Remembering Gorkha Contributions To The Independence Movement

Remembering Gorkha Contributions To The Independence Movement

by Raju Bista - Sunday, August 14, 2022 10:33 PM IST
Remembering Gorkha Contributions To The Independence MovementIcons of the Gorkha community who fought for India’s independence
  • The Member of Parliament from Darjeeling highlights some of the icons from the Indian Gorkha community whose contributions in the history of India’s independence remain relatively unknown.

Under the leadership of Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji, as our nation commemorates ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, we take a solemn moment to remember all those brave hearts who sacrificed their lives so that we could live in a free country.

The struggle for independence attracted active participation from all the communities across the nation; however, the contributions of smaller communities, especially those from North East India, have remained relatively unknown.

All that is changing. Thanks to the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ commemoration as envisioned by Modi ji, more and more people are coming to know about freedom fighters from smaller regions and communities too.

The sacrifices and contributions of the Indian Gorkha community towards our freedom struggle and nation building are immense. Sadly, the majority of the people across our nation are unaware of the sacrifices made by our Gorkha ancestors.

As a Member of Parliament from Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, which is the heart of the Gorkha community in India, and being a Gorkha by ethnicity, here is my humble attempt at highlighting some of the icons from the Indian Gorkha community whose contributions in the history of India’s independence remain relatively unknown among the general population.

Indian National Army Captain Ram Singh Thakuri, Himachal Pradesh

Among the very many celebrated Gorkha freedom fighters, perhaps the one with the most iconic contribution, yet the least-known, remains Captain Ram Singh Thakuri of Himachal Pradesh.

Call it a coincidence or destiny, Captain Thakuri was born on 15 August 1914 to a Gorkha family in Khaniara village, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

In 1924, he joined the 2/1 Gorkha Rifles as a unit musician. He was a talented young man who was proficient in many fields, including football, athletics, and wrestling.

In the Second World War, his battalion was shipped overseas to Singapore. In 1942, Singapore fell and the Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese. This is when Captain Ram Singh Thakuri joined the Indian National Army (INA).

Soon, he became very popular due to his musical talents, so much so that Netaji (Subhas Chandra Bose) took a note of his talents. An astute military strategist, Netaji understood the power music could have on the morale of the soldiers and asked Thakuri to raise a marching band for the INA.

Captain Thakuri didn’t let Netaji down; he produced some of the most well-known songs from India’s freedom movements, like Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja, Sare Jahan se Accha, Inquilab Zindabad, Hind Sipahi, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment marching song Hum Bharat ki Ladki Hai, among others.

The Azad Hind Government had strongly felt at the time that a national anthem was required, one that would connect all Indians through a common thread of music. While some had favoured the great poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram as the national anthem, some others felt it wasn’t inclusive enough.

It was Captain Lakshmi Sahgal who introduced Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana to Netaji, by having it performed at an INA women’s wing meeting which Netaji had attended.

Following that, Netaji instructed Captain Ram Singh Thakuri to re-compose the music of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s version of Jana Gana Mana in a martial tune to which INA soldiers could march.

In one of his interviews, Captain Thakuri fondly recalled Netaji instructing him that "the song should have such an indelible impact and force that the Cathay Building [in Singapore] should ‘break’ into two parts and the sky should become visible.”

While Captain Abid Ali and Mumtaz Hussain rewrote Gurudev’s Jana Gana Mana to शुभ सुख चैन — Subh Sukh Chain ki Barsha Barse, Captain Ram Singh Thakuri gave music to it.

Subh Sukh Chain ki Barsha Barse was adopted by the Provisional Free Government of India (Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind), led by Netaji, as the Qaumi Tarana — National Anthem.

Subh Sukh Chain was played as the national anthem of free India for the first time on 11 September 1942 at Hamburg. When on 31 October 1943, when the INA came to power, the orchestra led by Captain Thakuri played the Qaumi Tarana, the Cathay Building did indeed reverberate thunderously.

The music of Captain Thakuri’s Qaumi Tarana became the base upon which our current national anthem Jana Gana Mana is set. In 1944, Captain Thakuri was decorated by Subhas Chandra Bose with a gold medal for his contribution. Captain Thakuri also received a violin and a saxophone as personal gifts from Netaji.

