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'Those days, 'jail-returned' was like 'foreign-returned', something to aspire for'

Last updated on: December 28, 2023 11:40 IST
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'Gandhi had given the call 'Do or Die'. And with all the leaders arrested, you had to be your own leader.'

IMAGE: Dr G G Parikh with Yusuf Meherally's potrait behind him at the Yusuf Meherally centre in Raigad. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yusuf Meherally Centre

Dr G G Parikh, or GG as he's known, belongs to a disappearing species: not only is he a freedom fighter who went to jail, but he continues to live out his Gandhian beliefs.

On December 30, GG turns 100, and such is his popularity that his supporters have had to arrange two celebrations, one in Mumbai, and the other in Tara, Panvel at the Yusuf Meherally Centre, which he has been running for the last 63 years.

The lanky, bearded figure has been a familiar face at street protests specially since 2014. The Mumbai police covered themselves with glory this year when they stopped this Quit India veteran on August 9 as he was about to start on the peace march to the August Kranti Maidan that he organises every year to commemorate the 1942 movement. Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinder was to be at the maidan at the same time, so how could a freedom fighter share space with the current head of government?

GG was the chief guest at the RedInk Awards ceremony held on December 2 in Mumbai. He started his speech with the words "I've sleepwalked into this event", and went on to wonder what the organisers were thinking when they invited him, only to answer this himself in his typical self-deprecating fashion: "I am almost 100 and I'm one of the few freedom fighters left who's still active. This rare combination must have worked with the organisers." For the winners, it was a rare honour to receive their award from one who had gone to jail for freedom.

In a long interview with Jyoti Punwani, the freedom fighter spoke about his experiences during the freedom movement, his work at the Yusuf Meherally Centre and life as a Gandhian Socialist.

The first of a multi-part interview:


What inspired you to join the freedom movement?

Thanks to the atmosphere at home, on both my mother's and my father's side, we were introduced to the freedom movement from childhood. I got a chance when I was just 8 years old to get a darshan of Gandhiji in his kutir. He put his hand on my head and blessed me. Whenever he came to Kanpur, I would go to get his darshan.

When I was just a student, I decided I'll do what I can for freedom. Since in those days going to jail, and even taking a lathi or bullet was something that was talked about, people of my age started preparing themselves for jail.

Secondly, in Kanpur, Bhagat Singh and Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi (the freedom fighter-editor who was killed in 1931 while trying to stop a communal riot in Kanpur), were talked about a lot. Without understanding much, youngsters started thinking of emulating them, of fighting for freedom.

Alongside these ideas, the idea of communal harmony became important in my life. A small incident took place which left a big impact. While returning to my school in Dausa where my father was posted, I stopped at a classmate's home, who happened to be Muslim. The next day, I was slapped by my teacher for this. Interestingly, my parents didn't say anything. This stayed in my mind.

How did you land up in jail?

The AICC meeting took place in Mumbai on August 7, 8 and 9, 1942. I was then a student at the St Xavier's college and staying in its hostel.

I attended the meeting, saw the flag being hoisted by Aruna Asif Ali and the police trying to prevent it. That was the first time tear gas was used in India. We managed to get out with handkerchiefs on our faces.

The next day, some of us decided to close down our college in protest and we started picketing at the college gates to stop students from entering. When that was a success, we thought why not stop trains from running. So we went to Churchgate station. There I got arrested.

IMAGE: Bapu Kuti at Sewagram, Maharashtra. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yusuf Meherally Center/Facebook

You were not afraid when you decided to stop trains?

Gandhi had given the call 'Do or Die'. And with all the leaders arrested, you had to be your own leader. Besides, the decision to stop trains was spontaneous, spurred by our success at picketing. We were infused with the spirit of 'Quit India'.

The funny thing was that at the police station, the officer thought I was the leader of the group, though I was not. I became somebody only because I went to jail!

That realisation came when I came out of jail and students started looking at me differently. Till then, I was just a lean, tall and ugly student, so this was a new experience. In those days, 'jail-returned' was like 'foreign-returned', something to aspire for.

