Mela Gadri Babean Da: The Revolutionary Fete of Gadarites
Punjab, the homeland to revolutionary martyrs such as Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Udham Singh, has long kept the tradition of celebrating successes of people’s struggles alive. Every year Punjab commemorates birthdays of various martyrs and pays homage at their death anniversaries. One of the most significant of such celebration is the “Mela Gadri Babean da”, which is observed every year from 30th October to 1st November in Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, Jalandhar. The fete is organised to pay homage to the great Ghadar movement, launched by Indians living abroad against British regime in India.
The Ghadar party was formed in 1913 in the U.S.A, with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna as its president. The party published a newspaper which was the backbone of the party known as Ghadar: Angrez Raj da Dushman (The enemy of British Rule). It was essentially a secular, patriotic party with Tarak Nath Das, Maulvi Barkatullah, and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle as its members. As the name suggests, the party was aimed at advancing a rebellion in India against foreign rule: it organised meetings in villages, and convinced people to revolt against prevailing injustice. Although it failed in attaining freedom for its beloved motherland, it served as a stepping stone in independence struggle of India.
This year saw the 100th death anniversary of Ghadri leaders Kartar Singh Sarabha and V.G. Pingle. As usual, the fete commenced on the first day with singing and declamation competition in the evening and play-performances at night, with many students from different schools and colleges participating. On the next day, Quiz and painting competition were organised, and Kavi Darbar (Poetry Session) was held in the evening. Kavi Darbar was one of the most enthusiastic event in which different revolutionary poets of Punjab like Darshan Khatkar, Harwinder Bhandal, and Surjit Gag participated. The walls of the hall echoed with revolutionary verses sung by poets of different ages. The motive of the poetry session was, according to the host Bhandal, to politicise the youth and raise their level of critical consciousness, alerting them of the diversions which mainstream ideologues try to bring in, in the name of religion.
Bhandal is an eminent poet of Punjabi, who has written several poetic volumes, including Khuskushi Ik Chup Di (Suicide of a silence). When I asked about the content and form of poetry that is being used these days, he commented, “There is a new trend among youth: They update their statuses on facebook, write poems, and feel contented with the number of likes and shares. Such poetry is detached from the actual history of poetry. They do not know the level of poetry, they need to begin from the point where their previous generation has left poetry.” He said that the market discourse is isolating youth from its primary concerns, and emphasised the role of professors, teachers, and counsellors in uplifting the level of youth consciousness.
After the poetry session, three documentaries were shown by the group People’s Voice: ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hai’, ‘In dark dream’, and ‘One beautiful dream, directed by the eminent Indian scientist and documentary film maker Gauhar Raza. The theme of the documentaries was to expose the fascist character of Indian state by juxtaposing it with the reign of Hitler in Germany.
The 1st of November began with custom of hoisting the flag at 10:00 a.m. in the morning. The ceremony was inaugurated by Mr. Gurmeet, the trustee of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, and was followed by a band-performance comprising students of the DAV School, Dirba. Immediately afterwards was a choreographed dance entitled ‘Song of Flag’ which highlighted the entire history of Ghadar Movement, signifying its importance in present. The dance was performed by different teams involving 150 participants, all under the leadership of Harwinder Diwana of the Lok Kala Chetna Manch, Barnala. The choreography mesmerized the audience with its beautiful story and direction. The touching climax had the entire team pay homage to Kalburgi, Panesar, and Dabolkar by holding their placards.
The second event of the day was the honouring of the families of those who were martyred a century before. The family of Vishnu Ganesh Pingle came all the way from Pune, Maharashtra to receive the honour. Utsa Patnaik, professor of Economics, JNU came to deliver a lecture on Imperialism and the Agrarian Question. Shamshul Islam was invited to speak on Rise of Fascism in the nation. The entire night saw various plays, namely, ‘Bagane Bohr di chaan’, ‘Kachi Garhi’, ‘Mera Bharat’, ‘Dastan-e-Gadar’, ‘Spartacus’, and ‘Tain ki dard na ayeya’, under the direction Prof. Ajmer Aulakh, Keval Dhaliwal, Dr. Sahib Singh, Gurinder Makna, Vicky Maheshri, and Balwinder Bullet respectively. Many singing groups such as Jatha Rasoolpur and Dastak Manch performed during the night.
On all the three days, the most eye catching thing of fete were the book stalls. People came from all over India to set up stalls and purchase books. The book exhibition is the biggest one of Punjab, attended by schools and colleges in different villages and cities. I happened to talk with Gautam Paul, a publisher at New International Publications, who had come from West Bengal. He said, “This fete is very crucial since it unites a broad spectrum of the left against ruling class. It liquidates the differences within the left for some time, and shifts the camera towards the state. Also, it is very difficult to find such a tradition of openly criticising state for its fascist character. The counter culture it boasts is extraordinary.”
Prof. Jagmohan, nephew of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, recognized the year as a historically special year where, on the one hand, the state is trying to rewrite history, and on the other, people are holding onto the flag of their history: “Bhagat Singh once wrote, ‘Realism is my only cult’, and I was really surprised to see the word ‘cult’ in an atheist’s writings.. But I understood later what he meant. The youth of today needs to acknowledge the reality, to face the objective situations, and unitedly think about it.”
The gender gap ceased to exist in the fete since an almost equal number women came stayed overnight. The atmosphere itself confronted patriarchal notions, as women took the lead in the play teams and singing groups.
Gadri Mela is a fest that nourishes people’s culture. It breaks the cultural hegemony that state tries to impose by its ideological apparatuses, including through cinema and the media. It brings forth a counter-culture which is not appropriated by corporate imperatives, and is free from the mainstream normative culture. In times such as these, when individuals and outfits that do not succumb to the predominant understanding of society and its processes are often ruthlessly silenced, a fest like this has enormous importance. It addresses the questions of caste, class, gender away from the liberal humanist cultural representations, and provides a platform to voices repressed by modern mainstream media.
In the end, the Mela brings together contrasting left ideologies together on one platform, and makes them engage in serious political discussions such as theoretical line of revolution. It also places conflicting yet similar literature in one lawn, which offers a unique opportunity to the youth to study the various differences in left ideologies. It uncovers the stereotypic version of revolution which begins and ends at Bhagat Singh, and provides deep insight into the debates of the past, the challenges of the present, and the predictions of future in the international context.
To the state, Gadri Mela is an open challenge posed by the masses against imperialist policies and culture. For the left, it is a platform to collaborate, thrash out differences, and clear the path of revolution.
Nikita Azad is a student and gender rights activist from Patiala, Punjab.
Edited by Siddhesh Gooptu