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Explained: Controversy over Bhagat Singh photograph at Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann’s office

A photograph of Bhagat Singh in Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann's office has run into a controversy. What is the objection? How has Singh's family responded?

Written by Divya Goyal , Edited by Explained Desk | Ludhiana |
Updated: March 23, 2022 7:05:25 am
Bhagat Singh photograph at Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann's office; An illustration of Bhagat Singh.

Two days after the AAP’s Bhagwant Mann took over as chief minister of Punjab, the photograph of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh installed at his office has run into a controversy. Mann—who chose Bhagat Singh’s ancestral village, Khatkar Kalan in Nawanshahr district, to take his oath—has always idolised Bhagat Singh, expressing that he wants to create a Punjab that the freedom fighter had dreamt of. However, the basanti (yellow) turban Bhagat Singh is seen wearing in the photo is being objected to, primarily for the photo’s lack of authenticity. However, according to Bhagat Singh’s family, what should matter is his vision, not the colour of his turban in the picture.

Why has Bhagat Singh’s photo been put up at CM Bhagwant Mann’s office?

Even before the Punjab poll results were declared, AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal and the party’s chief ministerial face, Bhagwant Mann, had announced that if the party came to power, the photos of Bhagat Singh and Dr BR Ambedkar would adorn the walls of government offices, moving away from the tradition of putting the chief minister’s photos.

Mann has been an ardent follower of Bhagat Singh, who was hanged by the British on March 23, 1931 in Lahore when he was just 23, along with his companions Sukhdev and Rajguru. Mann says that he dreams of creating an egalitarian Punjab that Bhagat Singh had dreamt of and sacrificed his life for.

Four original photos of Bhagat Singh (Credit: Prof Chaman Lal)

Ever since Mann joined politics with Manpreet Badal’s erstwhile People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) in 2011, the comedian-turned-politician has been sporting a basanti turban and invoking Bhagat Singh in almost every speech, ending them with Inquilab Zindabad—a slogan originally used by freedom fighter Maulana Hasrat Mohani but popularized later by Bhagat Singh.

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Sporting a basanti turban throughout, Mann took his oath as chief minister at Khatkar Kalan, instead of Raj Bhavan. “The golden rays of the sun have brought a new dawn today. Today the whole Punjab will take oath at Khatkar Kalan to make the dreams of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and Baba Sahib come true. I am leaving for his native village Khatkar Kalan to stand as a guardian of the ideology of Bhagat Singh,” he tweeted on Wednesday, before leaving for the oath-taking ceremony. He also called on people to arrive at the venue wearing yellow—men in basanti turbans and women in yellow dupattas. The venue was swept in a basanti wave—with all AAP MLAs and Kejriwal wearing yellow.

What is the objection to Bhagat Singh’s photograph installed at CM’s office?

According to researchers, the photo installed is “not an authentic photograph” of the freedom fighter but merely “an imagination”. Chaman Lal, honorary advisor to Delhi’s Bhagat Singh Resource Centre and the author of several books on the freedom fighter, says, “We have clarified many times that Bhagat Singh never wore any basanti or kesari turban. It is all imagination. We have only four original photographs of him. In one picture, he is sitting with open hair in jail, another shows him in a hat and two others show him in a white turban. All other pictures showing him in yellow or orange turbans or even with a weapon in his hand are products of imagination. Some of them are paintings too. Political parties should talk about his ideology and discuss it with youths instead of using his name for their own benefits. Paintings created with imagination should never be used for official purposes. The Punjab government should put any of these four original pictures in the government offices instead of distorted ones. You cannot associate a particular colour with a revolutionary just because it has been portrayed so in movies or paintings. Till date we do not have any original picture of Bhagat Singh showing him in basanti, orange or red colour as being portrayed on social media these days,” says Professor Lal.

So how did basanti get associated with Bhagat Singh?

