History & Culture Politics

Musings on Martyrdom: Ibaadat sey Shahdat!

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The Cellular Jail, in Port Blair, completed in 1906, is a National Memorial and a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people. Many today would be proud to know that it was in these infamous “cells” great sons of India preferred to perish unknown and unsung, to court a ghastlier form of slow death in fighting for the flag and a nation – yet-to- be. Sunil visits the Cellular Jail and explores the martyr-traitor dichotomy. History is always written from a point of view, a vantage point. It represents the truth of the powers-that- be, containing within it discourses and counter-discourses. Here’s another place and the politics that it represents, in the regular column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Much abused. Much misunderstood. Much revered. A tumult of emotions smothered me. Standing in front of this barbaric Bastille my mind wandered, as I tried to envision echoes of the unheard shrieks, agonised cries, savage bloodletting and animal torture of almost a century. The Cellular Jail, in Port Blair, completed in 1906, is a National Memorial and a place of pilgrimage for all freedom loving people. Many today would be proud to know that it was in these infamous “cells” great sons of India preferred to perish unknown and unsung, to court a ghastlier form of slow death in fighting for the flag and a nation – yet-to- be…

Arjuna stood bewildered and confused in the killing fields of Kurukshetra witness to the macabre and senseless violence of a fratricidal war where the dead included the honoured, friend, family and the faithful. Was this manner of death worthy? Whither Victory? Did this provide true salvation? Was it Martyrdom or just a passionate act of frenzy? Why and against whom this fight? These and many other questions made the mythical warrior vacillate. It took the Lord of Three Worlds Krishna to expound on the “Karma” (Duty) and “Dharma” (righteousness) of it all. In simple terms together the twin objectives came to be understood as – to do one’s duty and not worry about the results. Easier said, perhaps – for it is this conundrum that has left since millennia’s, both devout and non-believers alike struggling to unravel the deeper mysteries of life and living.


From Spartacus, the Black Slave, to the White Jesus of Nazareth, HusseinIbn Ali, the son of Ali of the Battle of Karbala fame to Joan of Arc, our very own Guru Teg Bahadur to a Bhagat Singh the list is long and memorable. The Shaheed’s (martyr’s) Shahadat (martyrdom) or the Golgotha inspire, provoke or get dismissed as per your faith or belief – for they were and are who chose to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles or cause. Their kind started off as pious witnesses only to later also die for this simple act. Bravery, courage or cowardice were attributes added by poets, historians or troubadours. Later still, they became heroes aware of an opposition, yet had the courage and commitment to remain defiant until death. Yes, they sometimes did get commemorated –while tragically thousands were consigned to anonymous graves. Thus, history, folklore and myth meshed and mystified righteous death and martyrdom.

Some of our very beholden got scared too in the self-sacrificing struggle against the British and preferred to sign documents praying for release and never to fight again or for servile gains. They became “collaborators” quite like the Jaychand’s of the yore. Some cases in point are: Sir Shobha Singh, father of Khuswant Singh, Class 1 Contractor for Lutyens Delhi, signed off on Bhagat Singh to aid the British and Veer Savarkar after a decade plus of “privileged incarceration” in the Cellular, whose portrait adorns the Parliament, an acknowledged mentor of the current party in power, pleading for forgiveness from the British and vowing to become a better citizen (whatever that meant)! He perhaps thought living to fight another day and continues to provide clandestine leadership for a Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan was only possible if one was alive and free.

Bhagat Singh, Savarkar

But, before you wonder how shameful it was, pause and reflect; fear of death and love of life is dear to most of us. The whole of Europe is pondering on how to record the role of those that joined hands with the Nazis. Mitterand, the former President of France, was alleged to have been one such. The complicity of the French Vichy regime during the Second Great War with Nazi Germany still finds furious supporters on both sides.

Someone said it is too early yet, to understand the lessons of the French Revolution. It took almost 300 years for the Catholic Vatican to rehabilitate the much-maligned Galileo and acknowledge the mistakes of a bigoted Inquisition of the mid-seventeenth century. Do we then also need to revisit some of our luminescent skeletons of colonial history for a better, if not, sympathetic understanding?

