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Remembering Gorkha Contributions to the Independence Movement

RAJU BISTA

Under the leadership of Hon’ble Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi ji as our nation commemorates ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav,’ we take a solemn moment to remember all those brave hearts who sacrificed their lives so that we could live in a free country. The struggle for Independence attracted active participation from all the communities across the nation, however the contributions of smaller communities, especially those from North East India have remained relatively unknown. All that is changing, thanks to the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ commemoration as envisioned by Modi ji, more and more people are coming to know about the freedom fighters from smaller regions and communities too.
The sacrifices and contributions of the Indian Gorkha community towards our freedom struggle and nation building is immense, sadly majority of the people across our nation are unaware of the sacrifices made by our Gorkha ancestors. As a Member of Parliament from Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, which is the heart of Gorkha community in India, and being a Gorkha by ethnicity, here is my humble attempt at highlighting some of the icons from Indian Gorkha community whose contributions in the history of India’s Independence remains relatively unknown among the general population.
INA Capt. Ram Singh Thakuri – Himachal Pradesh
Among the very many celebrated Gorkha Freedom Fighters, perhaps the one with the most iconic contribution, yet the least known, remains Capt. Ram Singh Thakuri of Himachal Pradesh.
Call it a coincidence or destiny, Capt. Thakuri was born on the 15th of August 1914 to a Gorkha family in Khaniara village, Dharamshala, HP. In 1924, he had joined the 2/1 Gorkha Rifles as a unit musician. He was a talented young man, who was proficient in many fields including football, athletics, and wrestling. In the Second World War, his Battalion was shipped overseas to Singapore. In 1942, Singapore fell and the Allied forces surrendered to the Japanese. This is when Capt Ram Singh Thakuri joined the Indian National Army (INA). Soon he became very popular due to his musical talents, so much so that Netaji himself took a note of his talents. Netaji an astute military strategist understood the power music could have on the morale of the soldiers asked him to raise a marching band for the INA.
Capt. Thakuri didn’t let Netaji down, as he produced some of the most well know songs from India’s freedom movements like Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja, Sare Jahan se Accha, Inquilab Zindabad, Hind Sipahi, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment marching song “Hum Bharat ki Ladki Hai,” and others.
The Azad Hind Government had strongly felt that a National Anthem was required which would connect all Indians through a common thread of music. While some had favoured the great poet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Vande Mataram’ as the national anthem, some others felt it wasn’t inclusive enough. It was Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal who introduced Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ to Netaji, by having it performed at INA women’s wing meeting, which Netaji had attended. Following which, Netaji instructed Capt Ram Singh Thakuri to re-compose the music of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s version of Jana Gana Mana in a martial tune to which INA soldiers could march to.
In one of his interviews, Capt. Thakuri fondly recalled Netaji instructing him, “the song should have such an indelible impact and force that the Cathay Building [in Singapore] should ‘break’ into two parts and the sky should become visible.”
While Capt Abid Ali and Mumtaz Hussain rewrote Gurudev’s “Jana Gana Mana” to “??? ??? ??? – Subha Skhuh Chain ki Barsha Barse”, Capt. Ram Singh Thakuri gave music to it.
Subha Skhuh Chain ki Barsha Barse was adopted by the Provisional Free Government of India (Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind) led by Netaji as the Qaumi Tarana – National Anthem. “Subha Sukh Chain” was played as the national anthem of free India first time on 11 September 1942 at Hamburg, when on October 31, 1943, when the INA came to power, the orchestra led by Capt. Thakuri played the Qaumi Tarana, the Cathay Building did indeed reverberate thunderously.
The music of Capt. Thakuri’s ‘Qaumi Tarana’ became a base on which our current national anthem “Jana Gana Mana” is set. In 1944, Capt. Thakuri was decorated by Subhas Chandra Bose with a gold medal for his contribution. Capt. Thakuri also received a violin and a saxophone as personal gifts from Netaji.
