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Rebel With A Cause

Mridula Sarabhai, born into Ahmedabad's celebrated industrial dynasty and nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai's sister, was one of those amazing women who fought for India's freedom. After the midnight hour, she grew disillusioned with the Congress, rejected the lure of high office and championed the unpopular cause of Sheikh Abdullah for the last twenty years of her life, even going to prison for defending the Kashmiri leader.

Aparna Basu, who has just published Mridula's biography, recounts Sarabhai's fearless commitment to saving human life during the horrific trauma of Partition.

A trainload of Hindu and Sikh refugees were to be repatriated from Bannu, NWFP, to India via Lahore. The train could come either via Gujrat (in Pakistan) or Sargoda. Gujrat was still in turmoil and taking the train that way was hazardous. The deputy high commission was told that the train would arrive in Lahore via Sargoda, but it did not. It was deliberately diverted at the last moment and taken to Gujrat where the passengers were brutally looted, raped and massacred.

News of the tragedy reached Lahore but representatives of the deputy high commission were told not to go to Gujrat and even the higher commissioner was not allowed to go. Mridula had returned to Lahore from Delhi on the previous night and the moment she got news of the attack, she contacted Sri Prakasa, the Indian high commissioner, on the telephone. He assured her that he would do the needful and cautioned her not to take any undue risk.

She then got in touch with Khan Qurban Ali Khan, inspector general of police of West Punjab, and told him that she was proceeding to Gujrat. He had great regard for Mridula and told her not to come as they were making arrangements for bringing the injured passengers to Lahore. But this did not satisfy her and she asked him either to provide her with a police officer as an escort or warned him that she would proceed on her own.

Qurban Ali Khan was taken aback on hearing this but knew the futility of arguing with her. He reluctantly provided two police officers to accompany her. They drove throughout the night and reached Gujrat early next morning to find the station strewn with corpses and wounded men women and children.

She immediately took charge of the situation, got the dead, wounded and alive separated, arranged milk for the surviving babies, saw that the wounded were removed to Gangaram hospital in Lahore and the rest were taken to the nearest transit camp for Hindu and Sikh refugees at Gujranwala.

The survivors were heard saying that the Goddess herself had come to their rescue in the form of Mridula. She did not leave the station till every dead person was identified and the remains disposed off according to Hindu rites.

Mridula received information that two refugee trains had already left for Amritsar carrying Muslim passengers and that a plan was afoot to take revenge for the Bannu episode by killing the passengers of these trains at Amritsar. She therefore telephoned from Delhi to Kamalaben Patel who was working closely with Mridula in Lahore and asked her to rush to Amritsar, contact the district collector and ask him to make the necessary arrangements for the safety of the passengers on these trains.

When Kamlaben conveyed this message to him, he was not very happy. But Mridula wielded so much authority in those days that officers were afraid to ignore her instructions. On her way back from the collector's house, Kamlaben saw a huge crowd trying to remove the rail tracks near Amritsar railway station, but timely intervention averted the disaster. The episode revealed Mridula's ability to act quickly and firmly under critical conditions.

Excerpted from Mridula Sarabhai, Rebel With A Cause, by Aparna Basu, Oxford University Press, 1996, Rs 425, with the publisher's permission. Readers in the US may secure a copy of the book from Oxford University Press Inc USA, 198, Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA. Tel: 212-726-6000. Fax: 212-726-6440.

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