Their stories are embedded in our collective consciousness. Even today, 62 years after they won us our independence, India’s freedom fighters never fail to make us feel good about ourselves. Many of our roads, stadiums and parks are named after them. For over six decades, they have inspired our books, music, theatre, films, and even comic books. But some of us are not content to live with the sepia memories of the unadorned, unfussy men and women who changed our history; some of us believe the fight for freedom isn’t over yet. The British may have gone, but today’s freedom fighters wage a war that is, in some ways, tougher than the one that was fought back then. India’s modern-day freedom fighters fight the enemies within us—they help us conquer our fears and prejudices and protect what should be sacred to us. They work hard to guard our forests, preserve our cultural differences, help us dream of a better future, instil self-confidence in women and ensure that our children will smile. And they do it with the same zeal that was found in abundance in the India of the 1930s and 1940s. When the Delhi high court effectively decriminalized homosexuality in a recent order on section 377, modern-day freedom fighters rejoiced.
To celebrate Independence Day, we entered a world where people still fight for the idea of India. This is not an exhaustive list of people—and we fought our own battle before we finalized it. We tried to pick people you haven’t read too much about. So, enjoy the issue and get inspired!
It was a different struggle | Shrimati Satyawati
Even until a year ago, the very frail Satyawati would spin the charkha (spinning wheel) for 3 hours a day, propped up on her bed. For the 104-year-old—possibly the oldest surviving member of India’s independence movement—it was pure habit.
Today, she lies in bed in her house in Delhi under a portrait of her son, the former Indian vice-president Krishan Kant, who died in 2002. She is immobile after a recent injury but the wheelchair-bound centenarian lucidly recollects episodes and anecdotes from the freedom struggle.
Even until a year ago, Shrimati Satyawati would spin the charkha (spinning wheel) for 3 hours a day, propped up on her bed. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
“Maine (Chandrashekhar) Azad ko apne haathon se khilaya tha (I fed Azad with my own hands),” she says as she attempts to sit up.
Freedom to be wild | Dharanidhar Boro
Until the late 1990s, the national highway that connected Assam’s capital Guwahati with the Kaziranga National Park, around 215km away, was a dusty, choppy road, eroded by years of devastating floods. In the past decade, Assam has become a tourist-friendly state. The same highway is a cruise now.
My last visit, in 2008, was an eye-opener. Beyond the smooth roads and the new tourist resorts that have sprung up on the forest’s periphery, Kaziranga is one of the country’s few success stories in wildlife preservation.
The one-horned rhinoceros, an animal poached for years for its horn (sold for up to Rs15 lakh in markets in India as well as China), is far from being an endangered species. Thanks to Dharanidhar Boro, the forest range officer who has been at the helm of this preservation drive since 1987, I saw a Kaziranga where animals roam freely in their natural habitat and the forest thrives on fertile land. Cloaked in muddy silt, hefty, thick-skinned rhinos stared indifferently at us through lush, tall lokasa grass.
Freedom from hunger | Harsh Mander
For someone who gave up a coveted and cushy government job to walk down an unsure, idealistic path, Harsh Mander, 54, is surprisingly unassuming. “Icons have become a short cut to understanding issues. To my mind, the biggest icons are people who stood up, ordinary people who have saved people’s lives despite crippling odds,” Mander tells me when we meet at his nondescript, open-air office in south Delhi.
After witnessing the complicity of civil servants and police officers in the Gujarat riots in 2002, Mander resigned from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But not before he told the authorities exactly what was on his mind. In a scathing, emotional essay in 2002, he wrote, “There is much that the murdering mobs in Gujarat have robbed from me. One of them is a song I often sang with pride and conviction. The words of the song are: Sare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara… It is a song I will never be able to sing again.”
Now the soft-spoken Mander is a Supreme Court commissioner (i.e, he advises the Supreme Court) on issues of food security. He is a columnist who works towards bringing young people together to fight homelessness and communalism. Mander also teaches “poverty and governance” at IIM Ahmedabad—in the capital of a state he forsook a long time ago. He enjoys a bit of cinema whenever he gets the time.
Freedom from prejudice | Nitin Karani
In 1995, his life changed and 24-year-old Nitin Karani decided to tell his parents he was gay. Bombay Dost, the magazine, and The Humsafar Trust, its parent organization, both founded by Ashok Row Kavi, had organized a three-day conference on homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Mumbai. Through a friend, Karani got the opportunity to work as a volunteer there.
Until then, he would hide copies of Bombay Dost from his family. He would look for inspiration from gay men featured in American television shows such as The O prah Winfrey Show and The Phil Donahue Show, or in the pages of Michelangelo Signorile’s Queer in America, which is a bible for Karani.
During that conference, he met Kavi and his comrades, who were mostly young men who had found a new life, and who called their charismatic and articulate leader “amma” (“He is still called that,” Karani says). The circle of support that Kavi had already garnered for Bombay Dost was a revolution in itself in the 1980s and 1990s, and for young men such as Karani, it was liberating. “Those were the best three days of my life,” says Karani, now one of the key members of The Humsafar Trust, and as Kavi says, “my deputy”.