The basanti colour is often associated with protests and revolution in Punjab. During the year-long agitation against three farm laws, farmers often used basanti flags and wore yellow turbans and dupattas. Professor Lal says that it was primarily because of the popularity of patriotic songs such as “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola Maaye Rang De…” and the portrayal of the colour in movies that it got associated with Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries. “But the fact is that we do not have any proof of any revolutionary, not just Bhagat Singh, wearing a basanti turban. The original poem “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola….” is said to be written by revolutionary Ram Prasad Bismil, who was hanged at Gorakhpur jail in 1927 whereas Bhagat Singh was hanged at Lahore jail in 1931. Yes, both were a part of the Hindustan Republican Association but never lodged in jail together. It has only been portrayed in movies that Bhagat Singh sang “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola…” in jail but there is no evidence,” he says.

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Photos used by farmers during agitation against three farm laws.

“Otherwise basanti, which means bright yellow, is a symbol of cheerfulness and the onset of spring season in Punjab and hence very popular among Punjabis especially in villages. In fact, basant is celebrated across India with great fervour,” he adds. “Our objection is simply to the use of a painting-based picture, which is a work of imagination, in government offices. The AAP should use any of his four real pictures. What matters is his ideals, not the colour of his turban or politics over it. You cannot mould history the way you like,” says Lal.

What has been the take of Bhagat Singh’s family on the issue?

Meanwhile, Jagmohan Singh, a 77-year-old nephew of Bhagat Singh—son of his sister Bibi Amar Kaur—says that the debate was “insignificant” and what matters was the implementation of his vision for Punjab and the entire country.

“Yes it is true that there are four original photos of Bhagat Singh in which he is not wearing a basanti turban but the colour was associated with Ram Prasad Bismil, who was also hanged by the British, in 1927. But when it comes to an artist’s imagination, there cannot be any bar on creativity or the use of colours. What matters for us is the implementation of the vision of Bhagat Singh, who founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha to make youths free from the shackles of casteism and have a scientific outlook, to read, to think and to criticise. Dr BR Ambedkar took his vision ahead and embedded those values of social justice in our Constitution. We need to discuss the vision of these two great personalities more than the colours of the turban. We want the Punjab government to print the material written by Bhagat Singh and this booklet should be available in all government offices for officials and people to read and think. What will photos do if Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar’s visions are not followed in true spirit? But otherwise the AAP government in Punjab needs to be congratulated for choosing as their idols two real visionaries who wanted to see India independent in the true sense over some politicians,” said Singh.

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Why does Bhagat Singh continue to be a hero for Punjab and India as whole?

The song ‘Ro Ro Aakhe Dharat Doabe Di, Maajhe Malwe Di, Ajj Lod Desh Nu Bhagat Singh Tey Veer Sarabhe Di…’ (The lands of Doaba, Majha and Malwa are crying, the country needs its Bhagat Singh and Kartar Singh Sarabha again…) was widely played during the farmer agitation at the borders of Delhi and in Punjab.

“Every country, and every region, has some iconic figures who are always admired and remembered. For India, and more so for Punjab, it is Bhagat Singh because he is not just remembered for sacrificing his life for the country’s freedom but is also the symbol of fearlessness and standing for what is right. His idea of India is what peasants, labourers and other working-class people relate to. His idea of India is where the working class is not exploited and is given equal rights in every aspect. This is why every section of society including farmers, students, workers invoke him during their protests even after 90 years of his death. And not just in north India, he is popular in south Indian states and Pakistan also. But for Punjabis, he matters the most because there is a sense of belongingness, they feel Bhagat Singh belongs to them and was one among them,” says Lal.

In his last petition to the Punjab governor in 1931, Bhagat Singh while elaborating his idea of revolution, wrote that even if the Britishers left India, there would be such rulers among the Indians who would oppress and exploit their own countrymen and that till the exploitation of a human by a fellow human did not stop, the fight would go on.

He wrote, “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus. All these things make no difference….The war shall continue…”

During the agitation, farmers had carried placards with Punjabi translations of Bhagat Singh’s writing.. “Akkhan band karke na padho, eh na samjho ki jo pustak vich likheya oh sahi hai.. padho, vicharo, aalochna karo…'(Don’t read with your eyes closed, don’t think what is written in the book is the only truth…read, think, criticise..)

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First published on: 18-03-2022 at 10:24:15 pm
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