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Preserving  the heritage of freedom struggle at Kala Pani

Jagtar Singh

Chandigarh, May 10: The two places that rightly deserve to be described as the embodiment of India’s freedom struggle are whatever remains of the Cellular Jail at Andaman and the prison in Lahore where Bhagat Singh was sent to the gallows along with Rajguru and Sukhdev, thereby attaining the status of  the greatest  icon. The two places have been separated by the cruel hands of history and moreover, the jail in Lahore was demolished long time back to set up a residential colony. It is only for the last about a decade that movement has gained in Pakistani Punjab to own Bhagat Singh as icon of freedom struggle and rename the Shadman chowk after the martyr where the gallows were once located. Both the places are strongly bonded with the Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular, although Shaheed Bhagat Singh can’t be categorised as such.

It is for the first time since Cellular Jail was dedicated as Memorial to the Nation on February 11, 1979 after persistent struggle by the freedom fighters, steps have finally been initiated to give space proportionate to their contributions to the freedom fighters from Punjab that includes Punjab with its capital as Lahore too. The man who has taken upon himself this task is the dedicated Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar, Prof Jagdish Mukhi, former finance minister of Delhi. It was about six months back that he was entrusted with this assignment that had also been held by Lt General R S Dayal, the Chief of Staff of Western Command during Operation Bluestar. It would be no exaggeration to describe Prof Mukhi as a man with a mission and vision.

A delegation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee that included this author met him at Port Blair last week to take up the case of Punjabi freedom fighters. Interestingly, it was Raj Bhavan that traced the delegation and extended invitation for the meeting. He has already come up with a plan for which he has also sought suggestions. He announced  to name three roads after Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Shaheed Dr Diwan Singh Kalepani and Shaheed Madan Lal Dhingra in the first phase.

It may be mentioned that earlier, a portrait gallery used to be there in Cellular Jail Museum and this gallery would start with the pictures of the Babas of Ghadr Party. This gallery is to be restored. Going by the impression so far and names inscribed inside the jail, the  number of Bengali freedom fighters interned in this most notorious prison was the highest. Prof Mukhi has a different version and he maintained that the highest number was of Punjabis. He had no information that the pictures of freedom fighters had been removed about six months back, a little before he took over, in the name of renovation. The renovated gallery is different from the earlier one as it does not carry those pictures. Those pictures were not just of the Sikh freedom fighters but all the freedom fighters.

Besides restoration of the picture gallery, the other major issue is that of light and sound programme. A new programme is to be worked out within the next six months giving due space to every section. Prof Mukhi is open to concrete suggestions. The role of Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular has by and large been overlooked in this one-hour programme that is the most objectionable part.

There is typical case of  Master Chattar Singh. He was kept in an iron cage for more than three years. This case has been referred to in detail by Justice S N Aggarwal (retd) in his pioneering work ‘The Heroes of Cellular Jail’.

He was arrested in the case of attempt to kill British Principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar. Justice Aggarwal has stated: “He (Chattar Singh) was told to mow the grass in the jail yard on Sunday, the day under the jail rules was meant for taking a bath, washing clothes and cleaning cells. He refused to oblige the authorities. Major Murray punished him to fetters for six months. he decided to avenge himself. In the morning of the firt Sunday every month, the weight of the prisoners used to be noted in the presence of Major Murray. Master Chattar Singh boarded the weighing scale as usual and while getting down, he suddenly slapped Major Murray with force who fell down from his chair. The warders and petty officials ran to overpower  and thrash Chattar Singh but the other political prisoners present there challenged them. Out of fear, Major Murray also asked the warders not to assault Chattar Singh. However, he was punished and locked in an iron cage which wasn’t large enough to either lie down or stand up. He was also given his food there. He had to remain confined in the cage for a number of years for which ultimately Sohan Singh Bhakna resorted to hunger strike and got Chattar Singh released from confinement”.

Here was a case of extreme brutality but finds no mention in the present light and sound programme. Bhakna was amongst the most towering leaders of the Ghadr Party sentenced to Kala Pani.  It is for this reason that the light and sound programme needs to be balanced. Every prisoner suffered the brutal and inhuman torture.

There are several other aspects of Andaman and its notorious jail. Andaman was the first liberated territory from where the British were forced out by the Japanese in 1942 during the Word War II. Here was to start the second part of torture and killings. However, it was at Andaman that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose set foot as head of the Azad Hind government on December, 1943 and ceremoniously unfurled the Tricolor for the first time on December 30 at Gymkhana grounds at Port Blair.

By the time Bose sought intervention of Japanese Premier General Tojo, scores of people had been tortured and killed on the charge of spying for the British. Dr Diwan Singh Kalepani was one of them. Bose succeeded in saving several others but by that time, another chapter of ruthless and inhuman torture and killings had been written.

Part of the record was destroyed when the Japanese took over this strategic group of island spread across 1000 Kms. It would involve Herculean effort and resources to reconstruct the record. However, this must be done. The SGPC has already announced to prepare anthology of freedom fighters from Punjab.

This most notorious prison in the Indian sub-continent was set up in the area that can be termed as amongst the most beautiful in the world having six aboriginal tribes, including the one that still continues to be inaccessible and unapproachable. What remains of the prison are just three blocks out of seven. Perhaps no other monument symbolises struggle for freedom, the quintessence of years of inhuman tortures and deaths, as this jail.

Punjab has constructed so many memorials but no government in the state has even cared to contribute in preserving this otherwise glorious heritage.

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