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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015

Forgotten Heroes

Saturday 10 October 2015, by Kuldip Nayar

I have not 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. Eightyfour years ago he was sentenced to death by the special court at Lahore and was hanged in the city jail. Pakistan should lead the celebrations.

In the thickening Islamic atmosphere, Bhagat Singh is a kafir. Bhagat Singh’s life should be taught in Pakistan’s schools as it is done in India. There is nothing in Islam which forbids the recognition of heroes in other religions.

Bhagat Singh shot John Saunders down, mistaking him for General Scott who had himself brutally lathi-charged Lala Lajpat Rai, a freedom fighter. In fact, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, the lathi-charge was the last nail in the coffin of British imperialism. It proved to be prophetic as the British had to quit India a few years later.

For some years, the activists from India have been trying to persuade Pakistan to pay homage to Rajguru and Sukhdev, who were hanged along with Bhagat Singh. Some of us, a few years ago, went to Lahore to clear the spot where the three were hanged. It was a traffic crossing. At that time we persuaded the Pakistani media to devote a programme in the memory of Bhagat Singh.

Regretfully, India has, over the years, lessened attention to Bhagat Singh. The media is also silent. There is hardly a meeting held to recognise his or his comrades’ sacrifices. True, the Indian society has ousted the value system. But I had never imagined that even the memory of those who made today’s democratic polity possible would get little mention.

However, the British historians continue to run down the importance of Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad by branding them as “terrorists”. They were also hanged for their revolt against the foreign rule. Obviously, the British do not know the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary. In fact, the British themselves come in the category of terrorists because they killed thousands of people whose only fault was they wanted to be free and rule themselves, a hallmark of democracy which the UK cherishes.

Foreign rulers always claim that their regimen is benign and helps the subjects. The British are no exception. They say the same thing about their governance. But if their atrocities were to be enumerated, the record would be brutal. The 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. However, the British go on criticising the movement for independence and those who participated in it. It is heartening to find Pakistan 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 heroes in all the three countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. I wish they could jointly recall their sacrifices to tell their people that they share the same history, the same heritage and the same agony they suffered at the hands of the British.

There are many instances of British cruelty. The Jallianwala Bagh tragedy (April 13, 1919)—a milestone for the nationalists towards the journey to the destination of independence—takes the cake. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who was given control of Amritsar by the Lt. Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, chose April 13, the day of 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 Jallian-wala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.

Dyer set the police on the gathering like hunters unchaining their ferocious hounds to bring the pursued animal to bay. He purposely blocked the garden’s only gate to prevent anyone from escaping from the place. Targeted by machine guns, men, women and children had no escape or respite from the bullets till the police exhausted their ammunition.

As many as 1650 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 1500 were injured. London too was horrified. It 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 the insects which burnt themselves to keep the earthen lamps alight. Had they not done so the thousands who went to jail or laid down their lives would not have got the inspiration their martyrdom evoked.

Bhagat Singh, a prolific writer, had explained what did killing mean to them: “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 inasmuch 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 violent methods of revolutionaries, admired these martyrs when they were executed. He said: “Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been executed and have become martyrs. Their death seems 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 be an advice for India and Pakistan and heeded in the spirit he had uttered them.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com