Captain Thakuri was especially invited to play the Qaumi Tarana when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the Tiranga (the tricolour flag of India) from Lal Quila on 15 August 1947. He then used the violin presented to him by Netaji, who had told him, “You will play this violin when India gets her independence.”

Sadly, after independence, the brave INA freedom fighters were neglected by the governments of the time. Captain Thakuri was appointed as a DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) with the Provincial Arms Constabulary (PAC) band of Uttar Pradesh Police, and he continued to serve our nation through his music till his last days.

Captain Ram Singh Thakuri and INA soldiers perform for Gandhi ji
Captain Ram Singh Thakuri and INA soldiers perform for Gandhi ji

Pushpa Kumar Ghising — Darjeeling

The Naval Uprising of 1946 is among the lesser-known moments of the Indian freedom movement, but, perhaps, it is the most significant.

This is when the Indian Navy soldiers staged a revolt against the British in Karachi and Bombay. Inspired by the INA, over 20,000 mutineers joined the freedom fighters from Karachi to Calcutta, taking over the 78 ships afloat and the onshore establishment. It had inspired other servicemen in the army, air force, and even civilians to join the protests.

During the rebellion, Navy personnel Pushpa Kumar Ghising from Darjeeling fought with at least three British soldiers and managed to take control of the Bombay naval ammunition dump alone.

The weapons from the ammunition dump were used by the rebelling Indian sailors to hold back the British for five days. However, on the fifth day, leaders of the Indian National Congress intervened and coaxed the sailors to lay down their arms.

Ghising and his friends were arrested and taken to the Mulundi Jail where Ghising was court-martialled but acquitted during trial. He resigned from the Navy on 8 September 1946 and plunged into the independence movement.

Even though the Naval Uprising has not been given due importance in the history books, unlike other important incidents in the freedom movement, many contemporary historians acknowledge Naval Uprising to be the pivotal movement that hastened the British decision to quit India.

In recognition of Ghising’s role in the independence movement, the government felicitated him with the Tamra Patra on 15 August 1989.

Pushpa Kumar Ghising during his Navy days
Pushpa Kumar Ghising during his Navy days

Helen Lepcha — Sikkim and Kurseong

Helen Lepcha was born in 1902 in South Sikkim and is, perhaps, the only female freedom fighter from Sikkim.

Helen's family migrated to Kurseong in search of better education and livelihood prospects. During the floods of 1920 in Bihar, she worked as a volunteer, providing tireless service to the victims. This brought her to the attention of Mahatma Gandhi, who later named her Sabitri Devi in honour of her service to people.

Helen Lepcha worked with coal workers from the coalfields in erstwhile Bihar and among the workers in United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), strengthening the freedom movement, and participated in the non-cooperation movement in 1921.

She was arrested for “inciting the people against the government” and sent to jail for three months and a further house arrest later that year.

When Netaji was kept under house arrest in Giddhey Pahar in Kurseong in 1939-40, Helen Lepcha played a vital role in smuggling in and out coded messages, ultimately laying the foundation for Netaji’s escape later, right under the nose of the British authorities, from Calcutta to Germany.

In appreciation of her immense contributions during the freedom movement, the Government of India honoured Helen Lepcha with a Tamra Patra and citation.

Helen Lepcha, the hero who helped Netaji
Helen Lepcha, the hero who helped Netaji

Major Durga Malla — Uttarakhand

Born on 1 July 1913 at Doiwala village in Dehradun district of Uttarakhand, Durga Malla joined the Gorkha Rifles in 1931 at the age of 18.

In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, a group of Indian soldiers led by Durga Malla decided to break away and form the INA under Netaji Subash Chandra Bose. Durga Malla was one of the key figures responsible for the formation of the INA, as he was largely responsible for encouraging fellow Gorkha soldiers to quit the British and join the INA.

Seeing his dedication towards the freedom of India and his military talents, he was promoted to the rank of Major by Netaji and posted in the intelligence branch of INA, where he performed exemplarily, often taking on risky missions that helped INA march forward.

Major Durga Malla — the INA Hero
Major Durga Malla — the INA Hero

It was during one such intelligence gathering mission that Durga Malla was arrested on 27 March 1944 near Urkhul in Manipur. He along with fellow INA prisoners were kept in a prison at the Red Fort as a prisoner of war. There, the British tried to persuade him to renounce INA and offered that his life would be saved if he did so. But he flat-out refused to bow before the British.

