History & Theory India Pakistan South Asia

Pre-Partition Revolutionary Movements in Punjab

By Umar Rasheed
(Translated from Urdu by Babar Patras)

The struggle of working class is of paramount importance for Marxists. The unity of the proletariat of any country, nation, colour, race, religion, and region is vital in the revolutionary struggle. To promote narrow nationalism, the ruling classes of different nationalities try to present their nationality as superior creating biases and to divide the solidarity and struggle of Working class.

The fundamental contradiction in the society is class conflict and oppression. To suppress and eliminate this difference all the bourgeois remain busy in action and false prejudices are fabricated. Similarly, in Pakistan, the orthodox and liberal nationalist leaders believing in Capitalism consider Punjabis responsible for the entire problem. In this way, the class distinction among Punjabis and exploitation of common Punjabi toilers at the hands of feudal lords and capitalists are undermined. The working class of the oppressors and oppressed are made to confront under these nationalistic bias. Divide and rule has been the main policy of the rulers of every age.

In Pakistan national oppression and along with class exploitation is a reality. Undoubtedly, in Pakistani state and ruling elite, there is a dominant role of Punjabi capitalists, feudals and bureaucracy. However, the ruling elites of the oppressed nationalities are always in cohorts with the Punjabi ruling classes in the heat of class struggles. Workers neither have a country nor a nation because in a class system they are being exploited by the ruling class of every place and colour.

What have been kept in oblivion are Punjab’s revolutionary traditions of youth and workers movements. But the ruling class has tried its level best to keep them away from these traditions. The history of resistance of the oppressed class is as old as of foreign dominance. Abdullah Bhatti alias ‘Dullah Bhatti’ had been a great fighter and a threat for Mughal Empire of South Asia. Shah Jahan had come to Lahore for 12 years to crush down his activities. Dullah Bhatti was representative of the oppressed masses. Finally, Abdullah was sentenced to death in 1599. Britain occupied Punjab in 1848. Contrary to the general impression, the large sections of Punjabi soldiers fought at the front line in the War of Independence 1857. It is ironic that the children in Punjab know Robin Hood while most are ignorant of Dullah Bhatti.

Between 1900 and 1905, the laws made by British Raj with reference to the exchange of agricultural land, division and the right of profit were with the purpose of spreading religious hatred and getting the favour of Muslim farmers. On October 16, the partition of Bengal was done due to the fear of a revolutionary uprising. The rise of national freedom was due to rebellious literature coming from Bengal. Lala Lajpat Rai and Sri Devi were popular leaders of farmers.

In the beginning, these movements were limited to Lahore, Amritsar, Ferozepur, Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Lyallpur. However, the British government suggested the proposal of change in the administrative affairs of canal area and increased the water rates. With these actions, the rural areas of Punjab also become part of these movements. The farmers were forcefully expelled from their fertile areas of Punjab and were asked to cultivate the barren lands of west Punjab. These measures provoked hatred against the British Raj amongst tillers. In 1907, when Charles Rivaz was attending a farewell party in Amritsar, the students of Khalsa College greeted him with protest procession. During the same period, a series of violent protest started in Rawalpindi. On April 21, 1907 Ajeet Singh criticized the government severely for increasing the rate of taxes on land. He said, “These tillers are the real owner of not only this land but also of this country. Deputy Commissioner and Police are their servants. The farmers in Punjab refused to plough the fields until the government take back the decision of raise in land tax. Due to this speech, Lala Lajpat and Ajeet Singh were arrested and persecuted. On May 10th, 1907, on the anniversary of War of Independence 1857, some Ex Sikh soldiers also participated in a procession in Lyallpur. Similarly, in Ferozepur, thousands of young men participated in protests and paid homage to the martyrs of Freedom.

The newspaper “Hindustan” which was published from Gujranwala, its editor, Lala Pindi Das, published a pamphlet on behalf of the masses of Hindustan and Afghanistan for the soldiers of British Army, who had migrated to America. The pamphlet asked, “For how long you would be silent on the plunders of the British Raj? Lala Pindi Das was sentenced to prison for five years with hard labour. In the years of 1907 and 1909 revolutionary literature was written and distributed on large scale. These books included, how do Nations remain alive? Rebel Christ, Noble Thieves, End of Czarist Empire and Divide and Rule.

