August 15th is Indian Independence day. Every year, on this day, I observe a simple ritual. I listen to some of the most melodious versions of our National Anthem. From vocal music to instrumental ensembles, the melody and deep significance of this beautiful prayer moves me beyond words. It makes me reflect on how precious our freedom is and how millions of people paid the price for what we enjoy now. Today, my octogenarian dad shared with me 3 stories from that freedom struggle. He’s the only one I personally know who lived and survived WWII and played a role in the Indian Independence movement!
Recruiting for WWII
The year was 1942. And World War II was still raging. At the time, the area near Bangalore’s City Market routinely witnessed recruitment drives from the British Indian Army. The recruitment team consisted of Indian and British officers who would arrive in two vans. One of them filled with officers and the other, empty so it could ferry back shortlisted, volunteers. The officers used loudspeakers to announce: “Khaana Pukkat! Kapda Pukkat! Makaan Pukkat!” (free food, free clothes, and free housing!) Those that volunteered would be considered for the 3 or 5-day long evaluation of tests, physical examination, and further selection. This meant two things for the volunteers: Assurance of employment at a time when jobs were hard to come by. And the honor of working for the military.
As I listened to my dad narrate this story, I remembered Gen. Stan McChrystal’s TED talk. (which is discussed at length in one of my earlier posts). In his talk, the 4-star General says his audience probably thinks the forces he led were “…steely eyed commanders with big, knuckle fists carrying exotic weapons….” In reality, they were ordinary men, women, young and old. And not just from the military but from different organizations. Similar to the people who signed up to join the British Indian military in 1942, (minus the exotic weapons, perhaps). These were ordinary men and women driven by extraordinary courage or dire need for food, clothing, and the promise of shelter.
Fighting with Finger Millet
In the midst of WWII, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement on August 8, 1942. He demanded ‘orderly British withdrawal’. At the time, my dad was in his first year of high school. And the school was located opposite the Tipu Sultan Fort in Bangalore. Since large-scale protests broke out all over India, my dad too plunged into the freedom struggle. To quell the growing number of protesters, the British deployed military forces, armed and mounted police. Even though it was wartime, the British still had the support of the British Indian army, the Indian Imperial Police, and the Indian Civil Service.
During this time, protesters had managed to smuggle hundreds and thousands of gunny sacks into one of the nearby schools. These were filled with Ragi or Finger Millet. Under attack, they began to unload sacks of finger millet on the streets of Bangalore. This not only took the military by surprise but it led foot soldiers and mounted police to lose their footing and fall due to the slippery nature of the millet. While this was a clever and ingenious tactic, it was no match to bullets and assault rifles as you will discover in the next story.
Not far from the high school where my dad was studying, the revolt continued as part of the Quit India movement. On that particular day, my dad was also participating. Men, women, young adults, and children were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call to Do or Die. They marched on, relentlessly. The military kept warning them to disperse peacefully and give way. A 20-22 year old man stood at the forefront of the crowd, refusing to back down. He shouted: “I will not back down. What are you going to do?” Not surprisingly, officers warned him of dire consequences if he did not pay heed to their repeated warnings.
The young man continued to dare the officers and defiantly proclaimed: “You can shoot me if you want but I will not back off!” He was shot at point-blank range and collapsed to his death, instantly. As he lay lifeless on the street with blood gushing from his chest, my dad was a mere 8-10 feet away. And he was less than 12 years old.
Tryst with Destiny
As my dad narrated this chilling incident and I took notes with trembling hands, I recalled once again lines from one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century by Jawaharlal Nehru. He honors the memory of “…unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, served India even unto death..” And how “…freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people…”
Today, we live in slightly different times. Many of us have the gift of freedom. To breathe, shine, thrive, and grow. Without having to dodge bullets, face military tanks, or experience extreme oppression in everything we do.
We have to make our freedom count. In little acts of kindness and compassion. Through responsible use of media. In forbearance and gratitude for the less privileged. And in striving to be strong, role models for those that will watch and learn from us.
*Grateful thanks to my dad for sharing these pre-independence stories so I may bring them to you on August 15, 2017.*
Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.
THIS IS A PERSONAL BLOG AND VIEWS DON’T REPRESENT CISCO’S STRATEGIES OR OPINIONS.