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OBITUARY

"I feel proud of what I did on the day"

MANINI CHATTERJEE

Interview in 1997 with Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

“When the Magistrate asked for my name I told him my name was London Tore Singh…. I accepted what I had done and praised Bhagat Singh.”

HARKISHAN SINGH SURJEET, 92, was a grand old revolutionary. Born on March 23, 1916, at Ropowal village in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, he began his political career in 1932 as an intrepid schoolboy. His early thinking and actions were influenced by his family environment – and by many converging strands of radical politics shaped by the anti-colonial struggle and by economic hardships as well. In this interview done in 1997, for a volume honouring the work of 25 communist freedom fighters, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader vividly recalled the early influences and circumstances that made him join the freedom movement.

Frontline republishes the interview with permission:

Could you tell us a little about your family background, your childhood memories and the formative influences that drew you into the freedom struggle?

My grandfather was a well-to-do peasant and had returned from Australia where he had been earning his livelihood for several years. His only son, my father, was serving in the army at the time. When the First World War ended he joined the national movement. The Akali Party was very active at that time, and there was coordination between the Congress, the Akalis and the Khilafat. My grandfather, for his own interests, resented my father joining the Akali Party, and my father was asked to leave the house. After the intervention of friends and relatives my grandfather consented to give two acres of land to my father. Our economic condition was bad, and we used to make both ends meet only with the help of maternal relations.

My father rose to become the head of the Jalandhar district organisation of the Akali Party. In those days, batches of 500 Akali volunteers used to go and court arrest, braving the severe repression of the British authorities. My mother, who was illiterate, came from a non-Sikh family, but this did not prevent her from joining and becoming an Akali volunteer, assisting my father. I was born on March 23, 1916, into this family.

When I was seven to eight years old my mother used to take me along with her to arrange for food for the jathas that used to move from village to village to participate in the morcha in Jaito, starting from Amritsar. At times the British did not permit food or water to be given by the volunteers. On such occasions water and food used to be brought from nearby villages.

One day, in 1924, when I was playing in the field with my father, a large posse of police came and arrested him. The whole village accompanied my father to the police station. He was tried under Section 124 (a) of the CrPC [Criminal Procedure Code] and sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment. The courage shown by my mother and the encouragement provided by the villagers instilled a new enthusiasm and determination in my father.

Besides your father’s arrest, what other political events affected you as a boy?

A village named Rurka Kalan, at a distance of three miles [4.8 kilometres] from my village, had declared its independence. A panchayat was elected with Bachint Singh as its head. He did not allow the police or armed forces to enter the village for many days. This gave a new tempo to the movement for freedom in that area. When Bachint Singh was arrested after great difficulty, he came to be known as the King of Rurka. Protesting against his arrest, a big public meeting was held, addressed by Master Mota Singh, who, though he was declared an absconder by the British, could not be arrested out of fear. I attended this meeting along with my mother. It was a big source of inspiration for me.

By this time our house had become a centre of activities for Akalis, Khilafatis and Congressmen. Many top leaders at the State level used to visit our house. My father was released, only to be arrested a year later and sentenced to six months in prison. Many papers and periodicals espousing radical views used to come to our house. My father used to read papers like Kirti (Worker), Akali, Sangit and others. I too got the opportunity of reading them. When the Naujawan Bharat Sabha was formed, I joined it. I was 15 years of age then.

As we had no means of livelihood other than a small plot of land, we constantly faced immense economic difficulties. After coming out of prison, faced with such difficulties, my father was forced to mortgage the land. He illegally managed a passport and left for America in 1929. For full five years he was unable to send any remittance. It was a trying time for my mother, and she had to labour very hard. She also received some help from her parents.

What was your first political activity?

The Meerut trial had begun. The leaders of the illegal Workers and Peasants Party in Punjab, Baba Karam Singh Cheema and Bhag Singh Canadian, were very close friends of my father. One day, in 1930, when I returned from school, I found them waiting for me at my house. They asked me to make arrangements for a public meeting for the illegal party. Ringing a bell, I made announcements in the whole village and attracted the attention of the people. I arranged for a table and a chair for the meeting. People came in large numbers to listen to the leaders and the meeting was a great success.

The next day, when I went to school, the police were sitting inside the headmaster’s room. They had come to arrest me. The headmaster, who was sympathetic because of his relations with my father, was using my young age as a pretext to prevent me from being arrested. He was negotiating for a compromise. The compromise arrived at was that I should apologise. The headmaster, who was helpless, called me and told me that there was no other course left before me. He asked me to apologise so that I may be able to continue my studies. While leaving, my father had told him that he wanted to see that his son acquired higher education and would do whatever was needed for that purpose. I turned down the proposal and told the headmaster that I had not committed any sin. Ultimately the decision was taken that I would be expelled from the school. He took the decision with a heavy heart.

