation officer in Gurgaon, says that nobody remembers his grandfather due to neglect by the government. “My mother, a junior basic teacher, used to spend from her salary to publish books on my grandfather’s contribution in the freedom movement to keep his legacy alive,” he says. The administration, according to him, neither invited the family for Independence Day events nor did any politician ever visit them on his grandfather’s birth or death anniversary functions.

SHRI RAM SHARMA (1899-1989)

A follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he took active part in the non-cooperation movement, salt satyagraha and Quit India Movement. Shri Ram Sharma was in jail for years. During the Emergency also, he was jailed for several months. He was a minister in joint Punjab.

‘WE PAY FOR FUNCTION’ neki ram.jpg

BHIWANI: The family of freedom fighter Pandit Neki Ram Sharma rues government apathy and lack of recognition. Neki Ram’s granddaughter-inlaw Suman Sharma (in pic, extreme right), who lives in Bhiwani, says besides a residential plot that the family was given in return for an ancestral house taken by the government for setting up a museum, nothing was done for them.

“To even organise a function on his (Neki Ram’s) birth anniversary at a library named after him, we have to pay `2,000 as fee to the administration,” she said. Ratan Kumar Shastri, the grandson of Neki Ram’s brother Ramchandra, said that after President APJ Abdul Kalam visited their native Kalenga village in 2007, the Hooda government declared it a model village but did nothing. “`33 crore was announced for a memorial and sports stadium in his name. Instead of a memorial, a liquor vend has been opened,” Shastri lamented.


He was impressed with the speeches of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and worked for the ‘Home Rule’ movement. He also worked with Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai and spent several years in jail.


SHIMLA: Ravinder Thakur (in pic) is full of pride when he talks about the heroics of his grandfather, Babu Kanshi Ram. But it was a long struggle for the retired paramilitary officer to get the freedom fighter status for his grandfather 66 years after his death.

Thakur researched and published a book on his grandfather’s legend. Babu Kanshi Ram was declared freedom fighter on October 20, 2013. “There was no initiative from the government. Only after I documented his contribution in a book did they take note,” he said. Thakur said Himachal Pradesh gave the freedom fighter status without monetary benefits, which he welcomed, but it did not do enough for others. Thakur, who lives in Shoghi, is now waging another battle for a monument at Kunihar in the memory of his grandfather and five others.

BABU KANSHI RAM (1874-1947)

He raised his voice against the settlement operations of land by men of Rana Hardev Singh of Kunihar in 1922-23. He was banished from Kunihar for life. But he continued his fight. In 1939, Kanshi became the patron of Kunihar Prajamandal and fought for the freedom of country.

First Published: Aug 15, 2015 13:07 IST