On Bhagat Singh
The bombs in the Assembly episode set into motion a train of events that were to haul Bhagat Singh and his comrades before a specially constituted tribunal in Lahore in the famous Second Lahore Conspiracy trial and send them to the gallows. Bhagat Singh was suspected of being implicated in the killing of Saunders. The pistol from which he fired two unaimed shots in the Assembly gave him away, as did the posters strewn across the floor of the Assembly chamber, identified to be in his handwriting – the same handwriting which bore its imprint on the posters pasted on the walls of Lahore in the evening following Saunders’ killing.
The police raided several premises used by the HSRA [Hindustan Socialist Republican Association] revolutionaries in Lahore, Agra and Saharanpur, resulting in the arrest of several revolutionaries and the capture of literature, bomb-making equipment and other incriminating material. Two of them – Jai Gopal and Hans Raj Vohra – made confessions, which resulted in further arrests of revolutionary activists in Punjab, UP and Bihar. Depressingly, unable to stand torture, seven of them turned approvers. Two of these seven were members of the Central Committee.
The trial of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and many other revolutionaries commenced on 10 July 1929 and came to a close on 7 October 1930. The accused turned the tables on the colonial authorities, using the court for propagating their revolutionary programme, laying bare the outrages of the alien rulers and putting them in the dock for their crimes against the Indian masses.
While in jail they undertook a lengthy hunger strike to press their claim to be treated as political prisoners, rather than as common criminals, and for improved facilities such as proper food, availability of literature, as well as the right not to be subjected to forced labour. The authorities refused to budge, with the result that on the sixty-fourth day of the hunger strike, on 13 September 1929, Jatin achieved martyrdom. Huge crowds lined the streets of Lahore as his mortal remains were carried along the main roads of the city, ending in a mammoth public meeting. Following this, Durga Bhabi (wife of Bhagwati Charan Vohra and a real revolutionary in her own right) took Jatin Das’s body by train from Lahore to Calcutta. At every station along the route masses of people turned up to pay their homage to a dear and departed hero. In Calcutta, an unprecedented crowd of 600,000 followed his coffin to the crematorium.
Even the Government Advocate, Carden Noad, felt obliged to pay a glowing, even if hypocritical, tribute to Jatindra Nath Das
. “I desire on behalf of all
“, he told the Court on 24 September 1929,
“to express the sincere regret and genuine sorrow we feel on account of the untimely death of Jatindra Nath Das. There are qualities which compel admiration of all men alike, and pre-eminent among them are the qualities of courage and consistency in the pursuit of an ideal. Although we do not share ideals which he followed, we cannot but admire the unwavering fortitude and firmness of the purpose he displayed”
, 26 September 1929).
The most meaningful and touching tribute came from Mary, widow of Terence McSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who had been martyred in Ireland in similar circumstances:
“Family of Terence McSwiney unites with patriotic Indians in grief and pride in the death of Jatindra Nath Das. Freedom will come.”
The proceedings before the Special Magistrate, whose remit was limited to determining whether the evidence disclosed that a prima facie case existed to warrant the committal of the accused for trial to the Court of Session, were a mockery of all norms of justice. The accused were routinely handcuffed, subjected to regular beatings, roughed up in court right before the magistrate; while the relatives and friends of the accused had every obstacle put in their way to prevent them from entering the Court and viewing the proceedings, most of the space there was occupied by the police and detectives in plain clothes, who could listen in to every word between the accused; while the Public Prosecutor and the Government Advocate were treated with courtesy bordering on subservience, with every one of their requests readily granted, the defence had to struggle for the rights of the accused, only to be met with refusal and obstruction by the magistrate, whose actions were controlled by the police and the government. The general public were denied entry into the Court; often even the press had restrictions imposed on it.
It is to the undying credit of the accused that, even in these trying circumstances, they behaved with dignity, courage, fortitude and, above all, with unswerving and irrepressible revolutionary determination and enthusiasm, remaining faithful to their ideals and cheerfully optimistic as to their realisation. On entering and leaving the Court, it was their practice to shout
“Long Live Revolution!”, “Long Live the Proletariat!”,
“Down with Imperialism!”.