This movement of peasants’ won and British regime took back Canal Bill and taxes were reduced. Later this the movement went underground. The British government used to consider Punjab as its sword’s arm but also trembled with the fear of this sword in revolt. The violence and persecution by imperialist state machinery against revolutionaries were ferocious. Thousands of revolutionaries were exiled to America, Canada and other countries. But their hearts kept beating for revolution.

Ghadar Party

From 1906 to the beginning of 1908 the Indian immigrants to Canada and America were 5000 to 6313 respectively. Most of them were retired Punjabi soldiers. The number of Punjabi soldiers in British Army was very high. The government kept them backward and illiterate intentionally because the government wanted to see a uniform on their bodies and sword in their hands given by the British Raj. The English government wanted to make this youth as the fuel their war. Rich families were bribed with huge and large lands. The chains of slavery got stronger with the treason of these very people.

Ignited by the killing of Indians, a young man Madhan Lal Dhingra of Amritsar shot William Curzon on July 01, 1909 while he was attending annual Ceremony of National Independence Association in Imperial Institute of London. Just minutes before his hanging, Madhan Lal Dhingra courageously said: “This will continue until we get freedom, until humanity gets real freedom.”

Ghadar Party was established on March 25th, 1913. Weekly “Ghadar Gazette” was published from San Francisco. The aims and slogans of Ghadar were published in its first issue.

Weekly Newspaper of Ghadar Party, 24 March, 1914

(1) The people of India should raise the banner of rebellion against British Raj and uproot it.
(2) Our cause is Ghadar! (Revolt).
(3) Solidarity and Unity… Power and Freedom
(4) The result of discord… Weakness and Slavery
(5) The foundation of unity… Socialism.
(6) The foundation of discord… Imperialism.
(7) Energetic and vibrant youth and brave soldiers are needed who organize the task of Ghadar.
(8) The wage of this task…. Death.
(9) Its reward… Martyrdom.
(10) Pension…Freedom.
(11) Scope…the Whole of India.

Sikh monasteries (Gurdwaras) soon became centres of revolutionary politics. The purpose of militant activities was to reach army camps in Punjab through Kashmir. The time span of ten years was set. With the eruption of the First World War, all the plans were postponed. After it started, the party held a five-day procession in Yoga Ashram and policy was discussed. However, the revolutionaries of Ghadar Party misconceived that with the call of a rebellious War, all the India would support them. The conditions were not supportive anywhere except in Bengal.

On August 5th, 1914, the announcement of war against British Raj was published in Ghadar “Now it is time to stand against European dominance. You are soldiers, set your rows against the enemy, be organized and united, fight such a battle that uproots the British Raj and lay the foundations of democratic society.” It was decided that all the Indians who were exiled, should come back in India by November 1914. In a report from Portland sent to British Raj had only one slogan: “Every Indian must fight a war for revolution.” The exiles were filled with the passion of Freedom. This movement became a golden chapter in the history of resistance and revolution a hallmark of the Ghadar Party. Many of these Indians came back to India and decided to sacrifice their lives for their homeland. When these revolutionaries reached Calcutta, weapons were provided to them. But as soon as they reached Punjab, the authorities started arresting them.

Exiled Members of Ghadar

The second group, under the leadership of Bhai Sohan Singh Bhakna, set off from Japan to Philippine and reached India passing through Shanghai and Hong Kong. When a Japanese ship filled with more than three hundred revolutionaries anchored at Samaro Seaport near Calcutta, the British army and police encircled them. However eight thousand workers of Ghadar Party reached India within two years. Twenty-five hundred were arrested, four hundred were sent to imprisonment, seventy-six were hanged and others set free with harsh warnings. Due to this brutal crackdown and arrests, the plans of the Party were dashed to the ground. Sir Michael Edgware wrote in his diary, “These people were extremely dangerous… I tremble on mere thinking that what would have happened in the province if they had not been arrested.”

