Paharpur, Baksa: When Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose said those immortal lines ‘Give me blood and I shall give you freedom’ at Burma in 1944, a young man barely out of his teens was listening with rapt attention. Inspired by the charisma of Netaji and driven by zeal to free his country from the clutch of British, Puran Bahadur Chetry had run away from his hometown of Gorakhpur in Bihar.
It is another story that seven and half decades later, the family of this decorated war hero is languishing in oblivion at a nondescript village bordering Bhutan, trying to get their names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Paharpur village in Baksa district, which is less than a km from Bhutan, is backward in every sense. Even seven decades after independence, the village lacks most of the basic amenities -- proper drinking water, healthcare, education. And yet this is the village where, in 1970 along with 13 other families, war hero Puran Bahadur’s family found refuge.
The INA experience
At the age of just 17 years, leaving his 12-year-old newlywed wife Maya at home, Puran Bahadur joined Azad Hind Fauj. As he was not 18 at the time he joined, he was initially inducted in the ‘Bal Sena’. Later, he served as a sepoy in Azad Hind Fauj and was also promoted as a sergeant.
Puran Bahadur’s wife, Maya, who is now 90 years old, shares that her husband had fought in the Battle of Kohima. “ Puran Bahadur had told me that he fought valiantly in the Battle of Kohima. After the Japanese forces lost, the troops of Azad Hind Fauj had to retreat to Burma. However, my husband, along with many others, was caught on the way and they were subsequently sent to Insein Jail.”
Insein Jail, located near Yangon, is notorious for its inhumane conditions and rampant human rights abuse. Gopi Chetry, who is the only one alive among the three sons of Puran and Maya, says that when their father was sent to jail, the family was not informed. “ As so many people were killed or went missing after 2nd World War, we presumed that our father had also died. He was released from jail after three years. When father came home, my grandfather couldn’t recognise him. He looked like a beggar. The vagaries of serving his sentence in Insein had deteriorated his health completely,” he says.
Return to India
After being nursed back to health, Puran Bahadur took the decision of staying in Rangoon (now Yangon). However, in 1967, he decided to return to his homeland with his family after an official working in the Indian Embassy in Rangoon told him that the Indian government will take care of the soldiers serving in Azad Hind Fauj.
Gopi says, “After we were given the necessary documents by the Indian Embassy in Rangoon, we boarded a ship and reached Madras. From there, we went to Delhi first and then returned to our ancestral place Gorakhpur. After staying there for 10-15 days, we went to Guwahati. We stayed in the Paltanbazar and Nepali Mandir localities for seven days. Finally, we were asked to go to this remote village in Baksa and settle down there.”
The family was accompanied by 13 others who had come from Rangoon. While no one from those families worked in Azad Hind Fauj, they were refugees seeking asylum in India. “At that time, people living in the villages here were mostly Santal. After reaching, we also started clearing the forest with axes. The village was surrounded by jungles from all side and wild animals venturing out at night was a common feature,” recalls Gopi.
Struggle for existence
Gopi is bitter today that despite being promised a good life by the official at Rangoon, his father had to struggle to meet ends in Assam. “We were given only Rs 2,000 while we were sent to Baksa. My father went from pillar to post looking for some official help which never came. Janata Bhawan officials in Dispur told him that they had no office for Azad Hind Fauj in Assam,” says Gopi.
To run his family, Puran Bahadur did all sorts of odd jobs -- from selling milk at Khanapara to driving jeep and finally settling down as a farmer. As per Gopi, his father never got the opportunity to get his name enrolled in the voter list or never really bothered to. Whatever might be the reason; this was something which proved costly for the Chetry family.
As none from the family could find their names in the draft National Register of Citizen (NRC), panic prevailed. Gopi said, “The NSK officials said that our documents given by the Indian Embassy at the time when we left Rangoon and my father’s identification card from Azad Hind Fauj were not valid. They were asking for voter card and other legacy data which we couldn’t give. Now, we don’t know whether our name will appear in the final list or not.”
Life is not easy for the 1,400-odd people living in Paharpur. If someone becomes ill, the nearest health centre is 25 km away at Kumarikata. In the two government schools in the village, there are one and three teachers, respectively. For the lack of any alternative, villagers have to use the black water coming down from the coal mines of Bhutan for both drinking and washing purposes.
And in a corner of this village, a family is languishing quietly. And despite the miserable existence, 90-year-old Maya Chetry’s eyes glitter when Netaji’s name is mentioned. “Netaji was very young… very dynamic person. He gave the speech at Rangoon wearing full military attire. My husband was highly inspired by Netaji,” she gives a toothless grin.