One of the most important phenomena we see in the wake of colonialism is the rebirth of the past. On the one hand the past is used as an instrument of resistance to foreign domination and on the other as material for building the future society free from colonial bricks.
The recourse to the past was necessitated by the presence of the colonized societies which had little to counter the colonial onslaught propelled by socio-political forces which had science and technology as a powerful source of their unassailable position. The past is anyway, in Eric’s words. J. Hobsbawn, “a permanent dimension of human consciousness, an inevitable component of the institutions, values and other models of human society.” But in extraordinary times like the colonial era, the past assumed greater importance as a bulwark against oppression and a marker of group or national identity. It was an effective strategy against foreign occupation that galvanized the indigenous population into its defiance. But in some colonized societies it has particularly exaggerated in its zeal to resurrect what historically never existed.
Historians prodded by ideologues produced out of thin air the myths of larger-than-life characters and model eras that existed only in their minds. Historical lies have become national truths. This gave rise to indigenous nationalism/religious nationalism. South Asia, Pakistan and India in particular, are prime examples of this phenomenon. Hobsbawn has a very apt observation: “Historians are to nationalism what poppy farmers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts; we supply the essential raw material for the market.” No one can dispute the statement if he bears in mind the construction of Pakistan’s glorious Islamic past and the rise of the imaginary Hindu golden era of India in the postcolonial era.
But that doesn’t mean at all that the present didn’t matter. In the first half of the 20th century, when colonialism had an iron grip on India, something spectacular happened in Punjab that had repercussions throughout the subcontinent. A small group of young men and women led by a charismatic revolutionary named Bhagat Singh set out to avenge the death of political leader Lala Lajpat Rai, who was injured during a protest march against the colonial administration in Lahore. He later died of his injuries. The brutal police lathi charge has been ordered by a ruthless senior police superintendent named James Scott. Mistaking John Saunders, a junior police officer, for James Scott, Bhagat Singh along with Rajguru and Chandra Shekhar Azad shot him and a police chief died in Lahore. Later, with his associate Batukeshwar Dutt, he detonated bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. How he and his companions were captured, tried and executed is a story known to all. Mustansar Hussain Tarar narrates/recreates the story in his novel Main Bhannan Dilli De Kingray published by Sange-e-Meel Publications, Lahore.
Mustansar, we all know, is the leading Urdu-language fiction and travelogue writer in Pakistan. He wears many hats; he is a writer, actor and television host. Occasionally he writes in Punjabi, his mother tongue. His first Punjabi novel titled Pakheru released years ago was well received.
His novel on Bhagat Singh may prove to be a significant literary event as it touches on at least three important aspects of our collective life; history, struggle for freedom and culture. What creates the sense of the story is the format of him i.e. the main protagonist Bhagat Sigh comes to visit his native land after 100 years of his death. What has happened in the last 100 years is the historical transformation of society on many levels. This finds it most visible in the countryside landscape. The struggle for freedom was the essence of his short life. His family was inspired by the revolutionary fervor of his day. He grew up in a family atmosphere where the idea of an independent India and the dream of a just society mattered. Singh was greatly inspired by the stated goals of the Russian Revolution and its grand and universal vision based on the ideal of human equality and dignity of work. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable; he continued to study revolutionary literature on the sly by sneaking into his prison cell. As far as culture is concerned, the novel clearly foregrounds the cultural manifestations that emanate from our today’s life. Mustansar is intimately familiar with the ethos of rural and urban society, which follow divergent paths yet are interconnected. Nuanced cultural expressions discreetly permeate his narrative, hinting at social values and the changes taking place in them. He creates a feeling of lived experience so essential to any meaningful piece of fiction.
Again, the novel can help stir up the public debate that engaged many minds when the action took place; what is the best mode of resistance against oppression. The time had come when Mr. Gandhi, basing himself on the ideas of Jainism and Buddhism, advocated non-violence as a strategic tool of defiance against the British occupation. Individuals and revolutionary groups, especially of the socialist persuasion, differed by pointing to the facts of history that sometimes violence against oppression is a legitimate response.
Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat and his companions argued that one could not turn the other cheek in response to the colonial slap. Violence in its all-encompassing sense was the foundation of colonial hegemony. So violence had to be met with violence. The debate is still open.
Bhagat Singh becomes an epitome of liberating dreams imbued with ideals. Some unusual things make it a creepy legend; one, challenge the oppressor with wit and strength. Second, he dreams of an independent homeland without distinction of caste or class. Three, he is absolutely fearless as he takes on enemies. Four, he displays an imperturbable serenity in the face of death. And above all he happily goes to the gallows singing the revolution in the prime of his youth.
Among Punjabis, Bhagat Singh subtly evokes the defiance and assassination of the legendary lover Mirza, who was burned alive as an irrepressible youth in the bushland of Sandal Bar, where the former was born and raised centuries later.
Mustansar’s novel is a rich tribute to a legend whose hanging by colonialists had become a cause celebrity. His life inspires people and so does his death. The novel is a richly rewarding read with the story of him free flowing. — [email protected]
Published in Dawn, January 23, 2023