Farewell to Comrade Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, a Lifelong Freedom Fighter
Expelled from school for protesting against the British, jailed multiple times by governments and forever a friend to those in need, this Punjab revolutionary’s spirit will never die.
Hoshiarpur (Punjab): It was March 13, 2022. A gathering of 200 people in a small hamlet in Indian Punjab responded to an unusual slogan: “Down with British imperialism! Long live India!”
With their hands stretched straight to the sky and with firm fists, they also raised another slogan: “Long live, Comrade Bhagat Singh.”
They were talking about Bhagat Singh of Jhuggian village in Hoshiarpur district, an Indian freedom fighter who died on March 8 this year. He was 95 years old.
His relatives, friends and comrades carried out his last rites on March 13. Throughout their way, the red flags they held were tilted at 45º. It was as if the sun set a little early that day – even the skies mourned his demise.
“He was our torch in the dark,” said one of his friends, Darshan Singh Mattu, a member of CPI(M)’s Punjab State Committee. “Without him there will be darkness around.”
He was our torch in the dark’. Photo: Amir Malik.
All his life, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian lived in relative anonymity.
The stories of his struggles against the British empire would have been lost had award-winning journalist P. Sainath, founding editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), not interviewed him last year.
The young Bhagat Singh started out as a courier for the revolutionary underground. He would operate a printing press and supply food in the dead of the night to underground freedom fighters. In those days, he told Sainath, “The police were more scared of me than I was of them.”
In 1945, he formed the Azadi Committee or ‘committee for freedom’. The British administration promptly put Bhagat Singh in jail. Mattu tells The Wire, “The Azadi Committee would hold peace committees as World War II was going on” and Bhagat Singh would organise people to agitate for peace and against wars.
‘It was as if the sun set a little early that day – even the skies mourned his demise.’ Photo: Amir Malik
As the British headed home, they left India to face the horrors of Partition. Massacres of countless thousands began as people rushed to cross borders.
Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, and many like him in India, were among those who would save Muslims from attackers, and bring them home stealthily. “He would serve Muslims leaving India and heading to the newly-formed Pakistan food and sharbat,” Darshan Singh Mattu says.
Even in the chaos, he ensured that those who had lost homes did not have to go hungry.
In 1948, Singh led a movement against big landowners and had to spend three months in jail. Four years later, landless farmers got some land because of the agitation he had led. A year later, he along with his three comrades – Badhawa Ram, Rajinder Singh Srinh and Gurcharan Singh Randhawa – Singh daringly escaped Ludhiana Jail through a tunnel.
In 1953, the government in Punjab imposed heavy taxes on water and Singh was moved to struggle again. After he spent three months in jail, the decision to impose taxes were reversed.
Singh also spoke out against a lathicharge on students in Moga in 1972 and was incarcerated in Hoshiarpur Jail for 45 days. In 1973, during a movement against inflation, he and 35 of his comrades were arrested from Chandigarh. He was jailed for three months in Patiala Jail. In 1974, he was once again in jail, arrested during one of the meetings of the Kisan Sabha.
In 1975, he was arrested when he was speaking on the stage against the Emergency. He spent 14 days in Hoshiarpur Jail. Later, he went underground, distributing anti-Emergency literature, and playing the role of a courier, again.
In 1980, he helped factory workers expelled by owners return to work in an agitation that went on for about 93 days. For these three months, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian organised food and other essentials for them. His fight against hunger was a lifelong one.
In the same year, the government of Punjab increased the bus fare by 43%. He fought against this. The government issued a warrant for his arrest but did not manage to catch him.
Singh was also receiving constant threats from Khalistanis in 1990s, when Punjab was tormented by terror. A Khalistani activist – whose brother he had helped secure a job – reportedly told others, “If it is Bhagat Singh Jhuggian who is our target, I will have nothing to do with this.” This was recounted by Singh himself to Sainath.
“He would take one road in the morning,” says 51-year-old Paramjit Singh, Bhagat Singh’s younger son, “and the other one in the evening while coming back to avoid an encounter with any extremists.”
He would maintain detailed records of accounts in diaries. In that collection of old notes and ledgers, I found two news clips from the 1980s. One is of a woman having been tortured by her in-laws and another, a story of landowners grabbing land from the poor. “He was always very active when it came to women’s rights and the rights of the poor,” Paramjit says.
“He was not very happy with the state of affairs of the country,” adds Paramjit.
‘In the same year, the government of Punjab increased the bus fare by 43%. He fought against this. The government issued a warrant for his arrest but did not manage to catch him.’ Photo: Amir Malik.
Singh put up a black flag put on his rooftop in protest against the three farm laws passed by the Union government. The law was later repealed following farmers’ protests at the borders of Delhi. He could not join the protests at the borders because of his ill health, but was active in organising food and other essentials to be supplied to his comrades at the gates of India’s capital.
“Till his last breath, he would live to guide the country, with his spirit intact,” Darshan Singh Mattu says.
During the funeral and as a pall bearer, I felt as if mourners were mourning the death of freedom itself.
As Singh’s body was laid on the pyre, Darshan Singh Mattu raised the slogan, “Britannia murdabad, Hindostan zindabad.” He told the mourners that this was the same slogan which Bhagat Singh Jhuggian raised in the Government Elementary School at Samundra. He was expelled from the school.
The letter which confirmed his expulsion also had the assent of the then deputy commissioner of the area and it described him as ‘dangerous’ and ‘revolutionary’. He was 11-years-old.
This ‘dangerous revolutionary’ is no more but the spirit of Comrade Bhagat Singh will live on.