By Venkatesh Sundaram
On February 23, 2021, protesters commemorated the 140th birth anniversary of the legendary farmer leader Ajit Singh with a ceremonial tying of turbans, called ‘Pagdi Sambhal Divas’.
Farmers from several states have been protesting non-stop at various sites surrounding the capital Delhi since 26 November 2020. Prior to that, protests were being organised for almost two months regularly in various parts of Punjab and Haryana. Through all these months, they have been braving the severe winter, vicious attacks by the government and police, attempts to split them and spread lies and hate against them.
On February 23, 2021, protesters commemorated the 140th birth anniversary of the legendary farmer leader Ajit Singh with a ceremonial tying of turbans, called ‘Pagdi Sambhal Divas’. This is one of a series of events which the farmers have planned to keep up the spirits and momentum of the protests. They also intend observing ‘Kisan Mazdoor Ekta Diwas’ on 27 February to commemorate the anniversary of Chandra Shekhar Azad’s martyrdom.
Sardar Ajit Singh, who was the uncle of Shahid – E – Azam Bhagat Singh had spearheaded the ‘Pagdi Sambhal Jatha’ (movement of peasants) in 1907, together with his comrades. This movement has been a source of inspiration to not only the peasants but the movement for national liberation of India from colonial rule. It has a few parallels with the ongoing protest movement of farmers too!
Just like the Central Government did in September 2020, in 1907 the British Indian government brought in three Acts – the Punjabi Land Colonisation Bill, Babri Doab Canal Act, and Punjab Alienation Act. The Punjab Land Colonisation Bill introduced inheritance by primogeniture by which the right of succession went only to the firstborn; the whole real estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son. The Bari Doab Canal Act substantially increased rates of water for irrigation. The Colonisation Bill provided for transfer of property of a person after his death to the government if he had no heirs. The Government could sell the property to any public or private developer. This was completely against the social conditions prevailing in the region at that time.
To demand the withdrawal of these three laws brought in by the colonial government, Sardar Ajit Singh, and his comrades first organised protests in the ‘Chenab valley’, an area which was most severely affected by these laws. Many organisations submitted memoranda to the colonial government to redress their grievances, which failed to pay any heed. This was followed by a prolonged agitation in Lyallpur and around.
Several meetings were held in various cities of Punjab in 1907 to oppose the British laws. On 22 March 1907, during a meeting held at Lyallpur, Lala Banke Dayal, who was editor of a magazine, recited his poem, “Pagdi Sambhal Jatta”. This poem was found to be so inspiring that the agitation itself came to be called the Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement.
The effect of the movement was so powerful that the colonial government was forced to revoke the three laws in June 1907. However, Sardar Ajit Singh was arrested and sent to prison in Mandalay, Burma for six months, after which he went into exile. He continued to organise revolutionary activities abroad. During his activities, he is said to have met the great Russian leader Lenin. He also came in with the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in 1918 and later was in exile in Italy. He came back to India in 1946 and breathed his last on 15th August 1947, just a few hours after formal independence.
We thus see that the peasants of India and especially Punjab have a long history of fighting against oppression and injustice. No wonder the ongoing farmers’ protest is so resilient!