(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 10 , 2008
Glimpses From The Early Life Of Comrade Surjeet
(The attempt here is to put on record some of the little known events that shaped Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet's early political life. These are based on the interviews the writer conducted for Kairali TV as well as some narrated to the writer on other occasions. The writer assisted Comrade Surjeet at the Party centre)
November 20, 2004. We were in the bustling industrial hub of Punjab, Ludhiana. On National Highway 1 we move towards the industrial town of Goraya and thereon the road that branches out to Bundala village in Jalandhar, trying to trace the roots of its most illustrious son. Accompanying me was a team from the Kairali TV and Deshabhimani daily.
As we descend on the village and venture into the hamlet through the narrow and not so narrow lanes and bylanes, curious eyes follow us. Even as Kairali cameraperson Radhakrishnan was attempting to encapsulate the surroundings, his colleague Xavier had a tough job trying to shoo away children trying to wriggle into the frame. Meanwhile, Deshabhimani correspondent Parameswaran busies himself chatting with people and scribbling notes into his pad. Comrade Surjeet's son, Gurchetan ushers us into a waiting Qualis and we set out for village Ropawal. Here newly constructed houses dot the landscape reflecting the newly acquired wealth and affluence thanks to remittances from abroad. A local resident, Darshan Singh led us into the house where Comrade Surjeet was born. Avtar Singh (Comrade Surjeet's maternal aunt's son) and his family were now staying in the house. We were touched no end by their respect and reverence for Comrade Surjeet. While the rest of the house underwent a major renovation recently, this portion of the building was left untouched.
Atmosphere At Home
Harnam Singh Basi, Comrade Surjeet's father, was an Akali leader who had close connections with the Gadhar Party. After some time, Comrade Surjeet's mother also got involved. When the Akalis began their jathas demanding the liberation of the Gurudwaras from the control of the mahants-cum-hereditary custodians, she used to supply food for the volunteers. With leaders frequenting Comrade Surjeet's house, politics came naturally to him.
At the tender age of seven Comrade Surjeet was witness to his father's arrest. Angered that his son had turned a freedom fighter, Comrade Surjeet's grandfather, a British loyalist, deprived Harnam Singh from his share in ancestral property. Given his preoccupation with politics, Comrade Surjeet's father was unable to make both ends meet. Finally, he was forced to migrate and go abroad.
Recollecting those days, Comrade Surjeet said: “I remember one usurer, Divan Singh Nambardar, to whom my father had mortgaged his land. He always used to ask me whether I have received a letter from my father or not. He was actually enquiring about his money.”
One day, on returning home, he found two close associates of his father, Ghadharities Baba Karam Singh Cheema and Bagh Singh, waiting for him. Comrade Surjeet was now in Class X at the Khalsa Middle School in Bundala. They wanted his help in organising a meeting of the then illegal Workers and Peasants Party. Comrade Surjeet went to the local Gurudwara, borrowed a bell, a table and chair. He placed the table and chair at the proposed meeting place and enthusiastically rang the bell announcing about the meeting in the entire village. The next day the police came to the school. The intervention of the Head Master, an acquaintance of Comrade Surjeet's father prevented his arrest on the condition that Comrade Surjeet would apologise. An adamant Surjeet refused. Though taken aback by his defiant attitude, the police agreed not to arrest him on the condition that he would be removed from the school. With no other school in the area willing to have him on their rolls, Comrade Surjeet ultimately shifted to Jalandhar where he was enrolled in the Dhoaba High School.
Remittances from his father in Panama not forthcoming, his mother struggled hard to keep him in school. A minimum of Rs 10 was required for this -- Rs 4 towards fees, Rs 4 towards hostel and food and Rs 2 for other miscellaneous expenditure. “In those difficult days my mother was also anxious that I study. It is on her labour that I used to live. My mother spun yarn on the charka and sold home-made ghee to meet this expenditure”, recalled Comrade Surjeet.
Jalandhar was a big political centre in those days and Comrade Surjeet attended meetings addressed by Congress leaders like Saiffudin Kitchlew, Satyapal and Master Mota Singh. During vacations he also used to visit his grandfather's sister in Hoshiarpur and spend some time there. It is an incident on one such occasion that marked a turning point in his life.
