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Behind Bhagat Singh chants at farmers’ protest, a century-old Left tradition in Punjab

While the Left might look irrelevant in Punjab’s electoral politics today, the state has had a long Left tradition. Its genesis can be traced to the Ghadar movement.

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Chandigarh: “Bhagat Singh teri soch te… pehra diyaange thok ke… (Bhagat Singh, we will bravely guard your legacy)”.

Nearly 100 years after freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s execution in 1931, chants invoking his name and legacy resonated during the farmers’ agitation in Delhi.

So, what is this Bhagat Singh connection to the Punjab farmers’ protest against the Modi government’s three farm laws? For one, this movement reminds political observers of the “pagri sambhal, Jatta (mind your pagdi, Jat)” protest of 1907, when farmers led by Bhagat Singh’s father Kishan Singh and uncle Ajit Singh agitated against three British laws that impacted ownership of land by peasants.

An image of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh at one of the farmer protest sites, at Singhu border | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
An image of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh at one of the farmer protest sites, at Singhu border | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

While Bhagat Singh has become a Left icon in Punjab, with his chant of “Inquilab Zindabad” on the gallows popularising the war cry for generations of revolutionaries, the Left tradition in Punjab had its genesis in the Ghadar movement of the early 20th century. 

No wonder, songs of the farmers’ agitation, to which agitators danced near the Red Fort Tuesday afternoon, invoked Ghadarites Kartar Singh Sarabha and Sohan Singh Bhakna as sources of undying inspiration.

Many of the farmers’ unions leading the farm laws protests have been associated with the Left ideology. 

Leftists’ ability to mobilise farmers at this scale may come as a surprise to many, given that parties from this school haven’t won a single seat in the last three assembly elections in the state. 

Electorally, even though the traditional Left played an active role in Punjab politics till the late 1970s, it was never at the centre stage. The best performance of the CPI and the CPI (Marxist) put together was in 1977, when they won 15 seats in the 117-seat Punjab assembly. 

However, while the Left might look irrelevant in Punjab’s electoral politics today, the state has had a long Left tradition.  

Professor Chaman Lal, who has heavily researched the history of the Left tradition in Punjab and also authored Understanding Bhagat Singh, a book about the freedom fighter, draws a distinction between the “parliamentary and non-parliamentary” Left tradition in Punjab. 

The parliamentary Left tradition, he tells ThePrint, is tested every five years through the ballot but meets with only limited success. “However, the non-parliamentary tradition is extremely potent in Punjab and is right now finding reflection in the farmers agitation as well,” says Lal.


Also Read: Cracks appear among farmer unions after R-Day violence as 2 groups withdraw from protests


Ghadarites

The Ghadar movement was launched in 1913 by a set of Punjabi revolutionaries abroad to fight against the British. Remembered more for the Komagata Maru incident — when a ship full of prospective immigrants, chartered by a Sikh businessman, was turned back from the Canadian shores owing to policies driven by racism — the Ghadarites planned a pan-India mutiny in the British-Indian Army. They were caught and 42 of them executed. Ludhiana-born Kartar Singh Sarabha, aged 19, was among those executed. 

The movement failed but left a lasting influence in Punjab, spawning not one but a whole generation of leaders who remained at the forefront of several movements that subsequently emerged in the state.

Ghadar Party founder Baba Sohan Singh Bhakhna went on to lead the All India Kisan Sabha, the Communist Party of India (CPI) farmer wing, in 1936. Santokh Singh led the 1928 Kirti Kisan Lehar, a peasant-labour movement. 

Jwala Singh led the tenant revolt or ‘Muzara Lehr’ of Nilibar in 1938. Teja Singh Sutantar became a prominent CPI leader. Baba Bujha Singh, almost 80 years old, became a legendary Punjab Naxal ideologue.

Babbar Akalis

The Ghadar spirit first imprinted itself on the Akali movement of the early 1920s.

The Shiromani Akali Dal was established in 1920 to bring in reforms in gurdwaras. An offshoot of the gurdwara reform movement were the ‘Babbar Akalis’, who advocated the use of violence and were led by former Ghadarites. The Babbar Akali cells, spread mostly in the Doaba region, later paved the way for the spread of communism in Punjab. Even the Naxal movement of the late 1960s drew parallels with the Babbar Akalis of the 1920s.

Kirti Kisan Lehar

The late 1920s were a phase of fervent activity for the Bhagat Singh-led militant youth organisation Naujawan Bharat Sabha and the Kirti Kisan Party founded by Sohan Singh Josh.

Both were associated with the popular magazine Kirti of Ghadarite Santokh Singh. 

The Trolley Times, a weekly brought out at the Singhu border by supporters of the farmers’ agitation, is an effort inspired by Kirti.

The Kirti Kisan Party sought to represent the working class and farmers — it was seen as a group of “toilers” opposed to Sir Chhotu Ram’s ‘Zamindara League’, which was perceived as pro-British and working for the land owners.

Communist stirrings

In his seminal work History of the Communist Party in Punjab, Professor Bhagwan Josh wrote that the decade between 1925 and 1934 constituted “the formative years of the communist movement”. “The Akali movement, the Kirti Kisan and the Naujawan Sabha went into its making,” he said.

Sohan Singh Josh, the leader common to these movements, was also among the first communist leaders of Punjab. Teja Singh Sutantar was another stalwart. 

According to Josh, the communists made inroads into rural areas through the radical cells created by the Akalis for the gurdwara movement. 

