Ashok Dhawale, People's Democracy, October 01, 2006
THE life and work of Bhagat Singh and his death by hanging at the age of 23 at the hands of British imperialism on March 23, 1931, has been a perennial saga of inspiration to all those who cherish sovereignty, secularism and socialism – ideals for which Bhagat Singh and his comrades fought valiantly to the end.
On March 23, 2006, the country observed the 75th anniversary of martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, and a little earlier on February 27, the 75th anniversary of martyrdom of Chandrashekhar Azad.
From September 28, 2006, we begin the celebration of the Birth Centenary Year of Bhagat Singh, a powerful symbol of the still ongoing struggle of the people of India against imperialism, capitalism, feudalism, communalism and casteism – a struggle that is infinitely more complex but no less urgent today than it was in Bhagat Singh’s time.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades belonged to the current of armed anti-imperialist freedom fighters. Their glorious struggle against British imperialism assumed legendary proportions. But their truly distinctive feature was that, amongst the large galaxy of thousands of armed freedom fighters spread over two centuries of the freedom struggle, it was Bhagat Singh and his comrades alone who were inexorably moving ideologically towards the current of Marxian socialism and the Communist Party.
Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were also conscious of the need for social justice and the overthrow of the caste system. They were bitter and uncompromising enemies of communalism in all its forms. And they were inveterate opponents of the bourgeois-landlord class strategy and tactics of the Congress Party and its leadership that were exhibited in ample measure throughout the course of the national movement.
EARLY INFLUENCES: GHADAR MARTYRS AND JALLIANWALA BAGH
Bhagat Singh was born to Vidyavati and Kishan Singh on September 28, 1907, in the village Banga in Lyallpur district, now in Pakistan. His original village was Khatkar Kalan in Jalandhar district. He hailed from a patriotic family. His uncle Ajit Singh, along with Lala Lajpat Rai, was exiled to Mandalay jail in Burma by the British. In such an atmosphere, Bhagat Singh naturally imbibed patriotic sentiments.
While Bhagat Singh was in school, Punjab was rocked by the hanging of seven Ghadar martyrs by the British on November 16 and 17, 1915, in the First Lahore Conspiracy Case. Prominent among them were Kartar Singh Sarabha from Punjab and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle from Maharashtra. The young Bhagat Singh was deeply moved by the heroic saga and sacrifice of Kartar Singh Sarabha, who was just 20 years old when he was hanged.
Bhagat Singh always carried a photo of Sarabha in his pocket and was carrying one when he was arrested in 1929. In March 1926, when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Bhagwati Charan Vohra founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Lahore, its inaugural session began with the unveiling of Sarabha’s portrait, in open defiance of the British authorities.
Another event that was to leave a deep impression on the young Bhagat Singh was, of course, the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar on April 13, 1919. The butcher of Amritsar, General Dyer fired 1600 rounds of ammunition on the unarmed crowd of around 10,000 that had gathered for a public meeting, killing 379 according to official figures; unofficially, it was put at over 1000; and leaving over 1200 wounded.
Bhagat Singh was then just 12 years old and was studying at the D A V School in Lahore. He was deeply enraged by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It has been recorded that he immediately went to the Bagh, collected its soil in a bottle and kept it as a constant reminder of the hurt and humiliation that that the Indian people had suffered.
When the Non-Cooperation Movement started in 1920, Bhagat Singh left the D A V School and joined the National College. His college friends included Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev and Yashpal. He evinced great interest both in his studies and in politics and was a voracious reader. His area of special interest was the history of revolutions. In 1924, Bhagat Singh had to give up his BA studies and leave Lahore because his father and grandmother were forcing him to get married. To escape that, he went to Kanpur.
THE TURNING POINT: CHAURI CHAURA
In the backdrop of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, the Non-Cooperation Movement announced by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 and his declaration of “Swaraj in One Year” galvanized the entire country as never before. Millions of people all over the country came out on the streets to oppose the British regime. For the first time since 1857, the peasantry joined the struggle in strength. It linked burning agrarian issues like taxes, rent, eviction by landlords etc to the struggle for independence. The support of the Congress to the Khilafat movement also drew the Muslim masses into the struggle in huge numbers and remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity was witnessed everywhere in the course of the movement.
