(These articles appeared in the 'Letters to Indira' supplement of The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)
Mangal Pandey: The Man who triggered the war for Indian Independence
On the afternoon of March 29, 1857, Lieutenant Baugh, Adjutant of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry was told that several men of his regiment were in an excited state.
Baugh did not have to go far to seek the source of the anger. At that time, a new Enfield rifle was introduced in India. A soldier had to bite off the ends of greased cartridges to load the weapon. There was a rumour that the lubricant used was either cow or pig lard; this was repugnant to Hindus and Muslims respectively. Soon, there was a belief that the British had deliberately done it.
Baugh was then given new information that one soldier, Mangal Pandey, was pacing in front of the regiment's guard room with a loaded musket.
So, he immediately set out to confront Pandey. When he came near, Pandey took aim and fired. But he missed. Instead, the bullet struck the horse, and horse and rider were brought down.
Baugh quickly got up and fired himself. But he also missed. Thereafter, Pandey attacked Baugh with a sword, and slashed his shoulder and neck and brought him to the ground.
In the end, Pandey was overpowered by other British officers but not before he shot his musket at his chest. But the wound was not fatal. Pandey recovered and within a week he was brought to trial.
There were suggestions that Pandey was under the influence of drugs – possibly cannabis or opium – and hence was not fully aware of his actions. But the judge remained unmoved and sentenced Pandey to death. He was hanged on April 8.
Following this, there were many similar mutinies all over India. Without realising it, Pandey had triggered the first war of Indian Independence.
As a result, he has been remembered in many ways. A film called 'Mangal Pandey: The Rising', starring actor Aamir Khan, and directed by Ketan Mehta was released in 2005. The life of Pandey was the subject of a stage play titled, 'The Roti Rebellion', which was written and directed by Supriya Karunakaran.
On October 5, 1984, the Government of India issued a postage stamp bearing his image. There is also a park called Shaheed Mangal Pandey Maha Udyan at the place where Pandey attacked the British officers in Barrackpore.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: He united the country
In 1918, the farmers in the Kheda region of Gujarat suffered from plague and crop failure. Despite that, the British insisted that taxes should be paid. When the farmers were not able to do this, the British rulers responding by confiscating the lands. In stepped Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who stood tall amongst the agitating farmers and spearheaded the 'No Tax Campaign'. He united all the castes and creeds of the region. When the protests snowballed, the British quickly came to an agreement to suspend their tax collection and the lands were returned to the agitating farmers.
This showed the early leadership qualities of Patel. And thereafter, he made a steady march upwards in the hierarchy of the Congress party. Patel, who was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, worked closely with him during the Quit India Movement.
Once India gained independence in 1947, Patel became the country's first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He showed his heart was in the right place when he organised relief camps for refugees fleeing from the communal riots in the Punjab and East Bengal.
He was also a man of decisive action. When the Partition of India resulted in huge bloodshed and realising that Delhi and Punjab policemen were personally affected by tragedy, Patel immediately arranged for the South Indian regiments of the Indian Army to restore order, impose curfew and shoot-at-sight orders.
But his major achievement was when he convinced 565 self-governing princely states to merge with the Indian Union. He did this by using diplomacy and the threat of military action. As a result of this achievement, he earned the title of 'Iron Man Of India'.
He was also the one to set up the structure of the Indian Administrative Services. This includes the Indian Police Service as well as the Forest Service. So, it is no surprise that he is known as the patron saint of the Services.
Patel also played a major role in the shaping of the Indian Constitution. It was he who ensured the appointment of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee and called in leaders from different political streams. In the end, India has one of the most comprehensive constitutions in the world.
His career came to an end when he died on December 15, 1950, at the age of 75. Patel was posthumously awarded India's highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna in 1991. And in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his birthday, October 31, as the Rashtriya Ekta Diwas (National Unity Day).
