Sardar Ajit Singh: Hero of the ‘Pagdi Sambhal Jatta’ Movement

Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s family, which had a rich political heritage of resistance to colonialism, had a deep influence on his development. His great grandfather, Sardar Fateh Singh was one of the valiant Sikhs of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army who had fought bravely till the end against the British in the Anglo-Sikh war wages to defend Punjab from imperialist attack. As a result of his defiance, the British seized all his land and property after they captured the Punjab. Later, during the 1857 ‘mutiny’, the British were in dire need of help, and the Governor of Punjab called upon Sardar Fateh Singh and other Sikh commanders and declared that those who supported the British against the rebels would not only have their confiscated property returned; they would also be handsomely rewarded and honoured. While many others agreed to this deal, Sardar Fateh Singh retorted, “I don’t need property and wealth in return for turning traitor.” Bhagat Singh’s grandfather Sardar Arjun Singh was also an active social reformer in the Arya Samaj; he opposed untouchability and was a staunch nationalist. Bhagat Singh’s father Sardar Kishan Singh and his paternal uncles Sardar Ajit Singh and Sardar Swaran Singh were totally committed to the cause of freedom. Sardar Swaran Singh, during his sojourn in jail, developed tuberculosis as a result of the inhuman conditions and died at the young age of 23.

Ajit Aingh was born on 23 January 1881 at Khatkadkalan village. In those days this village was part of Jalandhar district but now falls in Nawan Shahar district. He went to school in the nearby village of Banga, and later joined the Sain Das Anglo-Sanskrit School in 1894 in his home district for secondary schooling. He was then sent to Bareilly district in UP to study law, but had to discontinue his education and return home due to bad health. Later in 1896 he got his F.A degree from DAV College Lahore.

Following in the footsteps of his father, he committed himself to social causes. India was reeling under famine as a result of imperialist plunder. Ajit Singh worked tirelessly among the sick and starving people. Along with his brother Kishan Singh, he made extensive tours to the famine-affected areas like Barar (Madhya Pradesh 1898); Ahmedabad and other areas (Gujarat 1900); flood-affected areas in Srinagar (Kashmir) and earthquake-affected areas of Kangla in 1905.

Ajit Singh had been initiated into politics during his stay in Bareilly. His experience of visiting the areas affected by natural calamities and interacting with suffering people convinced him that the permanent solution to these problems could not be achieved until the end of British rule and establishment of true democracy in the country. So he made it his life’s mission to struggle for Indian independence. In the course of his social service works in 1903, he met and married Namo (Harnam Kaur), a young woman orphaned by famine, challenging caste and religious codes.

In 1903, when the Viceroy Lord Curzon organised a royal gathering and invited all kings and princes to declare their allegiance to the Raj by participating in this function, Ajit Singh and Kishan Singh came to Delhi, clandestinely met many of these kings and tried to mobilise them to build up another revolt on the lines of 1857. Finding that they got nothing better than formal assurances of support, they decided to continue the struggle by other means.

In 1906, Ajit Singh participated in the important session of the Congress held at Calcutta, to seek out and forge links with patriots who wished to go beyond the Congress’ methods of petitioning the British rulers. On returning to Punjab they founded the Bharat Mata Society which was called ‘Mahboobane Watan’ in Urdu. This was an underground organisation, and besides Ajit Singh, Kishan Singh, Mahashay Ghasita Ram, Swaran Singh and Sufi Amba Prasad were some of its trusted lieutenants and active members. Their main objective was to prepare for re-enact 1857 on its 50th anniversary in 1907.

In the meantime, peasants in Punjab were on the boil against the new colonial laws – the new Colonisation Act and the Doab Bari Act. The background to these acts was that the British government had constructed canals to draw water from the Chenab river and take it to Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) to set up settlements in uninhabited areas. Promising to allot free land with several amenities, the government had persuaded peasants and ex-servicemen from Jalandhar, Amritsar, and Hoshiarpur to settle there. Peasants from these districts left behind land and property, settled in the new areas and toiled to make the barren land fit for cultivation. But as soon as they had done so, the government had enacted the new laws to declare itself master of this fertile land, denying the farmers the right to ownership! The new laws reduced the peasants to sharecroppers; they could neither fell trees on these lands, nor build houses or huts nor even sell or buy such land. If any farmer dared to defy the government diktat he could be punished with eviction from the land. Also the new laws decreed that only the eldest son of a sharecropper was allowed to have access to the land tilled by his father. If the eldest son died before reaching adulthood, the land would not pass to the younger son, rather it would become the property of the government. Not only this, through the taxes levied for more than one and half decades in lieu of canals on the Chenab river to irrigate these 20 lakh acres of land, the government had not only got back its initial investment, it was also able to extract more than 7 lakh rupees per annum on the abpashi tax.
Ajit Singh and his comrades put in all their efforts to channelise the widespread discontent and anxiety of the peasants against the British policies into a popular mass resistance. The peasants however, deeming their strength to be low first approached the well-known Congress leader and lawyer, Lala Lajpat Rai to lead the movement. However, Lala Lajpat Rai disappointed the peasants by arguing that the Congress would be unable to do anything because the Bill had already been passed as a Law. It was then that the peasants accepted the leadership of Ajit Singh and his Bharat Mata society, which was waging a fearless resistance to the anti-peasant laws.

