Looking beyond the stars of India’s freedom struggle

Looking beyond the stars of India’s freedom struggle

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 23 April, 2016
Sagari Chhabra.
Journalist and filmmaker Sagari Chhabra, who has recently won the Laadli Media Award for her book on the neglected figures of India’s freedom struggle, speaks to Anirudh Vohra.

Our country owes its freedom not to one or two figures, but to a collaborative effort for liberty which was put together by a collective of great men and women. Many people did many things before India finally became a free nation. But in our history books, we seem to have lionised only a handful of freedom fighters, at the expense of neglecting several others who were as instrumental in the freedom movement as the other heroes of Indian history. 

In Search Of Freedom: Journeys Through India and South-East Asia by Sagari Chhabra seems to be an attempt to fill those blank spaces in the history of our freedom movement. The book follows Chhabra’s documentary, Asli Azaadi, which similarly focussed on the stories of historical greats who have somehow fallen through the cracks of history. 

When asked if documentaries are a better means of narrating a story than print Chhabra says, “I believe in democratic rights and that people can express themselves in whatever form they can. In a documentary I’m able to pull out the voice of the marginalized but it’s a very big struggle to show these films. The private networks don’t want to telecast them. Same is the case with the government run networks. No one wants to deal with the stories of the poor and the marginalized. There is a conspiracy of silence about what happens to the poor. Even now thousands are displaced and dispossessed as we want to make way for mega projects. What happens to them? They are being documented by film makes, journalists. So both film makers and journalists basically belong to the same genre. If you are not in the business of entertainment it’s the same thing. It’s the question of getting the word out.”

“I started researching for my documentary in 1997, since it was India’s 50th year of Independence. So I started researching what women freedom fighters had done. And I stumbled upon the fact that they were fantastically under-recorded. There were no substantive documents talking about what they had done. For example I met this one woman who told me that she was inside Lahore’s women’s jail and on 9August 1942 the cell mates had put charpai upon charpai and raised our national flag inside the jail. So I was able to track down the others who were with her at the time. Women like Savitri Ramakrishn, Sarla Sharma, Vijay Chauhan,” says Chhabra, while sitting on a couch in her living room in Delhi.

Her book, which recently won the Laadli Media Award, was published in 2015, several years after Chabbra’s travels. “After 20 years of work if one gets an award the way it helps is that it makes more and more people aware about your work. For the thing with working with the marginalized is that even your work gets marginalized. So the only benefit of highlight of getting an award is that more and more people know what you have done. It basically increases your audience which helps in spreading the awareness about the message that you are trying to give,” says Chhabra.

In Search Of Freedom cannot be confined to a particular genre, since at times it reads like a travelogue, and at others like a more serious work of historical journalism. 

The book is based upon interviews and meetings conducted by Chabbra during her time in Singapore, Thiland, Burma and Malaysia, glimpses of which can also be seen in her film Asli Azaadi, which was selected for the Golden Gate Film festival and the Norwegian Film Festival

Sagari adds, “When I realised that these kinds of heroic stories had gone unrecorded, it seemed to me to be a moral duty to record them. For this is not only our history but the treasures of India. If nothing is done, there will be a time when people will completely forget about these things. So I made my film which was also telecast on Dordarshan. And after which these women started getting some recognition. One of them, Gouri Bhattacharya Sen was even awarded the Padmashree.”


Chhabra’s powerful narrative in the book manages to rescue several of the brave and sacrificing freedom fighters from the void of historical oblivion. The major revelations that the book makes are about the role played by Indian women in the overall freedom struggle, not just in the Gandhian movement, but also in the campaigns for Independence that raged in the eastern provinces of India along with the other eastern countries within Asia. Places that saw a significant participation of women. 

“When I found out that there was a military wing in Netaji’s army which was called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment and that it was the first women’s regiment in the world. Don’t forget that in the ’40s, women were in purdah in India and under the leadership of Gandhiji they were going to jail, while Netaji inspired them to join the Army,” explained Chhabra.

The book features a lot of people who were part of the Indian National Army formed by Bose’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment. We’re told stories of people who sacrificed everything they had for their country’s independence — a country some of them would never live in. 

But this doesn’t mean that the book only concerns itself with the role women played in the freedom struggle.

A lot has already been written about the Indian National Army’s march to Kohima, but in In Search Of Freedom, Chhabra brings recreates those days with the accounts of people who were actually part of the march, something that is of great historical interest. And the extent to which these men and women have been ignored over the years comes to the fore when Chhabra in her book quotes D.R. Sharma, an INA veteran from Maymo near Mandalay in Myanmar. “In 60 years,” Sharma says to Chabbra, “no one has bothered to see me. No one ever came from India. I am so grateful to you.”  

Even though Gandhi and Bose were the complete opposite of each other, in terms of their methods, there were a few similarities between them, one of them being their take on women. For both believed in the upliftment of women and that women were as capable of being part of the struggle as men were. And whoever was influenced by either one of them was massively transformed. 

“I met Laxmi Sehgal, who is now famous for having unsuccessfully contested for the position of President of India. But even back then she was not really known and these women had never even had a reunion of sorts. So I wanted to find the others who were in Singapore, Thiland, Burma and Malaysia — not just women but also men who had done so much for a country they couldn’t even live in,” says Chhabra.

Several of the freedom fighters that Chhabra met with were women who were independent of mind and free-spirited. They went about their duties in tireless spirit be it the Gandhians like Nirmalaben Desai, who along with Jyotisangh, an initiative established in Ahmedabad that trained volunteers for the freedom struggle; or Veerbalaben Nagarwadi who was at the Dandi March.   

While women like Sarla Shah or Ela Bhatt of SEWA among others continued down their path even after independence, Rajkumari Gupta, an associate of Chandra Sekhar Azad, addressed the author on everyone’s behalf and said, “Humko jo karna tha, kiya”. 

Except a few like Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal, Dr Sushila Nayyar and Subhadra Joshi, most of Sagari’s subjects are people who have no mention of any sort in historical records or books that talk about the Indian freedom struggle. 

 Chhabra has written three books till date, as well as a play called The Gift, a children’s book called The Talking tree. Talking about her work as a children’s author, Chhabra says, “Writing for children came naturally to me, for I have the blessing of being a mother myself. Writing for children is simply penning down things that you would like to tell a child in a simple manner using characters or sketches that will intrigue them and keep them hooked to the book.”


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