x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A 1938 student conspiracy - and India's forgotten patriotism

In 1938 Indian students defied the rules to join the independence movement. Where has that patriotic spirit gone?

'Ready?" asked the photographer. Our hands dived into our trouser pockets. "Ready?" he asked a second time. Our hands sprang out of our pockets holding the white Gandhi caps that had become popular with Indian independence activists. Before the photographer could press the button, as one we had all swiftly donned the caps.

Three days later the photograph was delivered to our school. In the front row, our headmaster Ram Sapra was seated in the centre with the schoolmasters at his sides. Behind them were our three rows of students, all wearing the white caps.

In 1938, the waves of India's Satyagraha freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi had reached our school situated on the outskirts of Lyallpur, which is now Faisalabad. As students 16 and 17 years old, we were inspired. We resolved that in the annual school photograph we would wear Gandhi caps to express solidarity with the freedom movement.

However, the rigid school policies would not permit this. So we hatched a conspiracy and took the school photographer into confidence. The signal agreed with him was at the second mention of "Ready", we would quickly put on the Gandhi caps, concealed in our pockets, before he clicked the photo. The plan was executed seamlessly.

When Master Sapra saw the photograph, he was livid. "How can these students behave like this?" he yelled. It was not easy to commission another picture because the photographer would have to be called from another town. That could take many days. So the headmaster let matters rest.

India was in the grip of the fervent desire to be free. At about the same time, Netaji Subhas Chander Bose, the president of the Congress Party, was to visit Lyallpur to address a public meeting. Naturally, my classmates and I were keen to attend it.

But we were again prohibited from participating. And again, we were determined to do as we wished.

We hatched a plot so that we would not leave the school all together. We would depart in small groups of twos and threes so that our schoolmasters would think that we were just taking a casual walk.

There was another concern. In the evenings, the superintendent Salamat Rai normally took a round of the rooms to ensure that all the boys were in. Usually he would be satisfied if he saw the kerosene lanterns lit, but how to be sure he wouldn't look in the window? So before we left, we made sure to coat the glass panes with mustard oil so that they were opaque. That way, we hoped, the superintendent would not detect our absence.

That night we were ecstatic to make it to the exhibition grounds and hear Netaji Bose's speech. We joined in with the freedom procession and the patriotic Punjabi chant - "Kharra rupiya chandi da, Raj Mahatma Gandhi da" - Just as the silver rupee coin is genuine, so will prevail the rule of Mahatma Gandhi.

And the chorus rang out:

Leader: "Ek cheez milegi?" Will you give me something?

Students: "Kya bhai, kya?" What brother, what?

Leader: "Aazadi bhai, aazadi!" Freedom, brother, freedom.

But back at the hostel, our schoolmaster had detected our absence. When we returned we were dismayed to find the hostel doors were locked. For some time, there we stood forlorn outside the doors.

Eventually the superintendent came to talk to us, holding a cane in his hand. He asked us where we had been and we admitted that we had attended the speech even though we had been prohibited from doing so.

Master Rai instructed us to extend our arms with the palms facing upwards and he caned us. Only then were we permitted to enter.

We had been punished but still we felt fulfilled.

Today, when I see so many problems in India, I wonder where we lost the ideals that inspired us in 1938 when I was in school, 73 years ago?


Hari Chand Aneja is an 89-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work