Standing tall


HS Doreswamy has worked his entire life with the poor and landless farmersImage copyright
ASIF SAUD

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HS Doreswamy has worked his entire life with the poor and landless farmers

Harohalli Srinivasaiah Doreswamy is a 98-year-old freedom fighter who is still fighting for his idea of a just India.

Last month, when the winter session of the assembly in the southern state of Karnataka began, Mr Doreswamy started a protest outside the house, demanding land rights for landless farmers.

The frail old man had travelled more than 500km (310 miles) from the state capital, Bangalore, to the town of Belgaum (Belgavi) where the session was being held.

“I know my presence acts like a catalyst,” he tells me laughing. “Ministers sit up and take notice. They can’t ignore it if Doreswamy is sitting on a protest.”

Sure enough, they couldn’t. Chief Minister K Siddharamaiah was among the several politicians and ministers who visited him to pacify him.

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Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah met Mr Doreswamy last month to persuade him to call off his protest

Mr Doreswamy has never held any political position and his power comes from the fact that he has dedicated his life to serve the people. And everyone I spoke to in Karnataka agrees that it’s a life that’s unblemished.

In a country where corruption is endemic, he stands tall for his honesty and fights for what he believes in.

All his life, he’s shunned power, instead choosing to work with the poor and the downtrodden to improve their life.

“I think a social worker should have voluntary poverty,” he told me when I visited him in his modest house in a Bangalore suburb recently.


Geeta Pandey recently spent 10 days working on a series of stories in Bangalore. This is her fifth report. You can find the other reports here:

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Women from Mars?

The restaurant that has a city eating out of its hands

The man who looks after 735 dogs


Born on 10 April 1918 in Harohalli village in the then princely state of Mysore, Mr Doreswamy was raised by his grandfather and his mother as his father died when he was five years old.

“When I was 15 and was studying in the 9th class, I read My Early Life, a book by Mahatma Gandhi, and that changed the course of my life. I became interested in the freedom movement.”

India was a British colony and the independence movement was gathering momentum in the country.

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Hulton Archive

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He was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence

In June 1942, after he finished his studies, he began teaching maths and physics at a local high school. But in December, he got arrested.

In August, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement, demanding an end to the British colonial rule and Mr Doreswamy jumped headlong into it.

“Some of my contacts were making and supplying time bombs. We would put them in post boxes to blow them up and burn all the documents.

“Sometimes, we’d also tie time bombs to the tails of rats and throw them into government record rooms where they would blow up and destroy all the documents.”

One night, the police came knocking on his door – they had arrested a man called Ramchandra, who was carrying some time bombs, and he named Mr Doreswamy as a contact.

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Asif Saud

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Mr Doreswamy married Lalithamma in 1950

“I thought they had come to arrest my brother since he was quite active in the freedom struggle,” he says, adding that he denied any connection with Ramchandra.

But the officers asked him to accompany them to the police station.

“There I was surrounded by 10 policemen, they all had canes in their hands. I was perspiring, thinking they would beat me to death, I didn’t know what to do. It’s a miracle they didn’t beat me.”

He was taken to the Bangalore Central Jail where he was put under detention for an indefinite term. Ramachandra was tried and sentenced for four months. Mr Doreswamy spent 14 months in jail.

Life in prison, he says, was not particularly bad.

“Jail is a terrible place if you think about your home and family. But I believed in my cause to serve the nation. So life was very very happy for me there.”

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Alamy

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Freedom fighter and Gandhi disciple Vinoba Bhave launched a movement to persuade rich people to give up a part of their land which could then be distributed among the landless poor

His fellow prisoners were all freedom fighters, including his brother HS Seetharam.

“Jail was like a university, I learnt Tamil and Hindi languages there. In college, I was a volleyball player so we played in the prison too.”

In the summer of 1944, the government began releasing political prisoners and Mr Doreswamy too was freed. By now, he says, he understood Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and “I didn’t go back to throwing bombs”.

He joined the Congress party and worked with them for a few years before he quit, disillusioned with Indira Gandhi (senior Congress leader who later became India’s prime minister), describing her as “a fountainhead of corruption”.

After the British left in 1947, many of his contemporaries joined the government; his brother went on to become the mayor of Bangalore.

However, Mr Doreswamy decided that he was not interested in holding political power and instead chose to work with the slum dwellers, homeless and poor landless farmers, cobblers and porters.

In the late 1950s, he began working on the Bhoodan movement, led by freedom fighter and Gandhi disciple Vinoba Bhave, trying to persuade rich people to give up a part of their land which could then be distributed among the landless poor.

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Getty Images

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Indira Gandhi sent him to jail when he criticised her during the emergency rule in 1975

“We would walk 24 days a month, from village to village. The villagers would give us food and a place to stay. I was paid 100 rupees a month which I would give to my wife to run the household and bring up our children.”

Mr Doreswamy married Lalithamma in 1950. He was 31, she 18. They met at a friend’s house and played dice. And, it was love at first sight for him: “I lost three matches to her and also my heart.”

I ask Lalithamma what she made of him? “I was destined to marry him. I have to suffer him,” she says laughing, and adds, “He was a good man, he was educated. I liked him so I agreed to marry him.”

Their marriage was not easy, mostly because he was never home. “I was always away and initially she used to get unhappy, but she managed the home with support from her mother.”

And that freed him to pursue his activism. For him, no issue was too big and no adversary too powerful.

In 1975, he took on then prime minister Indira Gandhi when she declared emergency and suspended civil liberties.

“You’re elected as a democrat, but you’re acting like a dictator. If you continue like this, I will go from house to house, village to village and tell people that you’re a dictator,” he wrote in a letter to her.

She was obviously not pleased and he was arrested under the draconian Defence of India rule and spent four months in jail, until the magistrate threw out the case against him saying that “he has a right to criticise his prime minister, he’s not an enemy of India”.

Despite his advancing years, Mr Doreswamy continues to fight the battles he deems worthy. Recently, he joined a protest against the government’s controversial plan to build a steel flyover in Bangalore.

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Mr Doreswamy recently travelled more than 500km from Bangalore to protest in Belgaum

But the issue closest to his heart remains getting land rights for the poor and the landless.

“It’s the continuation of the Bhoodan movement – now instead of asking rich people to donate land, we are asking the government to give land to every poor person. The government must declare it as policy. I believe no-one should starve and poverty should be eradicated from the country,” he says.

Until that happens, he says, he would continue to protest, age and health issues notwithstanding.

“I am suffering from old age problems – I have a backache, my knees hurt, I have breathing trouble and need nebulisation, I have acidity,” he says, adding, “my body has collapsed, but my enthusiasm for life has not dimmed.”

I ask him if he’s Karnataka’s “biggest freedom fighter”?

“No-no, there were so many stalwarts. I was a small man,” he says.

“But today, they are all dead, and I’m alive and kicking,” he laughs.


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