On Bhagat Singh
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the greatest Indian revolutionary martyr, Bhagat Singh. Born on 27 September 1907, Bhagat Singh was a mere 23-year-old young man, when he was judicially murdered (on 23 March 1931) by British imperialism with the connivance of Gandhi and a goodly section of the Congress Party. Although his life was plucked so early, during the short period of time he lived he became a cult figure, who literally aroused devotion on the part of the Indian youth and the wider downtrodden masses of the Indian working class and peasantry. To no small extent was the “phenomenon of Bhagat Singh”, to borrow Nehru’s apt description, due to this remarkable young man’s spotlessly clean life, his lofty ideals, his passionate commitment to the cause of Indian freedom and the emancipation of the working class and peasantry, his devotion to secularism and uncompromising hostility towards religious fundamentalism, his hatred of narrow nationalism and an abiding belief in proletarian internationalism, and, last though not least, his dauntless courage, unwavering fortitude, and a self-sacrificing heroism that defies belief in the pursuit of the ideals to which he had devoted his life.
An intellectual giant
By all accounts, Bhagat Singh was of a scholarly bent of mind and a deep thinker who understood the power of ideas. “The sword of revolution”, he told the judges trying him, “is sharpened at the whetstone of thought”. On being asked as to what set him apart from other revolutionaries, Shiv Verma, a fellow revolutionary and a close comrade-in-arms, replied thus: “I can tell you that in just 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. The other virtues of Bhagat Singh like tremendous courage and so on were there in the other revolutionaries amongst us also. But his uniqueness lay in his great studiousness. The degree of clarity and integrity that he had about the aims of our movement, was not there in any of us at that time”.
Well-known Indian historian Bipan Chandra has correctly observed that “Bhagat Singh was already at a young age a giant of an intellectual and thinker”. Chaman Lall, who edited all of Bhagat Singh’s manuscripts, noted that Bhagat Singh had command of four languages – Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English – without much formal training or education. He wrote in all these languages and his prison notebooks contain “… excerpts from 108 authors and 43 books including prominently Marx, Engels and Lenin, but also many others”.
Bhagat Singh’s quest for knowledge, his rigorous pursuit of a scientific under-pinning for his revolutionary beliefs and activity, becomes clear from the remarkable article, ‘Why I am an Atheist’, which he wrote shortly before his execution. In it, he explains that during the earlier period of his activity he had merely been a romantic revolutionary. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. It was a time when the very existence of the revolutionary movement appeared impossible – a time when not only “enthusiastic comrades”, but even leaders began to “jeer at us”. Continuing, Bhagat Singh, reveals the mental torture he went through in the following moving words:
“For some time I was afraid that some day I also might be convinced of the futility of our own programme. That was a turning point in my revolutionary career. ‘Study’ was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind. Study to enable yourself to face the arguments advanced by opposition. Study to arm yourself with arguments in favour of your cult. I began to study. My previous faith and convictions underwent a remarkable modification. The romance of the violent methods alone which was so prominent amongst our predecessors was replaced by serious ideas. No more mysticism, no more blind faith. Realism became our cult. Use of force justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity: non-violence as policy indispensable for all mass movement. So much about methods. The most important thing was the clear conception of the ideal for which we were to fight. As there were no important activities in the field of action I got ample opportunity to study various ideals of the world revolution. I studied Bakunin, the Anarchist leader, something of Marx the father of Communism and much of Lenin, Trotsky and others, the men who had successfully carried out a revolution in their country”.
Bhagat Singh was born into a family of dedicated patriots. Both his father, Kishan Singh, and uncle, Ajit Singh, were deeply involved in the Indian people’s movement against colonialism and imperialism. What is more, Bhagat Singh was born at a time of the rising tide of the anti-colonial movment and widespread discontent. Alarmed by the mood of the people, Denzil Ibbetson, the Lieutenant Governor, noted in a report: “Everywhere people are sensible of a change, of a ‘new air’ …, which is blowing through men’s minds, and are waiting to see what will come of it. … In the towns of Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Lyallpur, active anti-English propaganda is being openly and sedulously preached. In Lahore, the capital of the province, the propaganda is virulent and has resulted in a more or less general state of serious unrest” (quoted in K.K.Khullar, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, pp.98-110).
Far from subsiding, the wave of anti-colonial feelings and agitation gained increasing strength in the years following 1907. Growing up in this milieu, brought up on stories of the exploits of his uncle and father, Bhagat Singh could hardly have failed to imbibe patriotic and anti-colonial sentiments. He was only eight when Punjab was plunged into turmoil following the hanging of Seven Ghadar revolutionaries by the British colonial authorities on 16-17 November 1915 in the First Lahore Conspiracy Case. One of those hanged was Kastar Singh Sarabha, who was only 19 at the time of his judicial murder by the British. Sarabha’s last words were: “My only ambition is to see my country free. All that I did had this objective. I have never done anything out of hatred for any person, nation, religion or race. I only desire one thing – independence. This is my only dream. If I had to live more lives than one, I would sacrifice each of them for my country’s sake”.