While communist kisan sabhas launched the peasant protests of the late 1930s against the unionist government, Chhotu Ram, as revenue minister in that government, ushered in major agricultural reforms. One such reform was the Punjab Agricultural Marketing Produce Act of 1939 that brought in the mandi system in the state. 

It is this mandi system that the agitating farmers believe will end through the implementation of the three contentious farm laws.

Praja Mandal movement

Leaders of the Akali movement founded the ‘Punjab Riasti Praja Mandal Party’ in 1929 to agitate against the princely states demanding a representative government.

The flashpoint was the collection of batai, or a portion of produce, by biswedars or land owners from tenant tillers or muzaras. 

Praja Mandal leader Sewa Singh Thikriwala started encouraging muzaras not to pay batai

Thikriwala was incarcerated by the then Maharaja of Patiala, and the severity of his stint in jail proved fatal. His statue still stands in the city of Patiala.

After his death, the Praja Mandal movement was led by Jagir Singh Joga, a communist leader.


Also Read: How farmers lost control and stormed Delhi — unions blame actor-activist and ex-gangster


Muzara agitation

Muzara committees in villages worked in tandem with the communist party’s kisan panels. Congress leaders also joined the agitations, which continued sporadically for a few years after Independence, until the biswedari system was finally abolished.

Muzara agitations took place at Sirsa, Hansi, Jhajjar, Una, Dasuya, Garhshankar, Kangra, Ferozepur, Nilibar colony and the PEPSU (Punjab and East Punjab States Union) areas of Patiala, Jind, Pataudi, Nabha, Faridkot and Nalagarh. Many of these areas are now in Haryana, which was carved out of Punjab in 1966.

The Praja Mandal movement remained till its end, in 1953, the broadest political platform in Punjab, embracing many Congress members, communists and freedom fighters. 

Lal party

The Lal Communist Party was founded in January 1948 by the Kirtis and the Ghadarites who got disillusioned with the Communist party. The formation of the Lal party was probably the first split in the Indian communist movement.

Sutantar, who had differences with Sohan Singh Josh, led the split. Baba Bujha Singh was also a founding member of the Lal party.

The Lal party reactivated the Kirti Party cadre and called for an armed movement to fight for muzara rights

The movement made the Lal party popular in and around the PEPSU belt.  

Naxalite movement

The Naxalite movement in Punjab is attributed to Baba Bujha Singh, a Ghadarite from Argentina. Following the 1967 Naxalbari uprising, Singh started gathering the dissidents in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), calling for armed rebellion. He was arrested in 1970 and killed in a police encounter near Phillaur. 

Almost the entire leadership of the Punjab Students Union, created in 1963 by the CPI, joined the Naxal movement.

The movement was crushed with a heavy hand by the government, with nearly 85 Naxalites executed in the span of a few years.

“The Naxalite ideology caught the fancy of intellectuals and students across Punjab. While PEPSU was and remains the red belt, the Naxalites had a strong presence in Doaba,” independent journalist Jagtar Singh, who was closely associated with the movement, tells ThePrint.

Almost the entire leadership of the Punjab Students Union, created in 1963 by the CPI, joined the Naxal movement. 

“The movement’s legacy lives on in poetry, theatre, painting and intellectual fervour,” he says.

Author Ajmer Singh, who left his engineering course to join the movement, says it was limited to intellectuals and students and could never establish a connect with the masses. 

“But it had a lasting impact. It led to students, employees and farmers organising themselves. And to a large extent, the farmers agitation of today is a result of that.”


Also Read: Thinner crowds, fear of arrests, clueless farmers — Ghazipur, Singhu day after R-Day violence


Farmer bodies

The first Bharatiya Kisan Union, which later factionalised into different groups, came into being in the wake of the Naxal movement. Many of these BKU groups are now leading the agitation in Delhi. 

According to one political commentator, writing for the portal Counter Currents, the BKU (Ugrahan), one of the prominent farmer unions leading the agitation, is inspired by the leadership of T.N. Reddy, the late communist leader from Andhra Pradesh.

Farmer leaders Nirbhay Singh Dhudike of the Kirti Kisan Union, Jagmohan Singh Patiala of BKU (Dakaunda), and Dr Darshan Pal of Krantikari Kisan Union have also been known to have a long association with the Left. Other examples include Kulwant Singh Sandhu of the Jamhoori Kisan Union, Bhupinder Singh Sambhar of an All India Kisan Sabha faction known as AIKS (Ajoy Bhawan), and Dharam Pal Seel of AIKS. 

Hannan Mollah of All India Kisan Sabha, who is from West Bengal but is among the leaders of the farmers’ protest, is an eight-time MP from CPI (Marxist) and a former secretary of the DYFI, the youth wing of the party. 

Aam Aadmi Party

Many see the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the state in 2014 as yet another reflection of Punjab’s Leftist tradition.  

The areas of Sunam and Sangrur, which were once unflinchingly ‘red’, have supported the AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who is serving his second stint in Parliament, representing Sangrur. Most of the 20 AAP MLAs who are in the assembly now are from the Malwa belt.

Dr Dharamvir Gandhi, who was among the first four MPs to be elected from the party in 2014, has a Leftist background as well.


Also Read: Fresh talks offer ‘unlikely’ now — Modi govt could harden stand on farm laws after violence


 

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1 COMMENT

  1. “Leftist tradition” has nothing to do with the current agitation by the cliques of rich farmers (and their misguided poor cousins against deeply necessary reforms. Mere selfishness and corruption are behind the organisers and their immoral supporters among the self-styled liberals.

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