In 1942, five years before India was declared free from the hands of the British. There was a little village in the heart of Karnataka who declared themselves free, blocked out the British and instated a ten year old boy as the ruler of Issuru. This is the story of Issuru, the first village in India to declare itself free. Told by the last two surviving freedom fighters of Issuru. Huchuraayapa, 111 years old and Halamma, 98 years old.
[Note: The visuals in this story (apart from the portraits) are artistic recreations of the incidents by the authors.]
‘We were ready to breathe our last so that our country could breathe its first’ – Huchuraayapa, Freedom Fighter, Issuru. Karnataka.
‘We have known each other for almost a century now’ said Huchuraayapa about Halamma. They both sat in the room right alongside me, Huchuraayapa a 111 year old freedom fighter and Halamma, 98 year old freedom fighter and told me their story that began in the August of 1942. This is their story, told in their voices.
It was noon on the 12th of August, 1942. I, Huchuraayapa was there, somewhere in the wise murmurs of the crowd that had built up around the little market in the middle of Issuru. We had no more money left to pay the British. We had no more to give. The British were coming that afternoon to collect their taxes. We were not going to give them anything. We weren’t even going to demand our freedom, we were simply going to take it.
‘No money, no rice, no dignity.’ some of them started shouting.
I remember not shouting with them. I wasn’t thinking of revolting. I was only thinking of freedom. We had not been free since birth, the idea of freedom was scary, it made my feet numb and my lips dry. It made me smile when everyone else was shouting. It made me believe in things that I had spent a lifetime not believing in. I saw Halamma on the other side of the market. She was pensive as always. Her brother was the Amaldar of Issuru. She was worried. We were all looking at each other’s faces, we were all worried.
The Amaldar came to me all of a sudden and shook my shoulders. ‘Who are you? And what do you want! Who are you? And what do you want!’ He demanded to know excitedly. ‘I am Huchuraayapa, a rice farmer.’ I said meekly. ‘Huchuraayapa! What do you want?’ He demanded. I had no answers, but he had already lifted my hand and said ‘This is Huchuraayapa, and he is a freedom fighter and he wants freedom!’
They all shouted with him. I stood meekly, thinking of myself as a freedom fighter for the first time. I had no idea what that meant. I wondered who would take care of my crops when I was fighting. I looked at Halamma, she too wasn’t sure of what this announcement meant either. Everyone was turning into a freedom fighter when we didn’t understand what it meant to be free.
I, Halamma was standing on the other side of the market, looking at Huchuraayapa whisper that he was a rice farmer. I remember that so vividly because we were simple people who took care of the earth given to us by our forefathers. My brother, the Amaldar was the only freedom fighter in the village. He had walked the Dandi march with Mahatma Gandhi. Only he truly understood what the struggle meant. The rest of us were only used to the suffering. Each day, he would try explain to us about freedom and all that comes with it. Today was different, he strode out of the house with a purpose like no other. I knew he was going to show us what freedom looked like.
He came to me and he asked politely, ‘Who are you? And what do you want?’ I replied without blinking – I am Halamma and I am a freedom fighter.
I watched Halamma declare that she was a freedom fighter. I remember that so well because she was the last one to do it. And it was right before the moment when Jaya was named as our ruler. The ruler of a free Issuru. The ruler of a free India.
I had just shouted that I was a freedom fighter in front of my brother. He had nodded like he always did and took the hand of a little boy in the corner. His name was Jaya. He held his hand high, looked around at all of us and proclaimed him the leader of Issuru. We were all shocked when that happened. I was shocked. Huchuraayapa was shocked. Jaya was only a ten year old boy and my brother had made him the leader to mock the British.
I remember Jaya very well. He was quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t really say much, but he seemed quite excited by his new found role of being the ruler of Issuru. They were running around, all those children, even Halamma’s daughter was amongst them, she looked proud and worried. She was giving them all Gandhi caps. It was our greatest symbol. ‘Don’t dream of wearing the British Khaki hat someday, Do what your country needs and wear the Gandhi cap.’ they used to say.
Jaya thanked me for giving the children the caps. I remember him telling me that he would order the British to pay us taxes or else he would make them stand on one leg for three days. I smiled at him. I was worried by his determination. The ones who showed such will were the first ones to be killed those days. I was worried about him and my daughter.
I remember Jaya and Halamma’s daughter running from the end of the road which turned towards Shimoga. It was where the British tax collectors would come from. We all had a shiver of nervous excitement in our bones, but we stood tall refusing to show them any sign of weakness.
