‘The Unsung’ by Waseem Altaf

Looking at our history books, we find numerous characters, glorified as national heroes, however when closely examined we discover that they were nothing but opportunists and collaborators. We also find that since history books in Pakistan, as a matter of policy, focus on Pakistan movement rather than anti-colonialism, these men do not deserve any mention in our writings, particularly the official ones.

On the other hand there are a significant number of real heroes who have been conveniently pushed aside by our “ideologues” and the establishment. There is no mention of these great men in our text books and few, if any, know them in this country. However these men were the true symbols of defiance against the oppressive colonial rule, and the freedom the sub-continent won, to a great extent, is owed to these unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives for the liberation of their fellow countrymen.

Without indulging into an unending debate as to who is a terrorist and who qualifies as a freedom fighter, and to what extent the application of violence is justified in a liberation struggle, while we focus on the lives, the conviction and struggle of these men, we find that they were fighting a war of liberation against an oppressive colonial rule and hence were revolutionaries and freedom fighters and not terrorists. They never targeted innocent civilians to achieve political ends, and renounced their present, for the future generations, so that they can live in a free country and have the right to decide for themselves. We should also realize that when no constitutional means are available to achieve political ambitions, the tendency to resort to violence increases manifold.

Udham Singh was brought up in an orphanage. Both his parents passed away by the time he was seven. On April 13, 1919 Udham Singh was serving water to a peaceful gathering of around 20,000 Indians at Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when on the orders of General Dyer, around 90 armed soldiers opened fire on the unarmed civilians who had assembled there to listen to the speeches of their leaders.

Estimates of death range from 379 to 1800, but official records verify that 1650 rounds of ammunition were used. Latest research has revealed that the massacre had occurred with full connivance of the Governor of Punjab Michael O’ Dwyer. Udham Singh who survived the killings, then vowed to take revenge in the Golden temple. For 21 years he continued with his revolutionary struggle and waited for the right moment to hit the main culprit until on March 13, 1940 he got the opportunity to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. At Caxton Hall London, he killed Michel O’ Dwyer with a revolver. He did not try to escape, was caught and tried. During the proceedings, when the court asked his name, he replied “Ram Muhammad Singh Azad” An unprecedented transcendence of caste and creed rarely witnessed in the history of mankind. On 31st July 1941 he was hanged at Pentonville prison. In July 1974, his remains were exhumed and brought back to India by a special envoy of the Government of India. He got a martyr’s reception. Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Congress President and Gyani Zail Singh,the Punjab CM in 1974,received the casket. The Prime Minister Indira Gandhi laid a wreath. Udham Singh was later cremated at his birthplace Suna in Punjab and his ashes were immersed in river Sutlej.

Ashfaqullah Khan along with Roshan Singh and Ramprasad Bismil were furthering the freedom struggle through fund raising. Due to severe paucity of funds to buy arms and ammunition, the group decided to rob the government treasury carried in the trains. On August 9, 1925 they looted a train in Kakori near Lucknow. However the group was soon caught. In prison, while Ashfaq was saying his prayers an English officer remarked “I would like to see how much of that faith remains in him when we hang the rat.” When Ashfaqullah was being taken for the execution, he was taking two steps at a time; he reached for the rope, kissed it and put it around his neck. Being a religious man he was reciting the “kalima” when he swung on the gallows.

Today Ashfaqullah is a forgotten name, hanged at the age of 27, strongly believed that nationalism does not constitute religious identity.

Bhagat Singh was born in village Banga, near Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). As a teenager he became an atheist. He thoroughly studied European revolutionary movements, while Karl Marx and Engels appear prominently in his diary. During his studies he won an essay competition and was a great admirer of Iqbal the poet. To avenge the death of veteran freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, killed by police violence, he shot and killed police officer J.P Saunders. Again on April 8, 1929, he threw a cracker in the assembly corridor and shouted “inqilab zindabad”. Bhagat Singh along with Rajguru and Sukhdev were arrested for the murder of the police officer. Bhagat Singh while quoting Irish revolutionary said “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release”. This was when his father filed a mercy petition. While in condemned cell he wrote a pamphlet “why I am an atheist”.

During his life and after his death Bhagat Singh inspired thousands of youth to actively join the independence movement which ultimately culminated in the liberation of the subcontinent from the colonial rule. He was reading Lenin when at 4 in the morning jail warder Chater Singh asked him to take his last bath.

Bhagat Singh along with comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on 23rd March 1931.

Chandrashekhar Azad, a revolutionary and freedom fighter was inspired by the non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi and he actively participated in revolutionary activities. At the tender age of 15 he was caught and awarded 15 lashes for being an activist. With each stroke of the whip he would raise a slogan. He then vowed that he would never be captured alive by the British police. He was also a poet and one of his poems is still recited which says “Dushman ki goliyon ka hum samna karenge, Azad hee rahein hain, azad hee rahenge”Azad kept his freedom struggle and remained involved in covert activities, when finally he was betrayed by a police informer. He was encircled by the British police in Alfred Park, Allahabad on 27th February 1931.Instead of surrendering to the enemy he shot himself in the temple.

