17th December 1927: British police officer John Saunders was killed by Indian revolutionaries

On December 17, 1927, the revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Shivaram Rajguru shot and killed assistant superintendent of police John Saunders. They were supported in this act by their compatriots Sukhdev Thapar and Chandrashekhar Azad. However, their original target was not Saunders but superintendent of police James Scott who had ordered his men to lathi-charge protesters leading to the death of the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai.

Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were later hanged to death. Their trial and execution, however, made them martyrs in the eyes of millions of Indians.  

In 1927, the British government appointed the Simon Commission to look into the issue of political reforms inIndia. But with no Indian member on the commission’s body, angry Indian nationalist leaders across the ideological spectrum boycotted the commission. InLahore, Lala Rajpat Rai, the most popular leader ofPunjab, was hit during a lathi charge while leading an agitation against the commission, and succumbed to his injuries on November 17, 1928. The young Bhagat Singh and his comrades vowed to avenge his death.

Bhagat Singh came from a family of Sikhs. When he was 12 he visited the Jallianwala Bagh massacre site inAmritsarwhere hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead by the police in 1919. Unhappy with Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, he later joined a revolutionary movement and propagated the violent overthrowing of the British empire inIndia.

He also became a member of the Hindustan Republican Association, later renamed Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Its other members included Chandrashekhar Azad and Ram Prasad Bismil. Bhagat Singh left his home, telling his family in a letter that his life was henceforth “dedicated to the noblest cause” — fighting for the country’s freedom.  

Azad was born in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhawra village. When he was 15 he took part in Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement for which he was slapped with a 2-week jail sentence. Later, attracted to socialism, he joined the HSRA. He took part in a train robbery in 1925, with the aim of looting government funds to strengthen revolutionary causes.

After killing Saunders the HSRA put up posters and pamphlets that declared: “Today the world has seen that the people ofIndiaare not lifeless; their blood has not become cold. They can lay down their lives for the country’s honour….We are sorry to have killed a man. But this man was a part of [a] cruel, despicable and unjust system and killing him was a necessity….This Government is the most oppressive government in the world.”

After the attack on Saunders, the revolutionaries managed to escape and evade the police for some time. Then on April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs inside the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. No lives were lost but the duo was arrested. Later, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were charged with the murder of Saunders and after a trial sentenced to death.

A few weeks before he was hanged, Bhagat Singh wrote in an article titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’: “In God man can find very strong consolation and support. Without Him, man has to depend upon himself. To stand upon one’s own legs amid storms and hurricanes is not a child’s play...I know the moment the rope is fitted round my neck and rafters removed, from under my feet…that will be the final moment [since he didn’t believe in after-life or re-birth or heaven]…With no selfish motive, or desire to be awarded here or hereafter, quite disinterestedly have I devoted my life to the cause of independence, because I could not do otherwise. The day we find a great number of men and women with this psychology who cannot devote themselves to anything else than the service of mankind and emancipation of the suffering humanity, that day shall inaugurate the era of liberty.”

After the executions were carried out on March 23, 1931, the Indian National Congress said that while the party disapproved of “political violence in any shape or form”, it admired the “bravery and sacrifice” of the trio, and believed that the executions were acts “of wanton vengeance and a deliberate flouting of the unanimous demand of the nation for commutation”.

Explaining the significance of Bhagat Singh and his fellow comrades in the larger freedom movement, in the book India’s Struggle for Independence, the historian Bipan Chandra and others write that the revolutionaries “made a major advance in broadening the scope and definition of revolution. Revolution was no longer equated with mere militancy or violence. Its first objective was national liberation — the overthrow of imperialism.”

Also on this day:

1972 — John Abraham, Bollywood actor and model, was born

1978 — Riteish Deshmukh, Bollywood actor, was born

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