In no time, Lahore and its neighbouring areas saw a veritable wave of rallies, demonstrations and mass conventions attended by thousands of people. These militants meetings were addressed in the main by Ajit Singh, who did not restrict himself to merely opposing these repressive laws, going on instead to present the true picture of a nation ravaged by British colonialism, and ending with a rousing call for an all-out rebellion against the foreign rule. While his speeches stirred and inspired the masses, the British, clearly seeing this as a sequel of the Great Rebellion of 1857, were rapidly turning anxious. A circular reached the offices of the English collectors and Deputy Commissioners, that the common people, but especially soldiers, should be banned from listening to his speeches. But this only greatly enhanced Ajit Singh’s popularity. The symbol of this movement was a tri-colour flag, mounted on two and a half feet long staff, carried by all those who attended the rallies and demonstrations. Ajit Singh would exhort from his public meetings that the English would be beaten out of the country by this stick.

In a mammoth rally at Lyallpur on 3rd March 1907, Banke Dayal, the editor of the newspaper, Jhang Syal, introduced his song, “Pagdi sambhal Jatta, Pagdi Sambhal oye”. Such was the popularity of the song that it soon became the very symbol and soul of the movement. So much so that the movement itself came to be called the Pagdi sambhal Jatta movement.

Explaining his choice of Lyallpur as the base of the movement, Ajit Singh wrote: “I had deliberately selected Lyallpur …because it was a newly developed area. This district had attracted people from all over Punjab and was especially populated by retired soldiers. I was of the view that these retired army personnel could facilitate a rebellion.” And indeed, his hunch proved to be true. There was a great deal of attraction and sympathy for the movement within the army. While soldiers would often visit his mass meetings to hear him, on 18th April 1907, a large contingent of over 200 Sikh soldiers joined a meeting in Multan. A direct fallout of this was that soldiers at many places refused to obey the British government’s orders to fire at the protestors at the peasant rallies. Seething anger at the repression unleashed by the British government erupted in riots in Rawalpindi, Lyallpur, Gurdaspur, Lahore and many other towns and villages. The agitated protestors ransacked government buildings, post offices, banks, overturning telephone poles and pulling down the telephone wires. Those Britishers who fell in their hands were either thrashed or had their faces blackened.

Lord Ibbottson, the Governor of Punjab dispatched an urgent telegraph to the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. He wrote, “Punjab is on the brink of a rebellion being led by Ajit Singh and his party. Arrangements must be made to halt it.” Just prior to this on 29th August 1906, the Viceroy Lord Minto had written to the then India Minister in Britain, Lord Macaulay: “ground is being prepared for a rebellion in the armed forces. Literature of a certain kind is being distributed among the soldiers and this will no doubt result in a rebellion.”

Two weapons were indispensable to the Bharat Mata Society led by Ajit Singh: speeches and publications. Towards this end, he established the Bharat Mata Book Agency, which extensively published anti-government literature. The moving spirit behind the society was the supreme patriot and revolutionary intellectual, Sufi Amba Prasad ji. Bharat Mata (initially a monthly, later turned monthly), India (in English), Peshwa (in Urdu), and Punjabi (in English) were openly partisan to the movement. The Agency published numerous propagandist tracts, each of which was a call to arms. Even as these books and pamphlets were seized by the establishment, it only fuelled their popularity further. In government circles, the Bharat Mata society’s movement came to be known as the ‘little 1857’.

