Aug 2, 2008

India - Remembering H.S.Surjeet

In the first part of his political life, Harkishan Singh Surjeet was influenced by many converging strands of radical politics. First, the initial radicalism of the Akali Party, of which his father was a Jalandhar district organiser and leader, interacting with the Congress and Khilafat movements. Secondly, the uncompromising revolutionary spirit of Bhagat Singh, the shining hero of his youth. Thirdly, the excitement and twists and turns of the freedom struggle, as it marc hed towards independence, combined with the working people’s cause.

In his early teens, Harkishan was initiated into anti-colonial activity by his father, Harnam Singh Basi, and his more radical political associates. He joined Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha, participated in the Congress movement, and enrolled in the Congress Socialist Party in 1935. In 1934, he made a lifelong commitment by becoming a member of the illegal Communist Party. He subsequently made a name for himself as a kisan sabha organiser and leader. During Partition, he worked strenuously for communal harmony.

As Mr. Surjeet recalled to an interviewer in 1997, his grandfather was a well-to-do peasant who had worked in Australia for several years and returned with his savings. The boy’s father, who served in the army, embraced the freedom movement at the end of the First World War; for this, he was sent away from home and virtually disinherited but was eventually given two acres by his father. He immersed himself in politics and became the head of the Akali Party’s Jalandhar district organisation. Harkishan’s illiterate mother, who came from a non-Sikh family, was an embodiment of fortitude and a source of immense strength to the family. In 1929, her husband left for the United States to make his fortune but his plans failed and he was unable to send any remittance home for five years. (He worked for a while as a bus-driver in Panama.) As a consequence of all this, the family suffered great economic hardships during Harkishan’s early years.

In 1930, the 14-year-old was approached at home by leaders of the illegal Workers and Peasants Party in Punjab and asked to organise a meeting in the village, which he did effectively. The next day, the police were waiting for him at school. Although the headmaster, who knew the family, was sympathetic and wanted to protect him by getting him to apologise, he could not avoid expelling the rebellious schoolboy – who, saying he had “not committed any sin,” refused to apologise. There was no other school in the vicinity and, after a great deal of effort, well-wishers had Harkishan admitted to the Khalsa School in Jalandhar town. His mother had to work extremely hard to make the ten rupees a month (Rs. 4 each for fee and food, and Rs. 2 for milk) available for his residential schooling.

Daredevil act

In 1932, 16-year-old Harkishan came into political prominence on a larger stage through a daredevil act. He had just completed the written part of his matriculation examination and was awaiting his science practicals. The district Congress committee had announced that it would hoist the Tricolour and bring down the Union Jack atop the Hoshiarpur district court building. But after the district authorities threatened to clamp down on such seditious action and deployed the army, the plan was called off. Harkishan, who went to Hoshiarpur to participate in the event, remonstrated with the Congress office secretary to the effect that giving up on the plan was “an insult to the nation,” whereupon he was challenged to do it himself.

Braving army personnel who had orders to shoot, the schoolboy climbed up the stairs of the Hoshiarpur district court building, brought down the British flag, and hoisted the national tricolour. Narrowly escaping death and immediately jailed and tried, he mocked British rule by giving his name to the magistrate as “London Tore Singh” (“one who breaks London”). Sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment, he asked the court, “Only one year?’ and had his jail sentence enhanced to four years. “Only four years?” he enquired of the magistrate who responded that, under this particular section of the law, he could not give him a longer jail term.

In Lahore’s Borstal Jail, Mr. Surjeet was treated roughly. His legs were chained when he was taken from one place to another. Many decades later, he recalled to an interviewer that a letter from his father asking him not to backtrack from the path he had chosen, and his illiterate Hindu mother’s encouragement, fortified him in his political resolve and shaped his future course. At the same time, he added, “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 that day.”

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