History

Sardar Ajit Singh: Freedom Fighter Who Died the Day Independent India Was Born

Singh spent over three decades in exile, networking around the world to consolidate support for India's independence from the British colonial rule.

This Independence Day marks 72 years of India’s liberation from British colonial rule. August 15, 1947, holds a significant place in the history of freedom struggle, when India was born as an independent nation. But many of us may not be aware that it was also the day when India lost Sardar Ajit Singh, who lived in exile for 38 long years fighting for India’s freedom.

Born on January 23, 1881, Ajit Singh was the younger of brother of Sardar Kishan Singh and uncle to Shaheed Bhagat Singh, the visionary and revolutionary thinker. After passing his matriculation exams from the Anglo-Sanskrit High School in Jalandhar in 1894, Singh studied at the DAV College, Lahore. He later took admission at the Bareilly College to study law, but by then, his attention was deflected to the political and social conditions of India.

Sardar Ajit Singh’s taj at the National Gallery of Portraits, Chandigarh

His inclination to take up cudgels on behalf of the poor and against British regime soon became evident. Famines were then stalking the land. Singh, with his brother Kishan Singh, worked among the people in famine-stricken regions like Barar (Madhya Pradesh) and Ahmedabad and in flood-and-earthquake-affected areas of Srinagar and Kangla in 1905. His work among the poor during natural calamities and famines formed the backdrop of his later radical philosophy and politics. He thus embarked on a long political journey that would set him up against the British government and render him an easy target.

In 1907, Ajit Singh was arrested and deported to Myanmar’s Mandalay jail for leading an agitation for peasant rights, popularly known as ‘Pagri Sambhal Jatta’, which planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1857, the first war of Independence. Singh, alongside Congress leaders, mobilised peasants against two new colonial laws, the Colonisation Act and the Doab Bari Act. These laws, instead of providing ownership of land, reduced the status of the peasants to sharecroppers.

Sardar Ajit Singh in India, 1906; living as Mirza Hussain Khan in Iran, 1909; and in Brazil (no date) respectively

After his release from Mandalay prison, Singh attended the Surat session of the Congress and went on to form a revolutionary organisation called the Bharat Mata Society in 1907. He later launched the Bharat Mata Book Agency, which, because of its strident anti-government, propagandist publications, attracted the attention of the British government. Though the government seized many of the publications, they remained highly popular among the people. Many young revolutionaries like Sufi Amba Prasad, Zia-ul-Haq, Lal Chand Falak, Din Dayal Banke, Kishan Singh and Lala Ram Saran Das were among the members of this clandestine organisation.

What strikes as significant in Singh’s eventful, long political journey is his mobility among national and international revolutionaries and the wide sweep of acceptance that he had among them. In his quest for freedom for his country, Singh transcended national and international borders, looking for allies across the world. His ideological influences varied from Sufi to revolutionary radicalism.

Global voyage for India’s freedom

To escape the colonial dragnet, Singh, along with Sufi Amba Prasad, fled to Iran via Karachi in 1909. He lived in the city of Shiraz, under the name Mirza Hasan Khan, earning his living as a teacher. After spending some time in Iran, Singh went to Paris, leaving behind his colleague Amba Prasad to continue with the work in Iran. Amba Prasad was killed in 1917 in Shiraz fighting alongside Iranian nationalists against the British army.

Sardar Ajit Singh (centre) with members of the Bharat Mata Society

In Paris, Singh built a network of solidarity with people who were struggling for India’s liberation in different parts of Europe. He also founded in this period the Indian Revolutionary Association (Bharatiya Krantikari Sangh). All through his political journey, Singh continued to shift base from country to country, building networks of alliances. From Paris, he went to Switzerland, where he became a close participant in the activities of a group of exiles from Turkey, Finland, Arab, Russia, Ireland, Poland and Iran. This was where he also met communist stalwarts like Lenin and Trotsky as well as the fascist leader Mussolini.

In 1913, Singh moved to Germany, but with the First World War hovering on the horizon, he headed to Brazil. There, he developed close links with the Hindustani Gadar Party and its leading members like Bhai Rattan Singh, Teja Singh ‘Swatantra’ and Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga. In 1932, he returned to Europe, where, as he mentions in his autobiography, he met Subhash Chandra Bose.

They tried for a while to get Germany to support the cause of the Indian nationalists, but then gave up after realising Hilter’s real intentions. While in Italy, one of Singh’s most significant achievements was the founding of Azad Hind Fauj. He even tried to enlist Indian soldiers in the British army who were arrested by the Italian government.

Following Italy’s defeat, Singh was arrested by the allied forces in May 1945. He was incarcerated in various jails across Italy and Germany till December the following year. Such a long period of incarceration damaged his health. Meanwhile, India was on the threshold of becoming independent. As the news of Singh’s failing health reached India, his colleagues mounted pressure on Nehru to demand his release.

Sardar Ajit Singh (centre) with Italian revolutionaries

Sardar Ajit Singh with Indian Workers’ Association in London, 1947

Sardar Ajit Singh and his wife, Harnam Kaur, being welcomed in Karachi, 1947

The efforts were successful. Singh reached London in 1946 and from there returned to Karachi. Upon his return after more than three decades, he was received by applauding crowds. The increasing communal violence on the eve of partition, however, left Singh heartbroken. With his health continuing to deteriorate, Singh was taken to the hill station of Dalhousie, where he breathed his last on August 15, 1947, the day India gained independence.

In his last testament, Singh wrote:

“Our poor India is unfortunate to get Balkanised. People living together for centuries were coming closer and closer to each other and had jointly contributed to the culture, civilization and national thought. But ambitious politicians hankering after personal power, under the patronage of foreign rulers, through conspiracy, abuse of religious fanaticism and ignorance of masses, have been busy in doing the greatest disservice to the future generations. The seeds of disunion, sowed by the foreign rulers, have brought forth the tree which is now bearing its calamitous fruit in the shape of vivisection of the motherland. Solid foundations of future troubles have been thus laid down.”

Prof. Jagmohan Singh, a maternal nephew of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, is secretary of the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Research Committee, Ludhiana.

Saurav Kumar is an activist in the field of education and member of the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Research Committee, Ludhiana.