For long, Indian scholars, foreigners and history students have pleaded with the government of Pakistani Punjab for a glimpse of the Bhagat Singh documents.
It was 25 March 1929. Bhagat Singh was in Delhi Jail. The curious, compulsive reader that he was, Singh wrote a letter to the jailer.
“I will be obliged if you will kindly allow me the use of daily newspapers and books,” he wrote.
Eighty-nine years later, an image of that frayed, yellowing letter has been taken out of the locked Lahore archives. But it’s not the only brush with the martyr that is now on display — his books, letters, diaries and even hat receipts are now accessible.
But before Indian fans of Bhagat Singh begin to plan their journey to Lahore, it must be said that this is not yet a fully accessible exhibition. Pakistan’s Punjab government has allowed only partial access yet – by invitation only. And it is only open for a week.
The exhibition is inside the civil secretariat, which is in the heart of Lahore — a regal, white colonial-era building that houses Punjab’s top bureaucrats. Right in the middle of the offices is a pink Anarkali mausoleum. The mausoleum now serves as the Punjab Archives that has preserved several key documents of the subcontinent’s history since 1849.
Not everyone can enter this space without a pass or security check.
For long, Indian scholars, foreigners, and history students have pleaded with the Punjab government for a glimpse of the Bhagat Singh documents. Visitors on the first day were nostalgically sighing in front of original artifacts, and even touching some of the copies as if they were the real thing.
The centrepiece is the death warrant of Bhagat Singh. The curator of the exhibition enthusiastically greets guests, takes them on a tour and points to the death warrant.
“This is the most important document,” he declares.
A room upstairs lit with yellow bulbs reveales some scattered books that Bhagat Singh had scribbled on. There is also a copy of his library card and notebooks with his scribbles in Gurmukhi.
There is the post-mortem report of J.P. Saunders, whom Bhagat Singh had gunned down, as well as the post-mortem report of Chanan Singh, the policeman who saw and chased Singh, only to be shot fatally by Chandra Shekhar Azad.
The court proceedings of the Lahore conspiracy case, change of judges in the tribunal, eye-witness testimony, the final judgment on the attack on the Delhi legislative assembly, the jail report on the hunger strike, and orders of transfer of B.K. Dutt from Delhi — all of them lie in the archive.
Singh’s case was first shifted from Delhi to the Lahore High Court and then to the Central Jail itself. The original and immensely important copy of the judgment by the Privy Council is present, along with the manifesto of the Hindustan Republican Association. Showcases also house the photos of the visitors who came to meet him in jail.
There are also photos of the bomb he threw in the Delhi legislative assembly, and a DAV College Boarding House Pass. Along with these, there is also a curious document — the receipt of the hats he had bought from a store called Gordon & Gotch Ltd.
The curator confesses that before this day, the government had not allowed the display of these documents. The exhibition is a joint project between the archive’s employees and the art college students.
But there are still a lot of original documents that are locked away from public gaze, like the original correspondence between Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries, and even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Young enthusiasts and scholars will still have to chase the officials at the archives to get up close and personal with those artifacts.
Ammara Ahmad is based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments