MAINSTREAM, VOL LI, NO 41, SEPTEMBER 28, 2013
September 28, 2013 marks the immortal revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh’s 106th birth anniversary. On this occasion we are publishing the following article written and sent for publication around March 23 this year to observe the eightysecond anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. It could not be published then for unavoidable reasons.
It is March 23 now on the clock, the most significant day for the revolutionary movement of not only India, but the whole of South Asia, at least as important for Pakistan as for India. The greatest martyr of both India and Pakistan held the head of dignity of the Indian nation of 1931 and revolutionary movement of the whole world high, with the resounding sounds of ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ and ‘Down with Imperialism’. The event made British colonialism hang its head in shame before the brave three—Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev!
I am trying to imagine the three days of March 1931. On March 20, Bhagat Singh wrote to the Governor of Punjab, daring him to send a firing squad in order to shoot them, as they were ‘war prisoners’, since a war was on between the Indian nation and British colonialism. On March 22, Bhagat Singh wrote a letter to his comrades, exhorting them to continue the struggle, though they would face immense hardships; more than dying, living and struggling will be more difficult… And on the 23rd itself, I presume, all the three slept well at night, after singing revolutionary songs. They knew March 24 would be the day of their execution.
At the time of meeting, Pran Nath Mehta, their friend and advocate, brought the book on or by Lenin as sought by Bhagat Singh, a day earlier. In all likelihood Pran Nath Mehta must have informed Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev that their families refused to avail themselves of the last meeting with them, though all the three families were present in Lahore that day for the last meeting. Rajguru’s poor mother travelled all the way from Maharashtra to be with her son. Sukhdev’s mother was there with Sukhdev’s uncle, Lala Achint Ram Thapar, who was like a father to Sukhdev after the death of his father earlier. The jail authorities refused permission to Lala Achint Ram to accompany them for the last meeting, because of ‘not being a blood relation’. To protest against this, all the three families refused to meet the three prisoners.
I was trying to gauge the pain of the three mothers, particularly of Rajguru’s poor mother, who came all the way from a village near Pune in Maharashtra, and had not got many chances to meet her son during the trial, being far away. At least Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev’s families had many chances to meet them, being in Punjab. Bhagat Singh was worried that at the last meeting his mother might cry, so he advised her not to come; however, she did come, but now showing exemplary courage bearing pain, all of them refused to see their sons for the last time, exposing the British colonial regime’s cruelty in its worst form.
Bhagat Singh could understood everything. When Bogha, the Dalit jail worker, came, Bhagat Singh asked him to cook lunch for them. In 1931, Bogha cried, he could not commit this ‘sin’ to cook for a ‘high caste’, but Bhagat Singh told him that before going to the gallows, he had to eat from the hands of ‘bebe’, they used to call Bogha, bebe (mother), since like the mother he cleansed their toilets. Bhagat Singh had his way and got his last food from ‘bebe’. Then he started reading Lenin and around four, the jail warder, Chatar Singh, requested them to have a bath, could not explain anything except crying. Bhagat Singh understood that the ‘time was up’, they got ready for the ‘last and final journey’. Bhagat Singh again continued reading Lenin’s book. When around six the jail staff came to fetch them, Bhagat Singh smiled and said: ‘Wait for a while, let me finish this page, a revolutionary is meeting another revolutionary, don’t spoil the beauty of their meeting.’ They waited!
All three, arm-in-arm and singing, started moving towards the gallows. Bhagat Singh’s weight increased by ten pounds, with the expectation of execution (mind ‘expectation’ and not ‘apprehension’), as he was so happy and excited to sacrifice his life for the country and its people, in order to awaken them. I sometimes wonder whether we shall celebrate March 23 with happiness or express sorrow as many people do. Bhagat Singh would have said: ‘Celebrate your struggles on this day, don’t spread gloom, be cheerful and strong!’
At 7 pm or around that time they were at the gallows. Bhagat Singh refused to wear the black cloth on his face and told the British officer: ‘You are lucky to see how happily Indians go to the gallows for the nation.’
Saddam Hussein was not the first to go to the gallows with uncovered face; Bhagat Singh was the first one to do so.