When all tricks and coercions failed, the British brought his wife Shrimati Sharda Devi to get him to denounce INA, but instead Durga Malla told his wife, “Sharda, I am sacrificing my life for the freedom of my motherland. You need not be worried and distressed. Crores of Hindustanis will be with you after my death. The Sacrifice I am offering, shall not go in vain. India shall be free. I am confident, this is only a matter of time.”

On 25 August 1944, he was sent to the gallows.

Today, his statue adorns the premises of our Parliament, marking the contribution of the Gorkha community towards our independence.

Honouring Major Durga Malla in the Parliamentary premises
Honouring Major Durga Malla in the Parliamentary premises

Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri — Manipur

Among the illustrious Gorkha community that has produced so many heroes for our nation, the honour of being the first Gorkhali to have martyred for our motherland goes to Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri ji of Manipur.

When the great Manipuri hero Jubraj Tikendrajit Singh decided to resist British incursions into Manipur, 39-year-old Niranjan Chhetri of Tikuamoh, who was an ex-army sipahi of the 34th Native Infantry, joined the native force of Manipur led by Bir Tikendrajit and Thangal General. His experience as a soldier and his bravery were evident, and he was appointed as Subedar by Jubraj Tikendrajit himself.

Following the war, Chhetri was tried by the Chief Political Officer, Manipur Field Force, and was hanged to death by the British on 8 June 1891. His last words were: “My birthplace is my Motherland, I am ready to die for this land, and I am ready to kill for this land, but I am not ready to accept surrender and subjugation of my own land.”

For decades, his sacrifice had been relegated to the pages of history. However, under Honourable Chief Minister N Biren Singh ji, the history and legacy of this legendary Gorkha freedom fighter is finally being brought to light.

On 7 March 2021, Chief Minister N Biren Singh ji unveiled the statue of Saheed Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri. He acknowledged the role played by the Subedar by writing: “Immensely glad to unveil the statue of Saheed Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri, one of the heroes of Ango-Manipur (sic) War,1891. His bravery,patriotism & sacrificial spirit for the motherland were unparalleled. He was hanged to death by the British on June 8,1891 for his role in the war.”

Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri — the first Gorkha freedom martyr
Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri — the first Gorkha freedom martyr

Dalbir Singh Lohar — Assam

Dalbir Singh Lohar from Assam joined the freedom movement in 1921 during Gandhi ji’s visit to Dibrugarh. He was a labour leader and one of the most prominent freedom fighters from Assam, who led the Civil Disobedience Movement in Dibrugarh from the front.

He was imprisoned during 1930-31 for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement along with other Gorkha freedom fighters from Assam, like Bhakta Bahadur Pradhan and Anantalal Sharma.

In 1939, Assam saw the historic strike at Asia’s oldest refinery and the birthplace of oil industry in India in Digboi, Assam. Dalbir Singh Lohar was one of the key leaders of the strike called by the non-unionised Digboi oil refinery workers.

Citing tensions with Germany, the British crushed the Digboi strike with an iron hand, sending down eight platoons of Assam Rifles to crush it. Prominent leaders like Dalbir Singh Lohar were issued the notice of 'Quit Digboi, Quit Lakhimpur, and finally Quit Assam within 72 hours’ by the British.

He was again arrested during the Quit India Movement called by Gandhi ji, along with Gorkha freedom fighters like Pradhan and Sharma and all were kept in separate jails. However, they soon became symbols of working-class people’s resistance against the British government.

After independence, Dalbir Singh Lohar went on to become the first MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) of Gorkha ethnicity to be elected from the Digboi Assembly, by winning the 1951 election with a landslide margin. He continued to serve working-class people all through his life.

Dalbir Singh Lohar — the people’s leader from Dibrugarh
Dalbir Singh Lohar — the people’s leader from Dibrugarh

These are only a few whose contributions I have highlighted today. There are hundreds of others who have played a significant role towards ensuring our independence, but due to the paucity of space, accommodating them all is not possible.

As can be seen, the Gorkhas, no matter which state they were born in, have played a significant role in our freedom struggle. I am hopeful that as we celebrate the 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav', more people across the nation come to know about heroes like them.

Jai Hind!

Raju Bista is the Member of Parliament from Darjeeling and National Spokesperson for BJP.
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