By Zaman Khan 

The Friday times : 06 Apr 2018

Zaman Khan reports on the commemorations of the revolutionary which take place every year – in Lahore and Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur)
Description: In Bhagat’s land today

It never fails to fascinate me that in India he has been declared a martyr of the national pantheon, although he was not a follower of the Indian National Congress and, in fact, opposed their philosophy and methods.

In any case, great scholars and journalists, including Professor Bipan Chandra, Kuldeep Nayyar, A.G. Noorani and Professor Chaman Lal have written on Bhagat Singh and his trial.

In 1980, I along with my wife Amina, visited India. We met Professors Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar at JNU. Bipan Chandra handed me half a dozen copies of Why I am an atheist written by Bhagat Singh in Camp Jail Lahore when he was sure that he would be executed soon. I must confess that I was totally ignorant of this writing by him.

After reading it, my spontaneous reaction was that Bhagat Singh was not only a great revolutionary but was also a great intellectual and had nerves of steel, because he was writing this while staring death in the eyes.

This year, as is usually the case, some members of civil society and the political left gathered at Shadman Chowk, Lahore, to commemorate the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh at the place where presumably he was hanged. Their basic demand was that the Chowk should be given the name ‘Bhagat Singh Chowk’ by the administration. Alas this demand has not yet been fulfilled.

A couple of years ago, the Awami Workers Party and some NGO’s (Lok Sujjagh and Kuknus in particular) started holding a function on the 23rd of March every year at the village Banga, birthplace of Bhagat Singh. This has now become an annual affair.

They would travel to Banga, Chak No. 205 G B, Tehsil Jaranwala, District Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). There they would light candles, make speeches and hold a cultural programme.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades Sukhdev and Rajguru were not the first ones to be hanged by the British. Why, then, did Bhagat Singh’s hanging became a symbol of the anti-colonial freedom struggle? What was so special about Bhagat Singh?

Certainly his short life was a rather extraordinary one.

Bhagat hailed from a prosperous peasant family. They were part of the strong peasant movement in the Canal district.

He had a sharp mind and was attracted to revolutionary ideas from a very young age. He was above communal politics. And he did not want freedom from British rule, only to be ruled by an exploitative native elite. He wanted a revolutionary India, a socialist India –a new kind of India where all Indians would benefit from the fruits of freedom. He was a voracious reader and kept this habit until the last days of his life in the death cell.

It may not be out of context to mention that in 1919 the British opened fire on unarmed and peaceful Indians at Jallainwala Bahgh, Amritsar and killed hundreds. They also introduced the infamous Rowlatt Act in order to humiliate and repress Indians. They even resorted to aerial bombing of towns in Punjab.

These events must have left an indelible impression on the child Bhagat Singh – and they must have opened a thought process which turned Bhagat Singh into a socialist revolutionary.

Although he renounced terrorism and violent means to attain freedom, but in that situation by killing a police officer to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat and his comrades wanted to give the message that British rule was not invincible.

Let me come back to the 23rd of March and my visit to Bhagat Singh’s village to commemorate the 87th death anniversary of Bhagat Singh. A few dozen political workers of Awami Workers Party and members of civil society went to the Haveli of Bhagat Singh, which has been allotted to a local peasant. The district administration has been able to reserve two rooms where the walls are decorated with photos of Bhagat Singh, his comrades and other revolutionaries.

Candles were lighted and people visited the school of Bhagat Singh. The owner of the Haveli is a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader and two MPAs of that party – Dr. Najma Afzal and Mian Rafiq – were present.

Bhagat Singh’s commemoration at his birthplace may be called a ‘festival of children’. They raised revolutionary slogans “Inquilab Zindabad, Bhagat Singh Zindabad” without being conscious of its meaning – though their eyes shone. It reminds one the 1960s, when children and youth would raise the same slogans!

I believe one should welcome and commend the move by the Punjab Government to open papers about Bhagat Singh’s trial at the Punjab Achieves. Every serous scholar who wanted to do research about Bhagat Singh trial felt handicapped by denial of access to these papers.

Would the government, particularly that of Punjab, publish the secret intelligence record from that era? It remains to be seen.

In Lahore, the relatively sparse gathering at Shadman Chowk is ample proof that our youth is ignorant of the struggle of Bhagat Singh. After all, it is not part of our Curriculum. He does not fit in our “national narrative”.

In the meanwhile, one can only hope that the government take small and important steps towards recognizing this hero – perhaps by printing a stamp in honour of him, to begin with?