On 24 January 1930, the accused, wearing red scarves, entered the Court shouting appositely the slogan “
Long Live Lenin!”
Characteristically, Bhagat Singh passed on to the magistrate a message with the request that it be telegraphed to the President of the Communist International. The message read:
“On the occasion of the Lenin Day, we express our hearty congratulations on the triumphant and onward march of Comrade Lenin’s success for the great experiment carried on in the Soviet Russia. We wish to associate ourselves with the world revolution movement. Victory to the workers’ regime. Woe to capitalism. Down with imperialism
, 26 January 1930).
On 29 January 1930, after the Court refused permission to Bhagat Singh’s legal adviser, Lala Duni Chand, to witness the proceedings, the accused unanimously decided to withdraw from these farcical proceedings. Bhagat Singh addressed the Court thus:
“I am instructed by my comrades to request you
[the magistrate –
to send us back to jail and proceedings may be carried on in our absence. Let us sit in peace in jail and let the proceedings also go on here in peace”.
After the government made a conciliatory gesture on 19 February 1930, the accused resumed their cooperation and the trial proceeded smoothly between 8 March and 3 May – the last day of the proceedings before the magistrate. Meanwhile, two days earlier (on 1 May) an ordinance had been promulgated to set up a Tribunal to try the case. Noad, the government prosecutor, had good reason to thank the magistrate, Rai Saheb Pandit Sri Krishen, for his
“. Bhagat Singh, who had received horrible treatment from the magistrate, too, spoke without rancour. Polite in the extreme, and as free from personal hatred as he was from fear, he thanked the magistrate on behalf of his comrades and himself, telling the magistrate that although they had often to defy the bureaucracy, whose representative the magistrate was, they held nothing against him personally. He added that the magistrate was too polite and lenient, of which leniency the prosecution, unlike the accused, had taken advantage. He proceeded to say that the appointment of the Tribunal was a clear victory for the accused who from the outset desired nothing more than to expose the government’s lawless conduct in the eyes of the public. Through the appointment of the Tribunal, the government had revealed its true colours.
The Lahore Conspiracy Case ordinance, under which the Tribunal was established, was promulgated by the Governor-General Lord Irwin allegedly in exercise of the power conferred by S.72 of the Government of India Act, 1919. The said Act, however, stipulated that the Governor-General’s Ordinance could not have a life of more than six months and that it could only be made in
“cases of emergency
“. There was no such emergency. But, in the light of the tremendous and growing popularity of Bhagat Singh and his comrades and the infectious example which they set for others, the colonial authorities were determined on a course of reckless haste and securing a shortcut to the gallows, especially for Bhagat Singh. There was to be no jury and no appeal against the Tribunal’s decision, whose members were removable at will – as indeed two of them were within two months of its being constituted. If the accused were too weak to attend (as for instance consequent upon hunger strike) or would not attend as a political protest against unreasonable police or court behaviour, the trial could proceed in absentia.
This was no judicial tribunal. It was a political court, blatantly used as a political weapon by the autocratic alien authorities to snuff out the finest sons of India – in defiance of all norms of justice and fairness.
The Tribunal began its proceedings on 5 May 1930. After the accused were badly treated and handled roughly in the court on 12 May, they participated no further in the proceedings, which were ‘continued’ in their absence. The requests of the defence for cross examining all the prosecution witnesses and for more time to enable the defence to go through the evidence were rejected by the Tribunal – all in the rush to conclude the case before the 6-month period after which the appointment of the Tribunal would lapse, and with it the Tribunal itself, thus invalidating the entire proceedings. So the prosecutor abruptly closed his case before the Tribunal on 26 August so as to bring it to completion before the 31 October 1930 deadline. On 10 September, Carden Noad finished his concluding speech. Less than a month later, on 7 October 1930, the Special Tribunal to try the Lahore Conspiracy Case delivered its judgement, acquitting three and convicting all others. While Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to death, seven were transported for life, the remaining two were given rigorous imprisonment terms of seven and five years.