Sarabha became Bhagat Singh’s hero, whose photo Bhagat Singh always carried in his pocket and was carrying at the time of his arrest in 1929. When in 1926, Bhagat Singh, along with Sukhdev and Bhagwati Charan Vohra (BCV) founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Lahore, its inaugural meeting was preceded by the unveiling of Sarabha’s portrait in daring and open defiance of the colonial authorities.
The Ghadar Party (party of revolt) was formed on 21 April 1913 by Indian revolutionaries then resident in Canada and the USA. The formation of the Ghadar marked the beginning of the latest and most modern phase of India’s freedom movement; with its formation, the revolutionary movement in India took a giant step forward. In its outlook the Ghadar Party was internationalist and secular; it stressed the importance of revolutionary work in the army with the aim of inciting the latter to rise in rebellion against the British imperialist rule; it drew its ranks from the peasants turned factory workers, unlike earlier revolutionaries who had by and large hailed from the lower middle-class intelligentsia.
The Ghadar movement, though cruelly suppressed by the British imperial authorities, left a rich revolutionary legacy and made an indelible mark on the freedom movement, inspiring in the process an entire generation of revolutionaries with its courage, outlook and death-defying heroism.
Just over three years after the martyrdom of the leaders of the Ghadar movement came the Amritsar (Jallianwala) massacre, which claimed the lives of over a thousand innocent men, women and children, and left many more wounded. This senseless massacre on the orders of the butcher of Amritsar, General Dyer, on 13 April 1919, left a lasting impression on Bhagat Singh, who was just twelve year old then. According to records, enraged by the dastardly deed of the colonial government, Bhagat Singh went straight from his school to Amritsar, kissed the earth sanctified by the blood of Dyer’s victims, and brought back with him a little of the blood-soaked soil which he kept in a bottle as a permanent reminder of the injustice, injury and humiliation perpetrated by the colonial rulers on the Indian people.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades were not the first fighters against British colonialism; nor were they the first to take up arms against the British Raj. What distinguished them from the several thousands of armed fighters for Indian freedom over a period of nearly two centuries is, first, that the revolutionary activities of Bhagat Singh and his comrades happened to coincide with the tumultuous arrival of the Indian masses into the arena of political life and, second, that they were irresistibly driven to accept the ideology of Marxism.
In this regard, the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia played a most crucial role. Such was the liberating effect of the Russian Revolution that even some Congress leaders, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilka, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal, greeted with joy the Bolshevik victory and the Bolshevik programme. The Russian Revolution, by laying bare the contrast between the compromising bourgeois Congress leadership of the Indian freedom struggle, on the one hand, and the uncompromising revolutionary Bolshevik leadership, on the other, had an even bigger impact on the young armed freedom fighters in India and elsewhere. The October Revolution, with its earth-shattering ramifications, had a triple effect on the young Indian revolutionaries in particular. First, it instilled confidence in them that imperialism and the system of exploitation of one man by another, and one nation by another, could be got rid of. Second, it forced them to seriously ponder the meaning – the economic and social content – of independence. Third, it prompted a serious study of Marxism as the only reliable weapon and ideological tool for the attainment of the freedom of the Indian people from British colonialism and the system of exploitation alike.
Bhagat Singh in particular was deeply influenced by the triumphant march of the October Revolution. Less than two months before his execution, in what can only be called his last testament, this is how he exposes, by an implicit reference to the events of the 1920s, the compromising capitulationist and cowardly leadership of the Congress, above all Gandhi, as the enemy of the Indian proletariat and peasantry and a friend of the exploiting bourgeois and landlord classes:
“The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and cannot dare to tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber shall become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at. After his first experience with the Ahmedabad labourers in 1920 Mahatma Gandhi declared: ‘We must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat’ (The Times, May 1921). Since then, they never dared to approach them. There remains the peasantry. The Bardoli resolution of 1922 clearly defines the horrors the leaders felt when they saw the gigantic peasant class rising to shake off not only the domination of an alien nation but also the yoke of the landlords. It is there that our leaders prefer surrender to the British than to the peasantry”.
It was also in the aftermath of the October Revolution, and under its direct impact, that the Communist Party of India was formed at Tashkent on 17 October 1920, and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) established on 31 October 1920 in Bombay. Both these bodies were to play an important role in the anti-colonial and revolutionary movement.
In 1924, still in his teens, Bhagat Singh left Lahore for Kanpur, where he completed his study of Marx’s Capital, met many revolutionaries, including Batukeshwar Dutt, who taught him Bengali, and Chandrashekar Azad, and joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), which had been formed in 1923, with Sachindra Nath Sanyal being it moving spirit. The object clause of the HRA’s Rules and Regulations stated: “The object of the Association shall be to establish a Federal Republic of the United States of India by an armed revolution”. It was to be a republic in which exploitation of one person by another would be outlawed. The HRA was to be “not national but international” in its outlook and follow in the footsteps of “Bolshevik Russia”.
