Sardar Ajit Singh, uncle of more famous Indian hero Bhagat Singh was born on 23rd February 1881 at Khatkar Kalan village in then Jalandhar district of pre-partition Punjab, the month and year in which The Tribune also came into existence in Lahore. The ancestors of Ajit Singh had come over to village Garh Kalan, as it was named earlier, from Narli village in Amritsar district, in a marriage contract with the local feudal lord and the fort home of the owner was given as Khat (Dowry) as was called in Punjabi. The village came to be known as Khatkar Kalan later. During Ranjit Singh regime, a Sikh national flag used to be unfurled in family yard, the place was called Jhndaji. The ancestors took part in Anglo Sikh wars against Britishers in 1845-46, for which they lost some jagirs. Grandfather of Ajit Singh, Kishan Singh (father of Bhagat Singh) and Swaran Singh, three brothers, was Fateh Singh, who used to narrate that how he was approached to cooperate with Britishers to recover jagirs, but he bluntly refused to cooperate with them, even if it meant loss of more jagir. While Arjan Singh, father of three brothers, was a staunch nationalist, an uncle Surjan Singh was a British toady, to whom Ajit Singh reacted very sharply from childhood. All three brothers had their Matriculation from Sain Das Anglo Sanskrit school Jalandhar, which still exists. Later Ajit Singh had his law education from Bareilly college. During his college days in Bareilly in 1903, Ajit Singh with elder brother Kishan Singh had gone to Delhi to meet Indian Princes, who had come to attend Delhi Durbar called by Viceroy Lord Curzon. They tried to impress upon princes to fight against British rulers. They were in close touch with Motilal Ghosh, proprietor of Amrit Bazar Patrika from Calcutta and Kali Purson Chatterjee editor of The Tribune at that time. In 1903, Ajit Singh was married to Harnam Kaur, adopted daughter of Dhanpat Rai of Kasur of Sufi faith.
This was beginning of revolutionary activities of Ajit Singh, who was 22 at that time. Both brothers attended 1906 Congress session at Calcutta, which was presided over by Dada Bhai Naroji. They sided with Bal Gangadhar Tilak variant of Congress party. Returning to Punjab, they formed Bharat Mata society, which was called Anjuman-i-Mohabban-e-Watan in Urdu and started holding its meetings in their office called Bharat Mata Mandir. Society published many strong anti-British pamphlets in Urdu, sold from Bharat Mata Book Centre. Other members of society were Sufi Amba Prasad, Ghasita Ram, poet Lal Chand Falak, Nand Kishore Mehta, Lala Ramsaran Dass, Dhanpat Rai, Pindi Das, Jaswant Rai, proprietor of The Panjabee, Zia Ullah etc. 1907 was the fiftieth anniversary year of 1857 war of independence against British rulers. Three black laws were brought against farmers of Punjab at that time-1. The Punjab Land colonisation Bill of 1906, which introduced inheritance by primogeniture, threatening the lands of farmers to be snatched as they are fearing now. The Bari Doab canal act by which rates of water were increased, and 25% increase in revenue rates.
Between March and May a number of meetings were held in different cities of Punjab to oppose the three laws, described as black laws by farmers. On 22nd March 1907 at one of the largest meetings held at Lyallpur, Lala Banke Dayal, editor Jhang Syal recited his now classic poem-Pagdi Sambhal Jatta and afterwards the movement of peasantry got the nomenclature of Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement. Lord Morley, Secretary of State for India told British Parliament that in all 33 meetings were held in Punjab, out of which Ajit Singh had addressed 19 meetings as main speaker. Ajit Singh was a powerful speaker and audience remained spell bound. One of most effective speech which he delivered on 21st April at Rawalpindi, was described highly seditious by British officials and a case under 124-A of sedition was registered against him later. Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-chief of British forces in India was so terrified by farmers becoming rebellious that he reported about military and police as no more reliable, since most of jawans in these forces came from peasant homes. Ultimately the three laws were cancelled in May 1907, but Lala Lajpat Rai was arrested on 9th May and Ajit Singh on 2nd June 1907. Both were deported to Mandalay prison in Burma for six months under regulation-III of 1818. Lala Lajpat Rai had petitioned British officials about his unjust detention, but Ajit Singh did not petition. Both were released on 11th November 1907.
In between Bhagat Singh was born on 28th September 1907 and Swarn Singh and Kishan Singh, who also were jailed during farmers movement, had also been released from prisons around the time, so he was named as Bhagan Wala-Bhagat Singh.
In December 1907 Ajit Singh and Sufi Amba Prasad attended Congress session at Surat, where Tilak presented him with a Taj-Crown, as king of peasantry, which still is preserved. After return from Surat, they set up Tilak Ashram in Lahore to propagate Tilak’s ideas.
As British officials were getting very hostile and Ajit Singh could be arrested and even executed in some case, he along with Sufi Ambaprasad and few more, left for Iran from Karachi by ship. Then his life as globe trotter began, in similar trajectory as with Udham Singh and Netaji Subhash Bose. He took the name Mirza Hassan Khan and staying till 1914 in Iran, Turkey, Paris and Switzerland, reached Brazil, where he spent 18 years of his life from 1914 to 1932. From 1932 to 1938, he remained in Europe-in Switzerland mostly. Every where he was teaching oriental languages to foreigners for living and he had learnt forty languages. Family got first news of him from his letter to his father-in-law Dhanpat Rai in 1912 and then only in 1928, when Agnes Smedley an American sympathiser author of Indian and Chinese revolutionaries wrote to B S Sandhu(Bhagat Singh) on 17th March 1928 c/o Avinash Chander ( A C) Bali at Lahore informing him of Ajit Singh Address in Rio-de-janairo. A C Bali, who was first puzzled, later opened the letter. A C Bali who was part of Bhagat Singh movement in Lahore, later remained senior journalist as part of The Tribune. He described this in his article on Ajit Singh in a collection. As per Bali, Bhagat Singh’s last wish before being executed was –‘his uncle may not be allowed to die in foreign country’. Bhagat Singh had been trying to get his uncle’s whereabouts through his friends especially Amar Chand, who has gone to US for higher studies. Ajit Singh also tried to get Bhagat Singh out of India to save him from gallows.
There is a long torturous story of Ajit Singh life in exile, where in Italy, he even created Azad Hind Lashkar of 11000 army men, met Netaji Subhas Bose in Italy, in Switzerland, he met Lala Hardyaland Champak Raman Pillai; Lenin and Trotsky, also Musolini. Finally, due to intervention of Jawahar Lal Nehru, who had become interim Prime Minister of India, Ajit Singh was released from a prison in Germany and returned to India via London on 7th March 1947, spending two months in London with Indian nationalists to recuperate from ill health. In Delhi, he was guest of Pandit Nehru. After return to Lahore on 9th April, he was given tumultuous welcome. To recuperate, he went to Dalhousie in July 1947, to return by September, but on 14-15th August 1947 midnight, after listening to Pandit Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, he felt overwhelmed and by saying Jai Hind, he breathed his last at about 3.30 am. He was to address public meeting to celebrate Indian freedom after day break. Now his memorial at Panjpola in Dalhousie is a place for paying tributes to the great revolutionary freedom fighter and leader of Indian farmers struggle for justice!
Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary advisor, Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre New Delhi. Email: Prof.firstname.lastname@example.org