Even Nehru, whose attitude, for reasons of class and self interest, as well as the malign influence of Gandhi’s one-sided non-violence, with its insistence of non-violence by the masses in the face of the brutality of the exploiting classes, was always marked by ambivalence, reacted to the Court’s verdict with considerable anger and aguish. In a speech at Allahabad on 12 October 1930, he said:
“If England were invaded by Germany …, would Lord Irwin go about advising the people to refrain from violence against the invader? If he is not prepared to do that, let him not raise the issue. It is for Mahatma Gandhi and others, who believe with him, to do so. … But let there be no mistake about it. Whether I agree with him or not, my heart is full of admiration for the courage and self-sacrifice of a man like Bhagat Singh. Courage of the Bhagat Singh type is exceedingly rare. If the Viceroy expects us to refrain from admiring this wonderful courage and the high purpose behind it, he is mistaken. Let him ask his own heart what he would have felt if Bhagat Singh had been an Englishman and acted for England
” (S. Gopal, Vol IV, pp. 394-95, quoted by A. G. Noorani in
The Trial of Bhagat Singh
Bhagat Singh’s last days
Meanwhile, as the judgment day neared, unable to contain his paternal feelings, Bhagat Singh’s father, Kishen Singh, petitioned the Tribunal in a last desperate effort to save his son’s life. On hearing of his father’s petition, Bhagat Singh was incandescent with rage and wrote to his father a remonstrative letter, which brings out clearly Bhagat Singh’s exacting standards of conduct – standards which he followed and expected others, including those he dearly loved and respected, to abide by. Bhagat Singh’s letter, published in full by
on 4 October, just three days before the Tribunal’s judgement, reflects not only his legendary courage, fidelity to principle and indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice, but also the deeply-felt injury to his feelings inflicted on him by the father that he loved and respected. This is what, inter alia, Bhagat Singh wrote to his father on this occasion:
“My dear father,
“I was astounded to learn that you had submitted a petition to the members of the Special Tribunal in connection with my defence. This intelligence proved to be too severe a blow to be borne with equanimity. It has upset the whole equilibrium of my mind. I have not been able to understand how you could think it proper to submit such a petition at this stage and in these circumstances. In spite of all the sentiments and feelings of a father, I don’t think you were at all entitled to make such a move on my behalf without even consulting me.
“My life is not so precious, at least to me, as you may probably think it to be. It is not at all worth buying at the cost of my principles. There are other comrades of mine whose case is as serious as that of mine. We had adopted a common policy and we shall stand to the last, no matter how dearly we have to pay individually for it.
“Father, I am quite perplexed. I fear I might overlook the ordinary principle of etiquette and my language may become a little but harsh while criticising or censoring this move on your part. Let me be candid. I feel as though I have been stabbed in the back. Had any other person done it, I would have considered it to be nothing short of treachery. But in your case, let me say that it has been a weakness – a weakness of the worst type.
“This was the time when everybody’s mettle was being tested. Let me say, father, you have failed. I know you are as sincere a patriot as one can be. I know you have devoted your life to the cause of Indian independence, but why, at this moment, have you displayed such a weakness? I cannot understand.
“In the end, I would like to inform you and my other friends and all the people interested in my case that I have not approved of your move.
“I want that the public should know all the details about this complication, and therefore, I request you to publish this letter.
“Your loving son, Bhagat Singh”
On 3 March 1931, Bhagat Singh saw his family for the last time. Distressed by the tearful sight of his younger brother Kultar in tears, Bhagat Singh wrote to him a letter – at once moving and inspiring. The original, written in Urdu, is reproduced here in Roman alphabet with a translation. The reason for this is that as the English translation does not do justice to the powerful verses that Bhagat quoted in the original, those of our readers who have some knowledge of the Urdu language might thus be enabled to gauge in full the depth of ideas and powerful emotions expressed by Bhagat Singh in his very concise letter.
