Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 14, March 21, 2009
He Marched to Death
Saturday 21 March 2009, by#socialtags
[( The seventyeighth anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades-in-arms, Rajguru and Sukhdev, falls on March 23. They were executed on that day in 1931. We pay homage to the abiding memory of those revolutionaries by reproducing the following article by a close associate of Bhagat Singh; Bejoy Kumar Sinha was himself sentenced to transportation for life as the martyrs’ case-mate. The article first appeared
in Mainstream (March 21, 1964).)]
On the twenty-third of March, 1931, Sardar Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were hanged in Lahore Central Jail. Sentencing him to death the trying judges observed: “Having regard to the deliberate and cowardly murder in which he took part and to his position as a leading member of the Conspiracy, he is sentenced to be hanged by the neck till he be dead.”
The Tribunal that delivered the judgment was constituted under the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance promulgated by the Viceroy in 1930. There were two British judges and a loyal Indian judge. They had to give verdict to suit their masters, the alien rulers, against whom the revolutionaries had been waging a grim, sustained struggle.
But their judgment was treated by the nation with the contempt it deserved. In the course of the trial Bhagat Singh had become the nation’s hero. Special coverage of daily papers carried detailed reports of his utterances and activities to the eager public.
He had killed Saunders, the Police Officer who had the audacity to shower lathi blows on Lala Lajpat Rai that finally proved fatal. Next he threw a bomb in the Central Assembly in protest against the government bill that was aimed at checking the growing radical labour movement in the country.
In the Delhi Bomb case trial he made the historic statement openly admitting the government charges and declaring that a veritable storm was about to break that would sweep away the imperialist regime and in its place establish an order of society that would end exploitation of man by man.
In the history of political trials in this country such a defiant and clear revolutionary statement was made for the first time. It carried the message of revolution to the remotest corner of the country. The statement got wide publicity even in foreign countries particularly in Ireland and Russia.
The Sardar was, then, taken to Lahore for his second trial as an accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1929. Here, along with his other comrades, he raised in the court the slogan of ‘Long Live Revolution’ which as Inquilab Zindabad became the battle city of the nation substituting Vande Mataram of the Bengal Partition days.
The government banned the raising of the slogan in public. But the people’s temper had been roused. All over Punjab, thousands of men and women came out on streets, faced government repression but rent the air with shouts of Inquilab Zindabad. Within a few days the government hastily beat a retreat.
Epic Hunger Strike
By this time the epic Hunger Strike of Bhagat Singh and his comrades had already started, demanding civilised and humane treatment for Indian political prisoners, and protesting against the liberal rules and facilities for European criminals merely on racial grounds. Such hunger strike was again without a precedent in India’s freedom struggle. After 66 days Jatin Das, one of the strikers, attained martyrdom. There was great agitation in the Central Assembly as also throughout the country and the authorities had to ultimately bow before the pressure.
The government was unnerved. The proceedings of the case, the activities of the accused helped to raise the revolutionary pitch of the country. It, therefore, resorted to the device of promulgating an ordinance to cut short the trial procedure.
A tribunal of three judges was appointed. We came in conflict with the judges over their ruling. We defied it. It was all over the right of singing revolutionary songs before the commencement of the trial daily, as had been our practice in the lower courts.
We were brutally assaulted. Sardar and Rajguru were specially belaboured by the police. We demanded apology from all the judges. It was not given. We refused to go to the court thereafter. A large number of policemen assaulted us and tried to carry us by force.
It all failed. And the farce of a trial then continued and ended without any of us accused being in the dock for months, or any defence lawyer being present to hold our brief. The judges completed their job—their allotted task—sentencing three of us to death and others to long terms of imprisonment, acquitting just two comrades. It was in October 1930.
Idol of the Nation
By this time Bhagat Singh had become the adored idol of the nation’s youth. He had his mother, father, brother and sister everywhere in this vast country. Frantic efforts were made to save his life; at least to get the death sentence commuted to transportation for life.
There were mass mercy petitions, protest meetings, adjournment motion in the Central Assembly, prayers in temples and mosques, and processions. Gandhiji was trying hard to negotiate with the Viceroy Lord Irwin for commutation and was feeling hopeful.
But little did all these people know that while they wanted the Sardar to live, Bhagat Singh himself was not afraid of death; in fact, he almost yearned to die. And sitting in his condemned cell was fearing that the people’s agitation might not come in the way of the fulfilment of his one sole desire, so near to his heart.
Into this state of his mind I had a peep. On the day I got the opportunity to meet him in his condemned cell (the small cage-like room, in which a prisoner under sentence of death is confined).
It was December 1930. Eight of us, convicted along with him in the Lahore Conspiracy Case and sentenced to transportation for life, were also confined in cells in a yard just adjacent to his in the same jail. It was a bitterly cold winter morning. I was led by the Chief Jailor into the Sardar’s cell.
The permission to ‘interveiw’ him had been granted—I was told by the jailor on the way—to give us an opportunity to consult and decide about filing an appeal in the Privy Council. With a throbbing heart I followed the jail officer. I recalled how we had bidden farewell to each other on the day the judgment had been pronounced and were now meeting again, perhaps to part for ever.
I was lost in my thoughts when I was almost awakened as if from slumber, by a cheerful voice hailing me, ‘Bejoy, tum a gaye (Bejoy, you have come).’ Bhagat Singh was standing before me with his usual smile on his face.
I did not know what to say. I experienced a queer sensation. I felt that my friend and comrade with whom I had worked and suffered for years, sharing the same hopes and fears, who stood so near to me at that moment, was a stranger from another world.
I just stood there without saying a word, when he looked at me, with eyes full of understanding, eyes that conveyed that he had sensed the storm that was raging in my heart.
He therefore broached the subject of our appeal in a deliberate matter-of-fact tone. The tension was broken and soon we were engrossed in discussion. Pandit Motilal Nehru, from his sick-bed in Simla, had asked us on behalf of the country to file an appeal in order to gain the necessary time to secure a general amnesty for all political prisoners.
Bhagat Singh’s words I still remember vividly. He said: ‘Bhai aise na ho ki phansi ruk jai (Brother, let it not happen that the hanging is stayed).’
He had no illusions about any amnesty being granted but he feared that as the prosecution evidence was weak and the trial had been conducted ex-parte, the death sentence might be commuted on appeal and he would then be deprived of the opportunity of furthering the cause of the revolution by dying for it.
He pointed out to me hat he could serve the cause best by his death at that juncture. I agreed with him and we decided that we should, there-fore, give our consent to a general appeal to be filed only on the technical ground that the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance under which we were tried was ultra vires. He knew that such an appeal was bound to be rejected and desired that the period gained should be fully utilised for revolu-tionary propaganda throughout the country.
When we had finished our discussion, the jailor politely asked me to go back to my cell. For a brief but unforgettable moment we closely embraced each other. With considerable difficulty, I held back the tears that welled up from my heart. With heavy steps I walked back to my yard.
In the interval between December and March the agitation and propaganda did mount steadily. But Bhagat Singh’s forecast came true. The appeal was rejected in London. Sardar got his chance. He literally marched to death so that his cause—the cause of oppressed people of his country—might triumph.
Kissing the gallows, with the black hold over his face, the last two words that he uttered were harbingers of a new dawn: