The engagement with Gandhian philosophy continues for Dr Leela Barah. He sees the return to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi as inevitable in order to address the ills that ail the country. He considers Hind Swaraj as the map for charting the path to a future of wholesome progress.
IMBIBING GANDHIAN SPIRIT
The freedom fighter, naturopath and writer idolizes Gandhi. He cannot talk enough about his contribution to India. The departure from the gram swaraj has brought the country to an impasse, believes the 93-year old gentleman, who was introduced to Gandhi’s thought as a schoolboy. Born on September 16 in 1921 at Telial Gaon in Charing to Bali Barah and Khageswari Barah, the youth saw his elder brother and other freedom fighters, who took shelter in their home, embrace hardships for the country. Their passion was infectious. Looking back, his involvement in the struggle seemed a natural progression. His introduction to Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy happened then. Once he had gone through Hind Swaraj, he became a convert to the Gandhian school of thought for life. The young student still remembers the rhymes that were sung about the sun not setting on the British empire and the contempt the freedom fighters like Shankar Barua showed to the overconfidence of the rulers.
When the Quit India Movement was launched, the eighth standard student of Janji High School became an active participant and was sent to jail. After release, he returned home and along with his friends, established the Charing High School, a school for the polorias (the runaways) in 1945. The students borrowed teachers from other institutions to impart them education. In 1946, the young freedom fighter managed to do his matriculation and was the first pupil of the school to do so. The high school passout moved to Jorhat to pursue further studies at JB College in Jorhat. When Mahatma Gandhi came visiting to Assam, during which he set up the Sarania Ashram at Guwahati and went to different places, the college student saw his idol from close quarters. The period also saw the infamous Calcutta killings where around ten thousand persons were supposed to have died. Two students from Jorhat, Amulya Baruah and Prafulla Baruah, were among the victims. Fearing a backlash, a group of volunteers including the freedom fighter under the leadership of Krishna Sarma took it upon themselves to guard the Muslim dominated areas and prevent any violence. Reminiscing about those years, the freedom fighter talks about baby sitting and working at a house to pay for his school fees. His college days saw him serve as a cook in a shop. But, never did he feel despair and he attributes it to Gandhian philosophy.
ACTING ON HIS IDOL’S DREAM
India’s Independence on August 15, 1947 was a momentous event for the people of India. The college student and others decided to return home to work towards the realization of Gandhi’s dream of self sufficient villages. The day the Father of Nation was shot down; a stricken Leela Barah decided to give up studies. The Principal of JB College, Dr Krishna Kanta Handique tried to convince them to complete their education but failed to make them change their minds. Rather than returning home, he moved to Namti but was soon on his way to Sadia, where he extended a helping hand to Indira Miri at the training center she had set up. While there, he also zeroed in on a spot to set up his ashram. The place was Nagaon on the bank of Garumora River. The Gandhian started working in the sphere of buniyadi siksha or basic education. A supporter of Vinoba Bhave’s Sarvodaya movement, his activities extended towards the uplift of all. The second Sarvodaya Sanmilan was held at Sadia and Kaka Kalelkar and governor of Assam, Sri Prakasha came to attend. They stayed at his ashram.
When the great earthquake of 1950 devastated the State, Leela Barah visited the hilly areas and helped the district administration in reaching out to the affected people. The work continued for three years. From Sadia, he moved to Poona to do a course on nature cure at the naturopathy hospital there. Vinoba Bhave’s two brothers were working there. Thus he earned the title, ‘Dr’. He was then sent to Dikom to research on frost bite and diabetes in 1959-60. Since housing quarters were not available there, the nature cure doctor made his home in Tinsukia. He carried on his two-pronged work— basic education and nature cure here. The Roha Basic Education Center for women was under his supervision in 1957. Marriage to Rupa Barah happened during these years. It was solemnized in the office of the mahila samity of Chandra Prabha Saikiani at Guwahati in the presence of Amal Prabha Das, Dr Bhubaneswar Baruah and Dr Harekrishna Das.
When Vinoba Bhave started his bhoodan andolan, Dr Barah joined the movement. An incident that happened during one of the camps at a place three miles from Chakri Gali in West Bengal and some distance away from River Ganga remains fresh in his mind. He and other activists were there for ten to fifteen days in 1955. On one of the initial days, the sarvodaya worker with two others went to the bank, where on the sands lived a few families who salvaged driftwood from the river waters to be dried and sold to build pyres for the dead who were brought there to be cremated. The head of a family was seated on a string bed (khat), looking prosperous and exuding hospitality. They returned around ten days later and saw a totally reverse picture. Two children, one of them suckling, were crying while the mother stared blankly ahead seated near the door. The earlier affable person was quiet and totally unresponsive. On repeated inquiries, he said that no dead body had come there for the last few days. The visitors were astounded that what should have been viewed with happiness was causing the person unhappiness. The man said that he had not been able to sell anything and the family had no money to buy food. The memory sends the 92-year old into a sheering criticism of the lopsided planning in the country.
