Imperialism India Pakistan South Asia

Legacies: Distorted and Obscured

By Lal Khan

The construction of the Orange Train Project in Lahore has aroused much controversy in the politics, judiciary and the so -called civil society in the last few months. The patterns and character of development being carried out by the Sharif’s in Pakistan is no different to other bourgeois rulers in the so-called developing world. Infrastructural and capital intensive investment such as the orange train is of an uneven and contradictory character. On the surface, these initiatives exhibit patchy progress and provide false rhetoric to the rulers of fake progress and utterly fails to resolve the social contradictions. On the contrary, these projects end up exacerbating them and fail to generate a harmonious and egalitarian development of society.

There has been considerable discussion and debate amongst the civil society and literary circles of the dangers the orange train poses to some of the historical sites within the city particularly that of the Mughal era. What they always forget to point out is that these historical sites and relics were products of the rulers and royalty of the past that were tyrannical and oppressive. On the other hand sites of historical struggles and places led by ordinary people are completely ignored and erased out of the discourse taking place amongst the civic circles.

The history of the region being taught in the education syllabi and is brought into the mainstream media and social discussions, in both India and Pakistan, is that of the ruling elites, and imperial dynasties. What lacks in the official and the unofficial historiography is the content on the people’s struggles and the folklore heroes who fought for the causes of the peasants and the oppressed against the Empires from the Mughals to that of the British imperialists. Two of the most renowned characters of these struggles from the medieval times are Dulla Bhatti and more recent one, Bhagat Singh and his comrades.

Dulla Bhatti was from Sandalbar Punjab in medieval India who led a long lasting revolt of the poor peasants and the oppressed masses against the Mughal dynastic empire during the rule of emperor Akbar. Dulla Bhatti’s brave acts of fighting to free imprisoned and enslaved peasant and women belonging to the most oppressed sections, both economically and socially, from the Mughal’s local sovereigns and his stance against dowry, sati and other malpractices of the period have become part of the folklore celebrated in East and West Punjab. He refused to accept the tyrannical rule of Mughal emperor Akbar and refused to pay any tax. Such was the level of resistance put up by the rebels that Akbar had to shift his Imperial Capital to Lahore for nearly 20 years. Ultimately Akbar got him captured through a treacherous deceit and Dulla was executed in the large square near Delhi gate in Lahore. He was defiant to the end.

The other revolutionary and heroic fighter was Bhagat Singh, who at a very young age led a major struggle against the rotten exploitative and oppressive British Raj and to overthrow capitalist system in the early decades of the last century. Bhagat Singh’s struggle and message had inspired hundred and thousands particularly the youth throughout the subcontinent. His message became so potent that it even threatened the leadership of the native bourgeois leaders such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The orders of the execution by the Viceroy of India at the time, Lord Irwin were passed with the conscious approval of Gandhi and a few days later the Indian masses were inflicted with the Gandhi -Irwin Pact. Bhagat Singh’s legacy is tarnished and distorted on both sides of the Radcliff line by the religious fundamentalists and the intelligentsia to serve the interests of the ruling elites. The moulding of history to confuse and keep the oppressed classes oblivious of the truths particularly those of revolts and resistance against the rule of the propertied classes has assumed a form of art by these intellectuals and historians that are on the payroll of these reactionary elites and the states.

In Pakistan, the religious and conservative right are condemning Bhagat Singh as a kaafir and a terrorist. His Sikh ancestry is abused and his real beliefs and ideological convictions are distorted to undermine the revolutionary potential and inspiration of his legacy exude for the generations of today and those of the future. What these reactionary and obscurantists forget is the historical affinity and solidarity amongst adherents of all different faiths in the subcontinent. Lets us not forget the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjun waiting impatiently in Amritsar for Mian Mir to arrive from Lahore and lay the foundation stone for the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith. The right wing analysts reject any role of Bhagat Singh in the struggle against imperialists not only because it is a source of unity of the people of the subcontinent but also because his socialist ideas are still potent today and a beacon of light for the masses to overthrow this exploitative system.