The movement of Ghadar failed not only due to state oppression but also despite all the courage and sacrifice, the basic error was in strategy that was based on impatience and individual terrorism. The objective conditions of Punjab were not ready for this kind of rebellion. The survivors of the revolution tried to organize the task all over again. Kartar Singh Sarabha took several rounds in Amritsar and Ludhiana and conveyed the message of revolution. Bhai Prem Singh was doing the same work in the Main Mir cantonment of Lahore. The party deployed Vishnu Purtagle at Meerut camp. Kartar Singh Sarabha was in contact with volunteers in army camps of Ambala, Kanpur, Agra, Allahabad, Banaras, Dunyapur and Lucknow.

A Singapore infantry unit of 800 soldiers sieged British cantonment with under the strategy of Ghadar Party on February 15, 1915. They divided their unit into three groups. Two groups of them took the position near the German soldiers’ prisons. The Germans refused to be released despite the opportunity. They were not ready to become a party in this rebellion. The third group soldiers surrounded the fort of Singapore. Siege continued for two days. They kept shooting at British soldiers. In this clash, 44 Indians and 8 English soldiers were killed. The Indian soldiers were defeated when the new army reinforcement reached the fort. 126 of them, were arrested, 37 were sentenced to death and 41 were sentenced to life imprisonment. These were hanged on Singapore’s streets so that the British imperialism could instil terror in the hearts of ordinary people.

Ghadar Party declared an independent interim Indian government in Kabul on December 01, 1915. The same government demanded Indians to join the armed struggle. Raja Mahindra Partab was the president of this interim government, and Barkat Ullah was elected as the Prime Minister. Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi was given the department of interior affairs. Obaidullah Sindhi wrote letters to his friends in India on the Reshmi Rumal (silk handkerchief), appealing them to join the rebellion. Reshmi Rumal movement was also broken up initially. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Interim Government of Kabul requested to the Soviet government to recognize Reshmi Rumal movement. Raja Mahindra Partab visited Moscow and Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, welcomed them. Lenin promised all possible cooperation with Kabul’s independent government, but when Mahindra Partab came back to Kabul, Germany and Turkey were defeated in the First World War. Afghanistan signed a peace agreement with Britain. With this, India’s independent interim government also ended.

On April 7, 1917 when the United States joined the First World War, all the rebels arrested including Santo Singh, Ram Singh, Bushan Singh, Gopal Singh, Andhan Singh, C. K. Chakravarty and Tarknath Das showing its loyalty to its ally Britain. They were prosecuted in San Francisco on August 1917. The United States spent $ 30 million on this judicial process of prosecution. Judicial members had to come to India to collect testimony of “San Francisco Trials”. Many Witnesses were dispatched to the United States. All accused were found guilty and were sentenced to imprisonment. During the imprisonment, many Ghadar Party leaders met with American Communists and after seeing them, they found many drawbacks in their movement.danger; the only deficiency was that the party was not organized for a real revolutionary movement nor was there an ideological unity in the party’s ranks. Bolshevik revolution in Russia had many lessons for the leaders of Ghadar party.

Bhai Santo Singh studied Marxist ideology and Bolshevism in prison. For this, he also received help from American communists who had been imprisoned with him. During his imprisonment Santo Singh and his comrades became communists. After their release from the prison, Ghadar Party leaders started working on organizing the party under Communist ideology. For this, they made contacts with progressive organizations and started organizing factory workers. These very leaders of Ghadar Party introduced communist ideas in India.

In 1915, when the Ghadar party had dispersed in Punjab, those leaders were set free started building a small left wing group. Among them, the Kirti Kishan Party and Nojawan Bharat Sabha were prominent organizations. A Punjab Police report titled “Kirti Wave” said, ” The Ghadar Party was crushed in the USA, but still no one can say that its activities have ended. Even today its clandestine activities are going on, in one form or the other. In particular, the Punjabi people who came back from other countries have deep ideological adherence with this Party. Some of them are trained from Moscow. All these people are filled with a revolutionary spirit. These are extremists. Their hearts are full of hatred against British Raj. Whenever they got an opportunity to spread a rebellion, they will definitely participate.”

