By Dr Dipendra Kumar Mazumder
The slogan of the 75th independence day of our motherland, celebrated as Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, is Har Ghar Tiranga, but it is a surprising coincidence that the first independence day of our motherland was celebrated with Har Ghar Diya; albeit spontaneously, without official appeal, in a village in Assam. What is more amazing is that the sacred flame, from that date, had been kept for 57 years by a citizen of India, until his death.
What he did is a testimony to the exceptional love of an ordinary peasant for the independence of his country. The resolution of his tender spirit to do something, which eventually became a mission of his life. A second example of what he did is probably found nowhere else in India.
It is also an interesting memoir of the impact of the Indian freedom movement, on a young person who, due to his modest economic and educational background, could not otherwise have contributed to celebrating the freedom of his homeland, but was nonetheless as jubilant as any other citizen of India.
On August 15, 1947, Podoram Mohonto of Dipila village near Mongoldoi of Darrang district in Assam, was then 25 years old. The people of his village would light earthen lamps or Diyas in the evening, that day, in celebration. He too was enthusiastic about lighting the Diyas in his yard.
He had enough reason to rejoice in the independence his country had just won. Although he was unable to complete his baccalaureate, he knew the history of his locality well. His village was near an area where a historical event popularly known as Pothorughator Ron (Battle of Pothorughat) who took place in 1894.
After the annexation of Assam in 1826, by the British, via the Treaty of Yandabo, surveys of large areas of the state began. Based on such investigations, the British began to impose revised land taxes, unbearable for its farmers.
Across Assam, his the peasants began to protest against this movement, by organizing Raij-Mels, or peaceful congregations of the public. When and where there was a Raij-Mel, the British administration would come down hard on it, perceiving it as fertile ground for sedition. 28January 1894, when the British officers refused to patiently listen to the farmer’s grievances, tempers flared with a police baton charge followed by indiscriminate shooting, this killed 15 peasants and injured 37 others, in a Raij-Mel at Pothorughat, according to official British records mentioned in Darrang District Gazette, 1905. However, unofficial records claim that more than 100 peasants were killed. It was twenty-five years before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
The only breadwinner in his family, his father, was a farmer and their family income was very meager but harassed his father to allow him to keep the flame of one of the Diyas he had lit on the evening of the 15th August 1947, in a kerosene lamp which they used to light their house at night. His father was reluctant at first, but eventually succumbed to his son’s sincere plea. The young man kept this flame burning for a few weeks, but it became impossible as his father could no longer afford the cost of the kerosene needed to keep this flame going, 24×7. The young and fiery Mohonto was adamant in maintaining this tradition and found a way out. The haystack from their fields after the grains of rice have been threshed, offering him an alternative. He started braiding them into braids (Jumuthi) and he moved the flame from Oil lamp to her. Now he could keep that flame alive in a more economical way.
He needed a safe place to keep it, so he built a small cabin attached to his thatched house and kept the smoldering jumuti there, safe from outside interference. He calculated the amount of braid consumed by the flame and thus knew how much braid he would have to plan for, if he weren’t there to take care of it, for a day or two.
It had now become the goal of his life, to keep him alive at all costs. During the monsoons, when the accompanying gusty winds and torrential rains threatened the flame, he would bring it indoors and keep it beside his bed.
He eventually married and had children, but the sacred flame remained his most prized possession and he took care of it as well. His children also tried to dissuade him from keeping the flame alive any longer, but he was determined to do so and he kept his promise, until his last breath.
His wish was that his funeral pyre be lit with this flame that was so dear to him and it was. Mohonto was born on August 10, 1922 and breathed his last on December 20, 2004.
The author is a faculty member of the National Academy of Broadcasting and Multimedia, New Delhi