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Who was Balmukund Bissa and why communal violence in Jodhpur is a blot on his legacy

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Balmukund Bissa played a central role in the anti-jagirdar and Lok Parishad movements.

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Jodhpur: Communal violence that rocked Rajasthan’s Jodhpur on the night of 2 May erupted at Jalori Gate, a roundabout housing a bust of Balmukund Bissa — a lesser-known freedom fighter and staunch believer in the Gandhian principles of non-violence and secularism.

The violence in Jodhpur was triggered by a dispute between groups of Hindu and Muslim men who were putting up religious flags and banners at Jalori Gate to mark the occasion of Eid, which coincided with Parshuram Jayanti. This dispute eventually escalated into communal violence, leaving at least 33 injured.

One cannot help but think that the flare-up could have been prevented had both sides grasped Balmukund Bissa’s beliefs instead of fighting each other to decorate the Jalori Gate roundabout where his bust was installed in 1957.

To better understand the life he led and his contribution to the freedom struggle, ThePrint spoke with one of Bissa’s living descendants, a historian and a local from Jodhpur who had a fascinating story to tell about the freedom fighter’s funeral.

Also Read: Haven’t seen such violence since Babri 1992 — Jodhpur residents’ lament on Hindu-Muslim clashes

Early life

Balmukund Bissa was born to a family of Pushkarna Brahmins in 1908 in Peelwa village in Rajasthan’s Nagaur, some 200 km from what is now Jodhpur city. His father, Sukhdev Bissa, was a prominent cotton trader and moved to Calcutta a few years after Bissa’s birth, which is where the freedom fighter spent most of his formative years.

In 1934, Bissa (then 26) returned to Jodhpur and set up a business of khadi and swadeshi merchandise, his grand-nephew Goldie Bissa told ThePrint.

“There is a lack of clarity on other freedom fighters whom he (Bissa) might have met in Calcutta. It looks like he was not very politically active. But his arrival in Jodhpur coincided with a time when the Marwar region was witnessing intense peasant movements,” said Bhanu Kapil, head of the history department at Udaipur’s Bhupal Nobles’ University.

Rajasthan’s Marwar region comprises Jodhpur, Nagaur, Barmer, Pali and Jalore districts.

Kapil added that local jagirdars (land-holders) were very influential in the Marwar region in the 1920s and 1930s. They imposed heavy taxes, forcing a large number of locals — mostly Brahmins, Jains and Baniyas — to migrate to other parts of the country for trade.

Foray into politics

Jai Narayan Vyas, a prolific poet, writer and Congressman who later went on to become the third chief minister of Rajasthan, was among prominent leaders of the anti-jagirdar movement. Accounts suggest that Bissa came in touch with Vyas soon after his arrival in Jodhpur in 1934.

Historian Bhanu Kapil adds that the movement got a shot in the arm when Subhas Chandra Bose visited Jodhpur to meet local leaders in 1938. This is when a larger movement, popularly called the Jodhpur Lok Parishad Jan Andolan, started taking shape.

This movement was aimed at challenging the monarchy of Umaid Singh, the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who was allied with the British at the time.

Leaders of the Lok Parishad movement demanded more public representation in the Maharaja’s councils, more attention to matters of governance and less interference by the British in matters of public administration.

“This collective movement was intersectional to the larger freedom struggle of India,” Kapil told ThePrint.

Influenced by Gandhi

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Poorna Swaraj, Bissa emerged as an active leader of the Gram Swaraj movement by 1938, along with other influential leaders from Jodhpur, including Vyas and Ranchhordas Gattani.

Bissa’s network of khadi bhandars (storage houses) were frequented by spies and leaders who were part of the movement against the monarch. He also played a central role in organising public meetings of the Jodhpur Lok Parishad Jan Andolan, for which he was arrested multiple times.

“He (Bissa) was very secular and had close relations with leaders from other faiths and castes. He preached non-violence,” said Kapil.

While there is no recorded instance of Bissa ever meeting Gandhi personally, Kapil told ThePrint, “There is one instance of Gandhi sending Dwarkanath Kachru (who was also Jawaharlal Nehru’s political assistant) to Jodhpur to take stock of the situation. Bissa and other leaders of the movement met Kachru.”

Death in custody

Balmukund Bissa is believed to have died on 19 June 1942 as a result of custodial torture, said his grand-nephew Goldie Bissa.

Goldie added that at the time of Bissa’s death, his supporters organised a funeral march from Jodhpur Windom Hospital (present day Mahatma Gandhi Hospital) to Chandpole village.

“When the gathering reached Jalori Gate, hundreds of armed policemen trained guns at them. Funeral rallies of freedom fighters were prohibited from entering the inner city in those days. It led to an altercation and there was lathi-charge and air firing, which left a large number of people injured,” said 80-year-old Govind Kalla, who was born a few months after Bissa’s death but claims his elders narrated to him the events of that fateful day.

“In the end, a handful of people managed to take Bissa’s body to Chandpole and do the cremation,” Kalla adds.

Bhanu Kapil said this event was the reason why a bust of Balmukund Bissa was installed at the roundabout at Jalori Gate.

Caste identity

Fast forward to 2022, not many in Jodhpur — other than a handful of Pushkarna Brahmins — know about Bissa’s legacy. Ask any local about the bust at the Jalori Gate roundabout, and the most common response is: ‘some freedom fighter’.

This despite the fact that thousands of Pushkarna Brahmins, the community that Balmukund Bissa hailed from, live in the 4 km stretch between Jalori Gate and Mehrangarh Fort, also known as the “inner city”.

Even among Pushkarna Brahmins, younger generations know very little about Bissa’s life apart from his caste identity, laments Govind Kalla.

Historian Bhanu Kapil says there is a glaring reason for this emphasis on Balmukund Bissa’s caste instead of his Gandhian beliefs.

“The legacy of Bissa and several other freedom fighters of the region failed to find space in school textbooks. That is one reason why there is a gap in the knowledge of younger generations and the gap is only getting wider. That is unfortunate.”

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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