The Unsung Heroes of the Punjab Land Struggle

Most remarkable about the last three months or so of intense struggle in Punjab are the courage and initiative displayed by the ‘rank and file’ who boldly took the lead – leading the mass arrests, organizing daily protests once leaders had been arrested, and then keeping morale up inside the jails. Countless small incidents are witness to the way in which comrades learnt the lessons of “years in months and of months in days.”

All the efforts of the administration to isolate the leadership from the masses and terrorise the masses into retreating from the struggle came to naught – thanks to the numerous links who kept the movement chain strong with their presence of mind and initiative. A good example is that of Amrik Samao, a 17 year-old RYA activist, who is fatherless and lives in the Mansa party office. He works on the RYA front rather than AISA for the simple reason that his family circumstances did not allow him to continue his studies. He struggles with Marxist literature, nevertheless, asking educated comrades for help. On 21 May, when the police arrested most of the State leadership, Amrik was in the dharna that was cordoned off by the police. Keeping his cool in the face of the police presence, he went to the party office to warn comrades there to leave and avoid arrest. He then locked the office securely and left. He had a sim card but no mobile so he borrowed a mobile from a shop and managed to call Comrade Ruldu who was one of the few leaders not yet in the police net. He reported that nearly 6-700 people had gathered at the dharna site (at 2.30 pm). As advised by Comrade Ruldu, he then returned to the dharna site, addressed the dharna, and encouraged people to court arrest.

Hundreds of those arrested in the morning had been left by the police in far-off villages – but had returned to the dharna, and told the police to jail them, not disperse them. Nearly 3000 people courted arrest that day – although only 1300 people or so were actually taken to jails by the police. Amrik once again evaded arrest, returning to the party office on 22 May to guide the large number of people coming to Mansa from other districts and assign duties. At 10 am, police entered the office. Amrik boldly told them to clear out of the office as police were not allowed inside. After some argument with the city SHO, the police were called off from the office premises and instead posted at the gates. Soon those in the office were arrested but Amrik again gave the police the slip. On 23 May, some press reporters from Delhi wanted someone to guide them to the villages where labourers had occupied panchayat land and built houses – and Amrik took this responsibility. It was only on 24 May that Amrik finally went to jail, leading a contingent from his village to court arrest. His only regret: “Why was I booked only under 107/15, along with the other villagers? Why was I not counted among the ‘instigators’ – after all, I was among the organisers?”

Another interesting instance is that of Punjab Kisan Union activist Lakhwinder Lakhi, who was watching the scene at the dharna site from afar, but was not a participant in the dharna. Seeing a tense situation developing between one group of villagers and the police who was trying to arrest them, and sensing that a cane charge was impending, he walked up to the group and told them, “I’m from your party” and suggested they court arrest and board the police buses. They were from the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha and could not recognise Comrade Lakhi. Only when he called up a MMM activist from their area and let him speak to the villagers did they heed him, and board the police buses. He took the lead and accompanied them, remaining in jail with them for 17 days.

Some RYA activists from Barnala district came to Mansa to protest the police action. When a DSP told them, “Why does this Mansa issue concern you, you better return to Barnala,” one of the comrades retorted, “Shaheed Udham Singh was from Sunam not London – did that stop him from going to London to protest?” First taken aback and then enraged, the DSP ordered his men to “Arrest this Udham Singh first.” The RYA comrades remained in jail for nearly a month.

9 members of the family of our comrades Bikka Singh Mohansinghwala and Mela Mohansinghwala were in jail. After their release, the youngest member – 17-year-old rekha Rani, was the most vocal person at a press conference in Chandigarh. Her grandmother, when approached by some members of the village kulak lobby with offers of ‘help to free her family members from jail,” had told them bluntly to keep their sympathy to themselves – she would take help only from CPI(ML) activists.

I recently received a call from Bhupinder Kaur, and AISA activist, from a dharna at Mansa. She said she had been asked to address the dharna, but “felt very ashamed... they had all been in jail and I had been at home... how could I address them? I feel guilty.” The reality was that she had been unable to court arrest because she had to care for her mother who was suffering from throat cancer.

In Mansa, you can smell the defiance in the air. “Who’s scared of jail?” is something you hear over and over again. For a week from 20 July onwards, Bathinda MP Harsimran Kaur Badal visited several Mansa villages to make the traditional gesture of sisterhood – exchanging chunnis (scarves) with the women of the village. Kulak families would preserve the chunni given by the MP – but the labouring women of Mansa ensured that the chunnis given by her were publicly burnt in protest gatherings in many villages. On 26 July, women held a big gathering in Mansa, to prepare for AIPWA’s march to parliament – and Comrade Jasbir Kaur Nat, just released from jail, attended it.

On 11 August, CPI(ML) leader Bhagwant Singh Samao was shifted from Gurdaspur jail to Bathinda jail. The very next day, he was assaulted inside the jail by those booked for the murderous attack on Bant Singh, who are also in the same jail. On 13-14 August, protest gatherings were held all over Punjab – against the attack on Comrade Bhagwant, demanding release of the CPI(ML) leaders who are still in jail, reiterating the issues of land and livelihood and also protesting against price rise. In Ludhiana on 13 July, workers protested by taking off their shirts and marching to the DC’s office. In Chandigarh, students of Punjab University and Patna Engineering College under the banner of RYA held a dharna against feudal and state atrocities against dalits and women, with a photo exhibition of the struggle. On the 14th, effigy burnings and other demonstrations were held at Mansa, Bathinda, Sangrur and Barnala.

On 20 August, Harsimran Kaur Badal, as part of her ‘thanksgiving’ tour, planned to visit Mansa villages – and some of these villages had witnessed some of the biggest occupations of land as well as mass arrests. When she visited Khyala village, our supporters held a parallel gathering and boycotted the MP’s programme, demanding that she come to their meeting to answer their questions. She refused saying it was not part of her schedule, but offered to meet a 5-member delegation. So the delegation went to the MP’s programme and confronted her with questions about when the Government planned to keep its promises of homestead land for the poor, and why innocent villagers had been arrested. When she failed to answer convincingly, the workers told her she was no longer welcome in the village and every Akali Dal event in the village would be boycotted by the villagers in future. As a result of this experience, the MP cancelled her plans for a grand public gathering at the next village on her itinerary, instead just hastily meeting the sarpanch before returning to Chandigarh.

So all the repression by the Government has only been like fuel to the fire of resistance in Mansa!

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