From fight for freedom to fight against corruption

Gour Hari Das, after spending 32 years to get official recognition as a freedom fighter, wonders if this is the country they had made sacrifices for

geetanjali

Geetanjali Minhas | September 12, 2015 | Mumbai


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As a 14-year-old boy living in the border village of Jhadpimpal in Odisha, Gour Hari Das joined India’s freedom struggle in 1945 taking inspiration from his freedom fighter father. Decades later, he had to fight another battle, this time with his own country’s bureaucracy to reclaim his identity as a freedom fighter. Strange it may sound, but it took him 32 years to prove that he fought for the country’s independence. The story of his life has even inspired a biopic (Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File, directed by Anant Mahadevan), which was released on August 14.

Talking with Governance Now, Das recalled a meeting chaired by Mahatma Gandhi in a West Bengal village in 1944. Das became the envy of other young boys from the village when Gandhi patted his head. As a member of the Vanar Sena he, along with other young men and women, would covertly spread messages and publications of the freedom movement. After hoisting the unofficial Indian flag against orders on the ‘Independence Day’ (celebrated on January 26 during the British rule) in 1945, he was sentenced to eight months of imprisonment but was granted bail after one month and 28 days.

In 1952 he shifted to Mumbai and took a job with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. Years later when his son sought admission to the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in Matunga of Mumbai under the freedom fighters quota, he was asked to substantiate his claim. Authorities maintained that his claim was false. Disappointed and hurt, Das decided to get the recognition certificate and this was the start of a 32-year-long struggle with the government which took a major chunk of his life. It also left him bitter and frustrated.

Despite having a jail certificate, officials misread his jail period for 18 days against the minimum required period of one month. “I was accused of being a fraud and trying to cheat the government for pension. They even suspected the authenticity of my birth certificate. When I told them to go ahead and arrest me, they did not react,” he said.

“The officials said that I could not obtain the certificate from Maharashtra as I had fought for freedom from Odisha. I said that we he had fought for the country and not for a region. I was told to submit a proof that I was not drawing similar benefits from Odisha.”

After the initial face-off with bureaucracy, Das was disillusioned and deterred by his family not to take on the government. However, a few well-wishers stepped in and encouraged him not to give up.

He faced callousness, humiliation and apathy. The struggle turned out to be a gruelling and longer. After countless trips to government offices, hundreds of letters, knocking many doors and persistent pleading, he finally got the certification of a freedom fighter. “I had to visit the police commissioner’s office, the collector’s office and the mantralaya (the Maharashtra secretariat),’’ he said. Due to regular trips to government offices he became quite familiar with the working class and made some good acquaintances.

“I knew this was going to be an uphill task and realised that this was not the kind of country we had fought for. There were offers of certificate and higher pensions if I agreed to grease palms but we had not braved the British and spent time behind bars to succumb to red tapisim,” he said.

“During our freedom movement, we never knew we would need a ‘tamrapatra’ (certification) from the government and we never dreamt of a pension benefit,” he said.

He wrote to the district magistrate in 1976, explaining his problem, and then followed a series of such letters addressed to various government offices. This continued till June 2008 when he finally received the certificate. As per the rules of the general administration department, his pension was approved from 1989 to 2008. The government split the pension amount in 40:60 ratio -– 40 percent amount was to be handed over to him and 60 percent was to be kept in a post-office fixed deposit and to be given to him with interest after five years.

“I was 77 then and questioned the possibility of my survival till 82,” he said. His pension cheque was prepared but held back in the pay and accounts office for six months. “Every time I went there, I was told it will take some time. Finally I went to the collector’s office for his help.

The collector, Vishwas Patil, called the officer and reprimanded him for holding back the cheque of a freedom fighter. He told him to correct the date of cheque and hand it over to me immediately.” Recalling another incident, he said that he was so frustrated with the bureaucracy that he came out of the officer’s cabin and complained to his senior. The officer was called by his senior and was asked to apologise.

“Had I paid money to get my work done, I would have received the certificates in no time without facing any hurdles. I chose not to pay bribe. But the government machinery works in a peculiar fashion. Bribes are shared by all in equal proportion. The entire administration is corrupt. The only purpose of holding back a file means they want bribe,” he added.

“I suggested to them to prepare a checklist of freedom fighters so that the record is streamlined. But they never bothered to do that and kept asking for papers time and again. They make you wait outside all day and allow the entry only when the office is about to close. These are the tactics used to avoid someone. I often wondered if this was the future of our country and if it is, why did we struggle for the freedom?

“Times have changed so drastically that Vallabhbhai Patel’s daughter, Maniben Patel, died a lonely death and there was no one to look after her though her father had made so many sacrifices for the nation,” Gour said bemoaning over the plight of freedom fighters in the country.
Gour has donated a significant portion of his pension to charity. Even the royalty he received for the biopic largely went to the underprivileged and poor children.

Today, Gour is associated with an NGO called National Anti-Corruption and Crime Prevention Council. He lives with his wife in a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Mumbai. “It’s all about vote-bank politics in the country today and only common people like us from the middle class suffer. We have produced naxalites and militants by doing injustice and unleashing atrocities on poor and downtrodden. Revolution will come from the roots,” he said.

geetanjali@governancenow.com

(The story appears in the September 1-15, 2015 issue)

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