Only five freedom fighters are still alive in Delhi. Patriot visits two of them, In their nineties now, Bharti Choudhry and Lajpat Rai Yadav, to record their memories
“Maa ne uniform pehnaya aur kaha hamare baarein mein kabhi mat sochna. Ab tum Bharat Maa ki beti ho,” (Ma put me in uniform and said, ‘Don’t worry about your parents, now you are India’s daughter’) recalls 90-year-old Bharti Choudhry. Sitting in a cream-coloured silk saree in her Gurugram apartment, she tells the story of her part in the Rani Jhansi Regiment in Southeast Asia.
Born in Kobe, Japan on February 2, 1928 in an influential Indian family, Asha Sahay, after marriage changed her name to Bharti Choudhry. Choudhry had little in common with her family. She didn’t like the chicken curry her dad used to like, she used to dislike Sundays, because that was the time her father would teach her Hindi.
Her father Anand Mohan Sahai, hailing from Bihar, was secretary to Dr Rajendra Prasad, before he went to Japan. Fired by the zeal to contribute to the freedom movement, he started working with Gandhiji.
When all the top leaders were arrested by the Britishers in India, the others were left with no work and no hope. So her father went back to pursue medical studies. He wanted to go to the US, but he didn’t get the visa.
However, he procured a visa for Japan. “He had no source of income, so he started teaching English language to young Japanese boys,” says Choudhry.
Slowly, her father started the work to facilitate talks between Indian and Japanese leaders, “that the fight for independence has to be fought together.”
In the year 1941, her father sent her mother to Kolkata to meet Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and ask him to come to Japan and lead them. “Rash Behari Bose was also there. But he knew that he was too old by then. He was not a mass leader, but a revolutionary,” says Choudhry.
After he fled the country and reached Japan, he wanted her father to lead the Indian Independence League, however, he denied accepting the offer. “He said till Subhash (Netaji) comes, he will manage the thing,” tells Choudhry.
She remembers the time when she met Netaji in 1943, when he came to Tokyo. “We went to meet him at Imperial Hotel. We were just standing and my mother told me to bow down to him,” says Choudhry with excitement in her eyes.
“He got so annoyed when I and my sister bowed down. He said after doing slavery for years still you’re telling your daughters to bow down. He said no bowing till we don’t get independence,” says Choudhry.
Suddenly, he announces, “Stay straight and say Jai Hind.”
She was 16 at this period of time, and remembers the time she asked Netaji to let her join the freedom movement. However, he shot back, “You are too fragile right now. Can you shoot the enemy?”
Instantly, Choudhry replied, “Of course, we can.” Her mother joined the conversation and told him that both the girls are strong from inside and can fight.
Choudhry was told by Netaji, that there was going to be a women’s regiment and he would call her once it’s formed. Subsequently, they gathered 3,000 girls in 1944, and this was the time when her father became a minister in Netaji’s cabinet. “He told my father that you can bring 1-2 girls here to join the Rani Jhansi Regiment in Southeast Asia. I agreed and quit college,” says Choudhry.
She was just 17. She was asked to give a speech on her farewell but hesitated. “I thought, I’m a soldier now. I cannot give a speech,” Choudhry recalls.
She underwent rigorous training in Singapore when she joined the regiment, which had two squads. Choudhry chose the fighting squad, not nursing.
“I couldn’t talk loudly. I was told to shout and say ‘Attention’.” She was given a pistol, sent on night marches, imparted guerrilla warfare training. Her Hindi training was continued.
Later, the regiment was disbanded due to the withdrawal of the Azad Hind government. Some troops retreated along with the Japanese forces. “When we were returning from Bangkok to Singapore and our plane faced lots of attack from the ground forces. But we reached safely,” says Choudhry.
“There was no feeling. We lost, we lost,” says Choudhry on the withdrawal of the Azad Hind government.
An avid reader even at the age of 90, she lives in Gurugram with one of her sons and has a knack for cleanliness.
Rebel at heart
Another story is of a 98-year-old man, Lajpat Rai Yadav, a rebel at heart with a self-proclaimed will to live till 110. Residing in a quaint house in the army dominated area of Delhi Cantt, Yadav too is a freedom fighter.
“I was in jail for six months. And I saw all these people fighting for the freedom of the country beaten up daily. I cannot explain that feeling in words,” relates Yadav as he gets emotional and pauses.
He was in born in the Lukhi village in Rewari, Haryana in the year 1921. He completed his matriculation studies in Mahendragarh. Since the feeling of patriotism was brimming in his heart, he wanted to do something for the freedom of the country.
Since his grandfather was a close aide to Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati, the teachings of Arya Samaj settled deep within his heart. In 1939, he participated in the Satyagraha in Hyderabad. He was 18 at this point, but he could not have imagined the struggle which awaited them.
“When we were in jail. We were given lots of work to do. It wasn’t good work. People were beaten every day. I was not since I was one of the youngest men there,” tells Yadav in his baritone which resonates to his wisdom.
He recalls that nine people chosen by his uncle were sent to join the movement. Soon after, they were sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
However, all the leaders and the supporters were released on the order of the Nizam of Hyderabad. “It was someone’s birthday so he decided to free us for his happiness,” tells Yadav.
As the courage and the drive to do more was still there, Yadav decided to join the Indian Army. The whole world was grappling with the second world war at this time.
During his days serving the army, Yadav got to travel abroad, which he says in an extremely proud manner. “I travelled the world like a villager,” he quips. The war got over in 1945, he left the army and decided to stay abroad and travel for six years.
Once he came back, he again wanted to do something concrete, so he joined the civic defence service. He served there for more than 34 years and also completed his graduation during this period.
Due to his learning based on the Arya Samaj’s ideology, education felt like the right step for him to move on. He had made a name for himself by this time, and was respected by the people of his village.
“I contributed my bit for the state education board in Rewari and also helped people to open more schools,” he tells.
His wife Sarla Yadav, when asked about her husband, instantly answers, “Of course I’m proud to be his wife.” She didn’t speak much besides this.
Today, he follows an exemplary routine, waking up at 2 am in the morning to do yoga and meditate, which he continues till 5.
At 8:30, he eats biscuits with chai, followed by cornflakes and badam. For lunch, there is only one roti-subzi with a bowl of curds. Before sleeping at night, he drinks amla juice. “You take this, you’ll stay well,” he advises.
Yadav likes to read biographies, and proudly points out his collection in the living room. Being a freedom fighter he gets Rs 90,000 as pension, which he says will double once he turns 100 – that will be in June 2020. “Mujhe ek sau das saal jeena hain,” announces Yadav as he sips his tea.