Funds for the HRA were to be raised, among other things, through armed robberies. It was to this end that the HRA revolutionaries stopped a train on 9 August 1925 at Kakori near Lucknow, looted a government safe containing the modest sum of Rs4,679, in the process killing one person accidentally. Most of the participants in the train robbery were arrested and tried in the Kakori Conspiracy Case. Four of the accused in this case, including the famous poet Ram Prasad Bismil, were hanged, two received life imprisonment and eleven others varying prison terms. Only two, including the legendary Chandrashekar Azad, managed to evade arrest. Although a heavy blow to the HRA, the Kakori case acquired the proportions of a legend in view of the display of courage and manhood by the accused during the trial. The four sentenced to be hanged cheerfully mounted the gallows while singing the following legendary song, which was from then on to be on the lips of literally every Indian:
“Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare
dil mein hai,
“Dekhna hai zor kitna basu-e
katil mein hai”.
“We are burning with a longing
to be denuded of our heads,
“We shall see how much strength can
the executioner’s arms wield”.
Thanks to the strenuous work of Azad and the second line of leadership, which included Shiv Verma and many others, the HRA was able to recover from the setback following the Kakori Conspiracy Case.
Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS)
Meanwhile, after a six-month stay in Kanpur, Bhagat Singh returned to Lahore. He had only gone to Kanpur to escape pressure from his father and grandmother to get married. His correspondence with his father on this question clearly brings out Bhagat Singh’s lofty ideals in the service of which he was ready to renounce all worldly comforts and sacrifice his life. “Now is not the time for marriage. The country is calling me. I have taken oath to serve the country physically, mentally and monetarily”, he wrote to his father. Alluding to his family’s patriotism and its sacrifices in the service of the freedom struggle, he continued “I am only following your footprints … you will kindly not tie me in matrimony but give me your blessings so that I may succeed in my mission”. In response to a letter from his father saying that “We have already settled your marriage … you should not create any difficulty”, Bhagat Singh wrote a firm, but respectful reply. “I am astonished to read the contents of your letter. When you, who are a staunch patriot and brave personality, can be influenced by such trifles, then what will happen to ordinary men?
“You are caring for Dadi [my grandmother], but in how much trouble is our Mother of 33 crores [330 million], the Bharat Mata [Mother India]. We will have to sacrifice everything for her sake”.
At the time of leaving for Kanpur, he left this note: “Revered Father, … I have dedicated my life to the lofty goal of service to the Motherland. Hence there is no attraction in me for home and fulfilment of worldly desires. … I hope you will forgive me”.
Six months later, when assured that his father would no longer insist on him getting married, Bhagat Singh returned to Lahore, only more ardent than ever before, to continue along a path in the service of which he had dedicated his life. While remaining in touch with his fellow revolutionaries in the United Provinces (UP) after his return to Lahore, Bhagat Singh extended and deepened his contacts in Punjab. In March 1926, along with Sukhdev, B.C.Vohra and Ram Krishan, he formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) [Indian Youth Association], which took up the unrealised mission of the HRA. In addition to the youth, the NBS’s membership included such eminent people as Saifuddin Kitchlew, Satyapal, Mir Abdul Majid, Sardul Singh Caveeshar and the poet Lal Chand Falaq. Ram Krishan was the NBS’s President and Bhagat Singh, its Secretary.
The progress of the NBS was truly phenomenal. Its branches spread throughout the Punjab, and similar organisations were set up in other provinces. An All-India NBS was established in Delhi, which soon thereafter forged links with the HRA and the Kirti Kisan [Workers and Peasants] Party founded by the veteran communist leader Sohan Singh Josh. The NBS was to function openly as a legal arm of the revolutionary movement and undertake political work in the ranks of the youth as well as among workers and peasants. As such, recognising as it did the importance of political work among the broad masses of people, the NBS, its aims and programme, marked a very important step forward in the political and ideological development of Bhagat Singh and his close comrades and the acceptance by them of Marxist methods of work as well as Marxist ideology.
The political aims of the NBS included, inter alia, the establishment of a completely independent workers’ and peasants’ republic in India; the organisation of labourers and peasants; instilling the sprit of patriotism in the country’s youth; and fighting against communalism (the pitting of one religious group against another). “Revolution by the masses and for the masses” was the motto of the NBS’s Manifesto, written by B.C.Vohra. The masses must be made to realise, said the Manifesto, that “… the revolution which is to come will mean more than a change of masters. It will, above all, mean the birth of a new order of things, a new state”, requiring decades of “matchless self-sacrifice”, adding that a “… revolutionary does not necessarily mean a man of bombs and revolvers”.
The rules of the NBS were written by Bhagat Singh. Such was the importance attached by Bhagat Singh to the need for fighting the corrosive disease of communalism that two out of its six rules called for the creation of “… the spirit of general toleration among the public concerning religion as a matter of personal belief of man”, and to “… have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas”. Believing religion to be the private concern of an individual, Bhagat Singh was firmly of the view that the moment it intruded into politics and donned the garb of communalism, religion had to be fought like an enemy. He was of the view that communalism was no less an enemy than colonialism. More than any other contemporary leader, Bhagat Singh worked tirelessly to free the masses from the servitude of religion and superstition. As is clear from his wonderful article ‘Why I am an Atheist’, he rightly poured scorn and ridicule on the concept of a world created by a supreme being.