And what did the British do after the executions were over? Scared of the anger of the people gathered at the jail gate, and the news spread fast, they mutilated the bodies by cutting them into pieces, put those into sacks, took those from the back gate towards Hussainiwala, and burnt the bodies with kerosene oil with some Pandit/Granthi around from Kasur. A large number of people walking by foot collected the half-burnt body-pieces, brought those to Lahore and a lakh of people joined the funeral march to the banks of the Ravi in Lahore on March 24 evening. Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest men and patriots of history at the age of 23 years and five months plus, whose slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ became the war-cry of the freedom struggle after their martyrdom.
‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ II—Long Live Revolution!
Writing ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ on March 23, I wrote that I would write part two of it. So now I am trying to jot it down. I wish to share here what brought me close to Bhagat Singh in my life.
After passing the Matriculation in my home town Rampura Phul with rather low marks, I was almost lost in the wilderness. There was no college in those days in the town and my father was not in a position to support my college education in nearby towns, Bhatinda or Barnala, at an equal distance of 30 kilometres on opposite sides, where the colleges were located.
My father, a petty trader, always under some debt, did not join as a school teacher, being middle pass in his days, due to ‘little pay’, and had no such sensitivity to educate his children by all means. Under the circumstances, the Public Library of Rampura Phul took me out of my pensive state by opening a whole new world of literary creativity before me. It started with Munshi Prem Chand’s Godan, and I could never settle for a lower level of literary creation. That’s why Punjabi novels did not attract me as much as Hindi ones and translations of Indian and world classics in Hindi. After a while, I became a member of the Hind Pocket Books, Delhi’s scheme of ‘Readers Club’, getting nine rupees worth books for eight rupees, with free postage. And one book for one rupee by Manmath Nath Gupta, Bharat Ke Krantikari having 16 sketches, including that of Bhagat Singh; this was my first encounter with the revolutionary freedom fighters. Manmath Nath Gupta was himself a part of the Kakori Conspiracy Case and got life conviction though being just 15 years or so at that time. I was so impressed that I started translating the book into my mother-tongue, Punjabi. By that time I had done the JBT, teachers training course, and passed Prabhakar (Honours in Hindi) examination as a private candidate, securing the first position in Punjab. This got me a job as a Hindi teacher in a Government High School in Poohla village of Bhatinda district.
These sketches were serialised in Desh Bhagat Yaadan, the fortnightly brought out by the legendary Ghadarite, Baba Gurmukh Singh Lalton, from Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, Jalandhar. Some of the pieces were published also in Preetlari, and Aarsee, respected literary journals.
Till that time I could read and understand books in Hindi and Punjabi only, English was a distant dream yet. So I read many books in these languages on the revolutionary heroes and got particularly enchanted with Bhagat Singh. Perhaps the first meeting on Bhagat Singh I attended was on March 23, 1969 in the Public Library, Bhatinda on his martyrdom day, which was addressed by the well-known Punjabi short-story writer and joint editor of Preetlari, Navtej Singh, with his father Gurbux Singh Preetlari at that time.
But I had to struggle a lot, while doing a job, passed graduation privately and even MA Part-I privately. I joined Panjab University, Chandigarh to complete MA Part-II in Hindi. This opened a new path of life for me. Though I continued with my school job even after completing my MA, my teachers’ union activity and doing MA, Punjabi, again privately, kept me close to study about revolutionaries as well as a lot of creative Indian and world literature. Though I registered for Ph.D in Hindi with Prof Romesh Kuntal Megh, I could not proceed much. In this period, I became quite active in the Punjabi cultural movement and with some writings and translations to my credit, became known as Chaman Lal ‘Prabhakar’ in literary circles. Kumar Vikal, Mohan Bhandari and Bhushan, known as Dhianpuri at that time, and myself became part of a circle and by organising the Punjabi Sahit Sabha at Rampura Phul came in contact with the stalwarts of Punjabi literature as well, that is, Prof Mohan Singh, Sant Singh Sekhon, Gurdial Singh, etc. Paash, Waryam Sandhu, Surinder Hemjyoti, Ajmer Aulakh, Amarjit Chandan, Harbhajan Halwarvi, Attarjeet, Sant Ram Udasi, Lal Singh Dil, etc. were all part of the same stream at that time.
