For most people, 26th January is a national holiday, a time of the year when they sit in front of the television and watch the republic day parade. However, for 73-year-old Harish Chand Mehra, the day holds a special place. For it was 60 years ago, that Mehra, then a 14-year-old teenager, inspired India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to create the National Bravery Awards by saving his life.
Decades have passed since that incident, but Mehra still holds it fresh in his memory.
“It was on October 2, 1957. Nehru had come along with some foreign delegates to watch the Ramlila at the Ramlila maidan in Old Delhi. During the fireworks that precede the Ramlila function, some sparks fell on the tent in which Nehru was standing and it caught fire,” he says.
Mehra, who was the boy scout assigned to Nehru’s stand, grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the dais. “Then, I climbed onto one of the poles of the shamiana, and with my scouts’ knife cut off the burning portion of the tent,” Verma, still recalls.
A few days later, Mehra received a certificate from Jagjivan Singh, the then railways minister of India. “I thought that was the end of it. But three months later, my principal called me to his office and told me that the government is instituting the country’s first gallantry award for children and that I would be its recipient,” he says.
The following year, on February 3, 1958, a special programme was organised to honour Mehra and he was presented the award by Nehru at Teen Murti Bhawan. Nehru’s words of introduction that day are still etched in Mehra’s memory. “He said that I needed no introduction, that he was himself an eyewitness to the whole account, that the country should have more children of undoubted courage,” Mehra recalls.
On January 26, 1958, Mehra led the Republic day parade becoming the first civilian to do so.
But that is where the celebrations ended for the young boy. Five years later, he was forced to quit his studies due to financial difficulties. He worked as a clerk in UPSC most of his life, before being transferred to the controller of publications, from where he retired in February 2004.
“I come from a poor but reputed family. The award made me think that I could do great things. Clearly, that was not the case,” Mehra, who now lives in a dingy bylane in Chandi Chowk with his family of 13.
Bravery, however, continues to run in Mehra’s veins, and he has continued saving lives even after that incident.
His wife Renu Mehra says, “I remember about two decades ago, there was a big fire at Kasturba hospital. He went inside the hospital and single-handedly saved the lives of many children by pulling them out. He can’t help it. He sees someone who needs help, he goes, without caring about his life. Not many people do that,” she says.
From schemes to scholarships, presently the government has programmes to ensure a brighter future for the awardees. Media attention, especially on account of celebrities meeting awardees for movie promotions, has also ensured that the present set of awardees have better visibility. This wasn’t the case during Mehra’s time, who had to fend for himself on account of little government support. “Had I got even a little support from the government, things could have been different,” he says.
But the man, who inspired the awards, has been all but forgotten, finding it difficult to even secure admission at the awards ceremony, that he has religiously attended for the last 5 decades. “Last year, I got a last minute call from ICCW (the body that organises the award function) while I was getting ready, that I shouldn’t come for the ceremony. This year, when I went to collect my invite, they told me there was no place for me because they had limited passes. The government may be doing a lot for the awardees, and I’m really glad for them. But I have only seen apathy and mistreatment from the government since the time I won the award,” he says.