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Punjab Postcard: A Street Artist Paints Old Left In New Light

Artist Balvir Singh and his murals of revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Lenin have helped rekindle socialist ideas in his home state of Punjab.

Lenin mural with a quote that reads: “Let me what songs your people sing and I'll tell you the future of your country'
Lenin mural with a quote that reads: “Let me what songs your people sing and I'll tell you the future of your country"
*Kudrat Wadhwa

PUNJAB — On seeing his Che Guevara mural, some of Balvir Singh's neighbors asked whether he had painted a ghost in their village.

"To tell you the truth, my kids wanted Balvir to paint over the mural," says Mander Kaur, who lives next door to the artist. They were convinced that Che was a bhootghost because of his long flowing hair ... They were scared to leave the house!"

Anticipating such a reaction, Singh explained to them that Guevara — like Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary folk hero of the Indian independence movement — was a revolutionary socialist. He then pointed to another mural depicting Lenin and said that his ideas were particularly inspirational for Bhagat Singh.

"I told them how Lenin was one of Bhagat Singh's gurus. After that they stopped pestering me to get rid of the murals," Balvir Singh explains.

Gursewak Singh, a professor who also resides in Bhai Desa village, thinks it's important that today's young people be reminded of what Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries believed in. "And because of Balvir's paintings, there has certainly been some interest in learning about samajwadsocialism and krantirevolution," he says.

Balvir Singh with a poster of Bhagat Singh — Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

Balvir Singh normally runs a flex business store in the nearby city of Maur Mandi. But the recent lockdown left him without any work, so he decided to keep himself busy by painting the walls of his village, Bhai Desa. He painted images and quotes about a host of topics like saving water and reducing plastic usage. But the paintings that particularly stood out were the murals of such popular leftist figures.

"I've read the writings of all these icons, and ultimately what's in my head and heart is what will come out of my hand too, right?" says Balvir Singh. He says he's been a lifelong follower of Bhagat Singh and is also a communist and thus couldn't hide his admiration for these revolutionaries. Unlike his other work that is spread all over the village, these murals are painted on the walls of Singh's own home.

What's in my head and heart is what will come out of my hand too.

Singh, now 40, began reading Bhagat Singh's writings at the age of 16, around the same time that his father died unexpectedly and he had to drop out of school to support his family. A few years later, he got involved with a movement against unemployment led by the All India Youth Federation (AIYF), the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). While he never became an official party member, he diligently involved himself in the party's activities, which ranged from speeches to protests and demonstrations.

"No one in my friend circle became official members of the party, but we were involved in the movement," he recalls. "We would go among the people and talk about employment, about our deteriorating conditions. We used to fill up buses and go to protests."

Specifically, he helped organize yearly demonstrations on Bhagat Singh's birthday (Sept. 28). "In 2007, on Bhagat Singh's centenary, I painted his photos all over Punjab," Balvir Singh says. "I want the people of Punjab to remember Bhagat Singh. Just like we celebrate Holi and Diwali as major festivals, we should also be celebrating Bhagat Singh's birthday."

Even though Bhagat Singh remains a beloved figure in the region, his ideas of socialism and revolution don't garner the appeal they once did here. Jagtar Singh, a Punjabi Tribune journalist who was also involved with the AIYF agitation in the late "90s, explains that communists were once very popular in the state. "In fact, they had a stronghold in Mansa (the district that Bhai Desa village is situated in). But right now, they're struggling to maintain their very existence," he says.

In 1977, the CPI and CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had a total of 15 seats in the state assembly, testifying to their support. The state has also produced firebrand leftist leaders like Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who served as the General Secretary of the CPI(M) from 1992 to 2005, and Satyapal Dang, who represented the CPI in the state legislative assembly for four terms. Additionally, the Naxalite movement also took root in the state, and influenced prominent writers and artists like Paash, Laal Singh Dil and Gursharan Singh.

Anand Patwardhan's documentary, In Memory of Friends (or "Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari") set in the late 80s when the Khalistani movement that demanded a separate homeland for Sikhs was at its peak, showed how communists played a prominent role in fighting communal violence against Hindus as well as state violence against Sikhs. Some party activists like Jaimal Singh Padda even lost their lives at the hands of Khalistani militants. Since then, however, they have declined. There are no active MLAs from left parties and the Naxalite movement has also virtually disappeared from the region.

Mural of Che Guevara with a quotes that reads: "Socialism for us means ending the exploitation of man by man" — Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

There are several reasons for this decline, with the first being increasing factionalism in the left. "By 2002, the CPM had split into CPM and CPM (Punjab), which affected its electoral fortunes rather badly," writes Professor Chaman Lal, a retired JNU professor.

In an interview with The Wire, Lal added, "Even now left-leaning groups like Bharat Kisan Union have some hold among the peasant working class of Punjab. But the problem again is that these groups are also divided into factions. Moreover, these radical organizations often opt to stay out of parliamentary politics, and instead they participate in mass resistance only for minor reliefs like financial support for farmers and so on."

Others attribute the left's present absence to its perceived image as a foreign movement that was vehemently opposed to religion. Bhupinder Singh Mann, a Mansa-based author and educator, says that words like proletariat and bourgeois have had a negative impact on left politics. "People perceived communism as a movement from elsewhere and didn't want to join it for that reason," he explains. "They thought that communists stand for ‘qaum nasht" (community destruction), and that they will destroy the Sikh qaum."

According to Sukhdarshan Singh Natt, a Mansa-based senior leader of the CPI(ML) Liberation, "Part of the reason for the left's decline in Punjab is that older parties like the CPI actually supported the Emergency instituted by Indira Gandhi, hence maligning the image of all leftists in Punjab." Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a Chandigarh based writer, argues that the political positions of prominent leftist parties did not differ from "bourgeois' parties like the Congress and the BJP in that they all reinforced the idea of the Indian nation-state.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the Indian class situation to the crudest level.

This does not mean that the ideology has totally vanished. Every year in November, various progressive thinkers and leaders congregate at the Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da(Fair of Ghadar Veterans), held at the Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Hall in Jalandhar, Punjab. The program consists of talks, discussions and performances of revolutionary songs and poetry by renowned artists. Progressive literature, translated into Punjabi, is sold at affordable prices.

Balvir Singh visits the mela each year with his comrades, including journalist Jagtar Singh, and returns home with a pile of literature and books. It was through the Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da that he learned about Che Guevara and Lenin and what they stood for. He has their framed photos and quotes hung up all over the walls of his office, alongside Bhagat Singh's.

Students politics at Punjab University present a ray of hope for the left in the state. In 2018, 22-year old Kanupriya of the left-leaning SFS (Students for Society) made history by becoming the first woman president of Punjab University. She won on the platform of opposing fee hikes, increasing commercialization of education and deteriorating conditions of hostel and mess workers.

CPIML's Sukhdarshan Singh Natt says that stories like Kanupriya's keep him and others motivated to continue doing their work. "Punjab University elections are similar to elections in the state in that votes are bought with money," he explains. "But SFS won the elections based on its manifesto and on ground work. While university elections don't have a lot of impact on the ground, it's heartening to know that it's possible to influence people and win on the basis of integrity."

According to Professor Lal, the present time is quite ripe for a resurgence of the left, but that can only happen if leftists are able to form a joint front and oppose fascist forces. "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the Indian class situation to the crudest level — the whole facade and illusion of a welfare state has been completely exposed," he says. "The left movement can make an impact if it has organizational strength and a clear view of how to organize the most oppressed unorganized working class."

*Kudrat Wadhwa is an independent journalist based in Punjab.

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