Fearing the tidal rise of revolutionary activities, the British Government issued warrants against Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai on 4th May 1907. Ajit Singh’s leading comrades--Sardar Kishan Singh, Sardar Swaran Singh, Lala Lachand Falak, Lala Govardhan Das, Mahashay Ghasita Ram and Pandit Ramchand Peshawari--had already been arrested and imprisoned on charges of resorting to violence against the police superintendent Mr. Philip and another British police officer, Mr. B.T during the anti-British rioting in Lahore earlier. Lala Lajpat Rai was arrested on 9th May but Ajit Singh succeeded in eluding the police in order to conclude his various political responsibilities, at the end of which he surrendered to the police on 2nd June. Like Lala Lajpat Rai, Ajit Singh too was exiled to Mandalay Jail in Burma. This was the same prison in which the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had been incarcerated as a punishment for the Great Rebellion of 1857, and following him in 1882, the hero of the Kuka (Namdhari) rebellion, Baba Ram Singh. Lord Macaulay informed the British Parliament of Ajit Singh’s imprisonment thus: “Between 1st March 1907 to 1st May 1907, this prominent revolutionary leader of Punjab addressed as many as 28 meetings. Only five of these were related to the problems of the peasants; the rest all preached revolt.”

While the national leadership of Congress put their weight behind Lala Lajpat Rai’s release, proving that he had no links with any revolutionary movement, they maintained a complete silence on Ajit Singh’s release. The moderate Congress leader, Sri Gopal Krishna Gokhale wrote to the Viceroy’s secretary on 10th June 1907, expressing the desire to visit Shimla in July end in order to submit a petition to the Viceroy urging for Lala Lajpat Rai’s release signed by all non-governmental members of the Viceroy’s council, and regional councils, as well as senior functionaries of the Congress. Indeed, in his letter, he strongly opposed any allusion to any comradeship between Rai and Singh: “To link Lala Lajpat Rai to Ajit Singh is a grave injustice. When in visited Lahore last February, Ajit Singh had insulted Lalaji by calling him a coward and stooge of the government. All because Lalaji refused to participate in his movement.” Bowing to Congress pressure, the British Government declared the release of Lala Lajpat Rai on 7th November 1907. Though the Government did not want to risk releasing Ajit Singh, it was under tremendous political and psychological pressure. The “pagdi samhal jatta” movement had spread far beyond the peasants to engulf the army, and the government realizing that it was cornered ceded by withdrawing the new Act in toto, thus reinstating the peasant’s proprietorship over land. In these circumstances, to have continued to keep Ajit Singh alone under imprisonment, the government ran the danger of turning him into the unrivalled leader and hero of the revolutionary movement. The Government reckoned that even a free Ajit Singh would not be able to arouse the same fervour as before since the controversial law had already been withdrawn. As a result, Ajit Singh was released along with LLR—though the British government created a charade that their release had been announced on the happy occasion of George V’s coronation. The people of Punjab belied the hopes and expectations of the Government: their reception of the recently released Ajit Singh was unsurpassed in warmth and grandness. This inevitably led to a rethink in the government.

Soon after his release, Ajit Singh attended the annual session of the Congress in December end in Surat (Gujarat), where he openly supported Tilak’s extremist line against that of the moderates. His revolutionary demeanour and ideas moved Tilak to say: “Such is his talent that Ajit Singh deserves to be the first President of free India. We have no match for him.” Upon his release, he turned his attention once again to the Bharat Mata Society and Bharat Mata book agency. The Urdu newspaper Peshwa, which was published under his guidance, became a staple part of the Punjabi intelligentsia’s intellectual diet. Its print run had reached 1500, with demands continuously rising.

The sharp revolutionary edge of Ajit Singh’s pamphlets, essays and speeches once again attracted the ire of the British Government. But this time, a warrant was issued with the clear intent of securing a death sentence for him Ajit Singh. Sensing this, Ajit Singh preferred to evade the police to escape overseas in order to continue his mission. At the end of 1908, or early 1909, he and his comrades Sufi Amba Prasad, Zia-ul-Haq and Harkesh Lathha had reached Iran traveling secretly via Karachi. He also changed his name to Mirza Hasan Khan. After some time, leaving his trusted colleague Amba Prasad in Shiraj to continue the revolutionary activities in Iran, Ajit Singh reached Paris covering Baku (Russia), Turkey and Germany. There he founded the Indian Revolutionary Association (Bhartiya Krantikari Sangh). He soon established contact with various individuals and organizations who were struggling for India’s freedom in parts of Europe: among them were Shyamji Krishna Verma (a worker at the Indian House in London), Madam Bhikaji Cama with whom Singh interacted whilst trying to bring out the magazine, Indian Socialist; he also met Dr. Savarkar, Sarojini Naidu’s brother Virendra Nath Chattopadhyaya and Mahadev Rao, a close associate of Ras Bihari Bose.