When the Student Agitation of Gujarat inspired a similar movement in Bihar and Jayaprakash Narayan came out of retirement to lead it for the overthrow of the Congress government, Sarvodaya workers rushed to his side when he made the call. Barah was one of them. Recalling the days of turmoil, the naturopath remembers that an MLA, Phulena Rai, opened fire without any provocation on the five thousand sarvodaya padyatris, who were moving with clothes over their mouths, when they were passing by his residence in Patna. Five were killed in the firing. Talking about Jayaprakash Narayan historic address at Ram Lila Ground, the freedom fighter considers it the most passionate speech he has ever heard in his life. He goes on to narrate about the death of Union Railway Minister, Lalit Chandra Misra, the subsequent ascension of his elder brother, Jagannath Misra, to the post of Chief Minister of Bihar and the notoriety of Sanjay Gandhi. Years later, when the son of Indira Gandhi died in a crash near Safdarjung Airport, the freedom fighter was able to view his mangled body at the site of accident. The naturopathy advocate was staying at New Delhi at the home of his friend’s daughter while on his way back from Jallianwala Bagh after attending a nature cure sanmilan.
The imposition of Emergency in 1975 earned him a ban on entry into Assam. He was under treatment at Guwahati after an accident when Indira Gandhi made the declaration. For reasons he still fails to understand, he was thrown out of Assam and had to spend the next 21-month period outside the State. With well-wishers in various parts of the country, he moved from place to place. One of them was the Mugawali open jail in Madhya Pradesh. The residents of this prison were the dacoits who had surrendered before Vinoba Bhave. These prisoners ran the entire establishment.
When Emergency was lifted, the exile returned home and started publication of Trittiya Shakti, a monthly on Sarvodaya thought. It was closed down after three years. Even as he was mulling over mobilizing 24,000 youths or sarvodaya activists to work for the development of rural economy and establish ashrams like the one in Sarania, the Assam agitation started. Even as he was trying to bring to fruition the United Labour Front of Assam, the armed group that shared the same acronym began to make their presence felt. The lifelong proponent of non-violence was very critical of the gun culture and vocal about it, while he does acknowledge the grounds for disenchantment of the youth. He earned the ire of the ‘boys’ of Paresh Baruah. When the Center declared President Rule in 1990 and the army launched Operation Bajrang, the villagers in Charaipung area and Lakhipathar fled to the nearby towns of Duliajan and Digboi. Barah and a few others among whom were Late Nripen Sarma and Late Golap Dutta started a padyatra to drive out fear from people’s mind. This further angered the armed organization.
DEFYING DEATH TO TELL THE TALE
A few days after journalist Kamala Saikia of Sivasagar was shot down, Barah’s death warrant was served on August 12, 1991. He was kidnapped from near his home and taken to a hideout. Seated in the dark, the betel nut eater took out the knife he always carried in his pocket and started slicing a nut. A ULFA cadre shone a torch light to see what the condemned person was doing and was astounded to find him coolly going about preparing for his next round of masticant. His surprised query was enough opening for the freedom fighter to talk about non-violence. After a prolonged debate, Barah was set free. An interview on his three hours of captivity appeared in an Assamese newspaper under the heading ‘Gun Pointot Tini Ghonta’ (Three Hours at Gunpoint) on September 1, 1991.
Referring to the growth of armed movement, the non-violent believer blames the administration and State government. He is unwilling to believe that they did not know about the massive movement and three thousand cadres receiving arms training in Charaipung for three years. He still questions as to why action was not taken much earlier. The rampant corruption in the country troubles him but the Gandhian remains uncompromising in his stance. There is no regret except over the fact that it is not Gandhi vichar but pakhu (animal) vichar that holds sway in present day. The naturopath traces the root to the cause of all trouble to machines. According to him, they were made to be servants of man but have become the masters.
In 2000, Dr Barah became the recipient of pension for freedom fighters. He agreed to receive the money only after his forty-year-old demand to extend the benefit to the first Assamese martyr, Kushal Konwar, was met by the then Chief Minister, Prafulla Mahanta. When Bimala Prasad Chaliha first instituted the pension for those who took part in freedom struggle in 1960, application forms were delivered to him and Someswar Bora. Both decided not to fill in the papers when they learnt that Konwar’s family had been left out. It was their way to protest.
The naturopath has published several books on nature cure and the political situation like Prakritik Chikitsa (1960), Upobakh Chikitsa (1960), and two volumes of Aamar Bhool Kot? (Itihashar Jalangaidi). Rajtantrat Dekh Jui aaru Prajatantrat Pani Gamocha (1995) is his collection of poems. He is also a regular writer for newspapers.
The grand old ‘young man’ had met with several accidents but remains indomitable. A fracture in his left leg in 2005 has failed to heal totally and restricted his movement. A walking cane is now his constant companion.
The freedom fighter was the recipient of the BK Saraswat Samaj Ratna in 2004. He was given the award for his outstanding service in the field of social service in Assam. The district administration of Tinsukia also felicitated him during the Independence Day celebration two years back. On the anniversary of Quit India Movement, August 9 this year, Dr Barah was part of the select group of delegates to meet the President, Pranab Mukherjee.
Dr Leela Barah has a daughter and two sons, Gopal and Binoy. He had also adopted two girls, Lily Chetia and Hunprova, sent them to train on nature cure to Bihar and Calcutta (presently Kolkata). They married residents of UP and Bihar. Gopal Barah is married to Tulu Barah and they are parents to a son, Dhruba Jyoti and a daughter, Panna Priyam. Binoy and his wife, Purobi, have two sons, Kalyan Jyoti and Chandan Jyoti.
The Sentinel has been covering the lives of affluent and renowned families of Upper Assam for a number of editions. If anybody wishes to share their information about such families in other parts of the State and Northeast, kindly send your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.