On the basis of this report, it can only be concluded that in spite of being crushed in Punjab, the party created a consciousness of revolution in the hearts and minds of the youth. As far as the head office of the party in San Francisco is concerned, it continued to work with its literature spreading revolutionary ideology, which continued till 1947 and its office was closed after Partition. Later, the revolutionary legacy of the Ghadar Party adopted the youth like Bhagat Singh, who had a keen interest in the scientific ideology of Marxism and laid the foundation of ‘Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Association’.

The revolution is a constant process. It cannot remain stagnant at one place. Due to the changes of circumstances the process sometimes ebbs and sometimes gets sharp, but unlike evolution, the revolution is always vigorous and fighting.

Nojawan Sabha 

Babbar Akali Movement

The massacre of the Jallianwala Bagh had a deep shocking impact on the consciousness of Punjabi people and gave birth to militant trends against the British government. On August 1922, Babbar Akali Party was formally established and its working committee was also elected. This movement was a radical phenomenon separated from the non-violence movement of Akali Movement. Kishan Singh was elected leader, Dilip Singh Goca was elected as secretary and Babu Santa Singh became treasurer. Their newspaper ‘Babbar Akali Do-Aaba‘ began publishing from September. Surprisingly, the print line was also published to complete legal requirements, in the name of Travel press. On the front page, the quote written was, “The real brave is the one who protects his thoughts, even if he loses all organs of his body one by one, he does not leave the battlefield.” Literally published as a pamphlet the economic policies of the government and the resulting misery of the masses were especially highlighted.  An article said that “violence was not just that police tortured people in the police station, rather snatching the bread from the people was more violent form of repression.”

Kishan Singh was the main leader of Babar Akali Group, and this whole group was against Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy because they were of the opinion that the English Courts and law could never do justice.

The people of this group travelled place to place and tried to arm the people. Citing examples of sacrifices of Sikh Gurus and Bolshevik revolution in Russia, they tried to convince Sikhs that there is no freedom without sacrifices and armed struggle. Kishan Singh was a sergeant in the 35th Sikh battalion and was outraged at the brutal violence of the government during martial law. His anti-British campaign in his unit led to his arrest after a court marshal and later expelled from the British Indian Army. This group killed 5 agents of government in a month. This spread fear in the district Jallander and Hoshiarpur with several British informers and agents fleeing from the area. The government was desperate when most of the agents refused to continue working. The government acted with vengeance arresting 82 workers Sikh soldiers, twenty -five of whom had killed British officers. Remaining soldiers and workers of the rebel movement went underground or fled. A Large majority of them climbed on the Shawalik hills near the city of Hoshiarpur.

Later events suggested that the militants of Babbar Akali carried out shock attacks on state installations from the Hills and retreated back to their hideouts. Apart from the CID special investigation staff, a special core comprising hundreds of policeman was set up to assault the hills with horse mounted police. The 250th infantry regiment was deployed for the operation with armoured vehicles supported by the British Indian Royal Air Force fighter planes bombing the hills. The rebels resisted everywhere and fought bravely. But after organized British security forces operation, the chance of escape was minimal. Most of the rebels were killed and 91 arrested. The famous Trial of Babbar Alkalis’ began while 3 young men killed in jail through police torture. Others were imprisoned or deported. Banta Singh, Kishan Singh, Dilip Adhaniya, Dharam Singh, Dilip Singh Goyal were sentenced to death and hanged on February 27, 1926. Those who were sentenced to prison continued to struggle within the jail. Babbar Akali movement emerged as a sharp, Valliant and a militant movement from 1921 to 1926. Especially, Banta Singh became the protagonist in folklore and songs about his bravery were written.

After the end of Babbar Akali movement, revolutionary struggle re-emerged in the form the Nojawan Sabha with Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Bhagwati Charan, Jatin Das, Master Mata Singh and others emerged as its leaders. Bhagat Singh established a new Sabha in Punjab in 1926 and aimed to promote revolutionary thinking among the youth of Punjab striving to fight against imperialism.

