When kids said ‘Quit India’

The cops supported the anti-British activity but they had to maintain order

Quit India Movement 76th Year Celebration. (DH Photo)

As a seven-year-old in August 1942, I was wearing a white khadi cap most of the time, even when going to school where we would be in the school uniform. Why, even girls were wearing this homespun cloth cap. It had become a solidarity icon of the freedom movement, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Bapu had indeed mobilised the whole country to oust the gora sahibs in a unique nonviolent action.

August 9, 1942, had been a frenzied day for the kids at the Marine Drive neighbourhood in Bombay. An older boy had organised a symbolic gesture of removing the British from our soil. Mahatma Gandhi had called it the ‘Quit India’ movement — a call from all Indians to the British to leave.

Paranjay Hazrat, the boy, took an old shirt of his, stuffed it with dry grass, and vertically thrust a 15-feet-long bamboo pole through it to fashion a scarecrow-like contraption. He then stuffed the shirt with more grass to make it rotund, as it was to represent Winston Churchill, the then British prime minister.

Then he put a clay pot at the bamboo’s top end, which became the head. Two holes for eyes in the clay pot and another hole for the mouth, and the mouth adorned with a Trichinapalli cigar (cheroot) just like Churchill. Atop the matka head was an old hat.

Two short bamboo poles thrust through the sleeves to represent hands and two long poles to make the legs, and Churchill’s effigy was complete, strung up on the bamboo pole.

He had instructed that he would hold this Churchill’s effigy upright, wave it about a bit, lead us, while we dozen kids with white khadi Gandhi caps, would chant "Hai Re Churchill hai hai” (shame Churchill shame) and go left-right-left, thumping down the footpath of Marine Drive. After 100 yards of the march, we would set fire to the torso.

The idea of being allowed to play with live matches under full adult approval, make a bonfire, and shout the Hai Re Churchill Hai Hai slogan in a crescendo was all very exciting for the dozen pre-teen kids.

We began in the sea breeze of Marine Drive, lit the dry hay in a cotton shirt. The clay pot ‘head’ wobbled, the cheroot shook, a little flame arose, with a wisp of white smoke. The chant and the smoke quickly brought two havaldars (policemen) who held foot-long batons.

They were Indian, of course, and probably supported the anti-British activity. But they had to keep the law and order, so they were grinning while waving the batons saying 'Bhago chhokra log, bhago' (getaway kids, getaway).

We ran for our lives, leaving the half-burnt effigy. Paranjay managed to retrieve the hat that he had pilfered from his father’s closet. Only later that morning did I learn that Churchill was a “bad man” and a “gora sarkar”. We were asking him to give us “azaadi” and Quit India.

Mahatma Gandhi had indeed mobilised the country. Every man woman and child was participating in the freedom movement. And today we celebrate our azaadi.

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