On March 23…

April 4, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar highlights the significance of the Republic Day, and how Bhagat Singh and other non-Muslim freedom fighters played a role in the Independence Movement

Bhagat Singh.

History is full of surprises and contradictions, and it is worth revisiting in order to dig the truth and cleanse it of any adulterations. Quite absurdly, a discussion goes on whether non-Muslims can be a part of the history of Independence Movement or not. In the opinion of some, all those who strived for independence from the colonial yoke, especially before the demand for Pakistan was made, are worthy of respect in both the countries that emerged later.

After the failed uprising of 1857, various options were contemplated. A spread of education too contributed towards political awakening. It was followed by a very long period of persecution. The collaborators were rewarded. Most of the Rajas and Nawabs had helped the British strengthen their grip on the Empire. The brutal massacre of Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar too had its impact on the freedom fighters. Over 400 unarmed men, women and children trapped inside the walled garden with a single entrance, were killed and some 1,200 wounded in direct firing into the crowd that had gathered to celebrate the Baisakhi festival of 1919. Among the witnesses was one Udham Singh, aged 20 at the time. He vowed to kill Lt Governor Michael O’ Dwyer, believed to have ordered that unarmed civilians to be attacked.

The loyal rajahs and nawabs had endorsed and praised this cruel action of the British.

Another freedom fighter was Bhagat Singh. He was born near Jaranwala in Lyallpur district in 1907. He came from a family that resented the colonial yoke. He was born when his father and an uncle were in jail for protesting against the Colonisation Bill of 1906. Bhagat Singh was thus greatly influenced by the political inclinations of his family that was not actively into religion.

In a way, he was an activist since his childhood. His parents wanted him to get married but he resisted and moved to Amritsar where he edited a Hindi/Urdu journal that had Marxist leanings. He introduced the phrase, Inqilaab Zindabad.

Singh later moved to Lahore which was the centre of political agitations. His mission was to oust the British. He became a disciple of Lala Lajpat Rai, who was a fiery orator, a successful lawyer and the founder of Lakshmi Insurance Company and Gulab Devi Hospital in memory of his mother who had died of tuberculosis. Rai had also set up orphanages to prevent Christian missionaries’ adopting of orphans to be baptised. Simon Commission, set up in 1927 to improve constitutional rule in British India, did not include any Indian. Rai and other nationalists opposed it strongly. The commission included Attlee, a Labour member who later became the prime minister of the UK and granted independence to India.

Rai and others decided not to allow the commission members to disembark from the train in Lahore in 1928. The police heavily lathi-charged the protesters near Doe Moria Pul, leaving many, including Rai, wounded. He died a few days later (the plaque installed at Nasser Bagh by the Lahore Sangat should be reinstalled near the Doe Moria Pul and the date corrected).

Rai had said that his death would be the last nail in the coffin of the British rule in India. Bhagat Singh was greatly grieved at his mentor’s death and decided to kill the superintendent of police, James A Scott. He and his companions mistakenly killed John P Saunders, a junior police officer, and escaped a massive manhunt.

In April 1929, Singh and his associates hurled a home-made bomb at the Central Legislative Assembly to protest the Public Safety Bill being discussed there. He did not intend to kill anybody, though many were injured. He made no attempt to escape as he only wanted to be noticed for his radical ideas which were not endorsed by Gandhi and his followers.

During the trial he offered no defence and was awarded a life-term. In prison, he staged a hunger strike to protest against the discriminatory treatment of Indian prisoners. He wanted the same apparel and food and access to newspapers. Soon a connection was found out between him and the killing of JP Saunders. He was then tried for murder and sentenced to death.

A magistrate was required to identify the man about to be hanged, but no law officer was willing to do so. At that point, one Nawab Ahmad Khan Kasuri did the needful. Bhagat Singh kissed the noose before it could be thrown around his neck. He was hanged on March 23, 1931, aged 23.

Nawab Ahmad Khan Kasuri was killed in an ambush in 1974 in Shadman where the gallows had once been located.

Another actor in this long struggle for freedom, Udham Singh was waiting for his moment to arrive. He had toured the USA to gather support for Ghadar Party. He had been called back by Bhagat Singh to muster support for the cause at the local level, though he had always wanted to avenge the Jalianwala massacre. He had been jailed for four years for possessing arms and revolutionary literature. After his release, Udham Singh travelled to Germany to avoid being noticed. He later crossed the Channel and reached London. He tracked Michael O’ Dwyer who was attending a meeting of the East India Association and shot him dead on March 3, 1940. Upon his arrest, Udham Singh said that he had waited 21 long years for the moment.

He was tried for four months before being hanged. His remains were returned to India in 1974, the year Nawab Ahmed Khan was killed.

Lahoris never abandoned these heroes who had disagreed with Gandhi and his followers. For many years, Mrs Tahira Mazhar Ali led a vigil on March 23 at the Shadman Chowk.

*****

Noorul Amin Mengal, an efficient civil servant, formed the Dilkash Lahore Committee, which I was selected the chairman of. Its major contributions were the removal of the hideous billboards all over The Mall, which was declared a protected historic district, and planting of local trees instead of alien ones.

Later, Justice Ramday (retired) was appointed the committee’s chairman while I became its “Voice” chairman (a computer auto-correct spelling miracle).

It was decided at a meeting of the committee that Shadman Chowk be named after Bhagat Singh. The members agreed to invite some religious scholars to approve of the idea. After a sumptuous hi-tea, they all agreed. Soon after, the bureaucrat who loved Lahore greatly was transferred and the Dilkash Lahore Committee lost its steam. On March 23 this year some civil society members including Saeeda Deep and Javed Aftab held a vigil at the spot where Bhagat Singh had kissed the noose decades ago. Some police personnel in a van kept their eyes out for any miscreants.

March 23 is still more significant on account of its association with the adoption of the Pakistan Resolution. It is also our Republic Day.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Tahira Mazhar Ali)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

On March 23…