Nojawan Sabha expressed its goals as follows: Establishing a free state of farmers and workers across India. Secondly, to support India’s economic, industrial and social movements for the creation of independent and autonomous Indian state without religious prejudices and sectarianism. Thirdly, in order to achieve these goals, to organize peasants, youth and industrial workers to secure an India of the working class rule. Nojawan Sabha launched campaigns at grass root level with emphasis on ideological, moral and social aspects. Every member had to pledge to accept that the interests of motherland would come first then personal interests. Personal interests and religious discrimination were pronounced as intolerable. The real cause of Nojawan Sabha was to revolutionize the political struggle. Nojawan Sabha rapidly gained support and popularity far and wide. Others who pledged their support were Kidar Nath Sagal, Surol Singh Kausher, Mahta Anand Kishore, Teens, Soody Pandey Vas and comrade Ram Chandra. These people regularly joined Nojawan Sabha. With its strengthened organization the Nojawan Sabha organised a number of public conventions in 1926.

A meeting in Amritsar on April 1928 decided to set up branches of the Sabha in every district and the Kirti Peasant Group would also be included in its activities. Amritsar became the headquarters of these organizations with a new outfit called Nojawan Bharat Sabha. Heightened enthusiasm and feeling of strength spread in the ranks. To check the strength and efficiency of the organization, it was decided to support the movement of peasants that was started for the exemption of taxes in Punjab after the loss of wheat crop in 1928. Nojawan Bharat Sabha established many organizational units among them. Innovative methods were devised for spreading revolutionary ideas amongst the oppressed masses. These included processions in the light of lanterns and puppet shows etc. Student unions in Lahore and other cities got affiliated with the Sabha. On July 1928, Kedarnath Sagal provincial president of Sabha announced the establishing of its branches in all villages, cities and the districts of the province. He spoke to the youth to prepare them for protest against Simmch of them should protest with black flags. The Sabha district branches were established in Lahore, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Montgomery, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura and others.

The Sabha assisted Kirti Kissan Party leader Sohan Singh Jokhak to be elected as district president in the election of Amritsar in July. In August 1928, both organizations jointly celebrated the week of friendship with the Soviet Union and were also supported by the radical elements of the congress. During this meeting, a resolution was passed announcing that British government should not be given any support by the Indian people in any future war. The political struggle for the formation of workers and peasants government and the destruction of the imperialism and capitalism was reiterated. The Simon Commission arrived on October 20, 1928 where a large gathering shouted the slogans of ‘Black Goats’ and ‘Go Back, Simon’. Lala Lajpat Rai led this protest demonstration. This protest was brutally attacked and baton charged by the Police. Lala Lajpat Roy was fatally injured. On November 17, 1928 he died due to the severe injuries on his head and chest. The Sabha announced British government as being responsible for his murder.

Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Kailash Paiti, Raj Guru, Yashpal and other revolutionaries decided to take revenge. Police Superintendent Scott was shot on December 17, 1928. After the attack, all the rebels were able to escape. Earlier, Nojawan Sabha celebrated the Cakori day in Lahore and Amritsar on December 16, pledging to continue its militant activities. They contacted the revolutionaries of Bengal, UP, Rajasthan and Bihar.  A youth named Sanyal established another similar rebellious organization in northern India, “Swujandnak” in 1920. Sachindra Nath Sanyal, along with Jogesh Chandra and Mukherjee, started to arm this organization in UP. In 1924 giving the name “Indian Republican Association” to this organization formed a new party. The Indian Republican Association expressed interest in the failure of the Congress’ Satyagraha (non-violence-movement) and appealed to the people of India to take up arms to the change of system. Their slogan was that only a revolution that would overthrow the capitalistic system and the interests of bourgeoisie’s, its political power and motives could be defeated. This organization was converted into ‘Indian Socialist Republican Army’ in 1928. On September 8 and 9, 1928 a meeting took place at Kotla Feroze Shah (Delhi), Chandra Shekhar Azad, Sukh Dev and Bhagat Singh were also present. It was decided that all revolutionary parties will be invited and socialism will be the foundation of the new country’s system.

Meanwhile, the government introduced two laws “Public Safety Bill” and “Traders Disputes Act”. When the government refused to withdraw these ordinances, Bhagat Singh and Bitu Kieshwer Dutt threw a firecracker type bomb at central assembly hall that didn’t cause any causality. It was hurled only to record their protest.  However they did not escape, but chanting slogans, ‘Long Live the revolution’, ‘down with imperialism’ and ‘workers of the world unite’, they gave themselves for arrest and accepted the responsibility of the attack.

