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Mainstream, VOL LX No 14, New Delhi, March 26, 2022

The Aura of Bhagat Singh | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 25 March 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy


The decision by Bhagwant Singh Mann to take his oath of office and secrecy as Punjab’s new Chief Minister at the ancestral village of Bhagat Singh was probably the first instance since India’s independence when the famed revolutionary got the kind of national attention that was long overdue.

Without a shadow of doubt, Bhagat Singh occupies a special place in the pantheon of British era revolutionaries who were not enthused by Mahatma Gandhi. Innumerable young revolutionaries suffered death, brutal torture and long years of imprisonment. Only a few, however, achieved nationwide fame. Bhagat Singh tops that popularity list.

This had nothing to do with the British police officer he killed – that too a case of mistaken identity. Bhagat Singh shot dead J.P. Saunders after mistaking him for his boss, J.A. Scott, who was blamed for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. From the time Saunders died on December 17, 1928 till his hanging along with Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh became a national idol and the ultimate rationalist in the Indian revolutionary movement.

He remains a cult figure, his slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” still heard wherever there is a whiff of defiance. Most unfortunately, the trial and execution of Bhagat Singh remains a much neglected historiography of colonial violence in India.

Why did Bhagat Singh stand out? Unlike most contemporaries, he drew from a far wider and deeper source for his convictions, more than even Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote over 130 documents in seven years, totalling some 400 pages. He penned letters, essays, pamphlets and numerous court statements. Many have been unfortunately lost.

Bhagat Singh read and wrote extensively while in detention. According to Malwinder Jit Singh Waraich and Harish Jain (Bhagat Singh’s Jail Note Book), the young man was a voracious reader, covering subjects as wide as politics, poverty, crime, justice, punishment, monarchy, women, forms of government, laws, prison and poetry. He made copious notes, some of which have survived. Among the authors he read were Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Charles Dickens, Fodor Dostovesky, Jack London, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Lala Lajpat Rai, Leon Trotsky, Omar Khayyam, Ramananda Chatterjee, Upton Sinclair, Veer Savarkar and Lenin. A Punjabi by birth, he was versatile in Urdu and English.

Satvinder Singh Juss, a Professor of Law at King’s College in London, saw all 135 files related to Bhagat Singh at the Punjab Archives in Lahore. With a wealth of previously unpublished material, he makes it amply clear that the British blundered, legally, by sending Bhagat Singh and his comrades to death. The British did this was because they realized that the young revolutionaries were dangerous in a way that Gandhi and the Congress never were.

With a legal bent of mind, Juss argues in his book, The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the Raj, that the trial that sent Bhagat Singh and others to gallows was a sham which ignored recognized standards of legality and justice. Bhagat Singh and others were denied the right to prepare their defence. When they protested, they were given degrading and humiliating treatment.

Of the three judges picked for the Special Tribunal, one was an Indian — Justice Agha Haider. But he was no puppet. When he saw violence perpetrated in the very court which was meant to dispense justice, he stunned his two British judges by disassociating himself from the mayhem. In the absence of the accused and their lawyers (who boycotted the proceedings), Justice Haider challenged the prosecution witnesses, picking holes in their evidence. By the time he was finished, six of the seven eyewitnesses’ testimonies collapsed! The Raj hit back by dumping Justice Haider.

Bhagat Singh and the others were convicted on the strength of statements from “approvers”, who would have been ripped apart had they been cross-examined. Bhagat Singh never denied shooting Saunders; but a court ruling is based on evidence, of which there was none which could get past legal scrutiny.

Bhagat Singh was to be hanged on October 27, 1930. The execution day was later put off until March 24, 1931. But on the evening of March 23, a full 11 hours ahead of time, the deed was done. Bhagat Singh bravely kissed the hangman’s noose. Sukhdev and Rajguru followed. After they died, their bodies were dragged along the dirty passageway, chopped into pieces – yes, chopped into pieces — and stuffed into sacks. These were thrown into a funeral pyre at night on the banks of the Sutlej. The charred remains were hurled into the river. Villagers who saw it all retrieved the body parts and gave a reverential cremation.

Several British and Indian police officers as well as “informers” were rewarded for their role – with promotions, money and land. The Lahore Deputy Jail Superintendent, Khan Sahib Mohammad Akbar Khan, who wept after watching the executions, was suspended. He was reinstated but he lost the coveted honorific ‘Khan Sahib’.

The manner in which Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were, first, officially executed and then brutally chopped marks one of the darkest chapters of British colonialism in India.

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