Every year on August 15, the residents of United India Apartments await the arrival of Nathiram Bhatt, an 89-year-old who shares nostalgic accounts of the struggles and travails of the freedom movement.
Every year on Independence Day residential societies across the NCR resonate with the fervour of patriotic songs and cultural programmes that commence with the hoisting of the national flag. The celebrations at United India Apartments, a residential society in Mayur Vihar Phase I Extension, however, are a little different. Every year on this august day, people look forward to the visit of Nathiram Bhatt, now an 89-year-old retired government teacher who shares profound accounts of the many known and unknown feats of the freedom movement. Nathiram’s brother, Purusottam Das Bhatt, is president of United India Apartments.
Now dressed in a white dhoti-kurta and sporting long white hair and a beard, Nathiram was all of 18 when India celebrated her first hour of freedom. He was also a witness of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, at the Birla House in New Delhi. Speaking to City Spidey, the octogenarian says that he has vivid memories of the bloodbath that characterised the partition right after independence.
Interestingly, Nathiram, who was born in a small village called Kirmich in Kurukshetra (then in Punjab province), had spent three months in a district jail for writing a letter to an Urdu
newspaper and exposing the name of a government official whose volatile speech against the Muslim community had incited violence in the village.
Nathiram says that after the news of partition was announced, riots were a regular feature in the country. The only people who brought some sanity to the situation were the Hindus in support of the peaceful departure of Muslims to Pakistan.
Schools were shut six months before August 14. “I got a job in the district Congress Party office. I was good at writing and reading Urdu. My job was to maintain the entry register in this office and read the letters of senior leaders,” he recalls.
Talking about the migration pattern, he says, “Muslims had started migrating to Western Punjab [Pakistan]. While the rich Muslim families had mostly migrated, the poor Muslims who had good relations with their landowners and wanted to continue their work stayed back.”
Nathiram says that in the days preceding independence, the tricolour, which was the symbol of the Congress party, was in great demand. “There was a shortage of tricolour flags in my district. Special orders were given for stitching tricolours. There were many Muslims who were in this business of stitching. All Indians, irrespective of their religion, or political inclinations were keen on hoisting a national flag on the rooftop of their house,” he remembers. “People were beating the drum, chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and singing national songs,” he added.
Speaking about an incident that has been etched indelibly in his memory, Nathiram says, “It was the morning of September 17, 1947. Around 10 am, a deputy commissioner had come to our village. People had assembled for his speech. Unfortunately, his speech instigated the Hindus. The commissioner specifically said, ‘Agar apni sanskriti ko bachana chahte ho, apne khet khalihan bachana chate ho, apni bahu betiyon ki itjjat bachana chahte ho, toh in Musalmano ko khtam kar do inhe bhagao yaha se.’”
Nathiram sadly recounts that within two hours of the speech, there were bodies of Muslims everywhere. “Their houses were set on fire. I saw a middle-aged Hindu killing a newborn Muslim child. Mothers kept pleading for their children but the people were not just ready to let even a single Muslim go.”
“It was devastating,” he added, after a moment’s silence. “It’s been so many years, but I just cannot get those screams out of my mind.”