“3 March 1931
“Aaj tumhari aankhon mein aansu dekh kar bahut ranj hua. Aaj tumhari baat mein bahut dard tha. Tumhare aansu mujh se bardasht nahin huye.
“Barkhurdar, himmat se taalim hasil karte jana aur sehat ka khayal rakhna.
“Hausla rakhna. Aur kya … (likhun?) … Shaer main kya kahun suno
Usay yeh fikr hardam naya tarze jafa kya hai,
Hamen yeh shauq hai dekhen sitam ki intiha kya hai.
Dair se kyun khafa rahen aur kyun gila Karen,
Hamara jahan hai sahi, ao muqabla Karen.
Koi dam ka mehman hoon ai ahle mehfil,
Chiraghe sahar hoon, bujha chahta hoon.
Mere hawa mein rahegi khayal ki khushboo,
Yeh mushte khaq hai, fani rahe na rahe.
Khush raho ahle watan hum to safar karte hain.
“Hausle se rehna
“Tumhara Bhai, Bhagat Singh”
English translation of the original letter:
“3 March 1931
“It made me very sad to see tears in your eyes today. There was deep pain in your words today. I could not bear to see your tears.
“My boy, pursue your studies with determination and look after your health.
“Be determined. What else … (can I write?) … What couplets can I recite? Listen:
They are ever anxious to devise new forms of treachery,
We are eager to see what limits there are to oppression.
Why should we be angry with the world … and complain,
Ours is a just world (ideal), let us fight for it.
I am a guest only for a few moments, my companions,
I am the lamp that burns before the dawn and longs to be
The breeze will spread the essence of my thoughts,
This self is but a fistful of dust, whether it lives or perishes.
Be happy, countrymen, I am off to travel.
“Your brother, Bhagat Singh”.
Whereas the first eight lines are from a poem by Mohamed Iqbal, one of the greatest poets of the Indian sub-continent, the last line, appearing just after the words,
“, is from Wajid Ali Shah, which the latter recited when the British East India Company evicted him from Lucknow after deposing him from the throne and the annexation of Oudh. The original reads thus:
“Dar-o-deewar pe hasrat se nazar karte hain
Kush raho ahle watan hum to safar karte hain”.
“I cast my eyes longingly at the doors and the walls
Be happy, countrymen, I am off to travel.”
Bhagat Singh deliberately omitted the first line of the above couplet. A.G. Nourani, the author of the excellent book,
The Trial of Bhagat Singh
, makes the correct observation that this studious omission
“… speaks a lot for Bhagat Singh’s refinement of feeling as well as courage”,
“Bhagat Singh felt no longing for the world from which he was about to depart. He did not care to cast his eyes back. He left the world cheerfully fortified in the knowledge that he would live as a symbol of integrity and courage in the hearts and minds of his countrymen
” (pp. 231-232).
As the end of life approached nearer and nearer, Bhagat Singh’s firm belief in a socialist and communist future became ever more ardent. Just a few days prior to his judicial murder, in his March 1931 letter to the Governor of Punjab, he expressed himself thus:
“Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and their natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British capitalists, or mixed British and Indian, or even purely Indian. They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus. All these things make no difference. … This war shall continue. … It shall be waged with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the socialist republic is established”.
At a time when all seems to have been lost, to have written the above lines showed a remarkable degree of knowledge and understanding of the laws of history, not to speak of the determination and cheerful optimism and audacity that is expressed in them At a time when the alien rulers of India were universally hated by the Indian masses, to have expressed the idea that the struggle to overthrow the system of exploitation would continue its relentless march even if the place of the British exploiters was taken by Indian exploiters, was remarkable for its time in India and revealed an ability to see well beyond the struggle for freedom from alien subjugation and oppression.