Mahatma Gandhi’s sudden and arbitrary withdrawal of the nationwide movement in February 1922 after the events in Chauri Chaura in UP came like a bolt from the blue. The peasants of Chauri Chaura were fighting both imperialism and landlordism, when many were shot and killed by the British police. Enraged, they burnt down the thana where the police fled to take shelter. Twenty-two policemen were killed.
The withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922 had two salient effects. The great demoralization in the ranks of the people was exploited to the hilt by agents of the British rulers to whip up communal riots all over the country. It is no accident that the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha were both revived in 1923 and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was formed in 1925. According to the Simon Commission Report, 112 major communal riots broke out in the country between 1922 and 1927.
The victory of the Russian Revolution had a big impact on young armed freedom fighters in India and abroad. Its three sterling contributions were: a) it infused confidence in Indian revolutionaries that imperialism and the exploiting classes could be overthrown, b) it brought on to the agenda the economic and social content of Indian independence, c) it provoked a serious study of Marxism and Communist principles.
HRA AND THE KAKORI CONSPIRACY CASE
It was in the background of all these historic events that Bhagat Singh reached Kanpur in 1924. There he went to his father’s friend Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, a prominent Congress leader and the editor of Pratap. Though Vidyarthi was himself a Gandhian, his house was a common meeting place for socialists, communists and other revolutionaries. It was here that Bhagat Singh met Chandrashekhar Azad, Batukeshwar Dutt, Jogesh Chandra Chatterjee, Shiv Verma, Bejoy Kumar Sinha and others. In Kanpur, he continued to read voraciously and completed his study of Karl Marx’s Capital. He wrote and distributed nationalist and revolutionary leaflets amongst the masses. It was in his six months stay at Kanpur that he joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA).
The HRA had been formed in 1923 – within a year of Chauri Chaura and its aftermath – by Sachindranath Sanyal, who was transported for life in the Banaras Conspiracy Case and later released. Sanyal had written the Manifesto of the HRA, which was distributed in all major cities of North India on the night between December 31, 1924 and January 1, 1925. The HRA Manifesto, which was titled The Revolutionary, was a powerful piece that set out its aims.
On August 9, 1925, the HRA revolutionaries stopped a train at Kakori near Lucknow and broke a government safe. One passenger was accidentally killed. The British government cracked down brutally, i
nstituted the Kakori Conspiracy Case and arrested most of the participants in the dacoity.
Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and Thakur Roshan Singh were hanged on December 19, 1927 and Rajendra Lahiri two days earlier on December 17, 1927. 13 others got various terms in jail. Only Chandrashekhar Azad and Kundan Lal Gupta escaped arrest. The Kakori martyrs became a legend throughout India. The death-defying song they sang to the gallows became part of the lexicon of the freedom struggle. This song was:
Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai,
Dekhna hai zor kitna baju-e katil mein hai.
(We have now a longing in our hearts to put our heads on to the bidding,
It is to be seen how much strength the executioner has in his arms.)
NAUJAWAN BHARAT SABHA: TOWARDS A MASS MOVEMENT
Before the Kakori dacoity, in early 1925, Bhagat Singh went back to Lahore. He started political work and set up the Lahore branch of the HRA, but had to shift to Delhi for six months in 1925 to evade arrest. In Delhi, he worked with the daily Veer Arjun. In late 1925, he went to Kanpur to take part in abortive attempts to free the Kakori prisoners from jail and soon returned to Lahore.
Here, Bhagat Singh along with Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev and Ram Krishan took the lead in forming a militant youth organization called the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) in March 1926. Ram Krishan was elected its president and Bhagat Singh its secretary. Its members also included many eminent patriotic personalities.
Two of the six rules of the NBS drafted by Bhagat Singh were: “To have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas” and “to create the spirit of general toleration among the public considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man and to act upon the same fully.”
Secularism was, indeed, an article of faith with Bhagat Singh all his life. His classic article Why I am an Atheist is, of course, the most remarkable exposition of his approach to God and religion, which goes far beyond secularism and towards Marxism. He wrote three very significant articles, the titles of which are: Religion and Our Freedom Struggle; Communal Riots and their Solution; and The Problem of Untouchability.
