He was on stage to receive his prize – a shiny one-paisa coin – from the Munshi, a senior officer with several schools under his control. This was Punjab in 1939, he was just 11 years old, and a student of Class 3, which he had topped. The Munshi patted him on the head and asked him to shout ‘Britannia Zindabad, Hitler Murdabad’. Young Bhagat Singh – not to be confused with his legendary namesake – faced the audience at the ceremony and yelled: “Britannia Murdabad, Hindustan Zindabad.”
The consequences of his impudence were immediate. He was thrashed then and there by the Munshi Babu himself, and thrown out of the Government Elementary School, Samundra. The other students present stared in shocked silence, and then ran away. The local schools authority – someone we might today call the block education officer – issued a letter with the assent of the deputy commissioner in this part of what is now Hoshiarpur district in Punjab. The letter confirmed his expulsion, describing him as ‘dangerous’ and a ‘revolutionary’ – at age 11.
This simply meant no school – and there weren’t too many around – would ever let the blacklisted Bhagat Singh Jhuggian enter their gates. Many besides his parents begged the authorities to reverse their decision. One well-connected zamindar , Ghulam Mustafa, made strenuous efforts on his behalf. But the minions of the Raj were furious. A little boy had shamed their dignitary. Bhagat Singh Jhuggian never returned to formal education for the rest of his extraordinarily colourful and ongoing life.
But he was and remains at age 93, a star pupil of the school of hard knocks.
He smiles at the recollection of the drama, speaking to us at his home in Ramgarh village of Hoshiarpur district. Didn’t he feel awful about it? Well, he says, “my reaction was – now I am free to join the anti-British struggle.”
That he was free to do so had not gone unnoticed. Though at first he went and worked on his family’s farm – his fame had spread. Groups from Punjab’s radical underground began to contact him. He joined one known as the Kirti Party, an offshoot of the Ghadar Party that had staged the Ghadar revolt of 1914-15 in the state.
The Kirti Party comprised many who had gone to revolutionary Russia for military and ideological training. On returning to a Punjab where the Ghadar movement had been crushed, they started a publication called Kirti . Among its most distinguished journalist contributors was the other, legendary Bhagat Singh, who in fact ran Kirti for three months before his arrest on May 27, 1927, when it had lost its editor. In May 1942, the Kirti Party merged with the Communist Party of India.
And no, Jhuggian was not named after the great Bhagat Singh, though, he says, “I grew up hearing people sing songs of him – there were many.” He even recites a few words of one from that period on the great revolutionary who was hanged by the British in 1931 when his tiny namesake was just three years old.
In the years after his expulsion from school, the young Bhagat Singh Jhuggian became a courier for the revolutionary underground. Between working on his family’s five acres, “I would do anything they asked me to do.” One of those things, while still a teenager, was walking over 20 kilometres in darkness carrying a small, dismantled and “horribly heavy” printing press in two sacks to a secret camp of the revolutionaries. Literally, a foot-soldier of freedom.
“At that end also they gave me a heavy bag of food and other supplies to carry across the same distance to comrades in our network.” His family also provided food and shelter to underground fighters.
The machine he transported was called an ‘Udaara press’ (literally, flying press, but meaning a portable one). It is not clear whether it was a dismantled press, or vital parts of one, or a cyclostyling machine. He just remembers “it had large and heavy cast iron parts.” He came through his courier era mostly unscathed, never saying no to risk and danger – and proud that over the years, the “police were more scared of me than I was of them.”
And then Partition happened.
It’s when talking about that period that Bhagat Singh Jhuggian gets most emotional. The old gentleman fights his tears as he speaks of the mayhem and mass murder of the time. “The caravan of people in countless thousands leaving to cross the border was frequently attacked, people slaughtered. There were massacres right around here.”
“In Simbli village just four kilometres away,” says schoolteacher, writer, and local historian Ajmer Sidhu, “about 250 people, all of them Muslims, were butchered in two nights and one day.” Yet, says Sidhu, who is with us when we interview Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, “of these, the thanada r of the Garhshankar police station recorded only 101 deaths.”
“There were two sets of people here in August 1947. One set killing Muslims, another trying to save them from the attackers,” says Bhagat Singh.
“A young man was shot dead near my field. We offered to help his brother cremate him, but he was terrified and went ahead with the caravan. We buried the body in our own field. It was not a nice August 15 here,” he adds.
Among those who managed to cross the border was Ghulam Mustafa, the big landowner who had once tried to get Bhagat Singh Jhuggian back in school.