Freedom from abuse | Flavia Agnes
An intelligent, confident and pretty client has left Flavia Agnes, 61, baffled. The young woman comes from a family of privileged means, is well-educated, runs her own business and has supportive parents. Yet, she has silently endured an unconsummated and violent marriage for eight years, and only laid bare the details to her mother two months ago. “Why did she get into and stay in such a marriage for eight years? Why doesn’t she know her rights?” asks Agnes, women’s rights activist and feminist scholar, as she recounts this story at our meeting at the suburban Mumbai headquarters of Majlis, the organization she set up in 1990 to champion the rights of women.
Leather-bound volumes of the All India Reporter series of Supreme Court cases cover one section, while the opposite wall, painted a startling lime green, enlivens the otherwise drab room. Too often the room is occupied by modern, educated and independent women who come to consult Agnes about their rights in a marriage or relationship. One of the biggest problems facing Indian women, Agnes says, is their lack of knowledge of their basic rights. “There’s something fundamentally wrong in the way social conditioning happens. Indian women have no survival instincts. Inside or outside a marriage, they don’t know their basic rights and how to survive with dignity,” she says. “These girls have all the gloss—they go out to nightclubs, and think they are confident and can handle their lives, but they can’t,” she says.
At some level it seems Agnes is disappointed in them. It is a well-documented fact that she was married at 20 and spent 13 years in a violent marriage. She says she understands why women of her generation—many often married young and were not highly educated—suffered such problems. “Back then no one would believe me and thought something was wrong with me. You would think that the next generation wouldn’t have similar problems, but they do.”
Freedom to dream | Deep Joshi
When Deep Joshi was 8, a young community development officer arrived in his village in the hills of Uttarakhand, to teach its residents about the dry-bed cultivation of paddy. He wore trousers and polished shoes, and Joshi remembers thinking: “How is this sahib going to cope with village life?”
But he did cope. He worked with the earth, and he used shovels like everybody else, and he measured off distances with a piece of string, with Joshi holding on to the other end. “It was my first encounter with community development,” Joshi says. “So until I went to America, I would continue to think that development was only the government’s arena.”
The evolution of Joshi’s career—including with the sustainable livelihood NGO Professional Assistance for Development Action (Pradan), which he co-founded in 1983 and which helped win him a Magsaysay award this year—has been, in a sense, the evolution of the image of who should be working in development. Pradan was established because Joshi saw that NGOs were “bleeding hearts but little more”, and because he saw their crying need for top-tier professionals, or for graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).
Freedom to communicate | Mahesh Jayachandra
One day in February, Farah Rahman visited the office of the bureaucrat who oversees the Indian government’s efforts to use computers and the Internet to better service citizens (e-governance it’s called).
The office is in Lutyens’ Delhi, the part of the Indian capital planned by British architect Edwin Lutyens, and Rahman met the officer a little after 6pm, by which time most officials in the e-government department had left. She found the officer sitting in darkness—there had been an electricity breakdown—behind a table loaded with files, books and documents.
Rahman is a petite criminal lawyer from Minnesota whose family moved there from Hyderabad in the mid-1980s. She moved back to India to work with a scientist who had invented a normal 101-key keyboard that could handle Indian languages.
Freedom to read | Navin Kishore
Navin Kishore pulls out books at random. Andre Gorz, Slavenka Drakulic, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tariq Ali, Guillaume Apollinaire — the names come tumbling out. A heavy downpour has brought traffic outside to a grinding halt and drivers are letting their horns rip. But despite the open windows, the room in the first floor Seagull Books office in south Kolkata is quiet. “The road outside was an avenue lined by trees when we rented this place in 1976, but it’s getting worse by the day,” says Kishore, who founded the independent publishing house that brings out books on art and culture.
“We’re not just an Indian publishing house,” he says, rattling off names of a fast growing international list of authors. “In today’s globalized world, we should be able to publish anything and everything in our chosen field of interest regardless of where we are physically as long as we can provide quality and assure our authors the courtesy of a worldwide distribution. We are bringing back thought that had disappeared from bookshelves because it doesn’t sell vast numbers,” says the man whose publishing house has the world rights for Paul Celan, Rabindranath Tagore and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
“For instance, Sartre’s The Aftermath of War may not find favour with mainstream publishing companies, for whom it’s all about figures,” says Kishore, lamenting the fact that most bookstores nowadays, especially the chain bookstores, don’t stock the works of most such authors. He recalls a small store at The Oberoi Grand hotel arcade, named Foreign Publishers, which he used to frequent in his college days. “Not only did the old gent who ran the place know what authors a reader liked, but would also lead the reader into other realms,” says Kishore, adding that many of the authors he loves to read now were introduced to him by “Mr Chatterjee of Foreign Publishers”.
Freedom to smile | Satish Kalra
Satish Kalra is a curious kind of mechanical engineer: He engineers smiles.
Having worked for around 30 years in senior management positions with Hindustan Unilever and Ciba-Geigy in India, Switzerland and Singapore, Kalra was drawing a blank on post-retirement plans as he neared the end of a globetrotting career in 2000. He wasn’t interested in spirituality or keen on golf, and a consultancy job didn’t seem appealing enough.