In this way, some accidents in my life contributed to my becoming what I have.

IMAGE: Dr Parikh with Socialist Party (India) General Secretary Dr Sandeep Pandey at his home. Photograph: Kind courtesy

How did your parents react to your arrest?

My father accepted it; my mother was unhappy.

After you were released, did you continue with your political activity?

In jail, some of us, such as Dinkar Sakrikar, Prabhakar Kunte, under the guidance of Congress Socialists and trade unionists such as G L Mapara, G D Ambekar and Raja Kulkarni, used to discuss what we should do after our release.

We decided three things. By then we had fallen out with the Communists, so we decided: i. We'll either capture the All India Students Federation, which was controlled by the Communists, or set up an alternate body; ii. The All India Trade Union Congress was already captured by the Communists, so we needed to set up a nationalist trade union movement; and iii. We needed an alternate to IPTA (the Indian People's Theatre Association). Later Rohit Dave, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (in Delhi) and some others set up the Indian National Theatre (INT).

When we came out, all the top Congress leaders were in jail, so by default, we became the BPCC (Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee). So whatever happened in the movement was done by us. Be it the Bombay Dock explosion (1944) or the (1946) RIN mutiny -- we were active. The people supported us. We ran a number of relief camps after the dock explosion. Our student body soon became an all-India body: The All India Students Congress.

Because we got a chance to run the movement without interference of the top leadership, we became somebody! We had an advantage -- there was a pro-freedom movement atmosphere in Mumbai. So we were respected and we could succeed in whatever we tried to do.

IMAGE: Dr Parikh gives away the Best Crime and Investigation video award to News9 Plus's Muhammad Wajihulla at the Red Ink Awards 2023 organised by the Mumbai Press Club. Photograph: Kind courtesy Mumbai Press Club/Facebook

Was your wife part of the freedom movement too?

Yes, she was in Thane jail during the 1942 movement, I was in Worli temporary jail.

My wife got admission into the JJ school of Art and later Santiniketan. She got admission into Santiniketan because of Yusuf Meherally, a founder member of the Congress Socialist Party.

What was Yusuf Meherally like? Not too much is known about him.

Meherally was a colourful personality, respected by all. He was a leader of students, known all over India. 'Simon Go Back' and 'Quit India' were slogans coined by him. When he came to know the details about the Simon Commission's arrival (1928), he and his friends dressed up as coolies and as the steamer came into the docks, they raised black flags and shouted 'Simon Go Back'.

There was nothing we couldn't get done in his name. The Indian Merchant's Chamber, Birla Matushri -- we never had to pay for their use, because of him. Everyone was his friend. There was no college hall in Bombay that wasn't available to us; all artists were willing to come on our platform thanks to Yusuf Meherally.

He was a good speaker, a hard worker, and a friendly person who helped everyone.

IMAGE: Dr Parikh at the Yusuf Meherally Centre office at Tardeo in south Mumbai. Photograph: Kapil Agarwal

You named your Centre in Mumbai and Tara after him. Did that create any problems later, since he remained a forgotten freedom fighter?

Yusuf Meherally died in 1950, at the age of 47. JP would always tell S M Joshi, we must do something in his memory. We tried to commemorate Socialists, but failed to commemorate Socialists belonging to the minorities.

With the linguistic reorganisation of states, Socialists had become divided. There was a desire to create a platform to come together. So we thought we should create one named after him.

Of course, it helped that he was very popular across ideologies, so we knew that if we worked in his name, even those who didn't agree with us would get attracted.

We didn't face any problems because of his name, except in 1992, our workers in Tara told us that in the bus to the Centre, fellow passengers would often say that your Centre is run by a smuggler! Yusuf Patel was at that time well known as a smuggler.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, we took out a communal harmony yatra in his name in Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra. We got a very good response.

You know, in the Yusuf Meherally Centre's Constitution it's written: Anything can change, but not the name of the Centre! And we're running it in 10 states.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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