27 June 2019
By: Anil Dhir, Noted Historian, Bhubaneswar
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”: Gandhi
Bhubaneswar: The Indian freedom struggle has its heroes, but countless freedom fighters, who had fearlessly fought and taken down the most potent and exploitative imperialistic regime were silently sent into oblivion after independence. They did not seek reward or recognition. The 102 years old Centenarian, Mohammed Baji of Nabrangpur was one such example, he was amongst the last of this dying tribe.
I had met him a few months ago. He was just a gentle old man with a charming smile, and a sacrifice that sat lightly on his ageing shoulders. A devout Gandhian, he had actively taken part in the freedom struggle, and post-independence, continued serving the down trodden humanity on the principles laid down by Mahatma Gandhi. Influenced by Gandhi's approach of non-violence from his schooldays, he had made up his mind to meet him. At the age of 21 years, he along with his friend Lakshman Sahu, cycled around 350 kms amid thick forests and hilly terrain to reach Raipur in Chhattisgarh. Baji recalled, “From there we took a train to Wardha and went on to Sewagram. Many great people were at his ashram. We were awed and worried, apprehensive if we would meet him. They were sent to Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s Secretary, who allowed us to go near Gandhi during his 5 p.m. evening walk.”
“But the man walked so fast! My run was his walk. Finally, I could no longer keep up and appealed to him: Please stop: I have come all the way from Orissa just to see you,” Baji said. Gandhi teasingly told the young man, what have you seen? I too, am a human being, two hands, two legs, and a pair of eyes. Are you a Satyagrahi? Baji replied that he had pledged to be one.
“Go,’ said Gandhi. ‘Jao, lathi khao. Sacrifice for the nation.’ Seven days later, Baji returned home to do exactly as Gandhi had told him.He organised a Satyagraha in an anti-war protest outside the Nabrangpur Masjid. It led to “six months in jail and a Rs. 50 fine. Not a small amount those days. Many more episodes followed. On one occasion, people gathered to attack the police, Baji stepped in and stopped them. ‘Marenge lekin maarenge nahin,’ he said to the crowd. Coming out of jail, he wrote to Gandhi: what now? And his reply came. ‘Go to jail again.’ So he did. This time for four months. But the third time, they did not arrest him. So he wrote to Gandhi yet again: now what? Gandhi replied: ‘take the same slogans and move amongst the people.’ And thus Baji embarked on his never ending odyssey, which has now culminated at the age of 102 years.
At the height of the Quit India Movement, Haji and his merry band took the slogans of non-violence among the masses. His group of about 30 people used to walk from village to village, spreading the gospel of non-violence and Satyagraha. The idea of India, the idea of Poorna Swaraj and the necessity of non-violent means to achieve them were spread across the remotest parts of Nabrangpur and adjoining areas. The result of this in British India was bullets, lathi charges, broken limbs and long jail terms. Haji spent nearly 2000 days as a prisoner in different jails.
On August 19, 1942, nineteen people died in the police firing at Papadahandi near Nabrangpur. Baji’s shoulder was shattered in the violence unleashed against the protesters. Over 300 were injured, many died thereafter from their wounds. Baji, along with nearly than a thousand satyagrahis, were jailed in Koraput.
He spent the next five years in various jails. He was with the legendary tribal freedom fighter Lakhan Nayak in Koraput Jail. After Lakhan Nayak’s death sentence was pronounced, he was shifted to Berhampur Jail. Haji too was sent to the Katak Jail, and released just before Independence Day on August 12, 1947.
Post-Independence, from 1955-67, he was active in the Bhoodan movement and played a leading role in collecting about four lakh acres of land and distributing it among the landless. Though a Muslim, he had launched a movement against cow slaughter. "I donated my 14 acres during the Bhoodan movement," Baji said. In 1968 he established an ashram for Adivasi and Harijan students in Bijapur.
He remained a bachelor throughout the life. He’s was a strict vegetarian and had headed the anti-cow slaughter league for years, even participating in protests in Delhi and Mumbai. He refused to accept the freedom fighter’s pension for twelve years, relenting at the insistence of his friend Biju Patnaik, who asked him to put the money to good use. When I asked him about the partition, Baji, like other Gandhians, said: "I was against the partition of the country. We had fought for the Independence of a united India, not a fragmented one."
The upsurge of communal identities in politics in the early 90’s was as disappointing for him as the partition. He was part of a 100-member peace force that was in Ayodhya during the Mandir-Masjid dispute.
“We were sitting in the tent, they tore it down. We kept sitting. They threw water on the ground and at us. They tried making the ground wet and difficult to sit on. We remained seated. Then when I went to drink some water and bent down near the tap, they smashed me on the head, fracturing my skull. I had to be rushed to hospital.”
He was not describing British brutality of 1942, but the vicious attack on him during the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, half a century later.The old Gandhian fighter, already in his mid-seventies, spent ten days in hospital and a month in a Varanasi ashram recovering from the injury to his head. But he did not hold an iota of anger as he described the events to me. I have never seen such an honest Gandhian who has dedicated his entire life for the nation. I had recorded nearly one hour of his talk, taken his blessings and promised to return. He had repeated to me what Gandhiji had told him years ago, “I am just an ordinary human being like you. Become a Satyagrahi, India needs young people like you”.