A Popular Annual Mela in Jalandhar Celebrates Resistance and Diversity

The event has popularly come to be known as ‘Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da (Fair of Ghadar Veterans).

Jalandhar: For the last 27 years, various progressive and secular forces have been coming together in Punjab for three days in autumn to celebrate the ideals of Ghadarites and reaffirm their commitment towards liberty, equality and fraternity. The event has popularly come to be known as ‘Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da (Fair of Ghadar Veterans).

Despite the tumultuous socio-political environs of Punjab, people have been coming from remote corners of the state to the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall in Jalandhar every year to celebrate the diversity of thought and culture. This year was special, as groups across the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of thinker and philosopher Karl Marx. The fact that the event took place at a time when people face challenges from the government when it comes to airing dissent, upholding diversity and protecting the secular and democratic institutions of the land also made a difference.

The fair concluded at 4 am on Friday, after all-night performances of plays, progressive songs, dance and revolutionary poetry by renowned artists. While the first two days of the mela are always dedicated to children’s competitions on democratic themes, kavi darbars and ideological seminars, it has always been the concluding day – of cultural performances – that draws the maximum crowd. The performers ask the government – both at the Centre and in the state – important questions that matter to the people.

Book stalls are set up at the venue each year, selling the best literature from across the globe, mostly translated into Punjabi.

People looking through the books available at the fair. Credit: Rajeev Khanna

A free kitchen runs on all three days, serving basic hot meals of lentils, chapattis and rice, along with steaming cups of tea. Most of the cooking material is donated by the people attending, particularly those residing in the nearby villages. The donors also include some gurudwaras.

“There is no dearth of donors to give us food grains and other raw material. Our problem is that we not have a cadre to reach out to villages in large numbers,” said one of the organisers, Kesar Singh.

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In the present era, when right-wing forces have announced the demise of progressive politics, it came as a surprise to see people taking selfies along with a poster of Marx in the background. Every now and then, the venue would reverberate with slogans hailing Ghadar veterans, followed by loud ‘Red Salutes’ as one group after the other made its entry.

From 1992 to today

The fair has an interesting past. It began in 1992, started by members of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Committee when Punjab was passing through its dark days of militancy. That year was also a landmark in Indian history – barely one month after the fair, India witnessed the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Sangh parivar affiliates.

Eminent political and cultural activist Amolak Singh, who has been associated with organising the event right from the start, says, “That was an era when we faced repression from the state on one side and terror from Khalistani elements on the other. The idea behind starting this event was to bring before the masses the genuine history of the country, which mainstream political parties have always ignored. The purpose was to tell them about the movements like the Ghadar movement, the Kirti movement, the Babbar Akali movement, the contributions of Naujawan Bharat Sabha and its leader Bhagat Singh, the contribution of the Indian National Army in context of the Singapore Mutiny and the Naval Mutiny at Bombay, the Komagatamaru episode and its fall out.”

Every year, he says, he event has focused on one major historical event. While the first year the focus was the Ghadar movement, this time it was Marx’s 200th anniversary.

Various events at this year’s mela focused on the use of religion to subvert secular institutions, the threat to the right to dissent, the undermining of the various institutions and the divisive politics of caste and communalism being promoted by those in power.

“In the case of Punjab, the issues of the masses remain unanswered. The drug menace remains rampant. The farmer remains indebted and the agrarian crisis persists. Punjab is also witnessing a brain drain in terms of the youth fleeing to settle abroad. All this has to be linked, which is not being done,” Amolak Singh adds.

A performance at the Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da. Credit: Rajeev Khanna

The mood of those attending the mela could be gauged from their responses to performances. Local cultural activists like Jagseer Jeeda drew thunderous applause. Jeeda’s lyrics raised local political issues: “Rs 5,600 di bhed vik gayi, Rs 400 nu vote vik gayi (While sheep can be sold for Rs 5,600, the politicians purchase avote for Rs 400)” or “Kehde baajan di dhaad nu chunanan, chidiyan nu haq votan da (The sparrows have been given voting rights to choose their predators)”.

He did not even spare the Sikh clergy, saying they were busy fighting on religious matters while ignoring the plight of the masses: “Aakhde France vich pag nu hai khatra, paagon paggi ho gaye Khalse (The guardians of faith are worried about threat to the turban in France, and on the other side they do not think twice before tossing each others’ turbans)”.

Some changes needed

Those who have been visiting the fair over the years point out that the picture is not as rosy as it appears to a first-time visitor. The crisis of the Left and progressive forces is making its presence felt here as well.

“The number of book readers is on the decline. The colleges do not have many students enrolling for graduate and post graduate courses in humanities. Everyone is trying to enrol for tutorials that help them go abroad. They do not have time or the inclination for reading good literature, and we are stuck with readers who are ageing,” pointed out Preeti Shelly, a publisher and student of Punjabi University at Patiala who has been bringing out Punjabi translations of the works of Rumi, Franz Kafka and Pablo Neruda.

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But the consistent presence of stalls selling Islamic books and an increase in those selling Dalit literature along with attractive copies of the Indian constitution is adding to the choice of titles available and promoting diversity.

There is a perception that even the artists need to reinvent themselves and bring fresh themes and forms before the audience, keeping in mind the contemporary socio-political and socio-economic developments. They point out that plays with scripts that were relevant a decade or two ago need to be replaced with fresh ones. Many feel that the organisers also need to make space for young people to take the initiative forward.

Events like the mela appear to serve as an inspiration for Punjab’s poor, and for the social movements they are a part of. Eight- to ten-year-olds can be seen carrying posters with lines from poets like Avtar Singh Paash or Bertolt Brecht, teenagers purchase t-shirts with Bhagat Singh on them, college-going youth scramble for the works of Gorky or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and farmers depart with red flags at dawn, with a promise to return with renewed zeal next year.

Rajeev Khanna has been a reporter for the last 23 years, with a special interest in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat politics, and has worked in print, radio, TV and online media