March 23, 1932 was the first anniversary of Bhagat Singh's martyrdom. The Governor was visiting Hoshiarpur. The Hoshiarpur Congress Committee announced that they will hoist the Congress flag atop the Hoshiarpur courts. Curious, Comrade Surjeet ventured out. Reaching the Congress office he was dismayed to learn that the programme had been cancelled as the army had been entrusted control of the town. When confronted the office secretary challenged him to go ahead and hoist the flag. Not one to give up Comrade Surjeet picked a flag from the office and proceeded to the court complex. He sneaked inside and stealthily climbed up the stairs and raised the national flag. A policeman noticed him. Two shots were fired narrowly missing him. On hearing the commotion Dy. Commissioner Waghle rushed out of his room and ordered the firing to stop.
Comrade Surjeet was arrested. Produced in court he said his name was London Thod Singh (one who breaks London). He was sentenced to four years imprisonment.
Thus began a political journey that lasted nearly 75 years. While most of his political career has been recorded there are some facets that readers would be interested in knowing particularly those relating to his joining the Party, his underground days and marriage.
After his release, one of his cousins Harbans Singh Bassi, who had returned after a course at the University of Toilers of The East, Moscow, contacted Comrade Surjeet. He introduced Comrade Surjeet to some communists who were working underground. The ideas of socialism appealed to him and when in 1934 Sohan Singh Josh held a meeting to form a unit of the Communist Party in Punjab, Comrade Surjeet was one amongst the twenty or so who attended. Others present at the meeting held at the Jalianwala Bagh were Fauja Singh Phullar, Firozuddin Mansoor, Inder Singh Gujranwala and Kabul Singh Govindpuri.
Immediately after this meeting, it was decided that Comrade Surjeet should open a bookshop at Jallandhar to provide a meeting place for communists working underground. As though out of providence, at this very time Comrade Surjeet's father sent Rs 3000/- his first remittance since he had gone abroad. The bookshop was opened with this money on the railway road, Jalandhar.
Influenced by socialist ideas Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to popularise it after taking over as president of the Congress Party. Incensed at the growing popularity of the communists, Acharya Kriplani who was then general secretary of the Congress Party, issued a circular prohibiting the use of red flags at Congress meetings. Comrade Surjeet alongwith another leader went and met Nehru complaining about the circular. Nehru said that Kriplani does not understand the fact that the red flag brings poorer people into the Congress fold. He asked Comrade Surjeet to organise meetings which he promised to attend.
As part of a series of meetings planned in Punjab, a meeting was organised at Comrade Surjeet's village in Bundala. On the eve of Nehru's visit the venue was occupied by a big posse of policemen. Same was the case with other vacant places in the whole village. In the land owned by Comrade Surjeet's family there was a maize crop standing, not yet mature for harvesting. People woke up the next morning amazed to see shamianas and durries in place for the meeting. Late in the evening, Comrade Surjeet had got the crop destroyed.
Comrade Surjeet was one of those against whom an arrest warrant was issued at the initial stages of the Second World War. He went underground and evaded arrest for more than one and a half years. Moving from place to place he went undetected organising committees and holding meetings.
Once when he was staying in a village near Hoshiarpur in the house of a colleague, policemen surrounded the village to arrest Comrade Surjeet. He had already cropped his hair so that he would not be recognised. There was a harmonium in the house. Comrade Surjeet took the harmonium and assumed the guise of a musician. A policeman stopped and questioned him. He told them that he was going to a marriage party. He was allowed to proceed. He caught a tonga to Hoshiarpur and escaped.
While hiding in a place called Muttada Kalan Comrade Surjeet visited the sugarcane fields of a comrade. This comrade was busy crushing cane and making jaggery. On knowing that police was approaching, Comrade Surjeet changed into the dirty clothes of a worker employed there and sat down engrossed in work. The police came and searched the place but failed to recognise Comrade Surjeet.
In another incident, Comrade Surjeet was holding a Party school in Kartarpur. Most of the Babar Akalis who had been released from jail had joined the Party. There were two other students, who became well known figures later on -- Inder Kumar Gujral (who later on became prime minister), late Daniel Lattifie (well known advocate). The police came to know about it. There were not enough police personnel available at Kartarpur. So they made a call to Jalandhar from a telephone booth asking for immediate help. A person known to Comrade Surjeet, who overheard this conversation conveyed to Surjeet. They ran away from the place. Comrade Surjeet and some others had to walk for 40 km before they could reach safety.
