Home Indian News A new book tells the story of the Indian freedom movement through the lives of five key players

A new book tells the story of the Indian freedom movement through the lives of five key players

A new book tells the story of the Indian freedom movement through the lives of five key players

During this long incarceration, every aspect of the daily lives of the prisoners was under the microscope of the prison and provincial authorities. The reports they sent were closely scrutinised by the Government of India officials, and frequently shown to the viceroy. There was a weekly medical examination of each prisoner the report of which – apart from listing basic health parameters – would also contain a brief description of the individual’s state of mind and body. Instructions to the prison authorities about the entitlements of the prisoners had been precisely laid down including “special privileges” in view of their status. Thus, the number of bars of soap, toothbrushes, daily diet allowances, towels and so on were documented.

In terms of material well-being, the detainees were not physically deprived. As conditions in their prison in the fort stabilised so did their entitlements. The latter, when compared with conditions in a “normal” prison, was clearly based on the recognition that each of the prisoners was a person of standing and high political status. A sum of Rs 100 per month – not a small sum in those days – was allocated as expenditure for each prisoner towards the costs of their diet, toiletries, etc.

Some newspapers and periodicals were supplied at government cost; others could be ordered from within the Rs 100 limit. Personal parcels were allowed after scrutiny as were books sent by the members of their family or ordered by each individual. But this material minimum was hardly the point. This was a politically supercharged period and each of those imprisoned was thereafter great personal sacrifice. Most were constantly plagued by doubts about the confrontation they had embarked on. Almost all the prisoners were not in good health and the prolonged incarceration meant further deterioration. Over the first year – between August 1942 and the end 1943 – some of the Ahmednagar inmates seem to have gone through a particularly bad time.

A comparative chart of their weight in this period reveals that Abul Kalam lost over 40 pounds (18 kilograms), Mahmud 32 pounds (14.5 kilograms), Pant 19 pounds (8.5 kilograms), Nehru 16 pounds (7 kilograms) and Asaf 9 pounds (4 kilograms). One pencilled note by an anonymous officer on this report reads unsympathetically: “Probably some of them had been too fat when they were bought in.”

Medical attention was minimal, with their jailer-cum-doctor the only recourse in most cases. Anything needing more specialised attention required clearance from the Government of India after the Bombay government had given its recommendations. Proposals for examination by a specialist were scrutinised minutely on file, some of which fortunately survive if only to establish how little government functioning has changed. Often the highest levels of government were consulted; attitudes there were generally against leniency and this would have influenced the judgement of those down the bureaucratic chain.

On occasion, whether a specialist should be permitted depended also on the political personality of the individual in question. On a proposal that Vallabhbhai Patel be allowed a visit by the physician who treated him regularly, the viceroy himself was to comment, “I am prepared to resist this strongly.” This was because “Patel is the worst offender of the lot and very largely responsible for the violence that took place in August 1942”.

The viceroy also noted that “the last time he was ‘in’ he escaped by a faked condition of high blood pressure arranged by his doctor”. On a representation by a senior politician Shri Prakash that Narendra Deva – one of the “few scholars of his eminence in ancient Pali” – be released on account of his poor health, the Home Member of the viceroy’s Executive Council minuted: “If he puts politics above Pali the choice is his and he cannot have it both ways.”

In Ahmednagar Fort, Syed Mahmud shared a room for about fifteen months with Nehru, who often nursed him for long periods and frequently noted in his diary how very ill Mahmud was. At one stage he listed the more serious ailments: “Filaria, heart trouble, gall bladder, serious eye trouble, persistent spitting out of blood, pyorrhea.” He wrote for instance in May 1943:

Obviously Mahmud is a case for a hospital. But both in his case and Vallabhbhai’s there is an initial difficulty. We are supposed to be living in an unknown place although everybody knows exactly where we are kept. Anyway, they are not supposed to know. So, if anyone is sent to hospital or elsewhere this very transparent veil of mystery is torn up.

In Ahmednagar, Asaf had noted about Mahmud that he was ‘the only person here to whom the ritual side of religion has as much meaning as its spiritual realm’. Mahmud’s insistence on fasting through Ramzan did not, in Nehru’s view, help. His health, along with that of some others, was a matter of great concern to the entire group and there would be frequent run-ins with the jailer on the inadequate medical treatment they were receiving.

At one point, in the summer of 1943, the entire group was inoculated against cholera amidst reports of mounting cases of the disease. Mahmud had an extreme adverse reaction to the vaccine and Nehru was to note:

The last three days have been unusual for me. I have done little except nursing Mahmud. His condition suddenly became rather serious. His temperature went on mounting . . . It was obvious that all of this was not just a reaction to the vaccination. Perhaps the vaccination had roused up latent disease; indeed, much of this is not latent, it is obvious enough . . . Yesterday morning I spoke to the Supt [superintendent] with some vigour, and I fear harshness. My anger was of course directed against the Govt . . . I told him that it was scandalous that serious hospital cases like Mahmud and Vallabhbhai’s should be treated casually here.8

Amidst all this, the relationship with Mahmud’s family also continued and we find Nehru as concerned as his wife had been over a decade and a half ago. He wrote to Indira Gandhi on November 20, 1943:

I wrote to you long ago about Dr Mahmud’s daughters. You wrote to either Sarvar or Hamida and apparently had no answer. I should like you to try again . . . It is difficult to move these people. They fall into certain ruts and remain there . . . I do wish you could manage to get the girls to come to Anand Bhavan. If Mrs Mahmud could come also, it would be good for her.

Excerpted with permission from Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in The Indian National Struggle, TCA Raghavan, Juggernaut Books.


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