Halamma stood behind her brother as he declared to the bewildered tax collectors that Issuru did not recognise the British rule anymore. He announced that Jaya would be the ruler of Issuru from here on.
They were furious, I remember them being furious. They never expected disobedience and mockery from simple people like us. They pushed everyone aside and went straight to my brother’s office to get the tax books and increase their demands to punish Issuru even further. Jaya, my daughter and the other children ran past the wave of people that moved back and forth as they tried to stop the Tax collectors from getting any further inside.
One of them reached the courtyard where all the books were kept, but Jaya had already reached the place and the book was firmly behind his back. Jaya stood defiantly as the man charged through the door. The village wasn’t far behind and this was where the fear had turned into a boiling sense of brave.
We pulled them back and pushed them out of Issuru immediately. Bruised and angry, they threatened to come back the next day and show us the wrath of the British. We didn’t care at that moment but we all knew that the British would come down that same road as light turned to dark and back to light again. I couldn’t spot Halamma anymore. Her brother and daughter were out in the front chanting slogans till the British went out of sight, but she wasn’t there.
I had seen the British being pushed away and I was excited but worried. It was a strange feeling. My fingers went numb and my head had turned weightless. I had never lived a moment of my life as a free woman. There was always the shadow of serving someone else, a faceless faraway nation that I had never seen. But I had heard about their atrocities and I had to make sure that we didn’t lose what was precious to us. I took our ancestral jewellery that had been passed on for hundreds of years, put them in a little cloth and buried them in my field. I felt like even if I died, our true belongings would go right back to our land.
That day was a happy day, but we all knew what was coming. The roads were empty. Halamma and the others were all inside. Yet I couldn’t stay inside. I remember walking back and forth through the same road all evening. I couldn’t sleep, I knew the British were coming.
The morning was silent. I looked out my window and saw everyone standing outside, Huchuraayapa was there too. I told my daughter to stay inside because I was worried, but my brother had taken her outside. ‘She fights for India’, he had said. We all waited for the British to come but hoped that they never would.
I saw one soldier first. Then I saw a hundred of them thundering down the road. We didn’t have a violent bone in our bodies. When we saw their guns, we still stood strong. We still expected them to see that we were right and turn around. Jaya stood in front of all of them. Halamma’s daughter was right behind him. I remember thinking then that the future of the country was in good hands. I remember thinking that till they fired the first shot.
The British soldier in front had no hesitation in shooting Jaya. He was ten. Just ten. Everyone ran for their lives after the first shot. The shooting continued. Everyone ran wherever they could. I tried looking for Halamma and her daughter, but I couldn’t see them anywhere.
I saw them shoot at Jaya and my mind couldn’t make any sense anymore. I ran to find my daughter. She was right behind Jaya. I couldn’t see her anymore. I could hear shots and people screaming. I saw my brother stand tall in the middle of it all, not worried about anything. I just wanted to find my daughter. Many people pretended to be dead to save themselves. I ran to them and turned their heads to see if my daughter was there somewhere. Then someone told me that she was near the water. I didn’t think for a second, but ran and jumped into the water.
I saw people jump into the lake. Many women jumped into the lake. I didn’t see Halamma jump into the lake, someone told me she did. I tried to find a stick or a stone to fight back. All I found were pebbles and twigs and fallen gandhi caps. A soldier came to me and hit my eye with the butt of his gun and my world went dark. He had blinded my right eye. My last vision was of Halamma on the shore of the lake. I thought it was her, but I can’t be sure. That was the last I saw her that day. The british tied my legs, beat my back, broke my knees and locked me inside a house with a lot of others. They were all beaten, shot, broken, yet none of them screamed in captivity. Issuru was being turned into a massive jail and I didn’t look at them as farmers anymore. They were all freedom fighters in my eyes.
