15 Aug 2015 13:17 IST

The begar workers who joined the freedom struggle

How Himachal village Halog revolted against exploitation in pre-Independent India

About 25km from Shimla, nestled in the mountains is Halog village, where ‘Dhami Goli Kand’ (firing on unarmed protesters) incident that finds prominent mention in the annals of Himachal Pradesh’s contribution to the freedom struggle, played out.

Two were killed and many injured on July 16, 1939, when police opened fire on protestors, who were marching under the banner of Praja Mandal (People’s Councils) in the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Dhami.

The ruins of the Dhami palace

Though the locals recall the incident with pride, they regret that today, except for the ruins of the Dhami palace, there is not even a small memorial in Halog to record this historic event.

It has, however, been etched in ink by the freedom fighter Pandit Sitaram, who recounted the story in the book Smritian (memories) published by the Language, Art and Culture Department of Himachal Pradesh. He was one of the prisoners of conscience, who had raised their voice against the atrocities of the Dhami rulers and joined the procession of protesters that day as head of the Dhami Praja Mandal.

How the events unfolded

During British rule, the princely state of Dhami used to organise hunting expeditions for the Viceroy and his entourage every year. At Tamboo ka Joober, 14km from Halog, near Ghanahati, a large number of tents were erected for the British bara sahibs to hunt deer, barking deer and pheasants in the thick forests. Thousands of common people had to act as drum beaters, while others were forced to work as bonded labour for months on end, either collecting firewood or carrying rations, vegetables, fruits and other material to the hunting camp. Nearly 2,355 acres were reserved for these annual hunting outings.

Discontent and anger simmered as the people suffered grave atrocities at the hands of the pro-British autocratic Dhami rulers. That was what triggered the huge procession on July 16, led by Bhagmal Sauhta, a leading member of the Praja Mandal movement.

They intended to present to the Dhami Rana the demands of the ordinary citizens, including the abolition of the begar system of forced labour.

Bhagmal was arrested even before he could reach Halog, but thousands of people from Dhami and other estates, including a large number of begar workers employed to construct a road from Ghanahati to Dhami, converged at the spot. Unable to control the mob, the armed guards fired on it.

Sitaram was jailed for about a year and his house set on fire after the incident. Later, he was exiled from Dhami until 1944. What came as a rude shock to the rulers was that even its own low-paid employees had dared to take part in the demonstration.

But no remnants

Today, nothing remains of the jail where Bhagmal, Sitaram and many others suffered all kinds of torture. New houses have come up, and the area where the firing took place is under cultivation.

Many locals, including the writer Arun Bharti, regret that none of the successive State governments had bothered to build a memorial or conserve buildings like the Dhami jail, where the Praja Mandal leaders were incarcerated.

Bharti, who is working on a series on the freedom movement in Shimla and Sirmour from 1857 till 1947 for publication in a journal, says what is unfortunate is that instead of building a memorial, the descendants of the Dhami rulers have sought to destroy all nishanats (evidence) of the firing incident.

Ashwini, a reporter from the area, says the children of many of those who suffered atrocities back then continue to work as daily wagers.

Dhami Shaheed Samarak School

It was in the early 70s that the first Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, YS Parmar, attended a function to mark the event at Halog. It was also after a number of representations that a government school in Halog was named Dhami Shaheed Samarak School about a decade and a half ago.

Ramesh Pant, who was pradhan of the Halog (Dhami) panchayat for 25 years and is the husband of the current pradhan, Kala Pant, says the village would be happy if the government took the initiative to construct a memorial. That would, indeed, inspire the coming generations.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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