Abhey Singh Sandhu Kept Bhagat Singh's Legacy Alive in Every Way He Could

His death due to COVID-19 is a big loss to his family, friends and colleagues, as well as to social justice movements in India.

At around 6 pm on May 14, I received news that Abhey Singh Sandhu, from Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s family, had passed away. Since the announcement was not posted by Sandhu’s family members, I was unsure of its veracity. However, after calling Kiranjit Singh Sandhu, another nephew of Bhagat Singh’s in Saharanpur, this heartbreaking piece of news was confirmed. Of the many appalling events to have taken place in the time of COVID-19, on a personal level, this was the worst.

Bhagat Singh’s family was a large one. In his own generation, there were nine brothers and sisters, the last of whom, Bibi Prakash Kaur, passed away in 2014 in Canada. The eldest brother, Jagat Singh, passed away as a child. After the unmarried Bhagat Singh was martyred, the entire family shifted to their ancestral haveli in Jalandhar district’s Khatkar Kalan village after Partition in 1947.

Two of the brothers, Kulbir Singh and Kultar Singh, shifted to Saharanpur while two younger ones, Ranvir Singh and Rajinder Singh, shifted to the Bazpur area of the Terai region after acquiring some land there. The three sisters – Bibi, Amar and Kaur – had already been married and were in East Punjab, and two others – Bibi Prakash Kaur and Bibi Sumitra Devi (Kausalya) – were married in Indian Punjab. With a number of nephews and nieces from siblings and their progenies, Bhagat Singh’s family is spread all over India and abroad.

Abhey Singh Sandhu was born on October 20, 1956, to the family of Kulbir Singh, Bhagat Singh’s younger brother. Abhey was one of four siblings. His elder brother, Babar Singh, had passed away many years ago. One of his sisters, Varsha Basi, lives in the US while another, Rubi, lives in Ludhiana. Of his two children, Abhitej Singh Sandhu died in an unfortunate road accident in Himachal Pradesh in 2016 and his daughter, Anupriya, lives in Ludhiana with her six-year-old child. Abhey was married to Tejvinder Sandhu, from a communist family.

Also read: Remembering Bhagat Singh’s Revolutionary Political Thought

Abhey himself was quite politically active and took steps to promote Bhagat Singh’s ideas in society. On Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary in 2007, Sandhu got his jail notebook with Punjabi and Hindi translations along with Bhagat Singh’s own handwritten pages published by the governments of Punjab and Haryana. These publications were distributed to people for free and can perhaps still be acquired from both state governments’ stores. The entire extended family, including Abhey and his wife, joined the function to inaugurate Bhagat Singh’s 18-feet-tall bronze statue installed in the parliament complex on August 15, 2008, by the then President Pratibha Patil.

Abhey was also one of the founders of the People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) started by Manpreet Singh Badal after his split from his uncle, Prakash Singh Badal, in 2011. Even to this day, Manpreet proudly recognises Abhey as his comrade in the PPP. After the party was dismantled when Manpreet joined the Congress, Abhey was drawn towards the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab.

Abhey had contested the Punjab assembly elections as a candidate from both the PPP and later AAP but failed to score a victory. However, his son Abhitej was more successful in his political ventures and had worked in the Aam Admi Party’s youth wing. Abhitej was able to carve out a niche for himself in politics in a short time. He was close to AAP’s central leadership as well and would have likely emerged as a candidate for the 2017 Punjab assembly elections had the accident not claimed his life. After his tragic death, his parents set up the Abhitej Foundation to carry forward their son’s mission of promoting Bhagat Singh’s thought among India’s youth.

With this mission in mind, Abhey, his wife and daughter all participated in the farmers’ movement and regularly visited Samyukat Kisan Morcha sit-ins on Delhi’s borders. They were honoured by the SKM on February 21, on the occasion of the 140th birth anniversary of Abhey’s grand uncle Ajit Singh, who had launched the Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement in 1907 to oppose three anti-farmer laws of British times. The irony is that even British colonial rulers repealed these laws within three months, but the Modi government is proving crueller than the British government.

Abhey and his family visited the farmers’ protest on March 8, for the planned women’s day programme. He was invited by young activists in Rajasthan on March 23 to unveil statues of Bhagat Singh set up in several towns. On March 27, Abhey unveiled a statue of Bhagat Singh in Karanpur, Rajasthan, according to his Facebook post. It seems that on returning from Rajasthan, he fell ill and was admitted to Fortis Hospital, Mohali after tested positive for COVID-19.

In 2016, when Abhitej was leaving for Himachal Pradesh on a personal visit, he promised that on his return, he would accompany me to meet Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi, to set up the Bhagat Singh Archives in the Delhi Archives building. I was ready to gift my collection of nearly 2,000 books, journals and letters of the revolutionary freedom fighters and many documents collected from various archives on the revolutionary aspects of the Indian freedom struggle. He never returned from Himachal, but AAP activist and leader Atishi Marlena facilitated the same meeting with Sisodia in 2017 and Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre finally became a reality.

Also read: Ninety Years Later, Bhagat Singh and His Comrades Live On in India’s Million Mutinies

On March 23, 2018, the archive was inaugurated by Delhi minister Gopal Rai along with a two-day national seminar on Bhagat Singh. As per the agreement signed with the Delhi government, an advisory committee of eminent historians was set up to guide its activities. From Bhagat Singh’s family, Abhey was made a member of the advisory committee of the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre. He took a keen interest in this resource centre and participated in the meeting held in 2018. He also took part in the first anniversary function of the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre held in March 2019.

I had regular conversations in meetings with Abhey and once we travelled together to Suratgarh in Rajasthan for a programme on Bhagat Singh. On our way we visited the famous Kalian Banga, an ancient archival site, and the Sangria educational hub.

Our regular phone conversations continued during COVID-19, but we had not spoken for the last two months. As per information gathered from his daughter Anupriya, Abhey was kept in the COVID-19 ward till April 25, during which time his wife and daughter could only video chat with him. Around April 27, he was declared COVID-19 negative and shifted to another observation ward. He could meet his wife and daughter there, but not for long. He still had serious health problems. He passed away on May 14 evening.

The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, in a statement, has said that Abhey was a big supporter of the farmers’ movement and had even offered to go on an indefinite hunger strike if farmers’ demands were not met. They termed his death a big loss for the moment.

Chaman Lal is a retired professor from JNU and is honorary advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, Delhi Archives.