Defiant souls

by Rubina Faisal ( translated from Urdu column )

Throughout ages and more so today, no tyranny is more brutal than state tyranny. Heart rending atrocities, bribes, propaganda, lies, buying humans, and shaping false narratives-all add to the state’s might. However, a rare and noble breed of humans, freedom-craving slaves, have resisted the state to endow dignity to their nations. Most perished at the hands of the state, but liberated millions in their death.

“Indians and Dogs not allowed”

It was the British Raj, and such signs and boards were the norm and not an aberration. But even in those days of general acceptance of such humiliation, , there were upright Indians who wanted to change the status quo, who wanted social justice for fellow Indians and their nation. A few such Indian young men founded the Ghadar Party, thousands of miles away, in North America.

When the British government rounded up young men from Punjab to forcibly recruit them into the British Army, and also due to the humiliating social status and poverty in Punjab, they fled to the West. However, little respite was found. A slave at home was treated as a slave abroad. It is difficult to imagine this as I live and breathe in my home in Canada, but at that juncture in history, humans were not equal even in UK, Canada and the US. They were treated as badly as African slaves. The white man was superior, the black a slave, and the brown held hateful. Indians had to face overt discrimination at airports, hotels, buses, trains and schools.

A emancipation attempt was made by Baba Gurdeet Singh, who hired a ship from Singapore, “Gomakata Maru, ” boarded it with Indians who wanted out, and set out for Vancouver in 1914 , only to be intercepted and sent back without Canada admitting most of the passengers. The ship remained on Vancouver docks for two weeks, but negotiations failed. Carrying tired, haggard, and broken passengers, the ship reached Calcutta. The “rebels” were told to take trains to Punjab by police. Fearless due to failure and fatigue, they took to the streets of Calcutta, protesting. On their own soil, they were fired at indiscriminately and without remorse by the British, killing 18 and injuring many.

The reaction to the Calcutta killings was felt in another continent. The spirit of freedom, dignity and defiance then filled the heart of Kirtar Singh and his fellow Indians in San Francisco. They started making plans for a revolt against the British. Kirtar Singh came to India in February 1915, but was given away by someone more beholden to the state than to his own people. The British were merciless. 145 were hung and many sent to faraway islands. The might of the state was too mighty.

The spirits, defiant and unbroken, went elsewhere. On 1st December 1955, an exhausted Rosa Parks, a black woman, got out of a departmental store in Montgomery and boarded a bus. Buses had separate sections for blacks and whites, and blacks had to board from the front, pay the fare, and then board from the back, to sit on “their seats.” Bus conductors had police powers. If whites outnumbered their seats, conductors would de-seat blacks from their designated seats and give them to white passengers. If the black passenger resisted, the protestor would be handed over to police. That day too, whites outnumbered their seats. 4 blacks were ordered to leave their seats for the white passengers. Three immediately obeyed-it was normal practice after all. Rosa refused. She said later, “it was not the fatigue of work that made me refuse, but the fatigue of leaving my seat day after day.” She was bundled out to jail under section 11. The spirit of defiance against injustice, that had been crushed on the Gomakata Maru, was again born in the Montgomery bus and Rosa Parks. This time the state did not win- and the weak black woman won. She, along with Edgar Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr, laid the foundation of the modern civil rights movement. Martin Luther Jr said in his first public speech , “ We had no other means left except protesting. We had been patient, suffering year after year. We even used to pretend in front of our white brothers that we liked discriminatory treatment. But today we have gathered to bury this patience and we now demand justice and freedom,” and then famously “"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Much before Martin Luther King and Kirtar Singh, in 1893, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi saw the face of apartheid. He was made to disembark the first class cabin in Durban on a Praetoria-bound train, because he was an Indian. It hit his self esteem so hard that he refused to travel. He spent the night shivering in the cold, and kept griping and grieving on the injustice meted out to him. He vowed that day that he would protest this injustice one day, and would save not only himself, but his nation too, from racial apartheid.

The struggle of oppressed people to assert their dignity, self respect, self esteem, and determine their own destiny lives on. The fire to fight for the dignity of his nation was ignited in innocent, shiny eyed, Burhan Wani when Indian forces beat him and his innocent brother. Like Rosa Parks, the 15 year old son of a school teacher and a hafiza would have forgotten the physical pain of the inhuman beating, but could not let go of the humiliation he and his brother suffered, which stuck in his soul. It was then that the centuries old souls of slaves fighting to free themselves from the shackles of indignity and humiliation permeated the young Burhan. Rosa Parks whispered in his ears, “ it is not work, but the humiliation of vacating my seat repeatedly that I will fight against.” Martin Luther King Jr said , “We have no option left but to protest.” Gandhi jee said, I will always keep fighting against injustice for and atrocities against humans.” Kirtar Singh said, “I have one desiere and that is freedom.”

He shouted, “Give Kashmiris the right to live.”

But then a strange chapter of history was written.

Another freedom craving Kirtar Singh was killed in the jail of another freedom fighter, Gandhi.

But the spirits won’t perish. They will reappear, again and again, till injustice ends.

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