Alluding to the unrivalled sacrifices of Jatin Das, Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Chandrashekar Azad, Bhagat Singh concluded his letter by telling the Punjab Governor that, since the court in its verdict had emphasised that he and his fellow revolutionaries had waged war against the British Crown, they were prisoners of war and, therefore, entitled to
“… claim to be shot instead of being hanged
“. Bhagat Singh went on to say that it
“… rests with you
to prove that you seriously meant what your court has said and prove it through action. We very earnestly request you and hope that you will very kindly order the Military Department to send a detachment or a shooting party to perform our execution
” (A.G. Nourani, p.227).
To the very end of his life Bhagat Singh remained thoughtful and incisive in the extreme. On 22 March, one day before he was hanged, his fellow revolutionaries in jail sent him a note in which they asked the question if he would desire to live. His answer, as ever sagacious, portrays the following picture of the relation between his desire to live and the purpose of that life, as well as the relation between the sacrifices of the revolutionary party and the heights to which he had been elevated:
“The desire to live is natural. It is in me also. I do not want to conceal it. But it is conditional. I don’t want to live as a prisoner or under restrictions. My name has become a symbol of the Indian revolution. The ideals and the sacrifices of the revolutionary party have elevated me to a height beyond which I will never be able to rise if I live. .. Yes, one thing pricks me even today. My heart nurtured some ambitions for doing something for humanity and for my country. I have not been able to fulfil even one thousandth part of those ambitions. If I live I might perhaps get a chance to fulfil them. If ever it came to my mind that I should not die, it came from this end only. I am proud of myself these days and I am anxiously waiting for the final test. I wish the day may come nearer soon. Your comrade, Bhagat Singh”
Just as in questions of politics, so in questions of religion – Bhagat Singh’s fidelity to his principles and system of beliefs did not desert him even in the face of immediate death. Manmathnath Gupta, convicted in the Kakori case, has reconstructed the events of 23 March 1931, the last day in the lives of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. On receiving the order that the hanging was to take place the same evening, the chief warder of the jail, a god-fearing man by the name of Chatar Singh, approached Bhagat Singh with a scripture and pleaded with him to pray. Polite as ever, Bhagat Singh declined the request, saying that he had been an atheist all his life and had no wish to depart from that stance on the last day of his life. Instead, he spent the entire day reading a biography of V.I.Lenin that had been sent to him at his request. At about seven in the evening, an official of the jail came over to accompany him to the gallows. Bhagat Singh, engrossed in the biography, said:
“wait a minute, one revolutionary is busy meeting another
“. After reading a few more pages, he got up to undertake the final journey of his life. With the shouts of ‘Long live revolution!’ and ‘Down with imperialism!’, the three great revolutionaries – Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev – faced the hangman’s noose. They were hanged while singing the following lines, which have since been repeated by the masses of Indian people and which have become a symbol of the revolutionary immortality of Bhagat Singh and his comrades:
“Dil se niklegi na marker bhi watan ki ulfat,
Meri mitti se bhi khushbue watan aaegi”.
“Love for the motherland will not leave my heart even
Its fragrance will still be there in my dusty remains.”
Rightly fearing public anger and outpouring of grief over the murder of three of the finest sons of India and apprehending public disorder over this outrage, the colonial authorities, instead of handing over the bodies to the families of these revolutionaries, in great secrecy and with indecent haste, cremated them near Ferozepur on the banks of the river Sutlej.
The reaction of the Indian people following the news of the hanging was predictable. The whole country went into mourning. Towns and villages across the vast territory of the sub-continent witnessed condolence gatherings and demonstrations. Even those who earlier had stood aside, participated in these manifestations of anger and grief. At several places, angry crowds clashed with the police, braving firing and baton charges, which claimed more than one hundred lives. Hundreds of schools and colleges closed as a mark of respect for the departed heroes, while hundreds of thousands observed fast.
On 24 March, the day following the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, in a carefully drafted statement to the press in New Delhi, Nehru stated:
“I have remained absolutely silent during their last days, lest a word of mine may injure their prospect of commutation. I have remained silent, though I felt like bursting and now all is over.
