Food, Computers and all that for Votes
A retired soldier, veteran of the Second World War, lived across the narrow street in front of my parental house in a village not far from the Meerut city in western UP, India. Way back, I had dubbed him Khatku, “Thorn in the Side,” a nickname he relished, which I will use here. He was dreaded by about everyone in the village for being a Thorn in the Side, but I came to like him, and we became good friends from my university days onwards in spite of our significant age difference. He told me his story, which not many know in its completeness, although it is known in parts to many.
Boys and girls in that community those days got married around their mid teens. Khatku was well past that age level and thus, getting “too old to get married”. About that time, his father married a teenage girl and his uncle married her younger sister by paying reverse dowry; Khatku’s mother and aunt had met their premature death some years back. Villagers considered this an abhorrent act for they had expected that the “old men” would arrange the marriages of those sisters, or some others, with Khatku and his younger brother. Khatku and his brother having been cheated out of the potential brides were furious. On top of that, they had lost a chunk of their inheritance in the form of the reverse dowry payments. His brother just grumbled and cursed the “old men,” but Khatku left his parental home in protest. He had just crossed the minimum age requirement for enlisting in the army; so, he thought that he could manage by himself by serving in the army. He headed straight to Meerut, which has a big cantonment and enlisted, which was straightforward as the war was on and there was a big drive to encourage every able-bodied young man to enlist. These new recruits were given crash training and sent to the front as dispensable, mainly to engage the opposing force that could help the main fighting force gain some tactical advantage.
In no time, Khatku found himself fighting in the battle of El Alamein commanded by General Montgomery. Khatku was as rustic and rough as one can get, someone what we called an “ox,” in that community. In compatibility with his character, he would indulge in the task assigned to him “till death” like an ox without thinking. One of those days, he was part of a “dispensable” platoon commanded by his Subedar. Plan was to engage the opposing force, till death if need be, to enable the main force to sneak past by providing it a cover. Khatku’s platoon was in a precarious situation having lost a good part of it already. About that time, the Subedar received the signal to pull back as the main force was now in a safe position. Whatever was left of the platoon tried to pull back strategically: Some would pull back at one time while the others would hold the opposing force. This way they hoped that most would escape. The plan was not working well. The platoon was trapped and the fear of inevitable was showing on the face of everyone. Suddenly a feeling of “ultimate sacrifice with honor and bravery” took over Khatku: If I have to go, I must take as many as I can with me. All his energy summoned, he leaped forward with his gun, dragging a bag of ammunition with him, and started firing “nonstop” indiscriminately with amazing speed telling the others to pull back. A few of the other platoon members also followed his lead but no one could match Khatku’s zeal. Not sure how, but led by him, they managed to engage the opposing force well enough to save a part of their platoon although each one of them suffered several hits, Khatku more than the others. Most of these leading men also escaped, Khatku being one of them. Khatku received a citation for bravery for his act.
Soon after recovering in the hospital, he was sent to Europe where he mostly waited in a trench facing the opposing forces. There he learned that Churchill had boasted that he would never have a shortage of soldiers as he was getting them for mere sixteen and a half rupees per month from India. Khatku’s head went in frenzy at the insult inflicted by Churchill’s comment. He recalled the call of Bose, the Commanding General of the Indian National Army: Tum mujhe khoon do; Main tumhe azadi doonga (You give me blood; I’ll give you freedom). He also recalled the countering call of the British: Hamari or ao; Dal-Roti khao (Join us and get “pulses and breads,” meaning food). Both of these slogans started pounding his head. He placed his rifle on his shoulder and walked out of the trench.
He was arrested immediately; charged with desertion; and scheduled for court-martial hearing. The hearings in such cases were largely a formality as the outcome was almost a foregone conclusion: Death by firing squad. His defender was a Brigadier who talked to him. I reproduce a translated part of their conversation mimicking Khatku’s accent, which was unusual for he often used double letters in place of one. For example, he would pronounce his nickname as “Khattaku.”