We worked together in the Panjabi Sahit Sabhiachar Manch, with guidance from the Nagi Reddy group of the ML movement in Punjab at that time. During the 1975 Emergency, I spent seven months in Bhatinda and Patiala jails.
In 1977, I joined the JNU for research and left the school job. Five years in the JNU as a student have been the best period of my life so far. After doing a Hindi officer’s job for sometime in Bombay, I had a short stint in journalism as a sub-editor in the Jansatta Hindi daily brought out by Prabhash Joshi, before getting a long-term job at Punjabi University, Patiala as an academic. Before leaving for Patiala, I completed editing Bhagat Singh aur Unke Sathiyon ke Dastavez with Jagmohan Singh for Rajkamal Publishers, Delhi, which got published in 1986, to become an all-time best-seller till now. From 1985 to 2002, I remained confined to literature and have many publications in Hindi, Punjabi and English, books as well as articles in journals/ newspapers.
Again after 2002, my interest returned to Bhagat Singh and this time I collected documents of Bhagat Singh alone with the title, Bhagat Singh ke Sampuran Dastavez (Complete Documents of Bhagat Singh).
The preface of the book was written by Kultar Singh, the younger brother of Bhagat Singh, and the book was released during the World Book Fair in Delhi in February 2004. This also became as much a hit as was the early collection. In the meantime, National Book Trust Chairman Prof Bipan Chandra asked me to write a monograph on Kartar Singh Sarabha, which I completed only after joining the JNU as a Professor in Hindi Translation in 2005. By this time, I got the Central Hindi Directorate award for translating Surjit Patar’s poetry in Hindi, Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize for translating Paash’s poetry in Hindi in 2002 and the Punjab Government’s Shiromani Hindi Sahitkar award in 2003.
By the time I joined the JNU, I had enough publications on Hindi and Punjabi literature, including those of criticism and translation, which were getting published every year. However, from 2006, my whole interest seemed to be concentrated on Bhagat Singh and other revolutionary heroes during the 75th martyr-dom anniversary (2006) and the 2007 birth centenary of Bhagat Singh. I became an active campaigner and writer on Bhagat Singh in this period, more at the non-official level, but some at the official level also. By impressing upon the Left parliamentary parties, which were suppor-ting the UPA Government in those days, I got the Bhagat Singh centenary included in official functions also, and this resulted in publication of Bhagat Singh’s documents from the Publications Division for the first time in 60 years. This was edited by me as Shaheed Bhagat Singh: Dastavezon ke Aaine Mein. Also I got Jail Notebook and Other Writings, with my introduction, published from Leftword, Delhi, which has got many reprints in paperback till now. The NBT also got Bhagat Singh ke Rajnitik Dastavez edited by me. On my own I prepared a book in Punjabi, my mother-tongue, Bhagat Singh: Vicharvan Inquilabi, published by Navyug Press, Delhi, the best in a Punjabi language publication. My own writings in Hindi on Bhagat Singh were published in 2009 under the title, Bhagat Singh, by Medha Books, Delhi. Another collection of my writings on Bhagat Singh, including some in EPW and Monthly Review, is now being published as Understanding Bhagat Singh from Aakar Books, Delhi. The Hindi literary monthly Gyanoudey also got a column on Indian revolutionaries from me during 2007, which is now ready to be published in book form any time. In Punjabi my book appeared as Inquilabi Itihas De Sunehari Panne in 2006, by Tarak Bharti Publishers, Barnala. During 2006-2010, I delivered fifty plus lectures on Bhagat Singh in different parts of the country and abroad. My NBT collection of Bhagat Singh’s documents has recently come out in Urdu translation also, which I hope reaches Pakistan. The Publications Division’s large collection of documents has also been translated in Urdu and is likely to be published soon.
