By Jyotsna Bhargava
The Friday Times: : 18 Aug 2017
70 years after Independence, we recall the trauma of the division of a country and culture – and of homes, families and lives. Jyotsna Bhargava saw the city through her grandfather’s eyes: Pitaji’s Lahore
Immortal revolutionary Bhagat Singh in jail - the author's grandfather first met him during a protest in Lahore against the Simon Commission
The year was 1927. There was tension on the streets of Lahore after two young men, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu were hanged by the British. Ramprasad Bismil, who penned what was to become the battle cry of the revolutionaries “Sarfaroshi kee tamanna ab humare dil mein hai …” and Ashfaqullah Khan were executed for robbing a train in what became known in history books as the “Kakori” case. They needed the money for weapons to fight the British.
Among those who attended their condolence meeting was an 18-year-old studying at the Forman Christian (FC) College in Lahore. A few months later, the same young man was no longer a bystander, thrust into the freedom struggle so rapidly that by the time he was 22, he had been jailed 8 times. They say sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. The teenager who grew up before his time was my grandfather Virendra.
The author’s grandfather after his release from prison in 1930
For our family, it’s a legacy that is dripping with history but as innocent grandchildren we were more fascinated by stories of the family home on Nisbet Road that had 22 rooms and a central courtyard where hawkers came and after much haggling a basket would be lowered with money and raised back with vegetables.
We were especially captivated with my grandmother bringing a German Adler car when she got married; just a handful of people in the city had a car those days and one of its most famous occupants was India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. My grandfather popularly called Vir, who had just learnt how to drive, nervously took Nehru around Lahore and its famous landmarks Shah Alami Darwaza, Rang Mahal, Gumti Bazaar and Lahori Gate. Wonder how many of them still stand tall today.
At this protest procession Pitaji (as we called my grandfather) met Bhagat Singh, the legendary revolutionary who knew no partition – only freedom
They say there is a time for everything which is why perhaps we needed to grow up a little bit to see Lahore through different eyes. And what we learnt is that history is not just what is in the books. “Simon Commission” is familiar to most students but through my grandfather’s accounts we learnt it united the Congress and the Muslim League like nothing else would those days. So, they decided that Lahore would give a hostile reception to the commission that had no local members, that was unmatched elsewhere in the country. It was at this protest procession that Pitaji (as we called my grandfather) met Bhagat Singh, the legendary revolutionary who knew no partition – only freedom.
Pitaji recounted that during the protest, events spiraled out of control and in the police lathi charge several leaders were badly injured. When Lala Lajpat Rai, the Punjabi who was leading the freedom struggle died of his injuries in 1928, Bhagat Singh and his fellow freedom fighter Rajguru decided to take revenge. But determination is not always a substitute for expertise. Instead of shooting Lahore Police Captain Scott, the duo mistakenly aimed at another police officer in what became known as the “Saunders Case”. While the two escaped on bicycles my grandfather was arrested instead, for the first time.
The author’s grandfather with Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mian Iftikharuddin in Lahore, 1942
The motley crew that was the soul of the revolutionary movement against the British got the wrong man not just in the Saunders case. They unsuccessfully also tried to shoot the Punjab Governor at the annual convocation of the Punjab University. Many years later, Dr. S Radhakrishnan, India’s second President could joke about it with Pitaji, “My luck saved me, otherwise I don’t know where the bullets fired by you fellows would have hit.”
Bhagat Singh was just 23 years old in October 1930 when he was ordered along with Rajguru and Sukhdev to be hanged in the Saunders case. The trial took place in a tent inside the jail as the British thought they would try and escape. Bhagat Singh on the other hand had no such intentions, for him his surrender was to set a precedent. A petition on the innocence of the three freedom fighters was heard earlier this year by a bench of the Lahore High Court but back then, the entire prison reverberated with the song “mera rang de basanti chola” during the trial.
