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Hazara Singh: The Forgotten Martyr

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

This article was first published on FRONTLINE- THE HINDU on 16/09/2022 "सूरा सो पहचानिए,जो लड़े दीन के हेत,

पुरजा-पुरजा कट मरै तबहूं ना छाडे खेत"

"A true warrior is one who fights for the welfare of the powerless,

a true warrior is one who may be cut down but does not abandon the battle."

Hazara Singh was one such true warrior of the Jamshedpur labor movement who became a martyr 83 years ago, on July 3, 1939. Trade union leader and freedom fighter Hazara Singh joined the Independence struggle at a very young age. Imprisoned several times by the British and betrayed by some of his most trusted comrades, he was an unwavering soul who fought for the people in Punjab, Madras, Port Blair, and the coal fields of Bihar (now Jharkhand) until he finally attained martyrdom in Jamshedpur.

Hazara Singh was born in the early 1910s at Bhalri, Hoshiarpur, Punjab. His real name was Banta Singh.

The first Kirti Kisan Party convention was held in Hoshiarpur on October 6 and 7, 1927, and it was perhaps only then Singh began to interact with the revolutionaries of Kirti Lehar. He was simultaneously also involved with Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

After the arrest of Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, Naujawan Bharat Sabha was banned in 1929. Hazara Singh landed in the Borstal Jail in Lahore with other juvenile revolutionaries. He and his group sneaked in issues of the Civil and Military Gazette, where they read that the Madras Governor Sir George Frederick Stanley made the bold declaration that “people in my region are loyal to the Queen, and under my control, freedom fighters will never find takers in the South”. Enraged, they hatched a plan to assassinate the Governor.

After his release in 1932, Hazara Singh participated in a meeting at a rented house near Jallianwala Bagh. There, Roshan Lal Mehra took the responsibility of arranging funds for political activities while Hazara Singh and others made their way to Madras. Roshan Lal robbed his own house and gave Rs.6,000 to Ram Vilas Sharma, but Sharma was caught and he became a police informer before the money could be passed on.

Another plan was made to rob the Ooty National Bank. Hazara Singh, accompanied by his comrades from the Borstal Jail, namely, Shambhu Nath Azad, Khushi Ram Mehta (also from Hoshiarpur), Nityanand Vats, Bachhu Lal, and Govind Ram Behl, disguised himself as a police officer and executed the robbery on April 28, 1933. Nityanand Vats and Khushi Ram Mehta were caught by the police while Hazara Singh and others managed to escape with a sum of Rs.80,000. Hazara Singh was arrested along with Bachhu Lal a couple of days later, whereas Shambhu Nath Azad was arrested after a five-hourlong encounter on May 4, 1933, in which Govind Ram Behl was shot dead.

On July 7, 1933, Hazara Singh was tried in the Ootacamund Bank Action Case and condemned to life imprisonment under Sections 109, 395, and 397 of the Indian Penal Code. He was sent to Bellary Central Jail and later to Rajahmundry Jail, from where he managed to escape with Prem Prakash Muni and Inder Singh Gadhwali. In 1934, he was arrested again and exiled to the Andaman Islands.

In the 1930s, various political prisoner groups were jailed in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. In prison, Hazara Singh sided with Harekrishna Konar’s “Communist Consolidation” (Bhagat Singh’s associates Batukeshwar Dutt and Shiv Verma were also its members) and the accused in the Chittagong Armory Raid. These revolutionaries ran a study circle in the jail named the Veritable University of Freedom Fighters.

Thus, Hazara Singh had the opportunity to further study communist literature and Marx’s ideas. Along with 400 other political prisoners, he participated in the historic 1937 hunger strike that led to his extradition to India and eventual release. Hazara Singh renewed his political involvement immediately after getting out of jail and joined the Koyalanchal (Jharkhand) labour movement, along with Pramathnath Ghosh and Shyamdev Narayan, who were imprisoned with him in the Cellular Jail. In 1938, Hazara Singh and Pramathnath Ghosh formed the Jharia Colliery Workers Union (JCWU) to unionise the labourers of the coal mines. Abdul Bari, the leader of the Congress Workers’ Union, was designated president of the newly established union. As a result, British officials criticised Bari in a report for supporting radical communists such as Hazara Singh (Bhuli Bisri Kadiyan, Volume 2, Mukutdhari Singh).

The foreign owners of the coal mines (Bird & Co.) refused to recognise the JCWU. Workers at Dhanbad’s Bhadrichak mine went on strike, demanding annual raises, improved working conditions, and action against the oppressions of English officials and manager Morrison. In response to the demands of the Bhadrichak workers, Hazara Singh and Shyamdev Narayan led rallies in Loyabad and Modidih, where thousands of workers participated in chanting “Lal Jhande ki Jai”. After about a four-monthlong struggle, Mukutdhari Singh and Shyamdev Narayan finally held talks with the management and succeeded in securing victories for the miners.

