Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>



Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)


As a member of the Medical Relief Organization I had to visit many districts and villages. Every where I saw the same sight of thousands of homeless, living skeletons, without food or clothes. After visiting Bardhaman and Murshidabad, I reached Tamluk in Midnapore. Arriving there I noticed numerous broken boats heaped on an open ground by the river. On enquiry I learned that these boats had been confiscated by the British Government at the time of the 1942 movement. During the floods and tornado that swept over Midnapore, the villagers had pleaded with the government to release these boats, so that they could be used for relief work. But their appeal was turned down with total disregard. Many lives could have been saved if these boats had been available.

In Tamluk and Contai I went round in boats along the canals, visiting the relief centres. We spent nights in homes of villagers or at times in the boat. All along we found human bones and skulls scattered around, with vultures preying on them. These horrible sights marred the beauty of nature. Nature abounded in beauty, but human life was in such a sad, deplorable state. Seeing a red-bordered sari in the water, we took our boat near it, and found the dead body of a young wife floating in the water. Her body was left here by her people, who probably had no means of cremating her. Death had become so common , that men no longer paid death its due respect. No emotions were roused in its presence. Only two or three dogs had come sniffing around.

My companions took some snapshots of these scenes.Our eyes, which took in these terrible sights will one day close for ever. Then who will bear witness to these heart-rending events? Documents may be doubted, but a photographer's print will always bear the truth. So we prepared album full of pictures for your generation.

A little further we found vultures fighting over an old woman's dead body. A Bengali bride is an epitome of modesty. She never comes out in the open with her head uncovered. But here lay their bodies exposed to roving eyes. A Bengali widow lives a strict life of rules and numerous pieties. A vulture is considered to be a bird of ill-omen and here these birds were feasting on their bodies. Their souls must be crying out in agony to be saved from such a doom.

I could not control my tears. A companion commented, "There is no dearth of water. What we need now is fire to burn down everything." It is true.Why shed tears to put out the fire within our hearts? Brahmananda Keshab Chandra had written in his memoirs, "We need fire in human life and work. A man turns cold only when he is about to die."

We were growing cold watching dead bodies. Depression was weighing down upon us. The Congress worker who was accompanying us on our trip was a young man hardly twenty years old. Most of the time he was sitting silent, only giving replies to our queries. We never saw a smile on his face. We learned from others that he was arrested during the 1942 movement, Because of this his parents, brothers, and sisters did not get any help from the government relief centres. They were told to go to the Congress for help. His family finally succumbed after fighting with hunger. When he came out of jail his home was empty, all his family members were dead. How can one expect him to smile. I thought,surely one day our nation will rise in glorious freedom from the darkness of oppression, but will that be enough compensation for this young man's loss.

We went to visit a relief centre run by the Hindu Mission at Kanthi. There we saw a small, emaciated girl whose mother, in desperation , had tried to bury her alive. She was saved by a few school boys who had seen the incident, and after digging up the girl, had brought her to the Mission shelter.

Moving around Midnapore,we wondered at the country's resilience; how she had regained her strength after repeated disasters brought down upon her by nature and also harsh police oppression. I have heard how Birendra Sasmal, a political leader from Midnapore,had gone from village to village, rousing the spirit of freedom in the minds of the villagers. So the people of Midnapore, men, women, everyone of them had participated in the struggle for the nation's freedom. Thus Midnapore, the most politically conscious district of Bengal, was always in the forefront. I have heard people say that in Midnapore, no one worked as spies or for the C. I. D.

Otherwise ,Midnapore is a very poor district. Most of the inhabitants had no land of their own and used to survive, hardly on one meal a day. After the famine they were reduced to beggars on the road. Poor teachers and clerks, who could not stoop to begging, died silently in the darkness of their homes in unimaginable anguish. They had already suffered greatly for having participated in the 1942 movement. Whenever the police came to search their homes, they would confiscate all the clothes and valuables, even cattle from the homes of the poor villagers. It was useless to protest, for the protectors themselves were perpetrators of these crimes.

Once we had become guests in a poor household. We learned that when he was in jail, the police had looted his house; and when he returned he found nothing in his home. His land was also confiscated. Though he was living in dire poverty he was still a tireless worker or the Congress. His children had died in starvation without any medical help, but he still worked uncomplainingly. His wife shed endless tears, but had no words of complaint against her husband. I was reminded of Rabindranath's words,

"The blood of martyr's,and tears from mother's eyes;
"Will all be lost in the dust of the earth?
"Heaven still be lost? All debts remain unpaid?
"Night long penance not bring forth the light of day?"

Congress workers after their release, took up the task of relief and rehabilitation, of the suffering people. They prepared lists of houses looted, and women raped during this period. These were shocking eye-openers. I had heard how women workers were cruelly mistreated during the 1932 movement. Bina, after her arrest, had described in her report at the special tribunal, the sad fate of women workers. But the torture on women after the 1942 movement was more widespread.

