Reflections: Baba Bujha Singh, revolution, poetry, and democracy

Sharing below an informative, moving and insightful piece by friend Jaspal Singh in Cambridge commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Baba Bujha Singh’s extrajudicial murder in Punjab, India. The story is reflected in other instances of police brutality elsewhere too. And so is his comment on democracy. He regularly dispatches his ‘Reflections’ to friends via email; a list I feel privileged to be on. Over to Jaspal ji:

Reflections

By Jaspal Singh

Fifty years ago today, Baba Bujha Singh was murdered by Punjab police, at the ripe age of 80, on the orders of the government. On July 27, 1970, as he was bicycling on a road near a small village called Nagar, a police jeep hit him.

He fell down. Seeing the police, he shouted, “I am Bujha Singh of Chak Mai Dass”, so that passers-by would know what was happening.

This was the Ghadar Party’s standard training: if caught by police in a public place, let people know. The police pulled him into their jeep and took him to Philaur fort, which they had turned into a torture center. The next morning Baba Bujha Singh’s body was found on a small bridge on a nearby canal. The government announced that he had been killed in a police encounter.

Ghadar Party founder Sohan Singh Bhakhna.

News of his arrest and death spread like wildfire. A couple of passers-by had seen the whole thing. Thousands of people surrounded the police station and forced the police to hand over Baba’s body to the family and they cremated him in his village on a plot of land. A memorial stands there now, where people gather every year to remember him. Justice Tarkunde carried out an inquiry but no one has been punished to this day for the murder, or thousands of others murdered by police during those days.

Baba Bujha Singh was an inspiring and towering figure in India’s movement for independence from the British. My grandfather had often talked about him, as our village was one of the main centers of Ghadar Party.

Born in the earlier part of the 20th century, in his twenties Baba Bujha Singh was went to Shanghai, worked there for some time then took a ship to Argentina like Punjabis worked, including one of his relatives Bhagat Singh Bilga. The Argentinian economy was better than the US those days, and had a very active branch of Ghadar Party.

Bujha Singh soon became one of the leaders of the Ghadar Party and travelled across Latin America with another leader Baba Ratan Singh who was traveling across the world organizing Indian immigrants abroad. After working in Rosario, Argentina, for some time, Bujha Singh led a group of Ghadarites to Moscow, to study at the University of Peoples of the East. They walked for 18 days to Bolivia to board a ship to go to Soviet Union.

Baba Bujha Singh’s granddaughter Hardip Mann speaking at his remembrance in the Boston area, 2018. A langar is held at the Medford gurudwara every year to commemorate Baba ‘Inqlab’ (Revolution) Singh. Photo:

He studied in Moscow for two years, learnt Russian, German, English and mastered political science, economics and history. Here he met many anti-colonial leaders from all across the world and leaders of Soviet Union. He returned to India via China and joined the anti-colonial revolutionary movement. He was arrested and tortured in Lahore fort. After his release he continued his revolutionary activities and edited Kirti, a newspaper of the Ghadar Party. One of its regular contributors was Bhagat Singh.

When the Ghadar Party joined the Communist Party of India, he became one of its leaders. He was instrumental in arranging the escape of Subhash Chandra Bose to Kabul. After the transfer of power in 1947, he was in and out of prisons under Nehru’s rule. He was also Vice President of All India Kisan Sabha.

Baba Bujha Singh was instrumental in arranging the escape of Subhash Chandra Bose to Kabul. Photo: courtesy Scroll.

But Baba Bujha Singh was never blinded by ideology. He was very critical of Soviet Union. In a speech in 1958, he predicted that the Soviet Union will break into pieces because its leaders were following counter-revolutionary and chauvinist policies. The CPI leadership did not like his assessment. In those days CP(I) leaders used to put up their umbrellas up if it rained in Moscow. He left the party. He then joined CPI (M) when it was formed but again left in protest against the CPI(M) leadership’s anti-people policies in Bengal.

The Ghadar Party ‘museum’ in San Francisco

Along with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakhna, founder president of Ghadar Party he supported the Naxalbari uprising. When CPI(M-L) was formed Bujha Singh was elected one of its main leaders in Punjab. He would bicycle from village to village speaking at study circles. He was a legend amongst the people and inspired the youth. He was especially popular amongst Dalits because of his struggle against caste oppression. Upper caste Congress and Akali leaders disparagingly nicknamed him “leader of Chamars”.

I once met Baba Bujha Singh in the earlier part of 1970, when some students had organized a study circle in a village just outside Chandigarh. He explained to us what state is. He also explained what liberal Democracy was. I still remember him saying, “It is like two robbers, who take turns in robbing you and beating you, every five years you get to choose which robber is going to rob you and beat you”. He had tremendous knowledge of world affairs, philosophy, history and economy. I remember we were just awed by his presence, practice, knowledge and life.

Years later when I met Hardip and learnt that she was his granddaughter, that study circle once again came so vividly before my eyes. As I write these lines, I can still see Baba Bujha Singh in the yard of a mud house. His bicycle standing on one side, surrounded by many youth and elderly people, he sat on a cot, talking and explaining many issues of the time. White beard, white turban, white kurta, great sense of humor and a lot of patience for our impatient questions. Tife and work of Baba Bujha Singh will live and be remembered by people for times to come.

On the 50th anniversary of Baba Bujha Singh’s state-sanctioned murder, my heart goes out to the revolutionary Telugu poet Varavara Rao, now the same age as Baba Bujha Singh, in this case incarcerated for writing poetry and exposing the draconian rule of the Indian ruling elite.

Police escort P. Varavara Rao after a medical chek-up following his arrest in 2018. Efforts to get the elderly poet released have intensified since he was found in poor condition in his cell, infected with Covid-19. Photo: Deccan Chronicle.

All the Bhima Koregaon, prisoners who have been imprisoned and tortured for raising their voice against tyranny, are carrying out legacy of Baba Bujha Singh and all others who have sacrificed for the cause of justice and dignity.

Habib Jalib Sahib’s defiant words come to mind:
Chup rahne pe sazaa hai yahan
Hamne to phir bhi kucch kaha hai

(People are punished even for silence
At least we have said something)

A community langar is held every year to commemorate Baba Bujha Singh at Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar, Medford, MA, at the behest of Hardip Kaur Mann and Jaspal Singh.

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