Why did I get so involved with this theme? As part of the Left and democratic movement, I realised that one needs to have heroes from one’s own tradition to have emotional appeal among the masses. Bhagat Singh is one such hero, who has mass appeal, and who had the best enlightened Leftist ideas during the freedom movement. Bhagat Singh, like Che Guevara, is an ideal hero for not only India, but South Asia as a whole, as Che Guevara is for the whole of Latin America and both together for the whole world. The other reason was to place Bhagat Singh in the proper ideological perspective. He was just projected as a brave, fearless patriot, but despite his writings being available, he was not projected as a clear socialist revolutionary thinker, to some extent deliberately. Prof Bipan Chandra brought out his ideological position clearly in the 1970s. I took it further by bringing into light his writings in focus, so that the people could know him directly from his writings.
I have more material to focus on him, like the official documents from the National Archives including intelligence reports, which I want to use in a book, Bhagat Singh: Through Colonial and Nationalist Perspectives. I have a desire to get a complete set of articles published in the Mainstream journal in book form as Bhagat Singh in Mainstream which could prove to be the best collection of articles on Bhagat Singh. I am working now on my magnum opus, Bhagat Singh Reader, assigned to me by Penguin India for the international edition. It may be completed this year. This will present Bhagat Singh’s complete documents in English at the international level. And this will provide me with the greatest satisfaction of my life, as and when it comes out.
It has been a hundred years since the Gadar party was launched in March 1913, in the United States by a band of fiery young Indian expatriates with the aim of waging an armed struggle against British rulers in India. To commemorate the party’s centennial, the author recommends that the Indian government should take some concrete steps to create awareness about the party and the radical and revolutionary movement it unleashed.
The Gadar party was formed in the United States in the early twentieth century by migrant Indians, mostly Punjabis. However, the party also included Indians from all parts of India such as Darisi Chenchiah and Champak Raman Pillai from South, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle and Sadashiv Pandurang Khankhoje from West India, Jatinder Lahiri and Taraknath Das from East India, Maulvi Barkatullah and Pandit Permanand Jhansi from Central India and many more. In March 1913, in a meeting at St. Jones, the party was established as the “Hindi Association of Pacific Coast”under the leadership of Lala Har Dayal with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna as its president. However, it became popularly known as the Gadar Party after it launched its journal “Gadar”on 1 November, 1913, in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and other Indian languages from its headquarters the Yugantar Ashramin in San Francisco. The building which housed the headquarters is now named as the “Gadar Memorial”. The party took its name Gadar to consciously identify itself with the first war of Independence in 1857, which the British termed the “Gadar”(revolt). Though the party’s planned “Gadar” in India failed to take off in February 1915, more than a hundred Gadar activists paid with their lives, 41 being shot in Singapore alone on 15 February, 1915. Hundreds were imprisoned for long terms with many being sent to the “Kalapani”, as the jail in the Andamans was known. The Gadar Movement was the most advanced secular democratic movement of its time whose tradition was upheld and appropriated by Bhagat Singh later with further addition of the socialist ideology.
I visited the Gadar memorial in San Francisco where I had been invited to deliver a lecture on the Gadar party hero Kartar Singh Sarabha on 22 May, 2011, to commemorate his birth anniversary. In addition to visiting this historic site, I got an opportunity to visit the Stockton Gurdwara where many meetings of the Gadar party were held, the Sacramento Cemetery, where not only the Gadar party senior activist Maulvi Barkatullah, but many other freedom fighters from Punjab have been buried as well, and the Holt farm of the Gadar party vice president Jawala Singh. These historic sites lie in a state of neglect, and I suggest that the Indian government should attempt to restore these sites and create awareness about the Gadar movement, particularly so since this is the centenary year of the party.
The Gadar Memorial
The Gadar Memorial is located at 5, Wood Street in San Francisco. Having been reconstructed, it has lost its heritage character, and even its original name ‒Yugantar Ashram‒ finds no reference anywhere. The name was adopted to identify with the early revolutionary movement in Bengal called “Yugantar”. The original name of the building was written in Urdu, Punjabi and English. Now only the changed name is painted on the front wall in English and Hindi with no Punjabi or Urdu version. The building was handed over to the government of India after the country attained independence, and the Gadar party was formally dissolved. Presently it is under the administrative control of the Consulate General of India, San Francisco. There is no proper care- taker of the building, and important documents and items related to the Gadar movement, including the artificial arm of Gadarite Harnam Singh Tundilat, (who lost his arm during the movement and became famous as “Tundilat” or “broken arm lord”) are displayed in glass cases without any lock and key. Most of the time this historic building remains closed, and when someone wants to visit it they need special permission from the Consulate.