From Paris, he moved on to Switzerland, where he grew close to an international revolutionary organization. He became actively involved in the activities of the group, which drew revolutionary and democratic elements of exiles from Turkey, Finland, Arab, Russia, Ireland, Poland and Iran. He lived in Switzerland till 1913, after which he shifted base to Germany. Whilst in Paris, Germany and Switzerland, Ajit Singh met with the tallest Communist leaders including Lenin and Trotsky, as well as the future dictator and father of Fascism, Mussolini. World War I had turned the situation in Europe very shaky and dangerous. Therefore Ajit Singh decided to leave Europe to move to Brazil. Meanwhile, his closest comrade, Sufi Amba Prasad was martyred in Shiraz whilst fighting the British Army alongside the Iranian nationalists. In his autobiography, Ajit Singh had expressed the hope that “one day Indians would bring his ashes or Samadhi back to India.” Sadly, Amba Prasad remains neglected in the annals of our nationalist history.

While in Brazil, Ajit Singh had close links with the Hindustani Gadar Party, whose leading members, Bhai Rattan Singh, Comrade Teja Singh ‘Swatantra’ and Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga were his confidantes. His autobiography mentions his correspondence with his nephew Bhagat Singh. Once when he advised the young Bhagat to come to Brazil to study the revolutionary struggles of different countries, Bhagat Singh replied that Ajit Singh should return to lead the struggle in India, because the country was ready for a revolutionary struggle.

In 1932, he returned to Europe once again. His autobiography records that he met with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. They tried to enlist the support of Germany to their cause but abandoned this after they realised that Hitler only meant to use the Indians as a pawn against the British.

Following this, they came to Italy and founded the Friends of India society. Their attempt was to sharpen the struggle against the British through Italian support. They used the Roman Radio to air speeches and programmes in Hindustani and Persian, urging the listeners, especially the soldiers to rise up in arms against the British rule. Through the support of another nationalist, Mohammad Shaidai, Ajit Singh undertook to recruit the Indian soldiers in the British Army who were arrested by the Italians. This was to found the Azad Hind Fauj. Owing to his efforts and amazing propaganda work, over 10,000 Indian soldiers began training to fight against the British. Ajit Singh’s autobiography records the pact they had with the Italian government: that the Indian army would only fight the British on Indian soil, and nowhere else. But given the political turbulence and consequent Italian defeat in the World War, this plan could never be realized.

After Italy’s defeat in the second WW, Ajit Singh was arrested by the allied forces on 2nd May 1945. From May to December 1946, when he reached London, Ajit Singh was incarcerated in a series of different prisons in Italy and Germany. His health deteriorated rapidly. When news of his failing health reached India, a strong voice for his release and extradition to India emerged. Meanwhile Independence was around the corner and on 2nd September 1946, the Interim Government had already taken control of the political administration. Ajit Singh’s old comrades and many Congress leaders began to pressurize Nehru for demanding his release. As a result of this, Ajit Singh was finally brought to London in 1946 and handed over to the officials of the Indian High Commission. Ajit Singh recorded with bitterness the pettiness of the Indian officials at the High Commission: citing instructions form Nehru, they prohibited him from attending the various felicitation meetings and programmes that had been organized to honor him on his release. After full 38 years, Ajit Singh returned to Karachi, which he had escaped in 1908. In Karachi, a rousing and huge welcome from Railway workers awaited him. He briefly visited Delhi, where he deliberated upon the country’s future with Nehru. He returned to Lahore on 9th April 1947, where he was warmly welcomed by people from all walks of life.

But the increasing communal violence and the impending partition alerted him to the realization that this was not the Independence he and his comrades had dreamed of, and for which they had sacrificed everything. This took a toll on his already frail health. He was taken to the hill station Dalhousie for recuperation, where he breathed his last on 15th August 1947.

In his last message to the youth on 1st April 1947, this great warrior for freedom said: “India urgently needs social and political revolutions—something we initiated in the beginning of this century. The responsibility now falls on your shoulders to take it to its conclusion. … I wish that India’s youth should emulate martyr Bhagat Singh—that with the cry of Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution) on their lips, they would not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the cause of the revolution. ..Do not cease till there is ignorance, injustice and hunger in this country.”

His words continue to call out to us to intensify our revolutionary struggles to build a new India.