Matangini Debi's martyrdom has become an immortal legend with the inhabitants of Midnapore. We were fortunate to hear the whole account from the local workers. Matangini Debi had gone from door to door, calling upon all the inmates to come out and take part in the nation's struggle for freedom. Responding to her call, villagers from distant villages, marched in procession towards Tamluk. Roads were blocked with branches of trees to keep the enemy from reaching them. Matangini Debi marched onwards with the nation's flag in her hand, ahead of thousands of men and women from the villages around. Army of policemen tried to stop them on their way. Gunshots were leveled at her, and when a bullet hit her right hand, she marched on with the flag in her left hand. Finally she succumbed when a bullet hit her heart. The soil of Midnapore was blessed at the touch of her body.

All day long we visited the centres, and at night fall we held secret meetings with the workers. A National government was formed in Midnapore during the 1942 movement. It was still functioning in secret, with the workers holding different posts of secretary, treasurer. or judge of the secret court of justice. A village zaminder was fined a thousand rupees for collaborating with the British government. Another person was jailed for six months for some crime. The police never found out where he was kept imprisoned. We were highly impressed by the efficiency of the workers of Midnapore. We became hopeful for the future when we would truly have a national government of free India.. It gave us a great thrill of joy to imagine a time when we would be free with our own court of justice, our own treasury and government offices.

The famine in Bengal had brought about a total collapse of the economy of the country. But a greater loss was the degeneration of human values. As we went round in our boat we came across an old friend after a long time. In those days he was an upright young man, full of energy and vigour. But now he appeared bent and tired, a totally changed man. He requested us to visit his home. He told us how the police had looted his home and taken away most of his belongings. We had with us Mr. Mulraj Mehta from Bombay. He had come to serve famine-stricken Bengal, and was helping the people untiringly. He was imprisoned in the jails of Bengal for a period of time. On the way our friend borrowed ten rupees from Mr. Mehta for some purchases. He promised to pay it back on reaching home. We spent the day at his house, and at the time of our departure I reminded him of the money he had borrowed. He simply replied that he did not have the money to return, and he had no intention of doing so either. The money was not important, but his attitude saddened my heart. I felt depressed as I thought of the loss of values and honesty from our lives.

I witnessed the same kind of degeneration in many other places. I went to visit a women's relief centre, run by the government in Midnapore. About a thousand women had taken shelter over there with their children. Most of their husbands had deserted them during the famine. Maybe they had gone in search of food and work, and most probably had died in frustration. Relief centres were being run mostly for women. Whenever we talked of their terrible condition, they would always blame fate for their troubles. I often felt tempted to provoke the beggars in front the food shops to loot the stores. But they would never do so for they were afraid of punishment in their next life. They believed they were suffering in this life for some misdeeds in their past life. They did not want to jeopardize their future life by committing crimes now. These women in the relief centres were leading such a useless existence. They had almost forgotten their husbands and their happy homes.

Their demands were always few. Just a shelter where they could live with their husband and children, and some food for sustenance, and clothes for cover. Even these minimal requirements were denied them. Who was responsible for this? When I asked why no work was being given to them there was no reply from the people in authority. These women needed work to regain self-respect. Charity was killing their souls. I heard lots of complaints about them. At night these women walked the streets and were exploited for their helpless condition. Instead of their bodies their souls were being killed.

This was not only the fate of women in the lowest strata, many girls from respectable families also fell victim being unable to bear the pangs of hunger. I wondered if this loss of human values would ever be made up in the future.

In Bengal innumerable fishermen, weavers, blacksmiths, jewelers have died creating a void in the economy of the country. But where was the solution to the social problems created by the unnatural deaths of women? Want and hunger had brought about total degeneration of character and self- respect. Such weakness became evident even in the behavior of the whole- hearted dedicated political worker. The spirit of self -sacrifice and devotion to a cause had ennobled their characters. But they succumbed to the attacks of hunger and devastation. I knew a political prisoner, a man of iron integrity and of heroic stature, a man who was admired and respected by all. But he too was totally defeated by circumstances of horror created by hunger and want. He often fell from his high moral stand in his fight for the survival of his wife and children. The shame of this fall darkened his life. I cannot condemn such workers. My heart bleeds for them in pity and sympathy.

But have I not seen gleams of nobility shining through this all-pervading darkness? Truly I have. I have seen lives shining in glory through mists of despair.

A worker from the district of Dacca came every month to the office of the Bengal Relief Committee to submit his monthly report. Quietly he did his work and we never heard him make any complaint about his own personal life. One Friday he came for medicine for his centre. He spoke on problems of rehabilitation, and discussed ways and means of helping the poor people. He asked if the Bengal Relief Committee could extend monetary help to the poor survivors. Then poor fishermen would be able to buy nets and thus return to normal life with means of sustenance in their own hands. After this discussion he departed for his home. Reaching home on Sunday he started vomiting blood, and within a day or two the end came of his earthly life.

We learned later that he was a school teacher, but had no work when school closed down during the famine, and most of the students had died of starvation. Most of the days he worked without any food; but he had never asked for any help, either for himself or his family. Due to prolonged starvation, he suffered from ' galloping Phthisis ' which hastened his end. I could not even imagine what happened to his family after his death.