I got out of the other side of the lake. My nose was bleeding, my ankles were hurt and I couldn’t find my daughter, I couldn’t see Huchuraayapa either. I hoped that he took her somewhere safe. Someone told me that my daughter was safe, someone told me they saw her escape with one of my cousins, someone said that British were merciful to children, but I had seen them shoot Jaya. They had no sense in their capture of our freedom. I wanted to go back but I couldn’t. The British were still chasing us. I saw a lot of them running around the lake to get to us, shooting at us all along the way. I immediately ran with the rest of them into a coconut grove. I saw bodies when I ran past those tall trees. I couldn’t tell if they were dead or they were playing dead. I knew the British would catch me if I ran so I jumped into a little coconut haystack. I was covered in coconut leaves. Leaves that you could see right through if you looked for more than a second. I was scared. I was praying to see my daughter once before I died. I was sure I would die in this coconut farm. I tried to stay as quiet as possible but I could hear my body shiver loudly. The British were very close to me now, they were screaming to shoot down anyone who was alive. I tried to hide myself even further when I saw my scarf had fallen off right next to the haystack. If they noticed the scarf, they would find me immediately. They were all around me now and I had to take that scarf. I couldn’t see more than ten metres ahead of me but I waited for one of them go past me and I immediately reached my hand out for the scarf. I was expecting a hand to pull me out and shoot me. My teeth were clenched tightly, tears were rolling down my neck, my fingers shivered as they grabbed the cloth. I took it back and nothing happened. I had survived but I felt barely alive.
I waited in that haystack for almost a day. The screams of the British came and went. I saw some of the bodies get up and leave. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or if the people who played dead finally got up. I was too scared to call out to anyone. I still felt like they were all around me. I was exhausted and I waited for the dark. As the light began to fade, I got up and left the haystack. I wanted to get up leave before it became completely dark. I didn’t want to be shot like an animal in the dark. I wanted them to see me in the eye before they did.
There was no one in that coconut grove anymore. No one who was alive. I didn’t know where to go, I was too scared to go back but I had to. I reached the edge of the town through the bushes. I could see a lot of soldiers but couldn’t see my daughter, my brother or Huchuraayapa. I quietly turned and went towards the temple at the end of the road, that was the only safe place left in my eyes. I began to walk quietly, till a distant scream made me run all the way to the temple. I ran through the door and hid there for a while.
I spent a day there, praying to God for the life of my daughter. Till I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out of my hiding place and went straight to my house. I didn’t care if they shot me anymore. They had made my life worthless in less than two days. I was immediately taken to the British commissioner who told me that they were looking for the main culprits. He told me to give up their hiding places. I didn’t know where anyone was but they didn’t believe me. They had taken most prisoners to a jail in Bangalore to hang and execute and they wanted more prisoners. When I didn’t give him any answers, he took me by the neck right to the front of my house. He said he will burn the house to the ground with everyone in it. I begged him not to do so because I was sure my daughter was inside somewhere. He refused and began to set fire all around the house. The dried hay and the tall dry grass would have made the fire reach the house in a matter of minutes. I stood silently as he set the fire to the grass. I knew I was dead. I knew my house was going to be burnt to the ground. It was right then that it began to rain and the fire went away. They tried to set it on fire again, but the rain stayed. I knew then that the truth was on our side, the Indian side.
I was taken away from Issuru almost immediately after the first day. I didn’t see Halamma inside any of the houses. I feared that she had died in the lake. They were taking nine of us to the Central jail in Bangalore. We were going to be put for trial but we knew that they were going to hang us all. I reached the jail cell which was covered in urine and shit. I couldn’t even stand in the corner leave alone sit. It was noon I think when they finally came for me. I think it was noon because the sun didn’t reach me from any of the little windows on the side. They would take me to the gallows, tie my legs, tie my hands and make me stand on a steel chair. They would put a tight rope noose around my neck and then threaten to kick the chair away. They did this everyday for five years from 1942 to 1947. I thought I would die every other time. Seven of the freedom fighters from my village were hanged in that jail. I thought I would be number eight.
Most of the soldiers left Issuru after a week of our declaration in 1942, but there was always a soldier around till India got her freedom. I found my daughter in one of my uncle’s houses. She had run to the water but was too afraid to jump in. She would have died if she did. On Aug 12th 1947, exactly five years after we claimed our freedom, the soldiers suddenly left the village and we didn’t see them ever again. Three days later, India got her freedom and we all felt like we could live again, but freedom wasn’t exactly what we imagined it to be.
I reached Issuru from Bangalore on the 21st of August in 1947. I didn’t want to celebrate till I reached back. I saw Halamma the moment I entered the road that the British had come from. I was glad to see her alive. I was glad to see a lot of my village again, but it wasn’t what I expected. I thought that freedom for our country would mean so many different things for us. I thought that we wouldn’t have to worry about anything else anymore. But the truth is that we have been ignored for over 60 years now, I don’t think we have our freedom yet and I will continue to fight for it till I live my last breath. I will still continue to walk from my house to the beautiful Indian flag that proudly stands on the doorstep of my village and demand for an end of every empty promise handed to us for six decades, to demand for things that we deserve, nothing less, nothing more. I wasn’t born a free man but I will make sure that I will die as one.