On his visit to India, can Obama ignore Bhagat Singh?

By Jawed Naqvi
Thursday, 14 Oct, 2010
Whatever the reason for his visit, Obama will be in for a surprise his hosts may not have provisioned for. –File Photo

President Obama is likely to go to the Golden Temple in Amritsar next month. Different reasons are being given for the first visit by an American president to Sikhdom’s holiest shrine.

One version suggests his wife planted the idea. Her uncle had lived in Amritsar as a member of the US Volunteers Corps. A more straightforward explanation is that his host, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, would be pleased by the gesture.

Whatever the reason for the completely agreeable plan, Mr Obama will be in for a surprise his hosts may not have provisioned for. He will find there that high up among the icons that Sikhs deify, as do most Indians, is Bhagat Singh who was hanged for defying British rule in India.

In fact Mr Obama could do a quick headcount of the devotees, if security permits, that would reveal how the 23-year old martyr stands taller in the minds of the people of Amritsar than any other hero of India’s anti-colonial struggle.

What should not surprise Mr Obama, if he were to familiarise himself with the young revolutionary’s writings before the visit, is that he would have strongly disapproved of the policies pursued by India’s fellow Sikh prime minister. If Bhagat Singh comes close to anybody that Mr Obama may be familiar with it is the under-advertised American nationalist Patrick Henry who led the fight against British colonialism with the battle cry, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

There are Sikhs and Sikhs, just as there are Muslims and Muslims or Christians and Christians. The principle of variety applies to people of most other faiths.

As one of India’s smallest minorities, Sikhs reveal an amazing range of ideological and political DNA. From the kulak farmer who exploits cheap labour from Bihar to the avowed leftist who revels in fighting for social justice. A battle may be joined against the subversion of democracy by Indira Gandhi. Or a clarion call may be given to resist the assault by the same party on the natural resources of tribespeople of Chhattisgarh, notionally a thousand miles away from Punjab.

Just this past Monday, four Sikh activists were picked up by the predominantly Sikh administration of Indian Punjab. They are being investigated for their opposition to a military campaign against a tribal revolt in Chhattisgarh that wants to stop the usurpation of the state’s mineral resources by big corporations.

Among those arrested is Gurmeet Singh Juj, a Punjabi writer and activist of the All India League for Revolutionary Culture. He is a key member of the Punjab chapter of the ‘Democratic Front Against Operation Green Hunt’, codename for the military campaign in Chhattisgarh.

Dr Manmohan Singh, a different Sikh, holds the view that India cannot progress without opening the tribal lands for exploitation. Bhagat Singh would have scoffed at such a view.

In his last petition to the Punjab governor, before he was hanged by the British government in 1931, the celebrated revolutionary — and Marxist — said: “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as India’s toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian … All these things make no difference.”

In fact, if we take out the reference to God (since Bhagat Singh had become an atheist) Patrick Henry’s call to challenge the heavily armed British armada in March 1775 was nearly identical. “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’ — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

As I said there are Sikhs and Sikhs. There are Sikhs who would prefer to have an independent homeland in the state Punjab than to be counted as Indians; there are Sikhs who are ready to lead an Indian military charge against such an anti-national ideology. There are Sikhs, like Dr Singh, who champion India’s so-called high-growth trajectory. There are Sikhs who are ready to challenge that view, violently if necessary.

It is a quirky irony that for all their diverse beliefs in different dreams for India, the one mortal Sikh who cannot be rebuffed by any of his fellow faithfuls — atheists and believers, socialists and money-lenders-turned-entrepreneurs, absentee farmers and landless peasants — is Bhagat Singh. The Indian prime minister who is said to have charmed many a global free-market advocate with his insights may yet find himself speechless in the presence of the Golden Temple’s unlikely hero.

In fact, I was reading a draft note by some NGOs against the Indian government’s little noticed move to deregulate the officially assured minimum wage for daily wage workers. Bhagat Singh had already critiqued it eight decades ago.

He warned: “Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights.

“The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weavers who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies; masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims.

“These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. This state of affair cannot last long, and it is obvious that the present order of society in merrymaking is on the brink of a volcano.”

Many will be eager to know the lessons, other than the spiritual bliss that comes with visits to a holy place, the leader of a former British colony-turned-coloniser comes out with. Call it an irony of history but there is no way in Amritsar to ignore India’s enduring romance with Bhagat Singh.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi



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