I had nothing to be ashamed of and informed my mother about it. My mother asked me to try and get admitted to some other school. There was no other school nearby and nobody was willing to admit me. Ultimately, with the help of Hari Singh Jallandhar, a leader of the Congress, arrangements were made to admit me to the Khalsa School in Jallandhar. However, the cost of my schooling and boarding worked out to Rs.10: Rs.4 each towards fee and food, and Rs.2 for milk. I discussed with my mother how this amount could be managed. We used to own a buffalo at that time that used to give us milk, out of which she used to make some ghee. She also used to spin some nice quality yarn. She told me that she could manage to send Rs.10 every month. It was with such hard-earned money that I once again went to school.

Apart from your father, who else inspired you in your youth?

Without a doubt, Bhagat Singh. He was hanged in 1931, but his martyrdom aroused a new fervour among the youth who were ready to make extreme sacrifices. Bhagat Singh had inspired me even before his martyrdom and I had become a member of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha founded by him. Jallandhar, at that time, was brimming with political activity. The economy was in a deep crisis in the 1930s and great peasant unrest could be seen everywhere. Many top leaders of the national movement used to visit Jallandhar and address meetings. Not heeding the instructions of the school authorities, I used to attend these meetings. I was especially attracted by the fiery speeches made by Master Mota Singh, a leader of the Babbar Akalis, as well as of Dr. Saiffidun Kitchlew. I was getting more and more involved in the national movement. Since most of the leaders were friends of my father, they showed special affection towards me.

When did you first go the jail, and why?

I first went to jail in 1932 because I brought down the British flag and hoisted the tricolour. At the time, I had just completed my written test for the matriculation examination and only the science practicals were left. Plans were afoot to observe the first anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. The Governor was to visit Hoshiarpur on that day, which was 25 miles [40 kilometres] from Jallandhar. The District Congress Committee had announced that they would hoist the tricolour in place of the Union Jack at the district court on that occasion. The Collector, with the aim to foil any such bid, deployed the army and made an announcement that anybody indulging in such an action would be shot at. I went to Hoshiarpur. On reaching the Congress Committee office, I found to my dismay that because of the deployment of the army the programme had been dropped. I enquired from the office secretary, Hanuman, why such a decision had been taken. He asked me if I had no knowledge of the Collector’s announcement. I retorted, saying: “A mere threat of shooting has made you give up. This is an insult to the nation.” He challenged me and said: “If you are so brave, you do it.”

The scheduled time had already lapsed. But I took a flag mounted on a small stick from the office and proceeded towards the court, which was then a symbol of the imperialist rule in the district. The army personnel had become complacent by this time, as the scheduled time had passed. I climbed the stairs, brought down the Union Jack and hoisted the tricolour. Two shots were fired but neither hit me. The Deputy Commissioner, Bakhale, a Maharashtrian, came out. In those days very few Deputy Commissioners used to be Indians. Seeing me, a young boy, he ordered for the firing to be stopped. Then I began abusing the British. When they came to know that I did not possess any weapon, some army men climbed the stairs and caught hold of me. I was sent to the sub-jail and put in a dirty cell. The trial took place the next day itself. When the Magistrate asked for my name, I told him my name was London Tore Singh (“one who breaks London”). He failed to extract my actual name. I accepted what I had done and praised Bhagat Singh. I was sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment. I asked the court: “Only one year?” Then the Magistrate increased it to four years. I asked again: “Only four years? The Magistrate replied that under this particular section, he could not give a longer sentence.

The whole town had come to know of this act by then. Many leaders close to my father visited me in jail. They praised me and said I had displayed a lot of courage. Within a few days, the authorities came to know of my identity through the newspapers. Since I was under-aged, they sent me to the Delhi Reformatory Jail. However, within ten to fifteen days, they termed me a troublemaker and transferred me to Borstal Jail, Lahore. Young people and many of Bhagat Singh’s colleagues were lodged in this jail. I had to undergo severe punishment, defying all rules. While I was being taken from one place to another, I was chained with iron rods on my legs.

What was your family’s reaction?

The Civil Disobedience movement was on and many political prisoners were in jail. I contacted many of them. A letter addressed by my father to me was smuggled in through a jail warden. He wrote that though he wanted me to pursue higher education so that I could contribute my bit to the country, I should not backtrack from the path that I had chosen now. This letter gave me a lot of encouragement. My mother, who came to meet me in the prison, did not display the slightest anger or grief but kept on encouraging me to be bold. She asked me not to get demoralised by the severe punishment being meted out to me. The atmosphere in the jail was such that very soon I came to be loved by all. This was also partly due to the fact that many of these leaders knew my father.

After reading my father’s letter, I took the decision to dedicate myself to the cause of independence. The day I hoisted the tricolour atop Hoshiarpur court, my life had undergone a change. My future course was shaped then. The tricolour at that time was the Congress flag with a charkha in it. This was adopted as the national flag, with the charkha being replaced by the Ashok Chakra. The immense economic difficulties that we had to face had their impact and helped me to identify with the working class ideology and social revolution. I feel proud of what I did on the day.

(Reproduced with permission from Memoirs: 25 Communist Freedom Fighters, a People’s Democracy publication brought out on the occasion of the 18th Congress of the CPI(M), New Delhi, April 2005.)