Capt. Thakuri was especially invited to play the ‘Quami Tarana’ when Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru unfurled the Tiranga from Lal Quila on the 15th of August, 1947, he had used the violin presented to him by Netaji, who had told him, “you will play this violin when India gets her Independence”.
Sadly, after Independence, the brave INA Freedom Fighters were neglected by the then governments. Capt. Thakuri was appointed as a DSP with the Provincial Arms Constabulary (PAC) band of Uttar Pradesh Police, and he continued to serve our nation through his music till his last days.
Pushpa Kumar Ghising – Darjeeling
The Naval Uprising of 1946 is among the lesser-known moments of the Indian Freedom Movement, but perhaps it is the most significant. This is when the Indian Navy soldiers staged a revolt against the British in Karachi and Bombay. Inspired by the Indian National Army over 20000 mutineers joined the Freedom Fighters from Karachi to Calcutta, taking over the 78 ships afloat and onshore establishment. This had inspired other servicemen in the army, air force and even the civilians to join the protests.
During the rebellion, navy personnel Puspa Kumar Ghising from Darjeeling fought with at least three British soldiers and managed to take control of the Bombay naval ammunition dump alone. The weapons from the ammunition dump were used by the rebelling Indian sailors to hold back the British for 5 days. However, on the fifth day, the leaders from the Indian National Congress had intervened and coaxed the sailors to lay down their arms. Ghising and his friends were arrested and taken to the Mulundi Jail where he was court-martialled but acquitted during the trail.
He resigned from the Navy on September 8, 1946, and plunged into the independence movement.
Even though the Naval Uprising has not been given due importance in the history books, unlike the other important incidents in the Freedom Movement, however, many contemporary historians attribute Naval Uprising as the pivotal movement that hastened the British decision to quit India.
In recognition of Ghisingh’s role in the Independence movement, the government felicitated him with the Tamra Patra on August 15, 1989.
Helen Lepcha – Sikkim and Kurseong
Helen Lepcha was born in 1902 in South Sikkim and is perhaps the only female freedom fighter from Sikkim. The family migrated to Kurseong in search of better education and livelihood prospects. During the floods of 1920 in Bihar, Helen Lepcha worked as a volunteer, providing tireless service to the victims, this brought her to the attention of Mahatma Gandhi, who later named her as Sabitri Devi in honour of her service to the people. Helen Lepcha worked with the coal workers from the coalfields in erstwhile Bihar and among the workers in United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), strengthening the Freedom Movement and participated in the non-cooperation movement in 1921. She was arrested for “inciting the people against the government” and sent to jail for three months and a further house arrest later that year.
When Netaji was kept under house arrest in Giddhey Pahar in Kurseong from 1939-40, Helen Lepcha played a vital role in smuggling in and out coded messages, ultimately laying the foundation for Netaji’s escape later right under the nose of the British authorities from Calcutta to Germany.
In appreciation of the immense contributions during the freedom movement, the Government of India honoured her with a Tamra Patra the citation.
Major Durga Malla – Uttarakhand
Born on 1st of July in 1913 at the Doiwala village in Dehradun district of Uttarakhand, Durga Malla joined the Gorkha Rifles in 1931 at the age of 18. In 1942, at the height of the 2nd World War, a group of Indian soldiers led by Durga Malla decided to breakaway and form the Indian National Army under Netaji Subash Chandra Bose. Durga Malla was one of the key figures responsible for the formation of the INA, as he was largely responsible for encouraging fellow Gorkha soldiers to quit the British and join the INA. Seeing his dedication towards the Freedom of India and his military talents, he was promoted to the rank of Major by Netaji, and posted in the intelligence branch of INA, where he performed exemplarily often taking risky missions that helped INA march forward.
It was during one such intelligence gathering missions that he was arrested on the 27th of March, 1944 near Urkhul in Manipur. He along with fellow INA prisoners were kept in a prison at the Red Fort as a prisoner of War. There, the British tried to persuade him to renounce INA and offered him that his life would be saved if he did so. But he flat out refused to bow before the British. When all tricks and coercions failed, the British brought his wife Smt. Sharda Devi to get him to denounce INA, but instead he told his wife, “Sharda, I am sacrificing my life for the freedom of my motherland. You need not be worried and distressed. Crores of Hindustanis will be with you after my death. The Sacrifice I am offering, shall not go in vain. India shall be free. I am confident, this is only a matter of time.”