So, when Kalra met the folks at Smile Train, an international organization that provides free cleft lip/palate operations to children in need, in Singapore by happenstance, he got drawn to the idea of working with a global charity. However, he was sceptical of international charities wanting to work in developing countries. He travelled to China, where Smile Train’s operations had just started, at his own expense. And after being convinced of the charity’s mission and ethics, got on board. He also recalls meeting Wang Li—the first cleft-lipped child that Smile Train was going to be operating upon.
Freedom to live with HIV | Suniti Solomon
She was a little over 13 when she was kidnapped and forced into the sex trade. In 1986, this young girl was one of the first six people in India that Suniti Solomon detected as being infected by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
Since then, Chennai-based Solomon’s life has revolved around people affected by AIDS, the condition that HIV causes. “The minute someone says he or she is HIV positive, the word which crops up in most people’s mind is ‘immoral’,” says 69-year-old Dr Solomon, sitting in her office in south Chennai. “She was the first girl we tested that I spoke to, and she changed me.”
The young girl, who resisted her assailants for three days, gave in after being starved for 72 hours. Six months later, she managed to escape, reached a remand home in Mylapore and was one of the 100 sex workers that Solomon tested. After spending six years at the remand home, she joined Dr Solomon’s non-profit YR Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE), established in 1993, but died soon after.
Freedom to express | Arundhati Nag
Standing in the middle of her messy office on the third level of Ranga Shankara, Bangalore, thespian Arundhati Nag gets ready to clear up some space, promising that my questions will get her undivided attention. “I have a habit of keeping small things because they serve as a reminder of some occasion, or can be used in the future,” she says, pointing to a block of teak wood lying on her table. It was a sample that came when the theatre, a prized landmark of the city, was being built around a decade back.
Her office is tucked away in a corner, away from the bustle of rehearsals and ticket counters in Ranga Shankara. But she says she likes to watch who is coming into the theatre, or at least hear the rehearsals from the corridors, and spends little time in the office.
Nag, now 53, is the woman behind one of India’s most vibrant cultural spaces—a space for performing arts, meant for promoting new talent and reviving forgotten ones. Ranga Shankara’s circular stage is modelled on the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, founded by Jennifer Kapoor in 1944, and Nag’s passion for the stage and her doggedness have ensured its success.
Freedom from noise | Sumaira Abdulali
Sumaira Abdulali had been waiting her turn in court since morning and she could be there the rest of the day. It was 6 August, and the Bombay high court was supposed to decide on an appeal by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for relaxing noise rules in the silence zones for the 10 days of Ganeshotsav.
But she is used to waiting. In 2002, when Abdulali was working for Bombay Environmental Action Group (Beag), her team filed a public interest litigation on noise pollution in the high court. The first court order banning loudspeakers in silence zones was passed a year later. This time, the wait turned out to be two weeks long.
The matter was adjourned and it’ll be another day in court for Abdulali and her lawyers. But Abdulali doesn’t mind. It’s part of her job.
Freedom to sing | Aneesh Pradhan and Shubha Mudgal
If you want to live life and make music on your own terms, it is very difficult,” says Shubha Mudgal. “The world of classical music comes with its own set of baggage (as does) the world of film and pop music.” She should know, since she has traversed both these worlds with aplomb and to much acclaim.
Shubha Mudgal (left) and Aneesh Pradhan
“I have been lucky,” she says of her own journey, attributing her good fortune to two factors: the support of her family and, she adds, “because I am obstinate”. The robust singing voice is soft during a conversation but it does convey calm determination—and also slight agitation, which stems from Mudgal’s deep sense of grievance at the treatment meted out to musicians in India. Citing many examples, she explains how they are usually paid too little and, are often expected to play or sing for free uncomplainingly. They can ask for what is their due only at the risk of being labelled “too commercial”.
Particularly egregious over the past years has been the role of the recording companies, say Mudgal and her husband Aneesh Pradhan, the noted tabla player. In 2003, the husband-wife team established Underscore Records, a music company that seeks to nurture a very different kind of relationship with the artists whose recordings and albums it sells on the Internet from its website Underscorerecords
Freedom to study | Anil Sadgopal
Every important event in Anil Sadgopal’s life has its roots in a classroom. He says if he were 17 today, he wouldn’t have done what he did as an aspiring botanist at St Stephen’s College in Delhi five decades ago.
A panel of academics resisted admitting him to the prestigious college because he had been educated in the Hindi medium. Sadgopal insisted on being interviewed until he was told, through a note scribbled on a piece of paper, that he had been rejected. “I returned that piece of paper to the panel and asked them to stamp their decision on an official letter, explaining the reasons why they were denying me admission.” The panel was appalled, but the young man had a ready explanation: “I will take this chit, take a bus straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan and ask the President why we ever fought for our independence when I don’t even have the freedom to study in my mother tongue.”
Ten minutes later, the “Hindi-medium” student of science from Birla Vidya Mandir, Nainital, had been admitted to St Stephen’s College to study botany and biochemistry.