They declared to the press:

* The purpose of these bombs was not to harm anyone but to make it clear to the world that how much the people of India are exploited and oppressed.
* Our goal was to give the British Government a warning.
* Our goal was to expose the futility of non-violence theory to people so that they realize that such kind of policies cannot achieve independence.
* We believe that despite the oppression, the Russian revolution could not be overwhelmed, so rules like Safety Bills cannot suppress the wave of independence in India.

Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt were sentenced to life imprisonment. Along with, many other activists of the party were arrested. The Lahore Conspiracy Case was registered in 1929. Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt, Sikh Dev and Kishori Lal Vera were the accused of its plotting. These political prisoners were subjective to torture in the jail, against which Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt started a hunger strike. They demanded political prisoners to get better classes and better food in the jail. They demanded that newspapers and other reading materials should be provided and all their comrades should be placed in one barrack. In this hunger strike, almost all imprisoned revolutionaries participated, which continued for almost 63 days. A revolutionary Jatin Das’s condition worsened and the prisoners in other Indian jails also started the hunger strike. In the meantime, when Jatin Das died in jail, the government realized that the situation had turned explosive.  The trail of the Lahore Conspiracy Case lasted for nine months. The Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance was released in 1930, under which the revolutionaries did not have any legal rights nor could they present any witnesses in their defence.

Finally, in October 1930, Bhagat Singh, Sukh Dev and Raj Guru were sentenced to death. Thereafter, a central appeal committee was formed which held meetings in various cities and submitted a memorandum containing 60 thousand signatures to the Viceroy. It pleaded the execution sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. Bhagat Singh Day was celebrated throughout the Punjab on 11 February 1931. But on February 17, 1931, mercy petition was rejected and all the three revolutionaries were hanged on March 23, 1931.

These are summaries of some revolutionary movements that against British imperialism in Punjab. These revolutionaries may have made many errors in their strategy, such as methods of individual acts of terrorism etc. but apart from these facts, it is not possible to deny their dedication, commitment and sacrifices for the cause of a genuine freedom and changing the system.

Post Partition Period

The Communist Party of India has its own history in Sub Continent, but the degeneration of the Russian revolution under Stalinism in the Soviet Union and conversion of Third International as a foreign policy ploy by the Russian bureaucracy the subservient leadership of the CPI committed many ideological and political blunders that became historical crimes. In particular, the support for British imperialism in the Second World War isolated the Communist Party from movement. After the revolutionary movement of the Sailors Revolt in 1946, was defeated by the treachery of the native politicians at the behest of the British imperialism the revolutionary movement faced a massive set back. The partition on the basis of engineered religious hatreds by leaders of Congress and All India Muslim League destroyed Punjab and Bengal as historical civilisations. According to some estimates, 2.7 million people perished during Partition, a majority of them were Punjabis. The wounds of Partition are still bleeding. The social and cultural impacts left by this bloody partition on Punjabi society still foster reactionary religious and sectarian hatreds and violence. After partition, the rulers of the Punjab made all possible efforts to impose national chauvinism and Pakistani nationalism on the people of Punjab. But the delayed and dysfunctional capitalism and semi-feudal economic structure have been unable to provide healthy, united and sustainable economic and social development in any way.

After partition, the biggest revolutionary movement in the region was the Movement of 1968-69 started after the killing of a student (Abdul Hameed) in Rawalpindi. One of the epicentres of this revolutionary storm was Lyallpur later named Faisalabad. The ‘Pakistan People’s Party’ with a founding programme of revolutionary socialism was formed in November 1967 founding convention in Lahore. The PPP got its popularity in Punjab due to its socialist manifesto and announced the policy of class struggle. The recent rise of religious trends, sectarianism and the state- sponsored reaction was due to the ebbing of the movements and betrayals of the leadership of traditional parties and trade unions. The class contradictions are sharpening again. A new mass revolt can erupt. The workers and people’s folklore of Punjab have brilliant traditions of revolutionary struggles. These shall erupt again. But this class struggle will now have to be fought to the finish. It can only be victorious in unity with the toilers of the South Asian subcontinent. A victory in any part will inevitably lead to the creation of the voluntary Socialist Federation of the region.

Leave a Comment