Chandershekhar Azad died for freedom while keeping his pledge that he would not be captured alive.
These unsung heroes and several others from diverse backgrounds; Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and atheists; all fighting for the cause of Indian nationalism shed their blood for the liberation of the people and the land, so that we, belonging to a different generation live a better life unfettered by the ignominy of imperialist domination and colonial exploitation. The debt of gratitude we owe to them can never be repaid.



‘Remembering the bloody side of Vaisakhi’ by Gurpreet Singh

From Georgia Straight, Vancouver, April 17, 2011

Whereas the Vaisakhi festival is marked with prayers and celebrations in the Lower Mainland every year, Indo-Canadians often overlook a bloody side of the carnival that changed the course of Indian history.

Around this time of year, the harvest festival of Vaisakhi is the focus of parades, which are mainly organized by Sikh temples in Vancouver and Surrey. These events coincide with the anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa, a force of devout and armed Sikhs created by the tenth master of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh.

But a gory historical aspect also needs to be remembered.

It was during Vaisakhi in 1919 when British troops opened fire on supporters of the passive-resistance movement. They had assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) in Amritsar to oppose the arrests of national leaders seeking the independence of India.

According to the official figures, close to 400 people died as a result of the shootings.

The incident that came to be known as Bloody Vaisakhi influenced revolutionaries, who fought against the British occupation of India.

Rabindranath Tagore, a prominent Bengali scholar and poet, renounced his British knighthood.

Many years later in London, Udham Singh, a Sikh rebel, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, who was British lieutenant-governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre.

The assassin described himself as Mohammad Singh Azad, an unusual alias that symbolized secularism. The massacre of innocent Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs united nearly all Indians, irrespective of their castes, cultures, and ideologies.

The incident jolted the Sikh peasantry in particular. Back then, Sikhs were considered to be the backbone of the British army, and Punjab remained a garrison state. So much so that the pro-British Sikh clergy was unmoved by the bloodshed.

Arur Singh, a custodian of the Akal Takht, highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, actually honoured Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who led the firing squad.

It is pertinent to mention that Singh was the grandfather of Simranjeet Singh Mann, a prominent Sikh separatist leader in India.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar in 1997, leftists campaigned for a formal apology, whereas the Sikh leadership did not insist on one. She went to the Jallianwala Bagh, laid a wreath at the memorial, signed the visitor book, and returned without making any apology.

I remember how I once caught Mann off-guard when he was complaining at a news conference that Sikhs who made many sacrifices for the independence of India were being treated as second-class citizens in the country. I shot him a question about whether his grandfather did the right thing by honouring Dyer.

Mann became thoughtful for a moment and then said, “What he did was wrong.”

Both moderate and fundamentalist groups within the Lower Mainland Sikh community continue to ignore the incident, which sent a message about the importance of unity and secularism.

Supporters of Khalistan, a theocratic Sikh homeland, wish to separate from India. They organize the Vaisakhi parade in Surrey and cannot to be expected to hold a memorial service for the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

However, the so-called pro-India and secular moderates, who organized the Vaisakhi parade in Vancouver, have also overlooked this part of history.

This year, only two progressive groups—the Indo-Canadian Workers’ Association and the Fraser Valley Peace Council—came forward to hold a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Surrey’s Holland Park.

Despite rain showers, people of both Indian and Pakistani origin gathered there on Friday evening.

After all, the two nations were one before independence and the religious division of India in 1947. Many Muslim families who migrated to Pakistan lost relatives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It was a common tragedy before the partition of the country.

Ironically, the creation of Pakistan divided communities that were together when British troops fired indiscriminately at the Jallianwala Bagh gathering.

A moment of silence was held in the memory of the victims. A prominent satirist and political activist from Punjab, Bhagwant Mann, was the guest speaker. He insisted that the struggle for true independence must go on as the poor in India have no access to basic requirements.

He differentiated between the poor and the rich in India in this way: “While India is for the rich, Bharat (Hindi name of India) is still poor.”

Others who spoke on the occasion also insisted that secular forces should join hands, make it an annual event, and hold such memorials on a grand scale. Some of them demanded a formal apology from the British government. Politicians from both the Liberal party and the NDP also showed up.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre carries a message not only for Indians, but for everyone who is opposed to imperialist wars and illegal occupations. Apart from unity and harmony, people can to learn the lesson of social justice from the sacrifices made at the Vaisakhi of 1919.

Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He’s working on a book tentatively titled Canada’s 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.

From Georgia Straight, April 17, 2011