Disowning heroes

January 16, 2022

Both India and Pakistan have been selective in acknowledging contributions to their independence movement

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The partition of the subcontinent in August 1947 caused the disowning of many heroes, philanthropists and benign and humane souls. Subsequently, many talented, competent, and capable sons of the soil were excluded from the pages of official history and academic writings.

This phenomenon draws our attention towards the ‘philosophical’ approach to history – one of the three Hegelian approaches (original, reflective and philosophical) to recording and presenting history – where a historian or compiler of textbook of history picks out periods, regions, personalities, events, characters and incidents of his choice to reinforce his argument while leaving out others — mainly those challenging his objective or narrative. Adopting this approach for their post-partition history writing and storytelling, both India and Pakistan have selected the events, personalities and incidents of their choice and ignored others. This has resulted in the exclusion of several heroes – who had served the people in various capacities, forms, and situations – from the textbooks.

Sardar Ajit Singh – the founder, advocate, active member and vibrant leader of the Pagri Sambhal Jatta (literally: guard your turban i.e. self-respect, O’ farmer) Movement – is one of such heroes to have fallen prey to this approach. He has never been given the place in the local discourse and the textbooks of West Punjab he deserved. This has mainly been due to his faith. Thus, he has been otherised in our literature through the communalisation of textbooks taught at our schools and colleges. This piece is an attempt to spotlight his services to the land and the people of the Punjab.

Ajit Singh – an uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and a brother of Arjun Singh, Kishan Singh (the father of Bhagat Singh) and Swaran Singh – was born on February 23, 1881 at Khatkar Kalan village (then in Jalandhar district, now in East Punjab). After matriculation from Sain Das Anglo-Sanskrit School, Jalandhar, he completed a law course from the Bareilly College. It is believed that he and Kishan Singh went to Delhi in 1903 to meet and impress upon Indian princes, who were attending the Delhi Darbar held by Viceroy Lord Curzon, to fight against the British. Four years later, he spearheaded the Pagri Sambhal Jatta Movement against the British who had enacted three laws to the farmers’ detriment.

The roots of this movement can be traced to the fourth quarter of the Nineteenth Century when Upper Bari Doab Canal was constructed in 1879 to channel water from Chenab River to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). Developing Chenab Canal Colony was a part of a larger project, called Canal Colony Project — launched by the British to develop agriculture in western and southern Punjab. The British allotted the irrigated land to the peasants and ex-servicemen and offered them various other amenities to persuade them to migrate from Jalandhar, Amritsar and Hoshiarpur to Chenab Canal Colony in order to transform the barren land. Soon after this was accomplished, the British government enacted new laws – the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1900, the Punjab Land Colonisation Act 1906, and the Doab Bari Act – to declare itself owner of the land and denying its ownership to the peasants.

The first law caused a 25 percent hike in revenue rates, the second law threatened seizure of farmers’ land through ‘inheritance by primogeniture’, and the third law raised water rates. These laws reduced farmers to sharecroppers; prohibited cutting of trees; forbade them from building houses or huts on this land; and commanded that the land tilled by a father would be accessed by the eldest son only (and in case of the death of the eldest son before reaching adulthood, the land would be property of the state — it would not be transferred to any of the younger sons). This caused disgruntlement among the farmers on the one hand, and undue interest in the male child on the other.

In one of such meetings, conducted in Lyallpur on March 22, 1907, Lala Bankay Dayal, the editor of Jhang Sayal newspaper, recited his poem, Pagri Sambhal Jatta. Subsequently, the movement came to be known as Pagri Sambhal Jatta Movement. Referring to the acceleration of the movement and its name, in his autobiography, Ajit Singh wrote: “I had deliberately selected Lyallpur… it was a newly developed area.

Sensing the situation, the trio of Ajit Singh, Kishan Singh and their friend Ghasita Ram established Mehbooban-i-Watan or Bharat Mata Society in 1906 aiming at exploiting the unrest among farmers and directing it at mobilising them to revolt against the British to re-orchestrate the revolution of 1857 on its 50th anniversary in 1907. For that purpose, they started organising meetings in various parts of the province, mainly in Lahore and Lyallpur.

In one such meeting in Lyallpur on March 22, 1907, Lala Bankay Dayal, the editor of Jhang Sayal newspaper, recited his poem, Pagri Sambhal Jatta. Subsequently, the movement came to be known as Pagri Sambhal Jatta Movement. Referring to the acceleration of the movement and its name, in his autobiography, Ajit Singh wrote: “I had deliberately selected Lyallpur… it was a newly developed area. This district had attracted people from all over the Panjab and was especially populated by retired soldiers. I was of the view that these retired army personnel could facilitate a rebellion.” His hunch – spearheading of the movement by Lyallpur – came good. Lyallpur took the centre stage in organising several meetings and protests, between March and May of 1907, to oppose the three farm laws.

Lord Morley, the secretary of state for India, told the British parliament that around thirty-three meetings were held in the Punjab, of which, 19 featured Ajit Singh as the main speaker. As a result of mounting pressure, the British revoked the laws in May 1907. One of his speeches, delivered on April 21, 1907, at Rawalpindi was described as “highly seditious” by the British officials. As a result, a case under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered against him. Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai were arrested on May 9 and June 2, respectively. They were sent to Mandalay’s prison in Burma for six months.

On their release from prison on November 11, 1907, they were hailed and welcomed as heroes. Ajit Singh was crowned as “the king of Punjab peasantry” in the Congress session of December 1907 at Surat.

The British responded with banning his newspaper, Peshwa, and passing warrant with the clear intent of securing a death sentence for him. However, he fled India via Karachi in March 1909. He returned to India on March 7, 1947, after spending around four decades in exile. His health had started deteriorating. On account of his poor health, he was sent to Dalhousie in July 1947 where he breathed his last on the morning of August 15, 1947.

Sardar Ajit Singh has been missing altogether from the post-colonial West Punjab textbooks and academic writings. He has apparently been discarded merely on account of his faith. We should accept and treat him as a local hero who had fought for the cause of Punjabi farmers in particular, and Indian farmers in general. The movement he headed is an important chapter of our history, a chapter we cannot skip by closing our eyes. There is a dire need to include local heroes like Sardar Ajit Singh in our textbooks. Instead of disowning him, we should hail him as a local hero, who stood against the imperialists.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87gmail.com. He tweets at MazharGondal87

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