Offshore Freedom Fighters Time to Say Thank You

Dr Vinay Thusoo
While reading “A forgotten Ambassador in Cairo” by IITian N.S Vinodh late last year, I was intrigued by the contribution of the many offshore freedom fighters who have been reduced to a footnote in various books on India’s freedom struggle. Their association with the top stalwarts of the time is paramount. That they did not believe in self-congratulatory interviews and media attention, little is known about them. Without a doubt, the author of the book deserves applause for his extensive research and for brilliantly bringing to life scores of unsung freedom fighters who were relegated far too long to the shadow of time
I thought Republic Day is an appropriate moment to pay befitting tribute to offshore unsung heroes: Gurdit Singh, J.J Singh, Dr N.S Hardikar, Taraknath Das and many others who took it upon themselves to apprise the civil society at large in EnglandAmerica and many other European countries of great importance about the atrocities committed by the Imperialists. Without their active efforts,we would have never got freedom in 1947. They did it with a lot of precision through writings, newspapers, bar councils, forums to evoke the sentiments of people against the injustice of colonial rule.
My focus is on Syud Hossain, the first ambassador to Egypt who was buried in Cairo in 1949, and in whose journey aboard, many prominent freedom fighters will get some due share. Now, cutting the chase, Syud Hossain belonged to an aristocratic family that traced its lineage to Persia with some of its members being nobility in the Mughal Court of Delhi. Syud Hossain’s growing years witnessed many movements including the nationalistic movement in Bengal which saw a huge surge with Britishers feeling jittery as they sought to drive a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims. The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of great upheaval in Bengal. Syud Hossain in the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College later christened as Aligarh Muslim University showed early indications of an attitude that would, in later years hold the audience transfixed through his eloquence at the lectern to sway the audience by the persuasiveness of his pen. England and Lincoln’s Inn played a significant contribution in the life of Syud Hossain and surprisingly this is the same place where India’s freedom struggle heroes were trained and the quintessential examples are Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, and it won’t be wrong to say that the drawing board of India’s freedom struggle was laid in the inns of Court and many antagonists among British statesman had broken bread at the same place and propagated in England, the atrocities committed by their policymakers offshore in India.
It was also the time when Indian Nationalism was beginning to root itself in England. Shyamji Krishna Varma, an Indian-born revolutionary had founded the Indian Home Rule Society and established the India House at Highgate. Vikram Sampath, the author of Savarkar’s biography narrates a meeting between Gandhi and Savarkar at India House in 1906. While Annie Basant’s Home Rule League formulated a strategy to send delegations to England to inform the Civil Society, the concept of Home Rule and create an environment in favour of the Indian Movement. Besides, Syud Hossain, Pandit Iqbal Narayan Gurtu, Manjeri Rama Iyer were the members of the delegation. However, unfortunately, the deputation was not allowed and disembarked at Gibraltar.
The press played a significant role in India’s freedom struggle. Prominent congressmen of that time had established their newspapers to counter the pro-establishment newspapers owned or edited by Englishmen to disseminate and awaken the masses about the atrocities committed by the Britishers and the need for freedom. As Moti Lal Nehru’s political activities grew, he felt the need for a daily newspaper based in the United Provinces (currently Uttar Pradesh) that could articulate his views. On the recommendations of B.G Horniman, British journalist and supporter of India’s Independence, Jawahar Lal Nehru, wrote to Syud Hossain requesting him to come to Allahabad to start the newspaper “Nationalist”. Later on, the nomenclature was changed to ‘The Independent.’ Syud Hossain left the ‘Bombay Chronicle’ and took charge as the editor of the newspaper which was started from the stables of Anand Bhawan, the palatial house of Motilal Nehru. Within three months “The Independent Newspaper” in 1919 became a radical mouthpiece of congress and a sharp critic of British policies.
Syud Hossain, being a strong supporter of the Khilafat Movement also got unexpected support from Gandhi, who saw this as an ideal opportunity for uniting Muslims and Hindus. For a brief and rare period in India’s recent history, the Khilafat movement succeeded in uniting the Hindus and Muslims against a common foe. Motilal Nehru in his letter to Jawahar Lal said, ” Pan-Islamism or Pan-Hinduism doesn’t enter into the programme of the Indian Nationalist.” Likewise, Jinnah too reacted sharply and felt that it had brought reactionary mullah elements into prominence. Twenty years later, the same Jinnah who was against Khilafat Movement became a brazen communalist, while Syud Hossain appealed for nationalism beyond the confines of religion. The Jallainwala Bagh Massacre was a watershed moment in the history of the freedom struggle of India which because of wider coverage resonated in the House of Parliament and even Winston Churchill, the die-hard imperialist condemned the culpability of Brigadier Dyer. With the cease of activities of Indian political organisations due to Gandhi’s non-cooperation, Syud Hossain may have been asked by Gandhi to go to America as an interim unofficial spokesperson for the congress.
On reaching America, Syud Hossain was received by the words of Emma Lazarus on the plaque mounted on the pedestal of the statue which was not followed in letter and spirit and every step was taken to prevent the entry of Indians into the country to deprive Indians every right the Lady with a torch proclaimed:
“Give me your tired, you are poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Within and outside the country, the Indians were fighting against colonial rule and in that regard, if I don’t mention “Komagata Maru” then this write up is incomplete. “Komagata Maru” the 2900 ton freighter, Japanese vessel was hired by Gurdit Singh, a Sikh peasant from Amritsar who earned good in Singapore to go to Canada to test the legality of the Canadian Immigration Laws. The lure of North America was economically and politically tempting and many Indians were ready to sojourn despite being aware of blatant hostility. In the words of Khushwant Singh, ” This time the door to Canada was firmly shut and bolted with a notice in invisible ink reading ‘Only Indians not allowed printed on the outside.’ In total. 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus and a crew of 40 Japanese appeared in Vancouver on 21 May 1914. The news of their arrival caught the headlines of all prime newspapers and the government tried every trick up their sleeve to return the ship. They tried every possible way to dissuade them and even the court ruling went against the Indians for a brief moment, skirmishes took place between the passengers and the local police, resulting in some injuries to some police officers and the Indians. A telegram sent by the City Council to the Prime Minister of Canada declared “The City of Vancouver will not stand for any further dumping of East Indians.”
Their struggle was given it’s historical due by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating a memorial built at Budge Budge in 1952. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also formally apologised on behalf of the Govt. of Canada in the House of Commons in May 2016, expressing regret that none of those on the ship was alive today to hear the apology. However, India is yet to receive a formal apology from Britain until then it is going to remain an open wound.
(The author is Official Spokesperson Incharge Media University of Jammu)