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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 39

On Sikhs in the Freedom Struggle

Thursday 18 September 2008, by Prem Singh


There are a few inaccuracies in Kartar Singh Duggal’s article on the above subject which appeared in the ‘Independence Day Special’ issue of Mainstream (August 16, 2008). For example, the Punjab Land Colonisation Act, 1907 did not concern the question of land revenue or water rates which were enhanced through separate measures taken by the then State Government. The Act was applied to colony lands and had the effect of restricting the landowners’ rights in such matters as cutting trees on their lands and passing the ownership rights to their descendants. The agitation against the Act was completely secular in complexion and involved the peasantry belonging to all the three religions of Punjab, that is, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. It would be a distortion to call it a Sikh struggle. Moreover, there was nothing like a “bloodbath in all important towns like Lahore and Rawalpindi”, though some damage was caused to property by protestors who dispersed after attending a public meeting at Rawalpindi.

Leaving India, Sardar Ajit Singh did not go to Canada but to Iran from where he managed to reach Turkey via Rumania. He then went on to Brazil. He wrote briefly in his autobiography about the nature of his contacts with the leaders of the Ghadar Party:

While in Brazil I visited other North American countries. I was in touch with the Ghadar Party in the USA. They used to seek advice. Bhai Rattan Singh, Teja Singh (Swatantra) and many members of the Ghadar Party developed a tendency for communism, although they remained true to the cause of their mother country.

(Ajit Singh, Buried Alive, edited by Pardaman Singh, J.S. Dhanki, Gitanjali Publishing House, New Delhi, 1984)
This is obviously not the same thing as having “joined the Ghadar Party of which he became an outstanding leader in due course”. Various accounts of the Ghadar movement mention that Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the founder President of the Ghadar Party, did think of inviting Ajit Singh for party work in 1913 but the idea did not materialise somehow. Secret reports of the Intelligence Department, including the one by the then DIG of Police, Punjab, dated 1918, mentioned that attempts by the Ghadar Party to induce Ajit Singh to assist in its propaganda did not succeed. In 1916 Ajit Singh wrote to Bhagwan Singh, a prominent Ghadar leader in the USA, that he “was coming” to San Francisco, the Ghadar Party headquarters, but “apparently did not do so”. In some accounts there is a mention of Ajit Singh’s collaboration with Teja Singh Swatantra in Brazil but the nature of their joint work is obscure. In any case the time period of this collaboration appears to be very brief. Ajit Singh was certainly not one of those seventy odd revolutionaries whom the Ghadar Party sponsored for study and training in Moscow in the late twenties and early thirties of the last century.

The statement in Duggal’s article that the “Ghadar Party was started by Sohan Singh Bhakna under the inspiration of Lala Har Dayal” is also untrue. Baba Bhakna wrote in his autobiography that the Ghadar weekly could not be started soon enough because of the illness of G.D. Kumar. Lala Thakur Dass Dhuri and Pandit Kashi Ram suggested that Lala Har Dayal be invited to work for the proposed paper. A meeting of the Ghadar Party was called and Pandit Kashi Ram was assigned the responsibility of corresponding with Lala Dar Dayal. The Lala wrote back that he would come by December end of 1912. In a second letter he wrote that he would probably be able to come by March 1913. It was at this March 1913 meeting of the Ghadar Party, which he attended, that he was elected the General Secretary of the party. Baba Bhakna wrote further:
Due to ignorance or due to some other reason some people say that the Lala was the founder of the Ghadar Party. They should read history carefully.

(Sohan Singh Bhakna, ‘Jiwan Sangram and other Writings’, edited by Professor Malwinderjit Singh, Balraj Sahni Yadgar Prakashan, Chandigarh, p. 30)

Baba Bhakna also wrote that despite the decision of the March 1913 meeting Har Dayal did not act. It was only in November of that year that he reported back after the President had informed him about complaints by the local committees of the Ghadar Party concerning delay in starting the paper. It was only then that the office of the party started working regularly and the paper started appearing.

IT is a great mistake to regard the Ghadar movement as part of the “Sikh struggle for freedom” basing on the argument that the Sikhs constituted a large segment of the Ghadar Party. A noted scholar of the subject, Professor Harish K. Puri, who had personally interviewed some leading Ghadarites, wrote:

They had decided, stated Bhakna, that the overthrow of the British Government was to be followed by the establishment in India of a democratic republic based on liberty and equality…… Most of these leading Ghadarites particularly emphasised upon the decision that the Association (Ghadar Party—P.S.) would be secular and political in character as distinguished from religio-political organisations such as the Khalsa Dewan Society.

(Harish K. Puri, Ghadar Movement—Ideology, Organisation and Strategy, Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar, 1983, p. 65)

The Ghadar newspaper and other literature produced by the Ghadar Party sharply rejected communal divisions and showed keen awareness about the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. Sacrifices of patriots were praised without any reference to their religious identities.

In regard to the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar on April 13, 1919 it would be an unpleasant task to make a distinction based on the religion of a martyr. Nevertheless, it has to be undertaken when a writer of secular credentials asserts that “Sikhs were again the largest number to suffer casualties”.

According to Punjab Government’s own report (File—Punjab Government, Home-Military, Part-B-1921, No. 139) the total number of persons killed was 381 out of which 84 were Sikhs, 54 Muslims and 239 Hindus. Four bodies could not be identified. (Raja Ram, The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Publication Bureau, Punjab University, Chandigarh, 1978 pp. 128-151) In K.S. Duggal’s article two different figures of martyrs have been given. It is 1300 on p. 14 and 309 on p.15.

It would be interesting to know the source of factual information about the total number of hanged and imprisoned patriots during the freedom struggle. One fails to understand K.S. Duggal’s concept of “percentage of sacrifices” of which, according to him, 90 per cent were made by the Sikhs. His argument that the Sikhs enlisted in the Army in large numbers for the two World Wars in the hope that their country would be granted freedom by the British is somewhat peculiar. If the Sikhs in fact served the British Empire on the basis of this logic, then they were totally at odds with the Ghadar movement. Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress supported the British during World War I. But their aim at the time was to gain some modest conscessions and the goodwill of the British. The Congress adopted its first resolution on independence some 14 years later, in 1929.

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