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Not just Savarkar: Punjabis want a bigger slice of Cellular Jail narrative

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 24 April 2017, 18:19 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

The freedom struggle in India was a period filled with stories where everyday men stepped up and became heroes.

But history doesn’t usually remember every hero.

In an attempt to bring to light the true nature of the struggle at the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar islands, referred to as 'Kala Pani’ in local parlance, many in Punjab are now clamouring that the role played by Punjabis and Sikhs in particular be highlighted.

The loudest among the voices are affiliates of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which recently fell out of power in the state but is still part of the NDA at the Centre.

Forgotten contributions

For many, only Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar aka Veer Savarkar has been consistently promoted in the narrative of the islands presented to the visitors. The contribution of other freedoms fighters from elsewhere gets underplayed.

But the moot question here is: how will the Centre, which is under the BJP right now, address the issue? Adhering to the demands of Punjabis could mea scaling down Savarakar’s issue, which may not go down to well with the forces of Hindutva in the country.

Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Professor Kirpal Singh Badungar has been the latest to speak on the issue. At a seminar on 'Role of the Sikhs in Freedom Struggle' held on 23 April, he announced that a committee from the SGPC would visit the Cellular Jail and meet the authorities concerned to rectify the distortions.

Badungar pointed out how Sikhs have not been given due place in the freedom struggle by the successive governments and historians. He said that the SGPC will constitute a panel to rewrite the history of Punjab and it will have young writers with open mind and new ideas.

A SGPC delegation will also be meeting the union minister for tourism and culture in the context of skewed narrative of Cellular Jail. It will then ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to give space to the Sikhs proportionate to their struggle for the country.

Deleted history

Badungar's views are an echo of what was raised by Jagtar Singh, a senior political commentator, earlier this month after his visit to the Cellular Jail.

Jagtar had pointed how the role of Punjabis especially at the Cellular Jail stands deleted while the entire narrative is based on Savarkar, the man who wrote at least four mercy petitions to the British rulers from the very same jail.

Four months ago, members of Canada’s Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation too had visited the Andamans and raised the similar issue. The foundation led the delegation that successfully sought an apology from the Canadian government for the Komagata Maru incident.

Both members of the foundation and Jagtar claim that right from the name of the Port Blair airport to the light and sound show at Cellular Jail, it is only the persona of Savarkar only that is played up. Since dozens of Ghadar Party activists too were lodged at the same jail along with scores more from Punjab as well as other parts of the country, their contribution should not be discounted and forgotten.

Jagtar spoke of the Ghadarites who were convicted in Lahore Conspiracy case of 1915 and 23 Cavalry Court Martial case, besides others who were tortured to death by the authorities.

“The unfortunate part is that even the universities in Punjab have not done much work on the Punjabis who were lodged there. A lot of documentation needs to be done,” he told Catch.

In a recent article, he wrote, “Little is known that activists of Babbar Akali Dal were also sentenced to life and transported to Andaman. Babbar Akali Dal was set up as a militant organisation in 1921 to attain freedom through armed struggle.” 

He has also underlined how the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) manifesto for 1999 Lok Sabha elections said, “The brave soldiers of SAD created unique record of sacrifices while defending the country from challenges from within and outside who were sentenced to Kala Pani and happily went to the gallows.”

Neglecting heritage

Jagtar feels that the successive Punjab government have neglected the glorious heritage of Cellular Jail and the present government must intervene to end this glaring distortion. This is the cause for which Punjab can join hands with West Bengal.

Jagtar's powerful write up led Akali MP from Anandpur Sahib Professor Prem Singh Chandumajra to raise the matter in the Lok Sabha some days ago demanding space and recognition to Punjabis proportionate to their contribution.

Parliamentary affairs minister Anant Kumar assured him that the role of in Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular just could not be ignored. He said he would get all the details and the one-hour light and sound programme staged in Cellular Jail would be reviewed accordingly.

Chandumajra said it is tragic that the role of the Sikhs virtually stands deleted from the narrative of Cellular Jail that was given the status of a national monument in 1979.

Changing the narrative

The members of Professor Mohan Singh Foundation had gone on to seek that the islands that are a part of Andaman and Nicobar group be named after Indian freedom fighters who were lodged in the Cellular Jail. They submitted a memorandum to the Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Jagdish Mukhi while also writing to PM Modi and the President's office.

Sahib Singh Thind, the president of the Foundation that is working for keeping the legacy of Gadar movement alive, told Catch, “If the government can change names of Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata and Bangalore to Bangaluru the same can be done for these islands.” According to him, the government is playing up the persona of Savarkar despite the fact that Savarkar had sought clemency from the British.

“We want the contribution of all freedom fighters lodged in the jail to be highlighted. A large number of them were from Punjab and were the part of the Ghadar movement,”said Thind, pointing out that there of 572 islands, only 40 are active and can be named after the freedom fighters.

“We also want that the biographies of the freedom fighters lodged in the cellular jail be published and circulated not only in Andamans and Nicobar but that they are also made a part of curriculum in schools and universities. The coming generations should know in detail the kind of sacrifices these heroes made,“ he underlined.

Jagtar points out that the present day government cannot be blamed for playing up Savarkar's contribution. “The situation was the same when I visited the Cellular Jail 15 years ago. Whosoever initiated the project had the bent of mind towards Savarkar,” he said.

Interestingly, with SGPC being controlled by the Akalis, who are an ally of the BJP which eulogises Savarkar, neither Badungar nor Chandumajra have referred to Savarkar's persona being over hyped in their statements. They understand well that this could put their parent party at loggerheads with the BJP.

First published: 24 April 2017, 16:58 IST