Remembering a Gandhian Nationalist
Epochal junctures in history have often emerged from ideas of individuals. When the talk is of being a nationalist, an Indian, we find ourselves still stuck with the parameters of judging a person on the basis of one’s language, what religion one follows, what region one belongs to and so on. After everything else comes your nation, second. In some occasions of history there were nationalists who were an Indian first and an Indian last. It was during the first half of the twentieth century that under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi a small number of people sincerely, singularly and wholeheartedly carried out the great Gandhian doctrine to transform society. Among his close associates to carry forward the Gandhian philosophy were Vinowa, Kumarappa, Kaka Kalelkar, Thakkar Bapa, Aryanayakam, Pyarelal Mahadev Bhai Desai and B. K. Bhandari.
Jawaharlal Nehru at the Barama Ashram. December 1937
In 1915 Mahatma Gandhi trained some of the workers in the ashram built on the banks of the river Sabarmati in Gujarat. It was him who through a journal called “Young India” urged the youths to come forward for the great cause of serving the nation. It ushered a magical effect among the insightful youths of the then India prompted with vigorous patriotism. The articles published in “Young India” led the way for many influential workers who would later devote their entire lives for the nation by working from the remotest corners regardless of the extent of extreme adversity. B. K. Bhandari found himself in this vibrant group of workers in the service of the nation. Right from the days of his college education he participated in the Satyagraha movement followed by his imprisonment in 1930.
At the Tihu rail station Thakkar Bapa with B.K. Bhandari. 1941
In 1933 after having founded the Harijan Sevak Sangh in order to eradicate untouchability and for the upliftment of Dalits in India Gandhiji decided to travel across India. B.K. Bhandari voluntarily offered to drive around him across the country which turned out to be an immensely crucial experience which would eventually define Bhandari’s scheme of work. It was decided that in every state there would be a branch of the Harijan Sevak Sangh. The branch in Assam faced constant jeopardy which led Gandhiji to recommend Thakkar Bapa to send Bhandari to work for the upliftment and welfare of the tribals and the teagarden workers. In 1936 Bhandari arrived in Assam. Under the recommendation of the leading Congress leaders he chose the Northern part of Kamrup as his primary centre of work. Baksa as was the name of the place where he settled the base camp, the anecdotes regarding the place had it that the word lexically meant a place free from revenue. The local people comprised mostly of the groups from Boro tribe. Nearly the entire population were deprived of education and basic sanitation. To have made it worse was the breakout of malaria and cholera. The place being fully covered by deep forests and trees had the eerie gloominess-as a form of punishment the Govt employees were transferred to work in Baksa region. It was part of the erstwhile Kamrup district of Assam.
Barama Ashram back then
Beil Kochanna Bhandari established called Assam Sevak Sangh at Barama under the auspices of Harijan Sevak Sangh that served as a base camp for his activities among the target communities in 1936. It took Bhandari’s unendingly painstaking efforts to set up schools, hostels and medical centres in such an interior place of Baksa as Barama.
H.C. Hazarika, Suren Buragohain, B.K. Bhandari, Miss Dorothy, Max Parker, Sonpahi Das and others during relief aperation at N. Lakhimpur (1950-51).
Bhandariji, as was called endearingly by his co-workers was born in a village near Mangalore. Not unlike thousands of his countrymen he sincerely joined the freedom struggle of the country and was imprisoned alongside luminaries like Raja Gopalchari and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. One wonders what took a Kannarese speaking young man to come all the way to Assam to work for the deprived, a dedicated soul perhaps second to none.
When Bhandariji started his work there was severe lack of material and human resources, Bhandariji was resilient regardless. He did not come here for glaring material achievements but to serve the people in the truest sense. In the process he faced terrible personal loss including the death of his first wife Sumati in childbirth. It was another chapter of social reform that Sumati being from a Brahmin family indulged in an inter-caste marriage. The son that they had together also was taken by destiny. Bhandariji survived these phases in sheer patience. Henever had retreated, not even remotely intended. Those were the days ,when the local people came to take medicine in bamboo containers, he did not laugh at it but had the patience to make the innocent people understand the whole thing and the proper way to carry medicine. The people bowed down in gratitude. Lifting his right hand and with a smile he greeted back, such was the great man’s humility.
He learnt Assamese from the local people at Barama. He became the Secretary of Tribal and Labour Welfare Works,Assam. He extended his range of works to Daarrang, Sivasagar, Lakhimpur and Goalpara. In 1941 in the least grand manner he got married to Savitri. She helped Bhandari to recuperate him from his earlier loss and greatly inspired in his pursuits and endeavours.
The Quit India Movement of 1942 drew Bhandari like an overwhelming siren call. During the day time he was busy with the Ashram activities and at night he visited the neighbouring villages and held meetings. The ruling power suspected his activities and insisted on his arrest. However the local police ,viewed it in a totally different manner that to avoid having to handle the hot-blooded youths going astray it would be good not to arrest Bhandari for he was the only restraining influence on them.
By this time Barama became a centre of crusade for political workers. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru turned up here twice, Gopinath Bordoloi, Bisnuram Medhi and Omeo Kumar Das were frequent visitors. The ashram was a home to hundreds of freedom fighters.
The earthquake of 1950 was a significant phase in Assam’s history. The uprooted humanity and large devastation caused severe havoc. It was at this time that Bhandari moved with his entire family to North Lakhimpur and stayed there camping for a year. Sans regular food and rest he crossed scores of torrential streams day in and day out in untiring zeal with the assistance of Service Civil International of London. Miss Dorothy led this contingent and eventually became an intimate friend of the Bhandari family.
Bhandari established the Assam Seva Samiti. Under its .auspices were several leprosy treatment centres in the hill areas of Assam, Garo Hills and Khasi Hills. For his utmost spirit in the service of the destitute and suffering humanity the Govt. of India insisted on his becoming the Regional Assistant Commissioner for the Scheduled Tribes and Castes for the North-Eastern region. Despite his reluctance he joined the Govt machinery owing to sincere wishes from his close friends like Omeo Kumar Das while he made sure to keep connection with the Barama ashram. Accordingly he joined the post in the headquarters Shillong. Bhandari passed away in Shillong on the night of 25th of August, 1953 due to ailment. After his death wife Savitri refused to go back to Mangalore. She decided to stay back at Barama with her kids while taking charge of the entire management. The children went to Assamese medium schools at Barama and grew up. The ashram at Barama is still there on the banks of the river Pagladiya in utmost serenity.
The activites of the present day Barama Ashram have shrunk due to various socio-political reasons. However, its welfare endeavours still continue. The legacy of the great Gandhian has anchored to the soil. By the Mara-pagladiya it stands tall graced with a past of many vicissitudes and grandeur.
(A doctoral fellow at the Department of Folklore, Gauhati University, Daisy Barman is a scribbler and translator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )