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Opinion

May 4, 2014

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The soul's spokesman

The hunger strike started by Bhagat in Mianwali Jail became a saga of heroic resistance in the Lahore Central Jail against the racism of colonial authorities that imposed undignified labour on the native prisoners, denied them political status, decent food and books, newspapers, writing material and toilet facilities. All the accused of the Lahore Conspiracy Case were now starving themselves to force the authorities to change this practice for all political prisoners.
The Punjab authorities resorted to torture to break the hunger strike. The brutalities inflicted also included beating of the prisoners by convict overseers, forcible feeding of milk through rubber tubes inserted into the nostrils of the violently resisting victims who would swallow red pepper and boiling water to make the passage of the tubes impossible. The prisoners would swallow flies to induce vomiting after being force-fed.
But the hunger-strikers faced the most maddening ordeal when they were denied water and the pitchers in their cells were filled with milk. They did not break even then – and broke all the pitchers. The hero of this phase of their struggle was Jatin Das of Bengal who embraced death on the 63rd day of his strike.
Jinnah did not exaggerate when he said in the legislative council:
“It is a … declaration of war… the government go to war against these men. They seem to me in this frame of mind: ‘we will pursue every possible course, every possible method but we will see that you are sent either to the gallows or transported for life, and in the meantime we will not treat you as men.”
The heroism of Bhagat and his men and the sacrifice of Das moved an entire people. And this moved the colonial authorities further towards brutality. The prisoners could barely walk because of hunger, weakness and torture but they would be brought to the court handcuffed and humiliated and beaten all the way. Bhagat would be brought to the court on a stretcher. The

handcuffed prisoners would be beaten badly in the courtroom by the police with batons and fists – in front of the judges. The government did not want to concede them their humanity. It had indeed declared a war on them.
Jinnah had gone on to ask:
“With whom are you at war? What are the resources of these few young men who, according to you, have committed certain offences?
Jinnah himself could see their soul and their cause as the sole resource of these young men.
“… These men are determined to die. It is not a joke. It is not everybody who can go on starving himself to death. Try it for a little while and you will see. The man who goes on hunger strike has a soul. He is moved by that soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime”.
Irfan Habib has talked of soul force at work in the Bhagat story:
“The hunger strike and the martyrdom of Das show that the soldiers of the Sabah did not represent merely physical force, as many Gandhians would have us believe. On the contrary their fast demonstrated the power of soul force, and succeeded in bending the imperial government to grant concessions for political prisoners. In fact these revolutionaries believed in combining soul force with physical force”.
It is not clear if the historian took his cue from Jinnah but the fact remains that Jinnah gave a most articulate expression to the revolutionaries’ anguish of the soul when Gandhi had termed the historic hunger strike and the statements of the huger-strikers an “irrelevant performance” and “not an outpouring of earnest souls”

* * * * *
What has been said about Jinnah in this episode of the series and the previous one is neither an exercise in Jinnah worship nor an effort to sell Bhagat Singh to Jinnah worshippers of various kinds. Jinnah did no favour to Bhagat by speaking for him. He was speaking his own conscience. He was only being true to his liberal and nationalist self. Even if he had not said a word, or said words to condemn Bhagat, it should have done nothing to affect our appreciation of Bhagat, his legacy and its relevance then and now.
Just like Jinnah the constitutional liberal, or Gandhi the pacifist sage, Bhagat the socialist revolutionary too has to be understood first on his own terms by those who read history not only to find figures of reverence or objects of revulsion but to understand, in the wider sense, why we are where we are today, where we might have gone and where we may go tomorrow.
As the Bhagat Singh-Shadman Chawk controversy raged, spokesmen of both rightwing anti-liberalism and liberal conservatism made one precious discovery in Jinnah’s speech which had been lost on ‘unpatriotic’ liberals – that Jinnah did not defend Bhagat Singh and his actions and never called him a martyr (sic). Bigotry is blind so it is no use expecting it to see what Jinnah actually did. Even at its eloquent best, it can only breed a petty approach to a major contribution by Jinnah to a historic debate.
If the purveyors of this pettiness could have their way, they would turn back the clock and have Jinnah born fully equipped with ‘Pakistan Ideology’ – and with the Pakistan Movement sprouting swiftly from the soft head of the infant.
Alas, this cannot be. And history is a complex affair. The Jinnah of 1929 was still many, many years away from the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims. He would have neither Iqbal’s vision of a separate Muslim province/state within India nor Chaudhry Rehmat Ali’s idea of a Muslim country entirely separate from India. He had distanced himself from the Congress but remained a dreamer of Hindu-Muslim unity and a fighter for the rights of a minority within one nation. He was as much ours then as he is now. What followed years after Bhagat had given his life for freedom does not concern us here at this point. Jinnah would have been as much ours as he is now if history had taken a different turn.
We now let go of a lonely Jinnah with some influence on a faction of a divided Muslim League. Disillusioned both by the Congress and the Muslim League he was soon to retire to England for some years from the political scene in India.
We have noticed that Jinnah’s respect for the young revolutionaries – his countrymen – was evident throughout his speech. We have seen how, as the speech progressed, his sentiment of admiration for the revolutionaries became almost an ode to their soul.
How would Bhagat have defined his own soul?
To be continued
This is the sixth part of a series on Bhagat Singh. The previous five parts appeared on March 23, March 24, March 30, April 13 and April 20.
The writer is editor oped, The News.
Email: [email protected]

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