In looking back on some of the Subcontinent’s bloody history and the courage of its martyred freedom fighters, Kuldip Nayar also recalls Mahatma Gandhi’s cautionary message to those who seek emancipation.
I have never been able to understand why Pakistan is reluctant to recognise heroes who went to the gallows during the national struggle for independence. Bhagat Singh is one of them. Eighty-four years ago he was sentenced to death by the special court at Lahore and was hanged in the city jail.
In Pakistan’s thickening Islamic atmosphere, Bhagat Singh is a kafir. Yet Pakistan should be leading celebrations of his life, which should be taught in the country’s schools, as it is in India. After all, there is nothing in Islam which forbids the recognition of heroes from other religions.
Bhagat Singh shot dead British police officer John Saunders, mistaking him for General Scott, who had himself brutally lathi-charged Lala Lajpat Rai, a freedom fighter. Jawaharlal Nehru called the lathi-charge the last nail in the coffin of British imperialism. This proved to be prophetic, as the British had to quit India a few years later.
For some years, activists from India have been trying to persuade Pakistan to pay homage to Bhagat Singh, as well as to Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar, who were hanged along with him. Some of us, a few years ago, went to Lahore to clear the spot where the three were executed. It was then a traffic crossing. At that time we persuaded the Pakistani media to devote a programme to the men’s memory.
Regretfully, even India has, over the years, decreased its attention on Bhagat Singh. The media is also silent. Hardly any event or meeting is now held in recognition of his or his comrades’ sacrifices. True, Indian society has ousted the value system; but I never imagined that the memory of those who made today’s democratic polity possible would become so hazy, and that they would get so little mention.
British historians continue to run down the importance of Bhagat Singh and his mentor Chandra Shekhar Azad by branding them ‘terrorists’. But both died for their part in the revolt against foreign rule. Obviously, the British do not know the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary. In fact, the British themselves come under the category of terrorists because they killed thousands of people whose only ‘crime’ was that they wanted to be free and rule themselves, a hallmark of democracy which the UK cherishes.
Foreign rulers always claim that their regimes are benign, and the British are no exception. But if the atrocities they committed were to be enumerated, the record would look brutal. Credit for not defaming the British for their 150-year rule goes to the Indians, who have taken the past in their stride and have even joined the Commonwealth, with the Queen as the symbol of unity.
Still the British have never said or written a good word about India’s generosity in not raking up the past. Britain goes on criticising the movement for independence and those who participated in it.
So, despite Pakistan’s reluctance to fully recognise its heroes, it is heartening to find it is at least allocating money to preserve the house in which Bhagat Singh lived when he was young.
Indeed, all those who suffered at the hands of Britain before partition are, or should be, heroes in all three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I only wish they could jointly recall their sacrifices to tell their people that they share the same history, the same heritage and the same agony at the hands of the British.
There are many instances of British cruelty, one of the most notable being the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919)—a milestone for the nationalists on the journey towards independence. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who was given control of Amritsar by Lt. Governor of Punjab Michael O’Dwyer, chose April 13, the day of the harvest festival, Baisakhi, for his revenge. To vent their protest against the Rowlett Act, which gave the rulers the power to detain anyone without trial, some 20,000 people had collected in a garden, called Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.
Dyer set the police on the gathering like a hunter unleashing his ferocious hounds on a pursued animal. He purposely blocked the garden’s only gate to prevent anyone from escaping. Targeted by machine guns, men, women and children had no respite from the bullets till the police had exhausted their ammunition.
As many as 1,650 rounds were fired. Scores of people jumped into the garden’s only well, mute witness to that barbarous massacre. Some 400 people died on the spot and more than 1,500 were injured. London recalled Dyer, who, appearing before an inquiry committee, said that he had done his duty. He expressed no regret, nor was he admonished. Some in the British political hierarchy rationalised that he had saved Punjab from ‘anarchy’.
The rulers who considered Mahatma Gandhi an ‘anarchist’ can go to any limit to denigrate the freedom movement. The revolutionaries compared themselves with those insects which burn themselves to keep earthen lamps alight. Had they not done so, the thousands who came after them, who went to jail or laid down their lives, would not have got the inspiration their martyrdom evoked.
Bhagat Singh, a prolific writer, explained what killing meant to the revolutionaries: ‘We are attaching great sanctity to human life, we regard man’s life as sacred…We would sooner lay down our lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone. There was no revenge, no vendetta. These actions (killings) have their political significance in as much as they serve to create a mentality and an atmosphere which shall be very necessary to the final struggle. That is all.’
Mahatma Gandhi, who was against the revolutionaries’ violent methods, did express admiration for these martyrs, but with a caveat: ‘Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been executed and have become martyrs. Their deaths seem to have been a personal loss to many. I join in the tributes paid to the memory of these young men. And yet I must warn the youth of the country against following their example. We should not utilise our energy, our spirit of sacrifice, our labours and our indomitable courage in the way they have utilised theirs. This country must not be liberated through bloodshed.’
The Mahatma’s words should still stand today as guidance for India and Pakistan, and be heeded in the spirit he intended.
Subhash Chopra is a journalist and author of Partition, Jihad and Peace.