“However,” says Bhagat Singh, “Mustafa’s son, Abdul Rahman, had stayed on a little longer and was in grave danger. My family brought Rahman stealthily to our house one night. He had a horse with him.”
But the mobs out hunting for Muslims got wind of this. “So one night we smuggled him out, and through a network of friends and comrades, he managed to cross the border in one piece.” Later, they even returned the horse to him across the border. Mustafa, in letters to friends in the village, thanked Jhuggian and promised to visit him in India one day. “But he never came back.”
Talking of the Partition makes Bhagat Singh sad and uncomfortable. He is silent for a few moments before speaking again. He was jailed briefly, for 17 days, when police broke up a conference on the freedom struggle in Birampur village, also in Hoshiarpur.
In 1948, he joined the Lal (Red) Communist Party Hind Union, a breakaway group from the erstwhile Kirti Party that had merged with the CPI.
But that was the time all Communist groups were banned, between 1948 and 1951, following the uprisings in Telangana and elsewhere. Bhagat Singh Jhuggian returned to his role of farmer by day, secret courier by night. And host to underground activists on the run. He himself spent a year underground in this phase of his life.
Later, in 1952, the Lal Party merged with the Communist Party of India. When the CPI split in 1964, he threw in his lot with the newly formed CPI-M, with which he would remain always.
Through that period he participated in land and other struggles affecting farmers. Bhagat Singh was arrested in 1959 during the Khush Hasiyati tax morcha (Anti-betterment tax struggle). His crime: mobilising farmers of the Kandi area (now in Punjab’s northeastern border). A furious Partap Singh Kairon government punished him by seizing his buffalo and fodder chopping machine – and auctioning them. But both were purchased for 11 rupees by a fellow villager who then returned them to the family.
Bhagat Singh also spent three months in Ludhiana Jail during this agitation. And again, three months in Patiala Jail later the same year.
The village where he has lived all his life was at first a collection of jhuggis (slum dwellings) and thus called Jhuggian. Hence the name Bhagat Singh Jhuggian. It is now part of Ramgarh village in Garhshankar tehsil .
In 1975, he again went underground for a year, fighting the Emergency. Mobilising people, playing courier when he had to, distributing anti-Emergency literature.
Through all these years, he remained rooted in his village and region. The man who had never made it past Class 3 took a deep interest in youngsters around him struggling with education and employment. Many of those he helped would do well, some even making it to government service.
1990: Bhagat Singh’s family was aware there were only minutes between them, their tubewell, and terror. The heavily armed Khalistani hit squad had paused in his fields, confirming their target from his name inscribed on the tubewell barely 400 metres from their home. There they lay in ambush – but had been seen.
From 1984 to 1993, Punjab was tormented by terror. Hundreds of people were gunned down, assassinated or otherwise murdered. Among them large numbers of activists from the CPI, the CPI-M and CPI-ML as those parties offered stubborn resistance to the Khalistanis. Bhagat Singh was always on the hit list in this period.
It was in 1990, though, that he came closest to finding out what it meant to be on that list. His three young sons were on the roof, with guns given to them by the police. It was a time when the government allowed, even assisted, people under death threat to arm themselves for self-defence.
“What they gave us, those guns, were not very good ones. So I borrowed a 12-bore shotgun and even bought a second hand one myself later,” says Bhagat Singh, recalling the period.
His son Paramjit, 50, says, “Once, I opened and read a threat letter to my father from the terrorists: ‘Stop your activities or your entire family will be wiped out’. I put it back in the cover and pretended nobody had seen it. I wondered how my father would react. He calmly read the letter, folded it and placed it in his pocket. Moments later, he took the three of us to the roof and asked us to be alert. But didn't say a word about the letter."
The 1990 standoff was spine chilling. There was no doubt this gutsy family would fight to the last. But no doubt either that they’d be overwhelmed by the firepower of the trained hit squad armed with AK-47s and other deadly weapons.
That was when one of the extremists recognised the name on the tubewell. “He turned to the others and said, ‘if it is Bhagat Singh Jhuggian who is our target, I will have nothing to do with this’,” says the old freedom fighter. The hit squad decided to call it off and withdrew from the field and vanished.
It turned out the militant’s younger brother was one of those youths Bhagat Singh had helped in the village. Who had in fact gone on to get a government job – as a patwari (keeper of village records). “For two years after they withdrew,” says Bhagat Singh smiling, “that older brother would send me tip-offs and warnings. When and where not to go…” Which helped him evade further attempts on his life.
The manner in which the family speaks of the episode is almost unsettling. Bhagat Singh’s analysis of it is clinical. He is far more emotional when speaking of Partition. What about his wife, was she not shaken at the time? “I was confident we could counter the attack,” says Gurdev Kaur, 78, most calmly. A veteran activist of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, she says: “My sons were strong, I had no fear – and the village supported us.”
Gurdev Kaur married Bhagat Singh in 1961 – his second wedding. His first wife died a few years after their marriage in 1944 and their two daughters have settled abroad. Gurdev Kaur and he had three sons from their marriage, but the eldest, Jasveer Singh, died in 2011 aged 47. The two others are Kuldeep Singh, 55, now in the United Kingdom, and Paramjit, who lives with them.
Does he still have the 12-bore gun? “No, I got rid of it. Of what use would it be now – a child could snatch it from my hands,” laughs the 93-year-old.
The 1992 state Assembly elections brought danger back to his doorstep. The central government was determined to hold elections in Punjab. The Khalistanis, equally set on paralysing the polls, started killing candidates. Under Indian electoral law , the death of a candidate of a recognised political party during the campaign leads to ‘adjournment’ or countermanding of the election in that constituency. Every candidate was now at grave risk.Indeed, unparalleled levels of violence had led to postponement of these very polls in June 1991. Between March and June that year, as a paper by Gurharpal Singh in the journal Asian Survey points out, “24 state and parliamentary candidates were killed; 76 passengers on two trains were massacred; and a week before polling, Punjab was declared a disturbed area.”
So the aim of the extremists was clear. Kill enough candidates. The government responded by providing unprecedented levels of security to candidates. Among them, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian who contested the polls from the Garhshankar constituency. All factions of the Akali Dal boycotted the polls. “ Every candidate was provided with a 32-person security detachment, and for more prominent leaders the figure was 50 or higher.” Of course, all this was only for the duration of the polls.
What of Bhagat Singh’s contingent of 32? “There were,” he says, “18 security guards at my party office here. Another 12 were with me always and would go wherever I went on campaign. And two were always at home with my family.” Having been on the terrorist hit list for years before the election, his risks were greater. But he came through alright. A massive security operation of the Army, paramilitary and police personnel also countered the extremists – and the polls were held without great casualties.
“He contested the 1992 election,” says Paramjit, “believing that by making himself a higher priority target, he would be saving his younger comrades by deflecting the attention of the Khalistanis in his own direction.”
Bhagat Singh lost the election to the Congress candidate. But he had been in others that he had won. In 1957, he was elected sarpanch of two villages, Ramgarh and Chak Gujjran. He was to be a sarpanch four times, his last stint being in 1998.He was elected a director of the cooperative sugar mill in Nawanshahr (now Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar) in 1978. That was by defeating Sansar Singh, a powerful landlord allied with the Akali Dal. In 1998, he was again elected to the post – unanimously.
Across those eight decades since he was thrashed and thrown out of school, Bhagat Singh Jhuggian has been and remains politically aware, alert and active. He wants to know everything that is going on in the ongoing farmers’ protests. He sits on his party’s State Control Commission. And is also a trustee of the body that runs the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall in Jalandhar. More than any other institution, the DBYH records, documents and memorialises the revolutionary movements of the Punjab. The trust itself was founded by revolutionaries of the Ghadar movement.
“Even today, when jathas (organised convoy of marchers) go out on farmers issues from this area, maybe to join the protest camps on Delhi’s borders, they go first to comrade Bhagat Singh’s house for his blessings,” says his friend Darshan Singh Mattu. A member of the CPI-M’s Punjab State Committee, Mattu notes “he is physically restricted compared to earlier. But his commitment and intensity remain as strong as ever. Even now he is part of the effort in Ramgarh and Garhshankar to mobilise rice, oil, dal, other items, and money, including his own personal contribution – for the protesting farmers camped at Shahjahanpur.”
As we leave, he insists on seeing us off, moving quite quickly with his walker. Bhagat Singh Jhuggian wants us to know he doesn’t like the state of the nation for whose freedom he fought. None of the people running the country, he says “hold any legacy of the freedom movement. The political forces they represent – they were never there in the struggle for Independence and freedom. Not a single one of them. They will destroy this country if not checked,” he says worriedly.
And then adds: “But believe me, the sun will set on this Raj too.”
Author’s Note : My sincere thanks to Vishav Bharti of The Tribune , Chandigarh, and to Prof. Jagmohan Singh, nephew of the great revolutionary Shaheed Bhagat Singh, for their invaluable inputs and assistance. Also to Ajmer Sidhu for his kind help and inputs.