“Not all of us could save him, who was so dear to us and whose magnificent courage and sacrifice have been an inspiration to the youth of India. India cannot even save her clearly loved children from the gallows.
“There will be hartals and mournings, processions everywhere. There will be sorrow in the land at our utter helplessness but there will also be pride in him who is no more, and when England speaks to us and talks of settlement there will be the corpse of Bhagat Singh between us lest we forget
” (A. G. Noorani, pp. 228-229)
Nehru was doubly wrong. His silence had been unhelpful; silence, especially in the councils of the Congress Party. And, at no time in the talks between England and the Congress was the corpse of Bhagat Singh allowed to get in the way. After Indian independence and the departure of the British from India, the Indian ruling classes and the Congress Party have done their best to turn Bhagat Singh into a non-entity, a figure of peripheral significance in the Indian liberation struggle. They have failed in this mean attempt. The credit for keeping the memory of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, of keeping alive their revolutionary tradition belongs solely to the broad masses of the Indian people and the communist movement of that country.
All the same, under the pressure of the flood of sympathy, admiration and adoration for Bhagat Singh and his co-accused during their trial, and the mass outpouring of grief and volcanic eruption of popular anger following the execution of the three of them, even the leaders of the Congress Party felt obliged to swim with the tide and heap praises on Bhagat Singh. They could hardly do otherwise in view of the fact that, at that time, Bhagat Singh enjoyed far greater popularity, prestige and respect among the Indian masses than Gandhi, whose reputation lay in ruins in view of his complicity in the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades (of this more anon). Patibhi Sitaramyya, the historian of the Congress Party, testifies to Bhagat Singh’s popularity with this understatement:
“It is no exaggeration to say that at that moment Bhagat Singh’s name was as widely known all over India and was as
[nay, much more]
popular as Gandhi’s
” (A. G. Noorani)
Nehru, albeit in his characteristic contradictory and confused style, emanating from a mixture of admiration and disapproval at the same time for Bhagat Singh, portrays the following picture of Bhagat Singh’s popularity
: “Bhagat Singh did not become popular because of his act of terrorism
[Nehru is not alone in characterising all violence as terrorism – even some would-be communists are guilty of that
], but because he seemed
to vindicate, for the moment, the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him of the nation. He became a symbol; the act was forgotten
[was it really?],
[symbol unrelated to the act?]
remained, and within a few months each town and village of the Punjab and to a lesser extent in the rest of northern India
[nay, the whole of India],
resounded with his name. Innumerable songs grew up about him, and the popularity that the man achieved was something amazing”
(A. G. Noorani p.3)
A.G Noorani must have had the likes of Nehru in mind when he concluded his book with the observation:
death, Indian leaders vied with one another in lavishing praise on him. One wonders how many of them knew then that they had lost in him a man who, had he lived, might have had an incalculable impact on the course of India’s politics”.
Gandhi was certainly an exception to this, for he knew full well that Bhagat Singh, had he but lived, was destined to have an incalculable impact on the course of India’s political development – in a direction diametrically the opposite of that desired and accomplished by the Congress under Gandhi’s leadership. It was precisely for this reason that Gandhi (except once under extreme popular pressure) never lavished any praise on Bhagat Singh and played the role of an accomplice to the colonial authorities’ successful efforts in sending him and his comrades to the gallows.
Four years after his execution, Bhagat Singh received a tribute from a most unlikely but most authoritative source – the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Sir Horace Williamson. In his study
India and Communism
, he wrote:
“Bhagat Singh made no mistake. The prisoners’ dock became a political forum and the countryside rang with his heroics. His photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time rivalled in popularity even that of Mr Gandhi himself
” (Editions Indian, Calcutta, p.275, cited by A G Noorani).
To be concluded:
In the next and final instalment we shall deal with Gandhi’s role in the execution of Bhagat Singh and the legacy of the latter.