Today on 23rd February, the farmers at Delhi borders are celebrating ‘Pagdi Sambhal Jatta’ day on the 140th birth anniversary of the revolutionary and peasant leader Ajit Singh.
Sardar Ajit Singh was the hero of the “Pagdi Sambhal Jatta Movement”. This movement had spread far beyond the peasants to engulf the army.
In 1906, he along with other peasants from Punjab organised large agitation against anti-farmer laws known as the Punjab Colonisation Act (Amendment) 1906 and administrative orders.
At that time peasants in Punjab had been on the boil against the new colonial laws – the new Colonisation Act and the Doab Bari Act.
The British government had constructed canals to draw water from the Chenab river and take it to Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) to set up settlements in uninhabited areas. Promising to allot free land with several amenities, the government had persuaded peasants and ex-servicemen from Jalandhar, Amritsar, and Hoshiarpur to settle there. Peasants from these districts left behind land and property settled in the new areas and toiled to make the barren land fit for cultivation. But as soon as they had done so, the government had enacted the new laws to declare itself master of this fertile land, denying the farmers the right to ownership! The peasants could neither fell trees on these lands nor build houses or huts nor even sell or buy such land and only the eldest son was allowed to have access to the land tilled by his father. Any failure to comply led to the land becoming the property of the government. Of the taxes levied in lieu of canals to irrigate these 20 lakh acres of land, the government had not only got back its initial investment, but it was also able to extract more than 7 lakh rupees per annum on the abpashi tax.
Ajit Singh and his comrades built up a popular mass resistance on these issues. Congress failed to lead this movement, arguing that the Bill had already been passed as a Law. It was then that the peasants accepted the leadership of Ajit Singh and his Bharat Mata society, which was waging a fearless resistance to the anti-peasant laws.
In no time, Lahore and its neighbouring areas saw a veritable wave of rallies, demonstrations, and mass conventions attended by thousands of people. These meetings discussed these repressive laws as well as the true picture of the nation ravaged by British colonialism and ended with a rousing call for an all-out rebellion against the foreign rule. A ban was issued from listening to Ajit Singh’s speeches.
In a mammoth rally at Lyallpur on 3rd March 1907, Banke Dayal, the editor of the newspaper, Jhang Syal, introduced his song, “Pagdi sambhal Jatta, Pagdi Sambhal oye”. It soon became the very symbol and soul of the movement.
Sardar Ajit Singh and Indian Freedom Struggle
He was an early protester in the Punjab region of India who challenged British rule and openly criticized the Indian colonial government. In May 1907, With Lala Lajpat Rai, he was exiled to Mandalay in Burma. Due to great public pressure and apprehension of unrest in the Indian Army, the bills of exile were withdrawn and both men were released in October 1907.
With his brothers Kishan Singh (1878 – 5 July 1951) and Swaran Singh (1887 – 20 July 1910), and Sufi Amba Parshad, he continued publishing political literature about how the British Government of India was planning to arrest them and put them in prison long-term. Along with Sufi Amba Parshad, he escaped to Iran in 1909, remaining in exile for 38 years. He returned to India in March 1947, breathing his last on the morning of 15 August 1947 at Dalhousie, Punjab, the very day India was declared independent of British rule.
Sardar Ajit Singh was an inspiration for his nephew Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh later became and still remains an inspiration himself for the future young generations.