Disturbed to life by the atrocious massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, disillusioned by the national political leaders who recoiled the promising Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, alarmed by the rising religious divisions and reactionary rhetoric in the mainstream politics, and motivated by the Bolshevik Revolution of workers and peasants of Russia of 1917, Bhagat Singh and his compatriots entered the political scene of India and became the icon of the aspirations of the people of India in no time. Their aim was to bring a revolution that would not only end the colonial British regime but would also lay the foundations of a system that shall combat all forms of injustices. It was for these crimes that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were hanged by the rulers of British colonialism on 23rd of March, 1931, at Lahore Camp Jail. Bhagat Singh was only 23 years old at the time of his hanging.
The colonial administration made it no secret that their enmity lied more with the ideals of Bhagat Singh rather than Bhagat Singh himself. Justice Medilton, who transported Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt for life in the Assembly Bomb Case, testified to the danger that the ideas of Bhagat Singh posed to the system based on manifest injustice: “These persons would enter the court with the cries of ‘Long Live the Revolution’ and ‘Long Live the Proletariat’ which shows clearly shows what sort of political ideology they cherish. In order to put a check in propagating these ideas, I transport them for life.” One can well imagine that Bhagat Singh must have received the Medilton’s comment with a broad smile. Once, during a court hearing when Bhagat Singh started laughing while chatting with one of his comrades, he ironically replied to inquiry of the Magistrate about the reason behind the amusement: “Dear Magistrate, if you can’t tolerate my laughing at the moment, what will happen to you when I laugh even on the scaffold?”
Bhagat Singh started his political journey when new lines were emerging in the Indian polity. On one hand, the religious jargon was being introduced in the political rhetoric at a mass scale and seculars like Jinnah were getting sidelined. On the other hand, the revolutionary ideas of Lenin and Bolshevik Revolution were trickling into India. Bhagat Singh, like many others who were already disillusioned by Gandhi, was attracted towards experiment of workers and peasants of Russia.
With this ideological motivation, the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), which was formed by Ashfaqullah Khan and Mahavir Singh in around 1925, became the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928 primarily on the insistence of Bhagat Singh. Along with an express commitment towards socialism, the HSRA also proclaimed a broad internationalist vision of a World Order that would free humanity from the scourge of capitalism and imperialist wars. Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) was founded in Lahore in 1926 as the open front of HSRA with object to expose reactionary politics and to promote religious harmony and secularism. In June 1928, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev also organized a Lahore Students’ Union as auxiliary to NBS. The outlook of NBS was clearly popular. “Revolution by the masses and for the masses”, stated the Manifesto of the NBS. NBS made remarkable progress within a few months as its branches were organized all around India. It became so popular that it was banned by the British government in May of 1930.
In 1928, the all-White Simon Commission came to visit India in order to provide the further constitutional reforms. The Congress decided to boycott the Commission, and the HSRA decided to actively participate in the boycott demonstrations. One such demonstration, led by Lala Lajpat Rai was organized outside the Lahore Railway Station where the Commission was to arrive. Bhagat Singh and his compatriots were also a part of this protest. When the Police ordered baton-charge, the Superintendent of Police, J. A. Scott, targeted Lala Lajpat in particular who could not bear the severe injuries caused by the raining batons and died. The whole nation was infuriated at the death of Lala Lajpat.
HSRA decided to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. On December 17, 1928, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekher Azad and Rajguru shot dead J. P. Saunders, a Police officer, mistaking him for Scott. Posters under-singed by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army appeared across Lahore the same night that stated that “we are sorry for shedding human blood but it becomes necessary to bathe the altar of revolution with blood.”
After the assassination of Saunders, Bhagat immediately escaped for Calcutta where he attended the first All India Conference of Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties and the Calcutta session of the Congress, where the Communist Party made an illustrious entry by demanding the Congress to accept the goal of complete independence (which did not happen).
This was a time when the Communist Party was taking its roots in India in general and in the working class movement in particular. Naturally, the British government became apprehensive and rounded 31 prominent Communist and labor leaders in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case. Repressive measures, like the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill, were brought to the floor of Central Legislative Assembly that threatened the democratic rights of the citizens of India.
HSRA decided to take action against the onslaught of British government. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt threw two bombs in the Assembly when Viceroy was supposed to enact the Trade Disputes Bill using his special powers against the will of the Assembly. These bombs were made especially for the occasion. As they were harmless and were not meant to kill anyone, no one was seriously injured. The bomb, as the leaflet thrown by Bhagat Singh in the name of HSRA, was “a loud voice to make the deaf hear”. Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt gave their arrests, as was pre- decided by the HSRA, so that they can use the trail in court to popularize the programme and ideology of the HSRA.