So strong was Bhagat Singh’s hatred of communalism that he went to the extent of publicly denouncing, though without naming him, the eminent Congress leader in Punjab, Lal Lajpat Rai, for avenging whose death at the hands of British colonialism he was to pay for with his own life. As Lajpat Rai’s politics took a markedly communal turn in the mid-twenties, Bhagat Singh printed, as a pamphlet, Robert Browning’s famous poem, ‘The Lost Leader’, in which Browning subjected Wordsworth to trenchant criticism for his renegacy against the French Revolution and the spirit of liberty. In the words of Dr Bipin Chandra: “… The opening line of the poem was ‘Just for a handful of silver he left us;, a few other lines were ‘We shall march prospering – not thro’ his presence; songs may inspire us – from his lyre'; and ‘Blot out his name, record one lost soul’ – in fact, his name appeared nowhere in it – only the front cover carried Lajpat Rai’s photograph”.
In 1928 Bhagat Singh successfully argued that young persons belonging to religious-communal organisations be barred from the membership of the NBS.
From HRA to HSRA
In the aftermath of the Kakori trial, which was intended by the colonial authorities to smash the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), the latter began regrouping under the leadership of Azad. At the same time, global and national political and economic developments were increasingly pushing the HRA revolutionaries in the direction of Marxism. In their never-ceasing thirst for knowledge, the HRA revolutionaries, especially Bhagat Singh, devoured voluminous amounts of literature, including Marxist literature. Their enlightenment through literature was supplemented by lessons driven home by the various conspiracy cases, especially the Kanpur Conspiracy Trial of 1923-24 against the communists, the world economic crisis which made its appearance in the colonies as early as 1926, the historic British General Strike of 1926, and a wave of unprecedented and momentous strikes of the Indian proletariat under communist leadership in several parts of the country.
These developments left their stamp on the HRA revolutionaries and furnish the background to the crucial meeting of the HRA held at Ferozeshah Kotla ground in Delhi on 8-9 September 1928. Present at this meeting were representatives from Punjab, UP, Bihar and Rajistan. The Punjab group was led by Bhagat Singh, who played a leading role. He put forward at this meeting the following major proposals: First, that socialism be accepted as the ultimate goal of the organisation; second, that consequently the name of the party, in order to reflect the goal of socialism, be changed to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA); third, that only such actions be undertaken by the party as those bearing a direct relationship with the desires, demands and interests of the people, so as not to waste time and effort in killing petty police functionaries and informers; fourth, that the principle of collective leadership be accepted as the basis of the party’s functioning and be strictly adhered to; and, finally, that for securing funds, the target should be government resources and not private houses. These proposals were accepted by a majority of six against two (the two dissidents – Phanindranath Ghosh and Manmohan Bannerjee – were to turn approvers in the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case against Bhagat Singh and others) and the meeting elected a seven-member Central Committee. Bhagat Singh was made responsible for ideological work and Azad was elected to be the Commander-in-chief of the HSRA.
The Manifesto of the HSRA, drafted by B.C.Vohra, is an extraordinary panegyric in praise of revolution – almost lyrical in form, powerful in its content and uplifting in its effect. Having stated that without revolution “… there can be no progress in nature or in human affairs”, it carries on thus:
“Revolution is certainly not unthinking, brutal campaign of murder and incendiarism; it is not a few bombs thrown here and a few shots fired there; neither is it a movement to destroy all remnants of civilization and blow to pieces time honoured principles of justice and equity. Revolution is not a philosophy of despair or a creed of desperadoes. Revolution may be anti-God but is certainly not anti-Man. It is a vital, living force which is indicative of eternal conflict between the old and the new, between life and living death, between light and darkness. There is no concord, no symphony, no rhythm without revolution. ‘The music of the spheres’ of which poets have sung, would remain an unreality if a ceaseless revolution were to be eliminated from the space. Revolution is Law, Revolution is Order and Revolution is Truth”.
The Manifesto goes on to portray the miserable lot of the Indian masses, who suffered the double yoke of foreign capitalism as well as the attack of Indian capital. It laid bare the capitulatory and cowardly role played by the Indian capitalist class and its political representatives, warning the Indian masses against their treachery and bringing home to them the truth that their only hope lay in socialism, which alone could accomplish the establishment of true independence and remove all social distinctions and privileges.
“India”, says the Manifesto, “is writhing under the yoke of imperialism. Her teeming millions are today a helpless prey to poverty and ignorance. Foreign domination and economic exploitation have unmanned the vast majority of the people who constitute the workers and peasants of India. The position of the Indian proletariat is, today, extremely critical. It has a double danger to face. It has to bear the onslaught of foreign capitalism on one hand the treacherous attack of Indian capital on the other. The latter is showing a progressive tendency to join hands with the former. The leaning of certain politicians in favour of dominion status shows clearly which way the wind blows. Indian capital is preparing to betray the masses into the hands of foreign capitalism and receive as a price of this betrayal, a little share in the government of the country. The hope of the proletariat is now centred on socialism which alone can lead to the establishment of complete independence and the removal of all social distinctions and privileges”.