This building should be rebuilt on lines of the original heritage building, and named again as the Yugantar Ashram. It should be converted into a library-cum-research centre on the model of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, even if on a smaller scale. Further the Berkeley campus of the University of California should be involved in this project, and the memorial building should be leased to the University for establishing the Gadar archives and research centre. The Bancroft library of the University already has a Gadar archive with 20 boxes of documents and some digitised records. The Indian Government should also consider establishing the Kartar Singh Sarabha Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where Sarabha was a student of science in 1912-13, and this Chair could well be linked with the Gadar memorial. Copies of all the documents relating to the Gadar movement, spread across countries where the Gadar party was either active, or had influence like US, Canada, India, Singapore, Philippines, China, Argentina, Brazil, Germany etc. should be brought to this research centre. This would be the best tribute to Sarabha and the Gadar party during its centenary celebrations.
The model of the ship Komagata Maru should also be displayed. A film ‘Continuous Journey’ made by Ali Kazmi on the Komagata Maru incident beautifully captures the moments from that period. This documentary should be shown and distributed throughout Indian schools and colleges during the centenary year.
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library should acquire photo copies or the digitalised version of the Gadar Archives from the Bancroft library, University of California, Berkeley. Copies of documents housed in New York Public Library and other places in USA, Canada and other countries too should also be acquired. At the Nehru Memorial, a special section on the Gadar movement and the movement led by Bhagat Singh should be created as the two are inseparable from each other.
Stockton Gurudwara and Other Historic Sites
Sacramento Cemetery, where Maulvi Barkatullah’s and other Punjabi Muslim freedom fighters’ graves are found, a plaque with details should be put up by the Indian government. The caretaker of this cemetery, Patricia Hutchings is keen to know the details and willing to put them up. The Stockton Gurudwara where meetings of the Gadar party activists took place and where a hall still stands in the name of Gadari Babas, has been taken over by Khalistani sympathisers. A big banner “Khalistan Zindabad” with the photograph of Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale is displayed at the entrance of the Gurdwara. The pictures of the Gadar party heroes have been replaced by those of gun toting Khalistani “martyrs”, including the killers of Indira Gandhi and general Vaidya. Despite the existence of a prayer room, the Gadar hall has been converted into an additional prayer room with a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib residing there. The local Sikhs who run the Gurdwara are strongly influenced by the Khalistani movement and are ignorant of the glorious past of the Gadar movement. The Indian government can initiate an awareness campaign about the significance of the Gadar movement among local Sikhs/Punjabis and restore the image of the Gurudwara as a historic Gadar building.
At the Holt farm near Stockton, which belonged to the Gadarite Jawala Singh, an identifying plaque with details should be put up by the Indian government.
Above all emphasis should be placed on creating awareness and deepening knowledge of these historic events amongst the younger generations. The history of such events should be taught at schools, and books should be published and distributed in major Indian languages. In particular, the autobiography of the founding president of the Gadar party, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna should be translated into all Indian languages and published, perhaps by the National Book Trust and documentaries and television serials could also be made on the Gadar movement. We should not let this opportunity to reclaim this great legacy of our anti-colonial past be lost to lethargy and bureaucratic delays. The Gadar movement was one of the most important events in the radicalisation of India’s freedom struggle and forgetting its history is to lose a part of our own identity.
P Chidambaram’s bud-get speech had at least one entry whose significance could go beyond accounts. The Centre has decided to mark 100 years of the formation of the Ghadar Party this year and allocated funds to build and maintain its museum in San Francisco, apart from organising a series of programmes at home.
The Ghadar Party’s first office-bearers were chosen in Astoria on April 21, 1913 — the year before World War I, with British imperialism at its peak, and before the Soviet Union had been formed. A group of angry anarchists and socialists, some of them university students, some peasant-farmers and all based abroad, decided that the root cause of oppression of their fellow Indians was imperialism and they would fight it.
