“He was carrying his revolver when they shot him dead.” The old caretaker at the Ghadar Memorial Hall in Jalandhar takes out a blue handkerchief and spreads its content on the table. There is an old spectacles frame and a blood-stained bus ticket, recovered from Darshan Canadian’s shirt pocket.
“The problem with Comrades is that they are very fond of justifying their viewpoint. When the two young men waylaid him, he got into an argument with them instead of taking out his revolver,” an old associate of Canadian tells us. It was on September 25, 1986 when Darshan Canadian was shot dead by Khalistani terrorists.
In Punjab, the wounds have healed more or less. One deadly decade of terrorism has passed since long. Beyond Punjab, people only know of a super cop and a chief minister who finally led the Khalistani dream to its nemesis. But in Punjab, those who actually offered resistance to the movement without being protected by gun-toting policemen, are part of the folklore, much like Bhagat Singh. These are a handful of Comrades, like Darshan Canadian, who laid down their lives fighting religious fundamentalism. These were the men who were armed only with idealism.
In village Talwindi Salem, the mango tree still exists. Sukhwinder Singh Sandhu takes me there. At first, he talks in a matter-of-fact manner. And then his eyes turn wet. Sandhu vividly remembers that sunny morning on March 23, 1988, when he left his cousin Avtaar Singh ‘Paash’ and his friend Hansraj near the mango tree at the family tubewell. “When we heard the gunshots, Paash’s mother thought that the nearby cold storage was on fire. But I knew “saade ghar te aag lagi hai (it’s our house which has been set afire.)”
The most dangerous thing is to be filled with stillness/Not to feel any agony and bear it all/Leaving home for work and from work return home/The most dangerous thing is the death of our dreams… These lines by Paash, considered by many as Punjab’s most influential revolutionary poet is, in a way, a reflection of his combativeness. In the mid-`80s Paash was the cheerleader of resistance against Punjab terrorism.
Through his writings, he had become a festering wound for fundamentalism. From America, where he had shifted in 1985, he took out Anti-47, a magazine that opposed those who supported Khalistan. “In his village, his friends had advised him to go underground since he was on the hitlist of terrorists,” remembers Sukhwinder. But he had refused. It was on that morning in 1988 when acting upon a tip-off, terrorists lay their hands upon Paash and his friend. After being hit by a bullet on his hand, Paash tried to ecsape but fell down near the mango tree. The terrorists pumped an entire burst into his head. Hansraj was also killed nearby. Paash was 38. Fifty-seven years ago, on the same day, Bhagat Singh had achieved martyrdom.
Not very far from where his brother fell to bullets, Harbans Lal sits in his newly-built bigger home, trying to remember his brother’s journey. “Hansraj was very close to Paash and even in their death they were together,” he says. After Hansraj’s death, the village elders advised him to sell off his land and settle down somewhere else. “But that would have been an insult to Hansraj’s martyrdom,” says Harbans Lal. After his son’s death, their father stopped working in the family fields. In the memory of his late brother, Harbans Lal encouraged his son to become a weightlifter. (“I wanted him to be as physically strong as Hansraj was mentally”).
In retaliation to these killings, their comrades killed a woman and her father in Talwindi Salem. The woman, a supporter of Khalistan, is believed to have passed on information about Paash’s location to his killers.
In Majha area – the worst-affected area during militancy – Harsha Sheena village is the Panjshir of Punjab. Long before Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by two men posing as journalists two days before 9/11, a woman met Hardev Babbu just outside his home.
Babbu and his other comrades had been paying the terrorists back in the same coin – hitting them without waiting for them to attack. In many areas, the fundamentalists would block entry points leading to Hindu households, denying them access to essential commodities like milk and vegetables. But Babbu, a Sikh by birth, would lead his men to break such blockades. It was after a dreaded terrorist, Kuldeep Singh Tolanangal was killed by Babbu’s bullet, that the terrorists decided to annihilate him. But they could not fight back. So they hatched a plan. Posing as a journalist, the woman met Babbu and enticed him to come to Amritsar for an interview. It was there that Babbu was drugged and after being tortured brutally, his head was cut off and hung outside the gurudwara in his village to terrorise his friends. But instead of discouraging people from speaking out against terrorists, such killings motivated men like Tarsem Peter. Four years before Babbu’s barbaric killing, Comrade Baldev Mann was killed by terrorists in Harsha Sheena. “That day, I became a full-time opponent of oppression,” says Peter.
One night, while returning after addressing a public gathering, Peter was stopped by CRPF men. “I told them clearly that I had hidden a revolver under my motorcycle’s seat and that it was meant for self-defence. They let me go,” recalls Peter. Today Peter is the state president of a labour union.
In Lakhan ka Padda village, poet Jaimal Padda was shot dead on March 17, 1988. During the peak of terrorism, Padda would take out processions against Khalistan movement and write against terrorists in his journal. For his departed comrades, he had written a poem: Mitra di yaad nayo pulni (The memory of friends won’t fade away). Long after he is gone, Padda is still remembered by his friends. It is not important to raise statues in memory. Carrying forward his work is how he is being kept alive.
Years after the Khalistan movement withered away, dirty politics has begun once again. Sikh fundamentalist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s portrait has been installed at the SGPC museum in Amritsar. How do those who opposed the idea of Khalistan tooth and nail see it? “The whole politics of Punjab is based on such bogus issues; they are trying to divert peoples’ attention from problems like unemployment, etc.,” says writer Balbir Parwana. “Everything has been commodified,” says Peter. “Recently I saw 10-12 girls in a village bus. All of them wore air-hostess uniforms and wanted to make it big. But the problem is that the so-called university they go to operates from a single room,” he adds. “Some of us frequent a food-stall that sells fish fry. But this evening we couldn’t have it. A prominent politician from Punjab is staying at Radisson Hotel here and he has ordered the entire stock of fish for his chamchas and himself,” another Comrade tells us in Jalandhar.
As the night approaches, I am led to an ahaata (open-air bar) for a few rounds of vodka by some of the Comrades. After three rounds, one Comrade slurringly tells us: “You know, Yudhishtir’s (the eldest of Pandava brothers) chariot used to run two inches above ground since he only used to speak the truth. But after his role in Ashwathama’s death, his chariot hit the ground. If you really ask me, the chariots of today’s politicians have got stuck in the ground since they lie so much.”
Next morning, in Harsha Sheena, Hardev Babbu’s closest friend, Surjit Sheena is sitting outside the CPI-ML office. From the walls, the departed comrades stare back. “There have been some cases recently where postgraduate boys were involved in chain-snatching since there are no jobs,” he rues. I remain silent. After a pause, I ask him, “Do you still remember Comrade Babbu?” He looks at me, and then at Babbu’s picture. There is another pause and then he speaks: “Friends don’t die.”
(This essay first appeared in the year-end special of The Sunday Indian).