By Vishav Bharti Chandigarh,
Communist leader Teja Singh Sutantar was a master of disguise, leading an underground guerrilla life.
Sometimes a shopkeeper and sometimes a mason, he would don the mantle of a “faqir” to such a perfection that even his comrades would fail to recognise him.
The only man who would identify him without fail was Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, the hero of Jallianwala Bagh.
“How come you always identify him?” Someone once taunted Dr Kitchlew.
“He saved my life. And one can’t afford not to recognise ‘Khuda’ even if he comes in disguise,” Kitchlew answered.
When the killer mobs had a free run on both sides of the Radcliffe Line, Punjabi communists tried to block their path, putting their life on the line.
From Dr Kitchlew to Congress leader Abdul Ghani Dhar of Ludhiana, they saved thousands of lives amid the communal frenzy.
If Ghadar Party leader Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna offered langar to refugees in Amritsar, Teja Singh Sutantar put up an armed resistance to save Muslims. Harkishan Singh Surjeet was instrumental in forming peace committees in village after village.
There were many other prominent communist leaders on both sides who played their part. Gehal Singh Chhajjalwaddi was one of them. He was killed by the Akal Sena in Amritsar for having saved Muslims. Sai Umardeen was murdered in Lyallpur by Muslim rioters while protecting Sikhs and Hindus.
Megh Singh and Suba Singh Kot Dharam Chand also fell while fighting off the rioters.
Passing from generation to generation, Dr Kitchlew’s story has become part of Punjab’s folklore. It dates back to months after the Partition, when rioters were bent on killing Kitchlew who was an icon of the Hindu-Muslim unity. They marked him and surrounded his house at Amritsar’s Court Road. Those moments were documented by communist leader Inder Singh Murari in his memoir.
“Sutantar was worried about Kitchlew. It wasn’t about saving one man’s life. We were 40 people, all armed, who would stand guard day and night around Kitchlew’s house. It went on for a month. Then one day, we whisked him away to Delhi. And Kitchlew remained indebted to Sutantar till his last breath,” Murari wrote.
The situation was no different in other parts of the state. Around three decades ago, communist leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet recalled those days in an interview with British journalist Andrew Whitehead, “…secularism was knocked at its base. Only we, communists, remained on both sides to defend the minorities. I was travelling around Jalandhar, defending the minorities everywhere at the risk of my life. About 200 Muslims were brought to our house at Bundala village in Jalandhar district and given shelter for a month. And I safely sent them to Lyallpur.”
London-based Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan, who has edited an anthology of Punjabi poems on the Partition, says: “Punjabi communists played an exemplary ‘Nanakpanthi’ role during the great upheaval of 1947 by saving the lives of thousands of Muslim men, women and children in eastern Punjab.”
“They had formed peace committees all over. They gave shelter, food to hapless Muslims and helped them migrate safely to the other side of the newly carved out International Border. Saving Dr Kitchlew from the Hindu-Sikh rioters in Amritsar was one of Comrade Sutantar’s many noble deeds. In their honour, we live,” he says.
Gehal Singh’s Amritsar-based daughter, Iqbal Kaur, a retired teacher, recalls that she was eight when her father was killed.
I remember my mother prepared food for them (Muslims) and gave them bedsheets. My father escorted Muslims of our village to a nearby camp. Some Akal Sena leaders, who were behind the butchering of Muslims in Amritsar district, got offended by this act. One evening, my father was cycling back home from the communist party’s office when he was kidnapped in a Jeep. He was tortured, his hair shorn and the body hacked into pieces. It was said the body was thrown in a burning furnace.
Putting life on the line
Gehal Singh Chhajjalwaddi
Punjabi communists of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim background were involved in village-level peace committees, trying to save the lives of innocent people. Comrade Gehal Singh Chhajjalwaddi was one of them. He was killed by the Akal Sena in Amritsar for having saved Muslims.
Teja Singh Sutantar
A communist revolutionary who fought for the Independence and the liberation of Punjab peasantry from the clutches of feudal lords during the PEPSU Muzara Movement. He was a member of the fifth Lok Sabha from Sangrur and also a member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly from 1937 to 1945.
Teja Singh Sutantar