Inspired by ‘Ghadar’ of 1857, Karl Marx, and the spirit they then saw in the US for providing immigrants freedom and a platform to fight for what they felt was right, they ended up setting up the party in the University of Berkeley, California, and egged on thousands of immigrant workers to sail back to India and help “liberate” it. Pioneer leaders Lala Hardyal, Tarak Nath Das, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna and Maulvi Barakatullah openly said their plan was actually to fight the British. And they arrived in India from California to do just that.
Historians and scholars working on the Ghadar Party are heartened by the government effort, saying the unique movement will finally be given its place in history. Historian Harish K Puri, based in Ludhiana, says it is an important strain in India’s nationalist legacy and must not be airbrushed only because it does not fit into the Gandhian Congress story.
“The fact that people who had gone out to earn their living through manual labour were able to identify the root problem of their hardships here, and make a connection with unfair attitudes to immigrants with colonialism, was a huge leap of ideas,” Puri says. “Bhagat Singh, Chittagong, Netaji’s INA, and the Naval Revolt of 1946 all owed a lot to the Ghadar Party idea and broke the back of the British in India.”
Puri, who met Bhakna when the latter was 96, was “mesmerised by his spirit, Catholicism, broad vision and ability to conceive of a movement which believed in bringing Punjabi Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Marathis, Gujaratis all together, at a time when revivalist movements were on in almost all faiths. These people in divisive times developed the idea of ‘desh’.”
Puri recounts how the anarchists’ ideas influenced the times. Tarak Nath in 1908 wrote to Leo Tolstoy about War and Peace, asking Tolstoy, complete with 10-year data on deaths due to hunger and famine in India, how this was any better than the war-related deaths Tolstoy was so eloquent about. “Tolstoy replied, and even Gandhi took note of that reply. This was the impact of those people.”
Says Prof Chaman Lal of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has travelled to most places connected with Ghadar and kept records, “What worries me is that either no one wants to talk about it as it does not fit into a goody-goody non-violence narrative we want to put out, or the wrong people try and appropriate it. Now, radical Sikh extremists try and portray them as Sikh radicals — while they were pious, they were the antithesis of identity games outside of ‘desh’. Their message was the opposite.”
Says Savitri Sawhney, the daughter of one of the Marathi revolutionaries of the time, Dr Pandurang Khankhoje, “At the Pravasi Bhartiya meet this year, two descendants of the Ghadar movement were to be honoured, but it was all changed at the last minute. The establishment suddenly didn’t want to honour anybody outside the Gandhi-Nehru fold; they are still regarded as terrorists. This is wrong. They must find a place in popular memory.”
Congress party representatives deny any deliberate effort to ignore the movement. If that was the case, they say, the PM would not otherwise have called it a “luminous spark” guiding the independence struggle at the Pravasi Divas at Kochi, “nor would he have released a commemorative stamp”.
Says Prof Chaman Lal, “The Ghadar strain was left without takers after independence except communist parties, who see themselves in part as bearers of the ideas.”
The US-Canada based Left-affiliated Indian Workers Association and its UK counterpart, the Indian Workers Association, are organising a series of meetings, seminars, rallies and plays by an Indian troupe over the next year to remind people of Ghadar, and of the fact that even Indian NRIs today owe much of the awareness and freedom to those who founded the party to fight the case for immigrant Asians, mostly Asian workers working in the West then.
A museum was set up in Jalandhar in 1955, principally by Ghadar revolutionaries released from the Andaman islands after serving life sentences.
Ghadar revolutionaries exercised a deep influence on those who came a decade later. Says Bhagat Singh’s nephew Kiranjit Singh, “Ghadar hero Kartar Singh Sarabha was his hero and he carried a picture of his in his pocket at all times. Sarabha was executed when he was 19, and embedded in my uncle the philosophy of meeting your death with a smile, which he did.” Says Prof Puri, “Bhagat Singh pored over the famous Ghadar Party trial case records in Lahore and we have his copy in the museum, with his notes scribbled in the margins.”