The struggle against British colonialism was taken to new scale in the court and in the jail. In the court room, the people of India met Bhagat Singh, the political thinker. In jail, the people of India witness the resilience of Bhagat Singh. The whole nation was awestruck by the hunger-strike that Bhagat Singh and his comrades managed to pull while protesting against the inhumane and discriminatory conditions meted out to the Indian political prisoners. This was a time, says Pattabhi Sitaramyya, official historian of the Congress, when “Bhagat Singh’s name was as widely known all over India and was as popular as Gandhi’s”. Bhagat Singh underwent a hunger-strike for more than 116 days, with one stretch of 97 days, despite the heavy and frequent torture inflicted by the Jail authorities. One of participants of the hunger-strike, Jatin Das, died on the 64th day of the strike.
As a political thinker, the jail years had a deep impact on the ideological development of Bhagat Singh. The presence of an impended trail, which was more of a propaganda forum for him, and an unending thirst for knowledge motivated Bhagat Singh to study hard. He read more than 144 books in jail and prepared extensive notes about his study in a prison diary. His thoughts matured with a serious study and he also criticized his own tactics. In a short message to students’ conference at Lahore, Bhagat Singh advised: “Comrades, Today, we can not ask the youth to take to pistols and bombs… the youth will have to spread to the far corners of the country. They have to awaken the crores of the slum-dwellers of industrial areas and villagers…” Writing about his revolutionary career, Bhagat Singh said: “Study” was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind… 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… use of force justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity: non-violence as policy indispensable for all mass movements.”
When asked in court what he meant by revolution, Bhagat Singh famously replied: “A revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife not is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not a bomb or pistol cult. By revolution we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must be changed… By revolution we mean the ultimate establishment of the order of society… in which sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognized.”
After being awarded life imprisonment in the Assembly bomb case, Bhagat Singh was registered for what came to be known as the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case for the assassination of J. P. Saunders. A special tribunal was set-up for the trail of Bhagat Singh that was provided with the novel power of conducting an ex-parte trail. After what was termed by A. G. Noorani as “a farcical trail”, Bhagat Singh was sentenced to death.
Gandhi observed the injustices meted out to Bhagat Singh in jail and in the court rooms with a conspicuous silence. It was only after the death of Bhagat Singh that the Congress gave a statement, after much tension over wording, in “admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of the late Bhagat Singh and his comrades”. A. G. Noorani pointed out that Gandhi could have averted the death of Bhagat Singh during his talks with the Viceroy, Lord Irwin. Gandhi’s claims that he tried his best to persuade the Viceroy were found to be mere lies by the records that came to light four decades later.
Bhagat Singh, nevertheless, found a supporter in the mainstream politics and that was in Jinnah. Jinnah who was himself isolated by the encroachment of religion in politics at that time and considered it undesired rose in support of Bhagat Singh. In his incisive speech to the Constituent Assembly on September 12 and 14, 1929, Jinnah harshly condemned the criminal colonial rule and the Government’s actions against revolutionaries:
“The man who goes on hunger-strike has a soul. He is moved by the soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime.
“What was he driving at? It is the system, this damnable system of Government, which is resented by the people.
“And the last words I wish to address the Government are, try and concentrate your mind on the root cause and the more you concentrate on the root cause, the less difficulties and inconveniences there will be for you to face, and thank Heaven that the money of the taxpayer will not be wasted in prosecuting men, nay citizens, who are fighting and struggling for the freedom of their country.”
In our part of the sub-continent, we conveniently forget the role played by non-Muslims in the struggle of liberation from the British colonialism. All non-Muslims are grouped in one category to be completely rejected by the rulers of Pakistan irrespective of their message and their history. The same fate met Bhagat Singh. That he was supported by Jinnah is a fact never mentioned in the corridors of power or in the text-books of Pakistan Studies. It is not surprising, though. Bhagat Singh, a symbol of resistance, could never be the hero of the government that is not based on the will of the people.
Although the times have changed, they do not appear to have changed a lot. The World, particularly Pakistan is still facing a number of problems that were essentially present in the times of Bhagat Singh as well. Hence, the legacy of Bhagat Singh remains with us in his uncompromising struggle against imperialism, unflinching resistance to communalism and caste oppression, unbending opposition to the bourgeois-landlord rule, and unswavering support for socialism as the best possible alternative before society.
Published in The Post (Vista) on Tuesday, March 25, 2008.