In India, the portrayal of Bhagat Singh is even more incongruous. The Sikh fundamentalist Khalsa has turned him into turban wearing devout Sikh and the reactionary fundamentalist Hindutva propagating BJP use his iconic figure to justify their nationalist chauvinism. Just weeks before the 2014 election, Narindera Modi was invited to launch a book on Bhagat Singh. The publication of the book was only made possible by the manipulation and bribery of Singh’s relatives. Different political parties representing various sections of the reactionary Indian bourgeois use Bhagat Sings selective quotes and sentences for their own vested interests. No doubt Bhagat Singh started his struggle as a revolutionary nationalist fighting British imperialists. But what is deceptively concealed is that with his experiences of the struggle he evolved ideologically and reached the conclusion that without a socialist revolution there can be no genuine independence for the masses of the south Asian subcontinent. The Congress and other left reformist parties try to cast Bhagat Singh as a bourgeois nationalist.

Bhagat was deeply influenced by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in the Soviet Union and he diligently studied the works of Marxism and contemporary revolutionaries. In his writings, Bhagat rejected class collaboration. He wrote in Outlines of a Revolutionary Programme: A Letter to Young Political Activists. “If you are planning to approach the workers and peasants for active participation, then I would like to tell you that they couldn’t be fooled through some sort of sentimental rhetoric. They will clearly ask you what your revolution would give them, for which you are demanding sacrifice from them. If in place of Lord Reading, Sir Purushottam Das Thakur becomes the representative of the government, how would this affect people? How would a peasant be affected if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru comes in place of Lord Irwin? The appeal to nationalist sentiments is a farce.”

He also laid bare the real role of Gandhi and the Congress, “What is the motive of Congress? I said that the present movement would end in some sort of compromise or total failure. The real revolutionary forces have not been invited to join the movement. It is being conducted only on the basis of a few middle-class shopkeepers and a few capitalists. Both of these classes, specifically the capitalists, cannot venture to endanger their property. The real armies of the revolution are in villages and factories ‑ the peasants and workers. But our bourgeois leaders don’t dare take them along, nor can they do so. These sleeping tigers, once they wake up from their slumber, are not going to stop even after the accomplishment of the mission of our leaders.”

The message that Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt sent to the Punjab Students Conference on October 19, 1929 symbolised their maturing revolutionary clarity. “Today we cannot ask the youth to take pistols and bombs… In the coming Lahore Session, the Congress is to give a call for a fierce fight for the independence of the country. The youth will have to bear a great burden in this difficult time in the history of the nation… They have to awaken the millions and millions of slum-dwellers of the industrial areas and villagers living in worn-out cottages…”

In February 2, 1931 writings of Bhagat Singh, the turning point in his revolutionary career, he stated, “I began to study, my previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification. The romance of the violent methods, alone which was so prominent among our predecessors, was replaced by serious ideas. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. The revolutionaries know better than anybody else that the socialist society is the only destiny of human emancipation.”

The imperialist despots executed Bhagat Singh along with his comrades in arms, Sukhdev and Raj Guru in the wee hours of March 23, 1931 at the Central Jail in Lahore, their bodies mutilated and burnt. The Central Jail has been demolished and a posh suburb called Shadman now stands in its place. Bhagat Singh’s memory and legacy could not be wiped out by our brown rulers across both sides of the Radcliffe line. He was voted the “Greatest Indian” in a poll by the Indian magazine India Today in 2008, ahead of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohandas Gandhi. But neither Dulla Bhatti nor Bhagat Singh has any monuments or commemorative plaques near Delhi gate or at the square in Shadman where the jail stood. However, the legacies of these vanguard fighters of the revolutionary uprisings of those times have left a mark in the annals of history of class struggle in the region. There are lessons to be learnt and courage to be had by those in the struggle to transform this system of drudgery, tyranny and misery.