HSRA: DECISIVE TURN TOWARDS SOCIALISM
After the British attempts to smash the HRA in the Kakori Conspiracy Case, the regrouping of the Kanpur group began under the leadership of Chandrashekhar Azad. He was assisted by Kundan Lal Gupta, Shiv Verma, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Jaidev Kapur, Gaya Prasad and others. The Lahore group was led by Bhagat Singh and comprised Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev, Kishori Lal, Yashpal and others.
The ideological churning within the HRA leadership continued unabated during this period. Shiv Verma wrote that Communist leaders like Sohan Singh Josh at Lahore and Radha Mohan Gokulji, Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Satyabhakta at Kanpur, together with Marxist literature, influenced the HRA leadership towards socialism.
Added to this process of self-cultivation were also the political developments taking place in the country during this period like the Peshawar and Kanpur Conspiracy Cases against the Communists, the formation of Workers’ and Peasants’ parties in several provinces, and the huge strike struggles of the working class led by the Communists in 1926-28. All these developments could not have failed to make their impact on the young revolutionaries.
It was against this background that a key meeting of leading revolutionaries was held at the Ferozshah Kotla Grounds in Delhi on September 8-9, 1928. A total of eight representatives attended the meeting. There were from two from Punjab, three from Uttar Pradesh, two from Bihar and one from Rajasthan. The Bengal group did not attend, but it later sent Jatin Das to Agra to train the others in manufacturing bombs.
Bhagat Singh placed the following main proposals before the meeting: a) that the time had come to boldly declare Socialism as our ultimate goal, b) that the name of the Party be changed accordingly to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), and c) that the principle of collective leadership should be strictly observed.
After a detailed two-day discussion on these proposals, they were adopted by a majority of six to two. The meeting elected a seven-member central committee. Bhagat Singh was given the charge of ideological work and Chandrashekhar Azad was elected commander-in-chief.
The HSRA Manifesto, written by Bhagwati Charan Vohra and widely distributed in the Lahore Session of the Congress in December 1929, is a remarkable document. The other major document of the HSRA was called The Philosophy of the Bomb. It was an outstanding document, the most mature that the HSRA produced.
THE KILLING OF SAUNDERS: AVENGING A NATIONAL INSULT
The all-white Simon Commission came to Lahore on October 30, 1928, less than two months after the formation of the HSRA. A huge demonstration, led by Lala Lajpat Rai, was held. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were part of it. The police ordered a lathi charge and the Superintendent of Police named Scott rained lathi blows on Lajpat Rai’s head. He died on November 17. The nation was stunned and infuriated.
The HSRA decided to avenge the death of Lajpat Rai and the insult to the nation by killing Scott. On December 17, 1928, exactly a month after Lajpat Rai’s death, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Rajguru and Sukhdev shot dead J P Saunders, another police officer who was also involved in the lathi charge, mistaking him for Scott.
The same night, handwritten posters in pink were pasted on the walls of Lahore. They were issued by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, which claimed responsibility for the killing and said that the act had been done to avenge a national insult. For four months, from December 1928 to April 1929, the British regime, in spite of desperate efforts, could not trace those responsible for the assassination of Saunders.
BOMBS IN THE CENTRAL ASSEMBLY: TO MAKE THE DEAF HEAR
To crack down on the rising working class movement and the increasing influence of the Communists, the British government brought the repressive Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill in the Central Legislative Assembly at Delhi. Already, on March 20, 1929, the British regime had arrested 31 prominent Communist and labour leaders from different parts of the country in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case.
The HSRA leadership decided to throw bombs in the Central Assembly to protest against the passage of the above two draconian Bills and also against the arrests of the Communist and labour leaders. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs in the Assembly, immediately after the passage of the Trade Disputes Bill. No one was seriously injured. They also threw leaflets in the Assembly proclaiming why they had thrown the bombs. They did not try to run away and calmly courted arrest.
Both the above actions – the assassination of Saunders and the hurling of bombs in the Central Assembly – made Bhagat Singh and his comrades legendary heroes.