A worker from Midnapore, after his release from jail, had started a medical relief centre in a village where he was working tirelessly. He did much work in the neighbouring villages with the help of volunteers. After some time we noticed that reports from the centre were not being submitted in his name. On enquiring we learned that he was suffering from tuberculosis,and was lying bed-ridden in a village near Kolkata. He was a poor worker, and it was difficult for him to find admission in any Sanatorium. I went to see him and was shocked at his changed appearance. I had see him strong and healthy, running around from village to village, and now he was lying thin and emaciated, with a killing fever. Overwork and lack of food had aggravated his illness. He had never asked for any help for himself. When I met him his voice was choked, so he wrote down on a piece of paper,"Didi, I never wanted such an end. My desire was to lay down my life as a soldier on the battle-field."

I often remember another comrade. When he was released from jail after a long period of confinement, he was almost a cripple. While in jail he had lost the use of one leg. With the help of a crutch he went round doing his work in jail, and also tried his utmost to help other sufferers there. Only once I heard him complain, "If I ever realize that I have become useless in serving the people, that I have become a burden on others, then I will surely end my life." One day he came to our house, climbing the stairs with great difficulty, to inform me about an important meeting of the Prisoners' relief committee. He slowly left after a few words. Almost twenty days had elapsed after this, when one day I read in the papers, that a certain political sufferer had ended his life by hanging himself from a tree. This reminded me of Aloke dada, the revolutionary from Kasba.

With great respect, I remember another young boy named Gora. He was an orphan, brought up in the home of a neighbor. He was a hyperactive young boy and the people of the locality always complained about his rowdy behaviour. He would ride away stealing a horse from a neighbour's stable. When benches were found broken in school, the teachers were sure it was Gora's work. As he grew up to be a young man he joined a revolutionary party. He would do everything to help the party. A revolver had to be hidden. Gora was there to do it. The police searched for it in vain. He was a friend of all the wives and girls of the area. He would do everything to help them. If anyone was ill, he was sure to be by his bedside nursing him. As a result he was a favourite with all, old and young alike. He was specially helpful towards the poor and oppressed, Men in the police force also respected him. He had a healthy mind even after a very long period of confinement. But his physical health was completely damaged. He stayed with us in our home in Kolkata, where we tried to help him recoup his health with proper food and medicine. At times he would speak in depression, "What is the use of keeping this body, if I cannot be of any help to others?" I tried to keep up his spirit by assuring him that he would surely regain his health,and would again devote his life to the work of the nation.

One evening he did not return home. We waited many years for him but he did not return. Maybe he did not want to live any more, when his body had become useless. Life had become meaningless to him as he could no longer dedicate it for the service of others.

I am grateful to Dr. Shyamaprasad Mukherji and Sree Bhagirathmal Kanoria for giving me the opportunity to help the suffering people during the famine in Bengal. If they had not given me this chance then I would have returned to Bombay with a heavy heart.

During this work I had another experience which left me deeply depressed. Some workers reacted adversely whenever asked for an account of their work, and the public money spent for it. I remember visiting a centre where an experienced worker was in charge. When I asked him for an account of the money spent at his centre, he seemed terribly upset, and commented angrily, "I did not expect you to ask for an account from me. You know everything about my problems at home." I knew everything - his grown-up daughter waiting for marriage, his ailing wife in need of treatment, his small children going without food. But I was helpless. I was accountable for every paisa of the public fund. I had to be heartless.

I remember another incident. I was working for an organization collecting money for Russia. We had gone from door to door collecting small coins which had added up to hundreds of rupees. One year later, when I wanted to know if the money had been sent to its proper destination, I was insulted and harshly rebuked for my audacity at asking such a question. They condemned me for being mean-minded. I had helped another political party in Bombay in organizing a week-long festival and exhibition. We held meetings for almost a month before the function. Four years have elapsed after that, and not a single meeting has been held to clear the accounts and submit a report. When I reminded them the men in authority were terribly annoyed.

At times I have a feeling that we are unfit for public work. Kamala also had similar experience. Bina, working for the "Amrita Bazar Patrika " strike is facing bitter problems. The union she worked with was under the Congress, but at the end she had to fight almost alone. She stood alone with her principles against the power of money and government support.

Another point comes to my mind as I think of our work in public life. Why is it that we always try to put down other workers? When someone takes the responsibility of some important public work, we try to find fault with his work at every step. We do not give him any credit for the work he has tried to do. We only pick out the defects in his work. We do not realize that by doing this we are breaking his spirit, and crippling all his honest efforts. Every work should be judged by the honesty and sincerity of the worker. A person can only put in his best efforts if he knows that others have faith in him. Mutual trust and faith alone can build up an organization. We must learn to be more tolerant towards each other.

I have received many letters from friends, as -. "Didi, I have found a job far away from Bengal. I shall never forget your presence which gave me comfort and solace during the dark days of my life. I pray for your health and happiness." These letters bearing good wishes, truly lighten the burden of life. As it is life is a hard taskmaster. Most of the time we are confronted with criticism and blame. Affection, sympathy and appreciation are indeed rare, and are to be cherished when found.

The End