Role of revolutionary terror
While emphasising the need for mobilising the broad masses in their fight against colonial bondage and class oppression and exploitation, the Manifesto correctly goes on to stress the need for, and the place of, armed revolutionary struggle in pursuit of the ideals of freedom and emancipation. It says:
“We have been taken to task for our terroristic policy. Our answer is that terrorism is never the object of revolutionaries, nor do they believe that terrorism alone can bring independence. No doubt the revolutionaries think, and rightly, that it is only by resorting to terrorism alone that they can find a most effective means of retaliation. The British government exists because the Britishers have been successful in terrorizing the whole of India. How are we to meet this official terrorism? Only counter-terrorism on the part of revolutionaries can checkmate effectively this bureaucratic bullying”.
Certain writers, even some who call themselves communist, have put on record their disapproval of the lines quoted immediately above, allegedly betraying the partiality of Bhagat Singh and his comrades to terrorist methods of struggle. Only by misunderstanding, or worse, deliberately distorting, the meaning of these lines and dogmatically objecting to the use of the words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ can one criticise their authors as being trigger happy terrorists. In our view, these lines express no more than that counter-revolutionary terror can only be answered by revolutionary terror. And of this, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were fully, and rightly, convinced. It would not be difficult to cite many examples of similar expressions of thought, and similar use of language, from the writing of V.I.Lenin, against whom it would occur to no one to level the accusation of terrorism.
The attempt to smear Bhagat Singh and his comrades by sticking on them the label of terrorism bears an uncanny resemblance to the shameful characterisation of the 1916 Easter uprising in Ireland, not only by the imperialist bourgeoisie but also by the overwhelming majority of the working-class parties of Europe at the time, as a mere putsch. No less a person than V.I.Lenin poured derision on such a “monstrously doctrinaire and pedantic opinion”. “The term putsch”, he said, “in its scientific sense, may be employed when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses”. This, he went on, was not the case insofar as the Irish rebellion was concerned, for the centuries-old Irish liberation movement, “having passed through various stages and combinations, expressed itself, among other things, in a mass Irish National Congress in America, which called for Irish independence; it also expressed itself in street fighting conducted by a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie and a section of the workers after a long period of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of papers, etc. Whoever calls such a rebellion a ‘putsch’ is either a hardened reactionary, or a doctrinaire who is hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon” (‘Discussion on Self-Determination summed up’, CW. Vol 22, p.355)
Without in the least impugning the strength and vitality of the Irish liberation movement in 1916, one can confidently say that the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle of the Indian people during the time that Bhagat Singh and his comrades were carrying out their revolutionary activities had developed to an incomparably higher level – Bhagat Singh and his comrades were inseparably connected with, and an extension of, the powerful national movement of the Indian people, which was shaking the very foundations of British rule in India. Far from revealing them to be “… a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs”, their actions aroused mass sympathy among the Indian masses, who took up the cause and slogans of these revolutionary heroes as their own and, who through their love and adoration for the self-sacrificing heroism of the revolutionaries in the cause of the emancipation of the Indian masses, turned them into living legends. Only those who are hardened reactionaries, “hopelessly incapable of envisaging a socialist revolution as a living phenomenon” can condemn them as terrorists. In fact such was the popular acclaim for the courageous acts of Bhagat Singh and his comrades that even a hardened reactionary like Gandhi who, as we shall reveal later on, played such a dirty and complicit role in the judicial murder of these brave and wonderful sons of India, was obliged, under mass pressure, to shower praise on them – no matter how grudgingly and meanly.
Even today, seventy six years after their martyrdom, there are some who continue to accuse Bhagat Singh and his comrades of being infatuated with the ideology of anarchistic terrorism, in isolation from the masses. This, notwithstanding clear statements to the contrary by Bhagat Singh such as these, in which, while emphasising the significance and role of revolutionary violence, he forswears the use of terrorism as a method of struggle:
“Apparently I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. I am a revolutionary who has got definite ideas of a lengthy programme as is being discussed here … Let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot get anything through these methods. … I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb-throwing is not only useless, but sometimes harmful. The military department of the Party should always keep ready all the war material at its command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the Party. It cannot and should not act independently”.
In a message from his prison cell, this is how Bhagat Singh laid stress on the seizure of state power as an instrument for uprooting the existing social order based on exploitation:
“We mean by revolution the uprooting of the present social order. For this capture of state power is necessary. The state apparatus is now in the hands of the privileged class. The protection of the interests of the masses, the translation of our ideal into reality, that is, laying the foundation of society in accordance with the principles of Karl Marx, demand our seizure of this apparatus” (October 1930).
On 2 February 1931, less than two months before his judicial murder, Bhagat Singh wrote his memorable appeal ‘To Young Political Workers’, which has justly been deemed as his last testament. Having analysed the then prevailing political and social conditions and the cowardly and capitulatory programme and tactics of the Congress Party, he exhorted the youth to embrace the ideology of Marxism, join the Communist Party, work among the people and do everything in their power to organise the working class and the peasantry, and went on to lay before it (the youth) the following Leninist programme on maters of organisation:
“We require – to use the term so dear to Lenin – the ‘professional revolutionaries’. The whole time workers who have no other ambition or life-work except the revolution. The greater the number of such workers organized into the Party, the greater the chances of your success. … The name of the Party should be the Communist Party. This Party of political workers, bound by strict discipline, should handle all other movements. It shall have to organize the peasants’ and workers’ parties, labour unions, and may even venture to capture the Congress and kindred political bodies. And in order to create political consciousness, not only of national politics but class politics as well, the Party should organize a big publishing campaign”.