The brigadier asked him, “What the hell you think you were doing?” “Goingg homme.” “And how on Earth you think you were “goingg homme”?” the Brigadier asked sarcastically mimicking his accent. “Walkke.” “Walkke!” the brigadier’s sarcasm continued...... Khatku told the Brigadier that he had always thought that he was fighting the evil forces in defence of justice and that his Jat pride was bruised at the thought that he was fighting in complete subservience to the British for “Dal-Roti,” acquired with what was legitimately India’s own money. Brigadier told him that his head, butt and everything in between and outside, had been bought by the British for “Dal-Roti,” which is what he had enlisted for, having no other sustenance, at which Khatku was hurt even more. He responded, “I will ennlistt in Azadd Hindd Fauzz (Indian National Army) and fightt for my freedomm.” The Brigadier continued talking to him until the reality of the delicate situation Khatku was in dawned upon him, which was not easy to instill in the bull-head of Khatku. Finally, the Brigadier “ordered” him to keep his “Jat mouth” shut in the court and go along with him. Khatku agreed commenting that he would not have gone along with him had he not had an unfinished business to take care of. The Brigadier coached him on how to behave during the trial.
The Brigadier for his part argued in the court that Khatku was a brave, dedicated and loyal soldier; cited the citation Khatku had received; that he was no deserter, only overworked and fatigued; further, that the hits he had received in the battle of El Alamein had taken toll on his head..... The brigadier concluded with: Khatku deserves rest, not court-martial. After long arguments and deliberations, to almost everyone’s surprise, Khatku was granted a short leave to recuperate.
From that time on, Khatku dreamed whole his life to give his blood for freedom but kept on fighting for “Dal-Roti,” and kept lamenting about it; kept lamenting that he was helping the “aliens” rob the nation of her wealth and pile the humiliation on her people in the process, for mere “Dal-Roti” acquired with a miniscule fraction of her own wealth, and keeping them poor so that they can continue fighting for them forever for “Dal-Roti,” remaining “beggars” forever.
Rahul Gandhi’s slogan, “Bhar pet roti khayenge; Congress ko layenge (We will eat stomach-full of food; Will bring Congress;” reminds me of the British slogan in Khatku’s story: Hamari or ao; Dal-Roti khao. And as we all know, “Dal-Roti” is not the only allure politicians are using these days. There appears to be some hope though as the “free laptops” bought with people’s money don’t seem to be succeeding in buying all the votes they were intended for; some are being used to promote an opponent of the one who distributed them. Such occurrences, if they increase, might someday persuade the politicians to abandon such tactics and concentrate on developing some genuine development policies; or so we can hope. For now, they can continue to compete in bidding each other out: One offers computers to one segment of the populace; the other to the other; and yet another one even lets them choose the model also; and there is lot more.
Electorate should also ask themselves if they are ready to “give blood for freedom;” sacrifice short term narrow self-interests; break loose of the shackles of the ill-founded loyalties, e.g., the religion and cast based ones; to free themselves from the grip of the self-serving, incompetent, exploiting politicians who have no respect for them anyway; and install genuine democracy. Not selling their votes for laptops is just a beginning, a small beginning. Mahatma Gandhi had warned Indians after independence to guard themselves against the home-grown alien governments, which in this author’s view is even more dangerous for being covert, Present day system is about as alien as it can get equipped with all the trappings used by the British. Even if not, it had crossed the danger level way back. Need for “freedom” is greater today than ever before. If the electorate is willing to “give blood for freedom,” it can constitute the present day “Indian National Army.” And the mighty power of the basic instrument of democracy is still available to the people, namely the voting right, that this army can employ to free the nation from the home grown alien governments; if not in one stroke, then little by little.
Now I come to Khatku’s unfinished business: It was soon after independence and I was still a little child. One night I woke up by the shouts of “chor, chor (thieves, thieves)....” Not wanting to miss the excitement, I got out of my bed and rushed half-asleep to the scene where a large crowd had gathered but the “thieves” had escaped by then. Just then a fellow who lived on the outskirts of the village came and informed everyone that there were no thieves; it was just Khatku. He had jumped the fence of his parental house and scored a few hits with a stick to the bodies of his sleeping father and uncle drawing some blood from their skulls. They were sleeping in the yard, as was a common practice during the summers. Khatku did not want the credit to go to some no good robber or the like; so, while escaping, he told this to the fellow who lived on the outskirts of the village. The events surrounding the story of his discord with his father reminds me of the story of Dmitry in Dostoevsky’s novel “Brothers Karamazov,” which has quite a bit of similarity with this part of Khatku’s story.
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Dr. Raj Vatsya
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