Once Comrade Surjeet was coming alongwith some other comrades to hold a meeting at a village near Moga. He noticed a person trailing them. The other comrades caught hold of the policeman while Comrade Surjeet reached a petrol pump and from there he boarded a truck and escaped to Ludhiana. From here he planned to catch a train to Saharanpur. As soon as Comrade Surjeet purchased the ticket, a CID officer, Ujjagar Singh, recognised him and caught him. Presuming that someone else might also be accompanying Surjeet, he entrusted him to another policeman, who was oblivious of the nature of the catch. By the time Ujjagar Singh returned, Comrade Surjeet had made good his escape. He hid near a culvert between a bridge and a railway line. Though the policemen crossed the bridge they were unable to trace him. After some time Comrade Surjeet went to an abandoned brick kiln and hid there. It was raining heavily, and he was fully drenched by the time he reached there. Early in the morning he went to one of his friends house, washed his clothes and started for Phillaur.
After being on the run for long and evading arrest, Comrade Surjeet was finally caught, more by accident than by the plan.
After attending a meeting in Amritsar he boarded a train to go to Lahore. Unknown to Comrade Surjeet, another leader Karam Singh Mann was also travelling in the same train. Mann was being trailed by the police from Amritsar itself. Both of them got down at Bhagwanpura, a station before Lahore. Both walked at a distance from each other. Initially only Mann was arrested. Soon, the police got suspicious about Comrade Surjeet and arrested him also. But they were not able to recognise him. However, some papers recovered from Mann gave them the clue.
Comrade Surjeet was sent to the notorious Red Fort jail in Lahore. He was tortured no end and kept in solitary confinement in a dark cell for more than three months. As Comrade Surjeet recalled: “Somebody would come and throw two chappaties and dal. This was the food they gave me. I was not let out even for easing myself. I had do it within the cell itself. They would not clean the place and it would stink. I was just given a pot of water every week for all purposes. My health became bad. My eyes became affected with iritis. My unkempt hair was infested with lice.”
The jail doctor was not allowed to meet Comrade Surjeet. Once an Irish doctor insisted on seeing Comrade Surjeet. He was appalled at what he saw and ordered that Comrade Surjeet be moved to hospital and shifted out of the cell.
Later on Comrade Surjeet was shifted to the Deoli detention camp where he joined other comrades like BTR, Dange, Soli Batliwala, Sajjad Zahir, Ajoy Ghosh etc. Here Comrade Surjeet was given the responsibility of taking classes for Punjabi speaking prisoners .
Talking about how he could evade the police for so long a period, Comrade Surjeet said: “Always I tried to avoid travelling on the main road by buses and railways. If I found a truck driver known to me I used to travel with him otherwise I used to use small lanes and traveled on foot. Therefore it was very difficult to locate me.”
About his underground life, Comrade Surjeet said: “In those days there were no regular places to stay. We used to stay at different places. But the contact man was decided. Top leaders of the party who were in hiding were informed about these contacts for facilitating meetings or consultations. If such a contact was exposed then another was fixed. We avoided staying permanently at any place. We used to stay in different places and used to constantly keep on changing places. We used different covers - husband-wife, brother-sister etc. Sometimes even typing was difficult lest the sound of the typewriter be heard. Once Deshraj Chadda (who later on was the Central Committee office in-charge and member of the Central Committee) typed a document with nearly two hundred pages sitting inside a haystack in the mid-summer. He was sweating profusely but did not stop typing.”
Marriages used to take place at a very young age in those days. Comrade Surjeet was engaged to a girl in one village. His grandfather married for a second time to a woman from the same village. Custom did not permit two persons from the same family entering wedlock to girls from the same village. Consequently, Comrade Surjeet's marriage did not take place. Comrade Surjeet was pestered by boys of his age who started teasing him. One day while attending a marriage alongwith his mother he saw a young girl of nine years playing there. Pointing towards her Comrade Surjeet told his mother that he wanted to marry her. This was how Pritam Kaur became his life long companion.
He had however to wait for some more years before custom would permit the couple to stay together. In the intervening period Comrade Surjeet had grown into a leader and was on the run from the police. The time for bringing home the bride had approached. Comrade Surjeet accompanied by his mother was taking his wife home for the first time when police got wind of it and intercepted him mid way. His mother initially resisted but ultimately agreed to a compromise that Comrade Surjeet would surrender once he reached his house.
Some time later when Pritam Kaur visited him in jail he was unable to recognize her. He needed his sister's help to make out that she was his wife.
Comrade Surjeet's whole life is replete with such stories. Stories of struggles, sacrifices and of his several close encounters with death. Constraints of space don't permit to write any further.