In 1928, the British government sent the Simon Commission to India to look into the question of further constitutional reforms – a mere hoax to delay India’s independence. Indians had neither been consulted over the constitution and the remit of this mockery of a Commission, nor did India have any representation on it. In the circumstances the Congress leadership decided to boycott the Commission and stage protest demonstrations against it. The revolutionaries of the HSRA resolved to actively support the boycott and the demonstrations. On the occasion of the arrival of the Commission in Lahore on 30 October 1928, hardly two months after the formation of the HSRA, a mammoth protest demonstration was held under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Rai. The police subjected the participants to a baton charge. During this brutal action, Lala Lajpat Rai received several blows on his head from a baton wielded by a superintendent of police by the name of Scott. Lajpat Rai died on 17 November 1928 from his injuries. The entire country was astounded, with everyone feeling the pain and humiliation resulting from the brutal and senseless murder of Lajpat Rai by the colonial authorities. The youth of the country were particularly infuriated and burned with a desire to avenge Lajpat Rai’s murder.
It was in these circumstances that the HSRA decided to kill Scott. One month to the day after Lajpat Rai’s death, on 17 December 1928, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Chandrashekar Azad shot dead another police officer, J.P.Saunders, who too had taken part in the attack on the demonstration of 30 October, mistakenly believing him to be Scott. Handwritten bills pasted on the walls of Lahore the same night, in which the HSRA claimed responsibility for the killing of Saunders, stated, inter alia:
“With the death of J.P.Saunders, the assassination of Lala Lajpat Rai has been avenged. … This national insult was a challenge to young men. Today the world has seen that the people of India are not lifeless; their blood has not become cold. They can lay down their lives for the country’s honour. The proof of this has been given by the youth who are ridiculed and insulted by the leaders of their own country”.
Continues the HSRA statement:
“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 man has been killed as an employee of the British Government. This government is the most oppressive government in the world.
“We are sorry for shedding human blood but it becomes necessary to bathe the altar of revolution with blood. Our aim is to bring about a revolution which would end all exploitation of man by man.
“Long Live Revolution!”
For nearly four months, all the efforts of the colonial authorities in tracing those who killed Saunders proved utterly fruitless. Only the next episode in the revolutionary struggle provided them with the clues that led to Bhagat Singh and his comrades, their trial by a specially constituted tribunal and their judicial murder by the colonial authorities. Let us turn to this episode.
Bombs in the Assembly – the motive
The colonial government had introduced the draconian Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill in the Central Legislative Assembly at Delhi, with the twin aims of suppressing the vibrant rising working-class movement and checking the increasing influence of the communists within this movement. As a prelude to this, on 20 March 1929, the colonial regime had arrested 31 prominent labour and communist leaders in various parts of India and brought them to court to face conspiracy charges in the notorious Meerut Conspiracy Case.
The HSRA resolved to dramatically interrupt the proceedings of the Assembly by lobbing bombs into the Chamber for the sole purpose of registering a protest against the passage of the above-mentioned Bills and the arbitrary and unjust incarceration of the communist and labour leaders. Never meant to kill anyone, the bombs were merely to serve as a warning to the authorities. Those given the responsibility to throw the bombs were to make no attempt to escape; instead they were to court arrest and use the inevitable court trial for propagating and popularising the programme and ideology of the HSRA among the wider masses of India.
After long discussion, the task of throwing the bombs was assigned to Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt. While the former, as its most ideologically equipped member, was to explain the views and programme of the HSRA before the court and, through it, to the wider masses, Batukeshwar was included to emphasise the national, all-India, character of the revolutionary organisation. The inclusion of Bhagat Singh was fraught with extreme risk as he had been a participant in the killing of J.P.Saunders. Be that as it may, as per the decision of the HSRA, on 8 April 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs in the Central Assembly Hall, immediately following the passage of the Trade Disputes Bill. Hardly anyone was seriously injured. All the same, pandemonium broke out on the official benches. Bhagat Singh also fired two unaimed shots from a pistol. Bhagat Singh and Dutt began shouting their favourite slogans: “Inquilab Zindabad” and “Down with British Imperialism” and threw copies of a leaflet into the Assembly Chamber. This leaflet, under the name of the HSRA, together with the joint statement of Bhagat Singh and Dutt (whose author was Bhagat Singh alone), read out on their behalf by their lawyer Asaf Ali on 6 June 1929 in Sessions Court, gives us an accurate picture of the motive and extent of intention of the HSRA in executing the Assembly bomb plan, as well as its views on the significance of the use of force in pursuit of revolutionary goals, and the meaning and content of the word ‘Revolution’ as understood by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. It is well worth our while quoting extensively from these two documents and, in view of their significance, hopefully the reader will forgive us the use of lengthy quotations.