The author’s grandfather (right) and his brother, in Lahore, during their student years
Pitaji meanwhile continued to be more in jail than at home. “When I recall the events of those days it became apparent that the younger Indian police officers, especially the Muslims, were very sympathetic towards us. I hardly knew anyone who misbehaved with us.”
But his constant nemesis was a CID officer Khan Sayyed Ahmed Shah whose son Nazir had studied with my grandfather. Just 15 days after his previous release Shah was back.
“You roam the streets day and night, you should rest for a few days”, Shah said smugly, but Pitaji did not heed his advice. He was arrested under such a stringent act that there were only 6 other such prisoners across the country, one of them being Mahatma Gandhi. They were called the King’s Prisoners.
Sharing Pitaji’s prison cell at the Lahore Central Jail was an inmate named Ehsan Ali. He and my grandfather got along well, except for one crucial disagreement. As they were King’s Prisoners they were allowed to eat the food of their choice and while Ali was a non-vegetarian, my grandfather could not look at meat. Finally, they came to an agreement, meat was cooked outside the kitchen twice a week!
It was during this time that my grandfather cleared his B.A. final examinations with an armed guard standing outside the exam room. Later, he was lucky to be released just in time for his M.A. finals. His father by then just had one thing to say, “For how many days this time?”
Ashfaqullah Khan, who joined Ramprasad Bismil and other anti-colonial revolutionaries in fighting the British empire
That is how on the fateful day of March 23, 1931, Pitaji was still in the Lahore Central Jail. His memories bring alive what is perhaps one of the most painful days of our freedom struggle. Barkat, a Muslim barber would visit my grandfather daily. His other client in jail was Bhagat Singh. Three days earlier he had whispered into Pitaji’s ears, “the end appears to be quite near, jail officials seem to be making preparations.”
It was understood that the three freedom fighters would be executed on March 24. But on the afternoon of March 23, Barkat came running. “Everything is coming to an end. Sardarji says they will probably be hanged today. He has wished you”. The barber’s voice was choked with emotion. With passions running high, the executions had been secretly preponed. When Pitaji sent Barkat to Bhagat Singh for confirmation, the freedom fighter sent back a personally engraved comb.
This then is what happened in the Lahore Central jail that historical day. All inmates were asked to go indoors much before their usual time of 7pm. An emotional jail warden was not allowed to speak, but his silence spoke a thousand words. No one ate that night and when Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev refusing to be masked, walked to their execution, their heads held high the prison resonated with slogans of “Inqalab zindabad”. Their bodies were sneaked out of the prison backdoor.
While my husband Aditya would love to visit Lahore for its kababs, my father and I live with nostalgia, in the hope that someday we will cross over at Wagah and retrace the family’s footsteps
After having being jailed across the country, including the Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Multan prisons, at the age of 22, Pitaji started working for the family newspaper “Pratap”. Life was different, but no less interesting. He recounted how Jawahar Lal Nehru was greatly impressed with the struggle of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother Dr. Khan Sahib and how on a tour of Punjab the only constituency Nehru insisted on visiting was that of Mian Iftikharuddin, who was the president of the Punjab Congress before switching to the Muslim League.
In August of 1947, only my grandfather, his brother and one of their staff were still in the Nisbet Road residence waiting for a final confirmation on whether Lahore would stay with India or Pakistan. The uncertainty was engulfed in a Lahore skyline up in flames. But once the announcement was made, Pitaji knew he had to leave. Many treasured things were left behind.
My father Chander Mohan who was just a year old when we became independent visited Lahore with the press entourage of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. The house was no longer there, replaced instead by a shopping complex. His attempt to go back and retrace the family history remains a dream, his next visa was rejected.
While my husband Aditya would love to visit Lahore for its kababs, my father and I live with nostalgia, in the hope that someday we will cross over at Wagah and retrace the family’s footsteps. We live in Jalandhar which is two hours away from Lahore.
But sometimes the shortest distance can make for the toughest journey.