“Leave sentimentalism aside. Be prepared to face the facts. Revolution is a very difficult task. It is beyond the power of any man to make a revolution. Neither can it be brought about on any appointed date. It is brought about by special environments, social and economic. The function of an organised party is to utilise such an opportunity offered by these circumstances. [To] prepare the masses and organise the forces for the revolution is a very difficult task. And that requires a very great sacrifice on the part of the revolutionary workers.”
— Bhagat Singh in a letter “To the young political workers”, 2 February 1931
The Gandhian ideals of non-violence and satyagraha were the overarching principles under which the Indian freedom struggle was carried out. However, there were other radically different currents in the large stream that constituted the independence movement. Revolutionaries who did not shy away from violent means to overthrow the British empire were one such group. They were comparatively fewer in number than the mainstream Congress-affiliated nationalists, but because of their courage and idealism, they became heroes in the popular imagination.
Of these revolutionaries one man, in particular, occupies a special place in Indian hearts.
His name was Bhagat Singh.
The legend of Bhagat Singh has been co-opted by ideologues of different hues — from the Left to the Right and all shades in between. But many Indians who don’t look at his life and death through an ideological prism are moved simply by his youth and sacrifice. When Bhagat Singh was hanged on 23 March 1931 in Lahore jail, he was just 23 years old.
Bhagat Singh was born on 28 September 1907 in a Sikh family to Kishan Singh and Vidyavati at Banga village in the then Lyallpur district of British Punjab. His grandfather, a member of the Hindu reformist Arya Samaj movement, influenced the young Bhagat. Other members of his family, including his father, were affiliated to the revolutionary Ghadar Party.
Bhagat Singh studied at Dayanand Anglo Vedic High School. Hours after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, Bhagat, then a boy of 12, visited the site of the killings in Amritsar. When Mahatma Gandhi called off the Non-cooperation movement after the killing of policemen at Chauri Chaura, Bhagat Singh, still a boy, felt alienated from the philosophy of non-violence. He subsequently became a member of the Young Revolutionary Movement, which supported using violent means to overthrow the British empire.
Bhagat Singh studied at Lahore’s National College and founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a youth body, in March 1926. He also became a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Its important leaders included Chandrashekhar Azad and Ashfaqulla Khan.
In order to avoid marriage, Bhagat Singh left his home and went to Kanpur. In a note left behind for his family, he wrote: “My life has been dedicated to the noblest cause, that of the freedom of the country. Therefore, there is no rest or worldly desire that can lure me now.”
He was now fully dedicated to the revolutionary cause. In May 1927 he was arrested on the suspicion of being involved in a bombing in Lahore. He got released on bail. He wrote for several newspapers and anti-British pamphlets.
In 1928, the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai was brutally assaulted during a lathi-charge on a peaceful protest. He died on 17 November 1928 on account of injuries suffered during the assault. Bhagat Singh and his compatriots, Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar and Chandrashekhar Azad, swore revenge. They plotted to kill James Scott, the superintendent of police who had not only ordered the lathi-charge but personally assaulted Rai.
Bhagat Singh and Rajguru carried out the assassination, but they killed John Saunders, another senior police officer, instead. In a poster the Hindustan Socialist Republic Army proclaimed: “Today the world has seen that the people of India are not lifeless; their blood has not become cold.”
The revolutionaries escaped and dispersed after Saunders’ death, hiding under various aliases. Bhagat Singh eventually got back to Lahore.
Then in 1929 Bhagat Singh volunteered to explode a bomb inside the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. The idea was to send a dramatic message to the British, not kill people. On 8 April 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt hurled two bombs into the chamber of the assembly when it was in session. As planned, no one was killed in the explosions though a few people were injured. The two revolutionaries had no intention of escaping and were promptly arrested.
Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were sentenced to life imprisonment in the bombing case. However, as the police spread their net, other revolutionaries including Sukhdev were arrested. The investigators soon connected the dots, and Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were charged with Saunders’ murder. Bhagat Singh, who was shifted to Mianwali jail, and other prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest against discrimination between European and Indian inmates.
Eventually, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were tried for Saunders’ murder in what came to be known as the Lahore conspiracy case. They were found guilty and sentenced to death.
In his book on Bhagat Singh, the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar writes: “When the sun was down, the darkness was really thick, with no electric bulb, no lantern, not even an earthen lamp to brighten his cell. Somewhere, in the distance, the searchlight revolved to give a semblance of illumination to the area where he (Bhagat Singh), along with his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, awaited the hanging. The cell was a dungeon, grass on the floor and a smelly hole in a corner...the very name given to the cell, Phansi ki Kothi, blighted every pleasant thought. Circumscribed in space and time, he could not see the change in weather. Yet he was impatient, not because he was isolated but because it had been a long, purposeless wait. He wished they would carry out the sentence quickly.”
The executions were to be carried out on 24 March 1931, but the three prisoners were hanged a day before, on 23 March at 7.30 p.m.
A few months before he was hanged, Bhagat Singh, who used to read a lot in jail, had written in a pamphlet titled ‘Why I am an atheist’: “I know the moment the rope is fitted round my neck and rafters removed from under my feet, that will be the final moment….With no selfish motive, or desire to be awarded here or hereafter [in after-life], 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.”
Also on this day:
1910 — Ram Manohar Lohia, Indian nationalist and socialist leader, was born
1916 — Harkishan Singh Surjeet, communist leader, was born
1938 — Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, ruler of princely state of Patiala, passed away
1953 — Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Indian entrepreneur and chairman and managing director of Biocon Limited, was born
1968 — Atul Wassan, Indian cricketer, was born
1973 — Umar Farooq, Kashmiri religious and political leader, was born
1976 — Smriti Irani, actress and BJP leader, was born