The hearing of the Assembly Bomb Case began on May 7, 1929. Entering the court, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt raised slogans of ‘Long Live Revolution’, ‘Long Live the Proletariat’ and ‘Down With Imperialism’. These three slogans were to be repeatedly raised by the HSRA revolutionaries in British courts and jails over the next two years. They were to be repeated by millions across the land and were to become an integral part of the heritage of the freedom movement. Through these three slogans, Bhagat Singh and his comrades succinctly summed up their entire programme.
In their historic statement before the court on June 6, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt, while
defending their action of throwing bombs in the Central Assembly, also gave a lucid and inspiring account of what they meant by the word ‘Revolution’. It clearly revealed the growing influence of Marxism.
REVOLUTIONARY BATTLES IN COURT AND JAIL
On June 12, 1929, the court sentenced Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in the Assembly Bomb Case to transportation for life in the Andamans. But in the meanwhile the police had uncovered the details of Saunders’ assassination. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and several others were tried in the historic second Lahore Conspiracy Case. The trial started on July 10, 1929 and continued for over a year up to October 7, 1930. Bhagat Singh and his comrades turned the court into a forum for revolutionary propaganda, just as the Communist undertrials were doing in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, which was going on simultaneously.
The revolutionaries began a prolonged hunger strike in jail to protest against the terrible jail conditions. The jail authorities did not relent and on September 13, 1929, on the 64th day of the hunger strike, Jatin Das died a martyr. A huge procession with his body was taken through the main roads of Lahore, culminating in a massive public meeting. His body was taken by train by Durga Bhabhi from Lahore to Calcutta and all along the route, thousands gathered at every station to pay him homage. In Calcutta itself, an unprecedented procession of more than six lakhs carried Jatin Das’ coffin to his cremation.
On January 21, 1930, the HSRA undertrials appeared in the court wearing red scarves to celebrate Lenin Day. Bhagat Singh read out a telegram and asked that it be sent to the Third International. The text was: “On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism.”
May 28, 1930 was a tragic day for the HSRA. One of its tallest leaders and ideologues, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, was killed in an accident while testing a highly powerful bomb on the banks of the Ravi river. He was manufacturing these bombs to rescue Bhagat Singh and his comrades from jail.
On October 7, 1930, the Special Tribunal in the Lahore Conspiracy Case delivered judgement convicting all the accused except three. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were sentenced to death. Seven were sentenced to transportation for life. The nation was stunned. It reverberated with the demand for the commutation of the death sentences on the heroic youth. However, Mahatma Gandhi did not insist upon it during the negotiations that led to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact on March 5, 1931.
‘OUR UNDISPUTED IDEOLOGICAL LEADER’
Before and after the judgement, Bhagat Singh’s reading and writing in jail continued unabated. As he declared before the Lahore Court, “The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetstone of ideas.” Shiv Verma, in an interview given to the present writer in Mumbai on March 5, 1991, replied to a question as to what set Bhagat Singh apart, as follows, “I can tell you that in one sentence: Bhagat Singh was our undisputed ideological leader. I do not remember a single moment when Bhagat Singh did not have a book in his pocket.”
On February 2, 1931, less than two months before his martyrdom, Bhagat Singh wrote the remarkable appeal To Young Political Workers, which is his last testament. After analyzing the prevailing conditions and the tactics of the Congress, he advised youth to adopt Marxism as their ideology, work among the people, organize workers and peasants and join the Communist Party. In the same appeal he clearly renounced terrorism.
On February 27, 1931, Chandrashekhar Azad, the Commander-in-chief of the HSRA, went to the Alfred Park at Allahabad and was surrounded. A fierce gun-fight with the police ensued in which Chandrashekahar Azad was killed. Azad was one of the most respected figures in the ranks of the revolutionaries.
Amidst slogans of ‘Down With Imperialism’ and ‘Long Live Revolution’, the three martyrs – Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev – attained revolutionary immortality on March 23, 1931. The last book that Bhagat Singh was reading before he mounted the gallows was a biography of the great Lenin. The final song on the lips of the three martyrs was:
Dil se niklegi na markar bhi watan ki ulfat,
Meri mitti se bhi khushbue watan aaegi.
(Love for the motherland will not leave my heart even after death,
Its fragrance will still be there in my dusty remains.)