On 25th August 1944, he was sent to the gallows.
Today, his statue adorns the premise of our Parliament, marking the contribution of Gorkha community towards our Independence.
Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri - Manipur
Among the illustrious Gorkha community that has produced so many heroes for our nation, the honour of being the 1st Gorkhali to have martyred for our motherland goes to Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri ji, from Manipur.
When the great Manipuri hero Jubraj Tikendrajit Singh decided to resist the British incursions into Manipur, 39-year-old Niranjan Chhetri of Tikuamoh, who was an ex-army sipahi of the 34th native Infantry, joined the native force of Manipur led by Bir Tikendrajit and Thangal General. His past experience as a soldier and bravery was evident, and he was appointed as Subedar by Jubraj Tikendrajit himself.
Following the war, he was tried by the Chief Political Officer, Manipur Field Force and was hanged to death by the British on June 8th, 1891. His last words were, “My birthplace is my Motherland, I am ready to die for this land, and I am ready to kill for this land, but I am not ready to accept surrender and subjugation of my own land”.
For decades, his sacrifice had been relegated to the pages of history. However, under Hon’ble Chief Minister N Biren Singh ji the history and legacy of this legendary Gorkha Freedom Fighter is finally being brough to light. On March 7th, 2021, CM N Biren Singh ji unveiled the statue of Saheed Subedar Nirajan Singh Chhetri, he acknowledged the role played by Subedar Niranjan by writing, “Immensely glad to unveil the statue of Saheed Subedar Niranjan Singh Chhetri, one of the heroes of Ango-Manipur War, 1891. His bravery, patriotism & sacrificial spirit for the motherland were unparalleled. He was hanged to death by the British on June 8,1891 for his role in the war.”
 Dalbir Singh Lohar – Assam
Dalbir Singh Lohar from Assam joined the freedom movement in 1921 during Gandhi ji’s visit to Dibrugarh. He was a labour leader and one of the most prominent Freedom Fighters from Assam, who led the Civil Disobedience Movement in Dibrugarh from the front. He was imprisoned between 1930-31 for his participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement, along with other Gorkha freedom fighters from Assam like Bhakta Bahadur Pradhan, Anantalal Sharma.
In 1939, Assam saw the historic strike at the Asia’s oldest refinery and the birthplace of oil industry in India in Digboi, Assam. Dalbir Singh Lohar was one of the key leaders of the strike called by the non-unionised Digboi Oil Refinery workers. Citing tensions with Germany, the British crushed the Digboi strike with an iron hand sending down eight platoons of Asssam Rifles to crush it. All the prominent leaders like Dalbir Singh Lohar were issued Quit Digboi, Quit Lakhimpur, and finally Quit Assam within 72-hours’ notice by the British.
He was again arrested during the Quit India Movement called by Gandhi ji, and all the Gorkha freedom fighters like Bhakta Bahadur Pradhan, Anantalal Sharma and others and kept in separate jails. However, they soon became the symbols of working-class people’s resistance against the British government.
After Independence, Dalbir Singh Lohar went onto become the first MLA of Gorkha ethnicity to be elected from the Digboi Assembly, by winning the 1951 election with a landslide margin. He continued to serve the working-class people all through his life.
These are only a few, whose contributions I have highlighted today, there are hundreds of others who have played a significant role towards ensuring our Independence, but due to the paucity of space, accommodating them all is not possible.
As can be seen, the Gorkhas no matter which state they were born in, have played a significant role in our Freedom Struggles, and I am hopeful that as we celebrate the “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” more people across the nation will come to know about heroes like them.
Jai Hind
(Raju Bista is the Member of Parliament from Darjeeling and National Spokesperson for BJP)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi