The Family of Bhagat Singh
A deep imprint
It is often said that those who excel brilliantly at a very young age or else make big sacrifices at such an age are inspired by close family members or relatives. This can be very clearly seen in the inspirational impact of several members of the extended family or joint family on Bhagat singh. However there was an additional factor at work here. Some of these members of his family also suffered much at the hands of colonial rulers.
This left a void in the family and as a sensitive child Bhagat Singh could clearly feel the sadness caused by colonial excesses right within his family. This made a deep imprint on him and there are several indications that even as a child he had decided that he was going to do something big so that people would not have to suffer in this way.
In this context it is both important and interesting to look at the life of some of his extended family members and his relationship with them as a sensitive, growing child who thought a lot and tried to draw his own conclusions from the conversations he overheard in the family which was visited regularly by freedom fighters and social activists.
Bhagat Singh’s grandfather Arjun Singh was a man of strong feelings for social reforms as well as freedom of India. In his family he often told stories of his own grandfather Fateh Singh who had helped Muslim tenants get land rights and later, unlike other big landowners, refused an offer to get more land by entering into a deal with the British. This happened at the time of the great struggle for independence in 1857. Refusing the offer Fateh Singh said that the teaching of Guru Gobind is that as a principle we should stand with the struggle for justice.
Arjun Singh carried this tradition further and provided conducive conditions for his three sons to join the freedom struggle and reform movements. He set high standards for good relationships with farm workers. He provided free medicare to the needy and encouraged his wife Jay Kaur also to do so. At a time when education of girls was frowned upon, he gave the name Vidyawati to his eldest daughter in law (mother of Bhagat Singh).
He encouraged his daughters-in-law to carry out various constructive activities to help villagers like educating girls and providing a helping hand to the needy. He along with his wife and other family members supported the upbringing of about 22 orphan children, most of whom later contributed to the freedom movement with dedication.
At the time of the thread ceremony of his two grandsons Jagat Singh and Bhagat Singh he said, “I dedicate them to the freedom struggle of the nation.”
The eldest son of Arjun Singh was named Kishan Singh (father of Bhagat Singh). At a young age he worked with great dedication for relief work relating to earthquake, flood and drought relief work. Bhagat Singh would also later work with great dedication in flood relief work in Kanpur. Then Kishan Singh joined the freedom struggle with equally strong resolve, helping the Gadar Revolutionary Party effort, going to jail several times and enduring much hardship. He was also active in the efforts for improving jail conditions - again a role that was taken up further by his illustrious son Bhagat Singh.
Kishan Singh’s wife Vidyawati supported her husband bravely in his various activities, apart from helping in bringing up many orphan children. At a later stage, her courage and firm resolve received nationwide admiration. When her son Bhagat Singh had been hanged and her two other sons Kulbir and Kultar as well as daughter Amar Kaur had been arrested, she challenged the colonial government saying, “You can kill me but you can’t make me bend.”
No less inspiring for Bhagat Singh was his uncle Ajit Singh. In cooperation with other leading freedom fighters like Sufi Ambaprasad, Lala Hardayal and Lala Lajpat Rai, he quickly took forward many initiatives like the farmers’ movement against unjust taxes and publication of inspiring literature. Both these aspects were later emphasised also by Bhagat Singh.
Ajit Singh led a successful public agitation popularly known as Pagri Sambhal Jatta, which forced the colonial rulers to withdraw unjust tax rules imposed on farmers. He impressed the freedom movement’s contemporary leader Lokmanya Tilak so much that he said when India becomes free, Ajit Singh should be the first President of India. However due to his brilliance and rapid progress the colonial government was expected to take strong action against Ajit Singh. Already he had been suffering a lot of problems due to repressive actions.
So it was that at the age of 26 he had to leave India and for 37 years he worked for freedom of India in various countries outside India. Bhagat Singh cherished memories and anecdotes about his uncle but he also missed him greatly and was greatly saddened by his absence. Why anyone who wants to devote himself to serving his country and its people cannot remain in his country was a question that troubled him a lot as he gained awareness of the injustices of living under colonial rule at a very young age in the immediate context of his own family.
Ajit Singh’s wife Harnam Kaur came from a family with strong Sufi influences. She helped villagers with educational and medical services, and spun khadi thread, an integral part of the various constructive works taken up by freedom movement. However a great void had appeared suddenly in her life after her husband had to leave the country suddenly and for long years there could be no news even of his whereabouts. She quietly went about her work but her growing sadness and seclusion could be felt clearly by the sensitive child that was Bhagat Singh, and this made him very angry.
Arjun Singh’s third son (and Bhagat Singh's younger uncle) was named Swaran Singh. He started his social activities with working for orphans and for drought and earthquake relief. Then he participated very actively in the freedom movement including the publication of freedom literature. He was arrested and became seriously ill in jail. On his release he couldn’t recover and died at the young age of 23. His wife Hukam Kaur continued to help in the family’s many struggles.
Why was he arrested? Why was his health ruined at such a young age? Why did he have to die? Why did his dear aunty Hukam suffer so much sadness at such a young age? All these questions troubled the mind of the child named Bhagat Singh as he tried to make sense of one tragedy after another in the family. He increasingly linked his family tragedies to the oppressive foreign rule.
Growing up in such a family Bhagat Singh was constantly exposed to stories of glaring injustices of foreign rule, the extreme distress of people and the valour of those who opposed this injustice. The family had a rich collection of literature on these issues and Bhagat Singh started reading all this at a very young age.
From this family which challenged prevailing social and religious norms and supported reforms Bhagat Singh got a strong sense of rationality and reasoning based on reality and facts.
This was a family which despite suffering many-sided oppression and economic loss continued to care for workers, poorer families and orphans. Bhagat imbibed strong concerns of siding with poor and deprived people.
This family had tried to embrace what was best in many rich traditions as well as reform movements and freedom movement, and all this contributed to the very remarkable qualities seen in Bhagat Singh at a very young age.
Bharat Dogra, Jagmohan Singh and Madhu Dogra together with Reshma Bharti have grouped to write two recent books on freedom movement—When the Two Streams Met and Azadi Ke Deewanon Ki Daastaan