In Jamshedpur, 1939 was a tumultuous year. While the Tata management (of Tata Iron and Steel Company, TISCO) was preparing to commemorate the birth centenary of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata on March 3, the workers declared a boycott of the celebrations. Professor Abdul Bari defied senior Congress leaders by siding with the workers.

Some relatives of Kirti Kisan Party leader Baba Bujha Singh (who subsequently became a prominent leader of the Naxalite movement in Punjab) used to own a soda water business in Jamshedpur. Hence, when Bujha Singh heard of the struggle of the workers of Jamshedpur, he promptly deployed comrade Achar Singh Chinna to Jamshedpur so that the party might mobilise the workers.

But Chhinna, who was on the run, in connection with the Fatehwal murder case, could not stay there for long and escaped to the Soviet Union with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in April 1939. Hazara Singh attended the secret Kirti Party convention at Chak Maidas village near Hoshiarpur, where he was tasked by the party’s senior leaders with intensifying the movement in Jamshedpur (From Ghadar to Naxalbari- Baba Bujha Singh, An Untold Story, by Ajmer Sidhu).

When Hazara Singh arrived in Jamshedpur he became active among workers of the Indian Steel and Wire Products (ISWP), a company started by the Punjabi businessman Sardar Bahadur Inder Singh in 1920. Baldev Singh, his son, served as the company’s director.

Inder Singh and the government had invited Abdul Bari in November 1937 to lessen the influence of the lawyer-trade unionist Manek Homi since Bari had influence with the British administration. The Bihar Labour Enquiry Committee papers and Inder Singh’s interviews attest that the management was blatantly anti-union. (In March 1938, the Government of Bihar established the Bihar Labour Enquiry Committee, chaired by Dr Rajendra Prasad, to investigate the conditions of industrial labour in the state and to make such recommendations as may appear practicable with the goal of improving the level of wages and working conditions of industrial workers.)

The Bari-led Wire Product Workers’ Union in ISWP was formed in late 1938, but it was unrecognised and remained inactive despite many of the union officials being fired from their jobs. Apart from that, the management used thugs to beat up the agitators and the foreman used to humiliate and beat the workers (Majdoor Aandolan Ka Itihas (Jamshedpur 1920-2000), by C.S.P. Yadav).

On June 28, 1939, the workers filed a formal complaint against the foreman, Amar Singh, and, as a result, one of the complainants was fired on June 30. On July 1, Amar Singh entered the workplace with his double barrel rifle to terrify the rest of the workers, testing their patience. Workers walked out en masse. (The Politics of Labor Under Late Colonialism, by Dilip Simeon).

Meetings were conducted in the labour settlements under the communist banner, led by Hazara Singh and supporters of Bari, and the workers were galvanized to go on strike. OnJuly 2, the striking workers picketed the ISWP gate, blocking it. Some of the company’s lorries wanted to take workers who did not participate in the strike into the company. Amar Singh himself was sitting next to the driver Joda Singh.

The workers surrounded the lorry and Hazara Singh stood in front of the lorry, placing his hand on the bonnet. When the lorry moved forward slightly, Hazara Singh took a few steps back. Eyewitnesses claim that Baldev Singh came up to the balcony of the company general office and ordered the driver to proceed. When the driver refused, Amar Singh took over the steering and ran the lorry over Hazara Singh and another labourer, Pyara Singh, into the company premises.

The shouts of “Maar Diya, Maar Diya” (killed him, killed him) resonated, and the workers who were in the lorry also came out by breaking the gate. Both men were immediately taken to the hospital in critical condition where Hazara Singh was declared dead late in the night(as recorded in an interview of eyewitness Sadhuram Sharma, a retired ISWP worker, by Dilip Simeon on 8 April 1981).

The attitude of the court and the British government towards Baldev Singh, Amar Singh, and Joda Singh was extremely soft. Late in October 1939, Magistrate Bajpai passed the judgment in the Hazara Singh case. Instead of murder, sections of irresponsible driving were imposed on them, the punishment for which was a small fine.

Foremen Amar Singh and driver Joda Singh were prosecuted for causing death by ‘rash and negligent driving’ instead of murder. The magistrate acquitted both the accused, stressing the fact that Hazara Singh was an ex-Andaman Convict. The magistrate went on to say that Hazara and Pyara Singh were “behaving in a manner too risky to themselves... and there are indications to suggest that the story was invented to fit in with the injury reports (Searchlight Magazine, 18 November 1939).

Thousands of labourers attended Hazara Singh’s last rites. Peasant leader Sahajanand Saraswati challenged the ISWP and Tata management from the stage of the first Singhbhum District Farmers Conference held in Ghatshila on July 3-4, where he called Hazara Singh a martyr and inspired the workers to stay organised.

Baldev Singh went on to become the first Defence Minister of Independent India. He played a major role in making Kashmir a part of India and suppressing the Telangana peasant rebellion. Today, after 83 years of the martyrdom of Hazara Singh, Jamshedpur has almost forgotten him. There is not even a small monument for such a revolutionary in the city.

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