restricted access Chapter 4 The Short Career of an Activist Politician
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Chapter 4 The Short Career of an Activist Politician From his sojourn in Lahore and Sikhanwala, Sunderlal returned to the Garhwal region in June 1947.1 Arriving in Dehra Dun, he quickly became involved with the Praja Mandal there and began to be engaged in aid work with refugees displaced by the partition of the country. In a short time he was appointed publicity secretary for the Praja Mandal, a responsibility that frequently took him to Delhi and put him in contact with officials of the emerging national government and with a number of major newspapers . While independence came to India in August of that year, the Tehri Garhwal region remained under the rule of the princely state of Tehri. When Sunderlal arrived there, the movement against the colonial rule of the princely state was at its peak. Sunderlal wanted to return to his hometown of Tehri to participate in the freedom struggle there. His arrival in Tehri became the occasion for his first experiment in satyagraha. At the principal entrance to the town of Tehri was an iron bridge over the Bhagirathi River. The policemen of the princely state still guarded the iron bridge, and they had not forgotten the young man who years before had vanished from their sight. They refused to permit him to enter the town. In response, Sunderlal undertook a fast. Taking Gandhi’s recommended strategy to heart, he sat in silent nonviolent protest, an act of satyagraha (truth power), near the bridge for nearly a week. During that time many people from the town and neighboring villages came to meet with him to support him and to convey the news about what had been happening in Tehri during his absence. Resistance to the repressive rule of the princely state had been growing. A strong people’s movement had emerged in the area of Saklana. Within Tehri youths such as Virendra Dutt Saklani were organizing people against the ruler of the state. Sunderlal and Virendra Dutt Saklani became comrades in the struggle. After 41 42 Ecology is Permanent Economy a week, the police assumed that the young man had grown too weak and lethargic to undertake any further resistance. As a result he completely escaped their attention as he walked triumphantly into the town to take his place in the struggle against the ruler of the state. The success of this first experiment in satyagraha fortified his resolve for future acts of nonviolent protest. Working with others in the freedom struggle, Sunderlal was active in a massive protest in Tehri that occurred in January 1948, a protest that eventually brought an end to the political authority of the ruler of the princely state, and led in August of the following year to the integration of Tehri Garhwal within the governance of an independent India in the state of Uttar Pradesh, formerly the United Provinces. With the liberation of the princely state, his colleagues in the freedom struggle decided that Sunderlal should be the general secretary of the state Praja Mandal. His work in this capacity proved to be the opportunity to address some critical social issues in the community. The offices of the Praja Mandal in Tehri were located close to the colony of what had been called the untouchables. Gandhi had stood firm against the idea that any human being should be considered untouchable. He renamed them the Harijan, the people of God. In Tehri these people were employed as the scavengers. They cleaned the latrines of the town. Sunderlal observed that every day in the evenings, the men of this colony would drink and would fight. Having done the work of a scavenger, Sunderlal sympathized with their fatigue. He understood that they drank in the evenings to forget the dirty and strenuous work of the day. But he saw that after drinking they would fight amongst themselves, neighbor against neighbor. Many times he saw them injure one another, breaking bottles over one another’s heads. This disturbed him deeply, and he sought a way to address the issue. On one occasion, on the celebration of the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the state government had sent him one hundred rupees. In his capacity as secretary of the Praja Mandal, he was to distribute sweets among the scavengers. As Sunderlal puts it, “It was the government’s way to honor Gandhi!” So he went to their colony, met the people, and sat with them to visit. He used fifty rupees to buy sweets to distribute...