Gopal Krishna Gokhale: the gentle face of the Congress
On February 27, 1914, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, 'I propose to leave for India in April. I am entirely in your hands. I want to learn at your feet and gain the necessary experience. My present ambition is to be by your side as your nurse and attendant. I want to have the real discipline of obeying someone whom I love and look up to. I propose to use the funds you have sent for our passages'.
Gokhale and Gandhi had met for the first time in 1896. But it was only when they spent a month together at the Calcutta Congress of 1901 that they got close. Gokhale asked Gandhi to return from South Africa and serve the people of India. He then wrote recommendation letters for Gandhi to several lawyers in Bombay to secure an opening. But Gandhi who was preoccupied with fighting for the rights of Indians in South Africa decided not to take up the offer at that time.
Gokhale was always regarded as the moderate face of the Indian National Congress. He always believed in dialogue and accommodation with the British government to achieve the goal of self-rule. Not everybody, especially his fellow Chitpavan Brahmin Bal Gangadhar Tilak, agreed to this approach.
In fact, they had a confrontation over the Age of Consent bill. This was introduced by the British Government, in 1891. It raised the age of consent of marriage for a girl from 10 to 12.
Gokhale and other liberal reformers supported the bill to curb child marriage abuses. As for Tilak, he said that the British should not interfere with Hindu traditions. He wanted such bills to be introduced only after Independence. The bill, however, became law in the Bombay Presidency.
In 1905, Gokhale was elected the president of the Indian National Congress. It was at this time that he founded the Servants of India Society. Its aim was to expand education. Gokhale felt that if India had to gain political change, then a new generation has to be educated regarding their civil and patriotic duties.
The Society soon organised mobile libraries, founded schools, and provided night classes for factory workers. Although the Society lost much of its vigour following Gokhale’s death, it still exists to this day, though its membership is small.
In his autobiography, 'The Story Of My Experiments With Truth', Gandhi described Gokhale as being 'pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field'.
Gokhale died on February 19, 1915, at the age of 48.
Madam Cama: the fiery woman who fought for India's cause abroad
On August 22, 1907, a fair-faced woman wearing a white saree with a blue veil stood up among the thousand delegates of the International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart, Germany. She unfurled a flag.
It had three colour bands on it: green, saffron and red. On the green band, there were eight lotuses which represented eight provinces of India before independence. In the middle of the saffron brand, the words, 'Vande Mataram' was written in Hindi. On the red band, there is the rising sun, to represent the Hindu faith and a half moon to represent Islam.
Then Bhikaji Cama said, “This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the flag.”
The delegates were taken by surprise. Nevertheless, they all stood up and saluted the first flag of independent India. Bhikaji had a clear aim behind the unfurling. She wanted to highlight the poverty, starvation and oppression of the Indian people under the British Raj, and also to make aware that Indians wanted freedom.
And that drive for freedom was brutally being suppressed by the British authorities through ordinances, bans on public meetings and imprisoning revolutionaries for life.
At the conference, many people wondered who Bhikaji was.
This is her background: She was born on September 24, 1861, into a wealthy family. Her father, Sorabji Framji Patel, was a famous businessman who was known for his philanthropic work in Mumbai.
Thanks to the ferment in the country, Bhikaji was drawn to the freedom movement. In 1885, she married a well-known lawyer by the name of Rustomji Cama. But there were problems between the couple. While Rustomji loved the British and their way of life, his wife was opposed to them.
Meanwhile, in this unhappy situation, in 1896, the bubonic plague broke out in Mumbai. Bhikaji became one of the volunteers helping the victims. Unfortunately, she too caught the disease. Although she recovered, she remained in poor health.
So, the doctors advised her to go to Europe for rest and recuperation. In 1902, Bhikaji left India for London.
It was in Europe that she continued with her political activities. She met up with Dadabhai Naoroji, the founder of the Indian National Congress and joined the party. She also came in contact with other Indian nationalists and addressed several meetings in London’s Hyde Park, apart from meetings in Europe.