Was Netaji, another luminary and alleged collaborator, any different? I reckon, his United Front tactics (to believe the enemy’s enemy is a friend, albeit temporarily) of joining hands with Nazi Germany and Japan was much like Mao and Chang Kai Shek, Stalin and Hitler Pact of Non-Aggression and many others. This policy to win freedom for a secular undivided India was not only tactically sound but also radical even by contemporary standards. With great prescience, he correctly assessed British India’s weakness and saw in the Second Great War, an immense opportunity to strike at the heart of the colonial masters. Violence was necessary and the true Dharma, he had averred. Without the shedding of blood, there could be no freedom. The Communists had got confused, kowtowed the Soviet Line of siding with the Allied Powers while the Indian National Congress, on its part, followed a policy of strategic appeasement in offering to fight the German-Jap combine. The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, the brick and mortar of the present day BJP, on its part was quite happy in its attempt to make a Hindu India, while befriending the British.

It is a travesty that the Indian National Army (INA) raised from among the Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) held by the Japanese lost, battling fellow Indians in the British Army and those of the Royal Indian Navy Ratings, of 1946, that mutinied against the British masters to help hasten the handing over and transfer of power to India. They were never honoured to become part of the Indian Armed Forces in Independent India. Did they then live and die to achieve martyrdom?


Is a collaborator guilty of treachery? Is he a coward who for personal gain or safety of life trades the country, its freedom, flag or people? Was it then out of a reluctant recognition of necessity or an attempt to exploit it as an opportunity? Was he servile or a tactical ally bound by ideology? Who would be judge and jury or executioner to determine a martyr? The subject of bravery, heroism, cowardice, fear and depravity, ordinary or common in the context of martyrdom, therefore, raises several vexing questions on human behavior with its complexities for a decisive definition or interpretation. Small wonder then that some historians have seen Galileo’s decision to admit error at the famous trial of 1633 as a “final self-degradation”, while others, including Giorgio de Santillana, have seen it as the only rational move open to him: “He was not a religious visionary being asked to renounce his vision. He was an intelligent man, who had taken heavy risks to force an issue and to change a policy for the good of his faith. He had been snubbed; he had nothing to do but pay the price and go home. The scientific truth would take care of itself.”

Trial of Galileo 1633

Since India became independent its uneven development and fractured growth, huge differences between the rich and poor or the majority and minority communities, the disenfranchisement of the tribal and the Dalits, among other things, have raised ugly questions afresh on the basic concept of freedom, egalitarianism, justice and sovereignty. State power has been frequently misused to repress the various voices of dissent, agitations and resistance struggles, who have strongly challenged the meaningless of it all. People’s Movements like Tebhaga, Telengana, the Naxalism, Free Kashmir and the demand of Naga liberation have left many thousands dead, even more embittered. It is today in the crosshairs of what is true martyrdom. In Free India are they to be called, known, reviled or celebrated as terrorists or Freedom Fighters, secessionists or liberators? Is violence against organised state power unconstitutional and only non-violent resistance legit? Is defending and fighting for your legitimate rights fundamental? Will dying in such actions honour them to be called martyrs?

Undeniably, those that give their all for nothing and win everything for the people at large are made of sterner stuff. Philosophically I would dare surmise the struggle for freedom is relentless and inexorable and our present is but milestones of this forward journey? A practical Vibhishan, righteous Karna, dithering Hamlet, a sacrificing Khudiram are the stuff of human imagination and reality all seeking in many ways to liberate the shackled. In this, the numerous struggles of the wretched shall also remain unknown. And until then today’s martyrs shall become tomorrow’s traitors, as new historians not sponsored by the state investigate, scrutinize, reflect, record and inform.

For my part, I hesitate, to call the collaborators “desh-drohi,” while unequivocally, to bend and bow before the martyrs known and unknown: yesterday, now and after! And in silent pranam, bugle the “the Last Post,” for they, deserve to rest in Peace, while we get on with our little lives!

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos sourced by the author.

#Martyrdom #CellularJail #IndianNationalArmy #BhagathSingh #Galileo #Mutiny #Spartacus #Netaji #PortBlair #History #DifferentTruths

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