The leaflet thrown in the Assembly boldly announces that “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear…”, adding that “.. while the people are expecting some more crumbs of reforms from the Simon Commission, … the Government is thrusting upon them new repressive measures like the Public Safety and the Trade Disputes Bill, … reserving the Press Sedition Bill for the next session. The indiscriminate arrests of labour leaders working in the open field clearly indicate wither the wind blows”.
It was these provocative conditions which had forced the HSRA to instruct its army to undertake the action it had, emphasising that while the government might succeed in killing a few individuals it will never succeed in stamping out the ideas concerning the liberation of the masses. Let the leaflet speak for itself:
“In these extremely provocative circumstances, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, in all seriousness, realizing their full responsibility, had decided and ordered its army to do this particular action, so that a stop be put to this humiliating farce and to let the alien bureaucratic exploiters do what they wish, but they must be made to come before the public eee in their naked form.
“Let the representatives of the people return to their constituencies and prepare the masses for the coming revolution, and let the Government know that while protesting against the Public Safety and Trade Disputes Bills and the callous murder of Lala Lajpat Rai, on behalf of the helpless Indian masses, we want to emphasize the lesson often repeated by history, that it is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled while the ideas survived. Bourbons and Czars fell.
“We are sorry to admit that we who attach so great a sanctity to human life, we who dream of a glorious future, when man will be enjoying perfect peace and full liberty, have been forced to shed human blood. But the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the ‘Great Revolution’ that will bring freedom to all, rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable.
“Long Live the Revolution”.
The 6 June statement of the accused in the court of judge Leonard Middleton, methodically and scientifically answers the charges laid against Bhagat Singh and Dutt, while throwing great light on their motivation and ideals. The question was raised in the court: Were bombs thrown into the Assembly Chamber and Why? To the first half of the question, the accused replied in the affirmative. As to the second half of the question, the accused found it necessary “to go into some detail to offer a full and frank explanation of [their] motive and the circumstances leading up to what has become a historic moment.
“When we are told by some of the police officers, who visited us in jail that Lord Irwin in his address to the joint session of the two houses described the event as an attack directed against no individual but against an institution itself, we readily recognised that the true significance of the incident had been correctly appreciated.
“We are next to none in our love for humanity. Far from having any malice against any individual, we hold human life sacred beyond words.
“We are neither perpetrators of dastardly outrages, and, therefore, a disgrace to the country, as the pseudo-socialist Dewan Chaman Lal is reported to have described us, nor are we ‘Lunatics’ as ‘The Tribune’ of Lahore and some others would have it believed”.
The statement goes on to say that the action of the revolutionaries was a “… practical protest against the institution, which, since its birth, has eminently helped to display not only its worthlessness but its far-reaching power for mischief”, an institution which existed only “to demonstrate to the world India’s humiliation and helplessness”, and which symbolised “… the overriding domination of an irresponsible and autocratic rule”. While resolutions such as those concerning the repeal of the repressive and arbitrary measures, passed the by House were routinely and “contemptuously trampled under foot on the floor of the so-called Indian Parliament”, the government proposals, “rejected as unacceptable by the elected members of the legislatures, have been restored by a mere stroke of the pen”.
Continues the statement: “In short, we have utterly failed to find any justification for the existence of an institution which, despite all its pomp and splendour, organized with the hard earned money of the sweating millions of India, is only a hollow show and a mischievous make-believe. Alike, have we failed to comprehend the mentality of the public leaders who help the Government to squander public time and money on such a manifestly stage-managed exhibition of India’s helpless subjection.
“We have been ruminating upon all these matters, as also upon the wholesale arrests of the leaders of the labour movement. When the introduction of the Trade Disputes Bill brought us into the Assembly to watch its progress, the course of the debate only served to confirm our conviction that the labouring millions of India had nothing to expect from an institution that stood as a menacing monument to the strangling of the exploiters and the serfdom of the helpless labourers.
“Finally, the insult of what we consider, an inhuman and barbarous measure was hurled on the devoted head of the representatives of the entire country, and the starving and struggling millions were deprived of their primary right and the sole means of improving their economic welfare. None who has felt like us for the dumb driven drudges of labourers could possibly witness this spectacle with equanimity. None whose heart bleeds for them, who have given their life-blood in silence to the building up of the economic structure could repress the cry which this ruthless blow had wrung out of our hearts.”
In view of the above circumstance, the bomb had been dropped on the floor of the Assembly Chamber “… to register our protest on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heart-rending agony. Our purpose was ‘to make the deaf hear’ and to give the heedless a timely warning”. That “… from under the seeming stillness of the sea of Indian humanity, a veritable storm is about to break out. We have only hoisted the ‘danger-signal’ to warn those who are speeding along without heeding the grave danger ahead … ”
Taking a swipe at the apostles of Gandhian non-violence, the statement says: “We have only marked the end of an era of utopian non-violence, of whose futility the rising generation has been convinced beyond the shadow of doubt”. By way of an explanation on this question, the statement adds: ” … Force when aggressively applied is ‘violence’ and is, therefore, morally unjustifiable, but when it is used in furtherance of a legitimate cause, it has its moral justification. The elimination of force at all costs is utopian. …”
Extent of the intent
Having dealt with the motive behind their action, the accused then went on to define the extent of their intention, saying that they bore no grudge against anyone in the Assembly. “On the contrary”, they asserted, “we hold human life sacred beyond words, and would sooner lay down our own lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone. Unlike the mercenary soldiers of the imperialist armies who are disciplined to kill without compunction, we respect, and, in so far as it lies within our power, we attempt to save human life”. Their statement went on to say that the deliberate throwing of the bombs into the Assembly Chamber and their intention in this regard had to be judged in the light of the result of their action “… without bringing in utopian hypothetical circumstances and presumptions”.
Three days after the bomb incident, on 11 April, the Assembly resumed its proceedings. The president of the Assembly, Vithalbhai Patel, made a statement in which he condemned the bomb incident as “the dastardly outrage”, which had not resulted in serious consequences thanks to “merciful providence”, but was all the same condemnable. The Assembly then passed a unanimous resolution expressing its “horror and indignation at the dastardly outrage” on the morning of 8 April, offering sympathy to those who suffered but slight injuries, attributing the absence of loss of life and serious injuries to divine providence, and assuring the colonial authorities of its “full support in such reasonable steps as may be necessary to prevent a recurrence of such crimes”.
It was in direct response to the above absurd and hypocritical resolution that the accused, in their statement, stated that the slight damage to an empty bench and some slight injuries in less than half a dozen cases were not the result of “a miracle”, as had been claimed by the government and its Indian flunkeys, but consequent upon “a precisely scientific process”. This, because the bombs had been deliberately targeted towards, and exploded in, empty spaces within the wooden barriers of the desks and benches, with the result that even those who were less than two feet from the explosion were either unhurt or only slightly scratched. Further, the bombs were deliberately loaded with a charge which could cause little injury. The bombs could have been thrown into the official box by the accused, who could equally have, had they so wanted, ambushed Sir John Simon “whose luckless Commission was loathed by all responsible people and who was sitting in the President’s gallery at the time”.
“All these things, however”, continues the statement, “were beyond our intentions and the bombs did no more than they were designed to do, and the miracle consisted in no more than the deliberate aim which landed them in safe places”. The statement then goes on to the issue of a chilling warning to the colonial authorities that no amount of repression, brutality and violence on their part, would help to put out the struggle for the emancipation of the Indian masses
After throwing bombs, said the accused in their statement, “we … deliberately offered ourselves to bear the penalty for what we had done and to let the imperialist exploiters know that by crushing individuals, they cannot kill ideas. By crushing two insignificant units, a nation cannot be crushed. We wanted to emphasize the historical lesson that lettres de cachet and Bastilles could not crush the revolutionary movement in France. Gallows and the Siberian mines could not extinguish the Russian Revolution. Bloody Sunday, and Black and Tans failed to strangle the movement of Irish freedom.
“Can Ordinances and Safety Bills snuff out the flames of freedom in India? Conspiracy cases, trumped up or discovered, and the incarceration of all young men who cherish the vision of a great ideal, cannot check the march of revolution. But a timely warning, if not unheeded, can help to prevent loss of life and general sufferings.
“We took it upon ourselves to provide this warning and our duty is done.”
Finally, the statement of the accused furnishes a clear cut answer to the question: What did they mean by the word ‘Revolution’ – the ideal to the realisation of which they had devoted their lives, and for the attainment of which they were prepared to pay with their own lives? Here is the answer, full of confidence and holding forth the wonderful prospect of a bright communist future for humanity:
“I, Bhagat Singh, was asked in the lower court as to what we meant by the word ‘Revolution’. In answer to the question I would say ‘Revolution’ does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By ‘Revolution’ we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of the fruits of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant, who grows corn for all, starves with this family, the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies, masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims. These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. This state of affairs cannot last long, and it is obvious, that the present order of society in merry-making is on the brink of a volcano.
“The whole edifice of this civilization, if not saved in time, shall crumble. A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realize it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis. Unless this thing is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, the suffering and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented. All talk of ending war and ushering in an era of universal peace is undisguised hypocrisy.
“By ‘Revolution’, we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdown, and in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.
“This is our ideal, and with this ideology as our inspiration, we have given a fair and loud enough warning.
“If, however, it goes unheeded and the present system of government continues to be an impediment in the way of the natural forces that are swelling up, a grim struggle will ensue involving the overthrow of all obstacles, and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat to pave the way for the consummation of the ideal of revolution. Revolution is an inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is an imperishable birth right of all. Labour is the real sustainer of society. The sovereignty of the people is the ultimate destiny of the workers.
“For these ideals, and for this faith, we shall welcome any suffering to which we may be condemned. At the altar of this revolution we have brought our youth as an incense, for no sacrifice is too great for so magnificent a cause. We are content, we await the advent of Revolution.
“Long Live Revolution”
Since the accused had confessed to the throwing of the bombs in the Assembly, the only issue to be decided was the extent of their intention and, in accordance with that, the quantum of punishment. The Court delivered its judgement on 12 June. It found the accused guilty of the offences with which they were charged and awarded them with a retributive punishment – transportation for life.
[to be continued]