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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 19, May 1, 2010

Exploring the Amazing Popularity of Shaheed Bhagat Singh

Saturday 1 May 2010, by Harish K Puri

(This article was sent to us before the seventyninth anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades on March 23, 1931 but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. It is now being published in view of the significance of its contents for the benefit of our readers. —Editor)

Among a large number of martyrs—the freedom-fighters who laid down their lives in the struggle—the popularity of Shaheed Bhagat Singh appeared to be of an exceptional order; almost incomparable. Lovingly hailed as Shaheed-e-Azam, the name of Bhagat Singh and his picture with the hat became popular in practically all parts of India after his execution. Jawaharlal Nehru referred to “the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh, and his sudden and amazing popularity in north India”. Writing about him four years after his death, the Director of Intelligence Bureau, Sir Horace Williamson, noted that “his photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time rivalled in popularity even that of Mr Gandhi himself”.1 That kind of sentiment was also expressed by the official Congress historian, Pattabhi Sitaramayya. In fact towards the last days of his life Bhagat Singh himself came to have a sense of the enormous esteem he had gained. In his last written response (March 22, 1931) to a note from convicts of the Second Lahore Conspiracy Case, he is reported to have told them: “Main kranti ka mool mantra ban gaya hoon (My name has become a symbol of the Indian revolution). The ideals and sacrifices of the revolutionary party have raised me to a height beyond which I will never be able to rise if I live.”2 What was the secret of that exceptional glory or iconography? This paper is an attempt to explore the conditions that may help us to explain the making of that legend.

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Bhagat Singh was highly respected and loved among his comrades for his knowledge and qualities of a good human being. His slogan of ‘Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution)’ came to replace the earlier popular slogan Vande Mataram. His serious rethinking on making a choice between terrorist actions and revolution, the Irish nationalist path and the Marxist-Leninist road, as also his maturity of mind reflected in three of his writings during the last six months of his life reflect an image quite different from the popular perception about the martyr. His popular image in the minds of most Indians in those days, as also at present, was of a handsome young man who challenged the mighty British Empire, avenged the national insult of the British assault on Lala Lajpat Rai, and smilingly sacrificed his life alongside two other comrades. The reverence for the martyr and martyrdom—shaheed and shahadat, balidaan—while fighting the ‘satanic forces’ had enjoyed a mystical glory in different religio-cultural traditions in India. Why was the giving of blood—martyrdom, “sarfaroshi ki tamanna”—so significant in the imagination of patriotic young men and in the folklore of nationalism? This is an issue for a separate study. Bhagat Singh was not the first martyr of the national struggle for freedom, nor was he the last. Actually the number of martyrs was quite large—the Chapekar Brothers, Khudiram Bose, Madan Lal Dhingra, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bagha Jatin, Master Amir Chand, Bal Mukand, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Rajendra Lahiri, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Chandrashekhar Azad, to name only a few. In fact, in the then dominating context of religious symbolism and mysticism in the revolutionary organisations, Bhagat Singh’s atheism could have been a good enough reason for him to be less glorified than some others. How do we then make sense of the extraordinary stature that Bhagat Singh gained at the young age of less than 24 years?

Our exploration leads us to focus on three different but interrelated factors. One of these was related to the historical conditions of massive political upsurge after a long period of political despondency that followed the withdrawal in 1922 of the Non-Cooperation Movement. The second factor was Bhagat Singh’s emphasis on connecting with the people, specially the youth, for their political awakening. That involved a continuous and critical engage-ment with the mainstream national movement and issues of public interest. His skilful use of the courtroom as a platform for political education and propaganda was a part of that effort. The third factor was related to the long hunger-strike in jail for the rights of political prisoners, which drew wide publicity in the press and forged an emotional bonding of a variety of leaders as also common people with him and his comrades.

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The challenge of the political condition was an issue which Bhagat Singh pointedly raised in one of his letters to Sukhdev:

Do you mean to imply that had we not entered the (political) field, no revolutionary work would have taken place at all? If this be your contention, then you are mistaken, though it is right that we also proved helpful to an extent in changing the environment. But, then, we are only the product of the need of our times.3

The reference was to the challenge posed by the political despondency and the rise of communal divide and violence which followed Gandhi’s withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement after the happenings at Chauri Chaura, as also to the new stirrings among the youth. The Gandhian movement, launched in 1921, had aroused a level of public political upsurge and participation from one part of the country to another as never seen or visualised before. The highly respected C.R. Das was able to persuade a fairly large section of the political terrorists and other radical young men to put their trust in Gandhi’s “Swaraj within One Year”. A large number of radicals had made an extraordinary contribution to the massive participation in the movement. The withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement left them and many other political leaders feeling betrayed. The rise of communal divisions and hatred that led to communal riots appeared to add to the sense of despair. Gandhi, on the other hand, felt defeated, and laid himself back from active politics for a while. Even six years later when Subhas Bose approached him in early 1928 to provide a lead, he stated that he admitted that he was ‘unable to see any light’. However, the massive countrywide protest agitations against the Simon Commission pointed to the latent anger and mass upsurge against British misrule. The panic-stricken police resorted to battering the agitators with long batons. The sense of outrage welled up when the elderly and most popular leader of Punjab, Lajpat Rai, was given lathee blows while leading a protest march at Lahore. “To find that even the greatest of our leaders, the foremost and most popular man in the Punjab, could be so treated”, was, as Jawaharlal Nehru observed, “little short of monstrous, and a dull anger spread all over the country, especially in north India”.4 The sense of national humiliation and indignation aroused by Rai’s death created a situation in which the killing of Saunders by Bhagat Singh and his comrades “seemed to vindicate... the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him of the nation”. At Lucknow, besides the other Congressmen, Nehru and Govind Ballabh Pant were beaten with lathees. “It was a tremendous hammering,” wrote Nehru.5 The events became “the springs of action” and of varied expressions of resentment including a renewed boycott of British goods. Radicalism was in the air.

A number of students and youth organisations sprang up at various places. The most prominent of these was the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, first established at Lahore in 1926 which, in the words of Subhas Bose, was “a thoroughgoing nationalist movement, in order to fight communalism and religious fanaticism in Punjab”.6 The students and other youths were the most enthusiastic in organising protest against the Simon Commission. According to Manmath Nath Gupta, “no other youth organisation attained such political eminence“ as the Naujawan Bharat Sabha did.

The young men were getting inspired by the message of the Russian Revolution, the stories of the proletarian rule and of a new kind of social order there. The radicalism inspired by that Russian Revolution affected not only those who were dissatisfied with the course of Gandhian struggle but also a new generation of Congress-men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. When the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities was held in Brussels in February 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru attended the meetings as a representative of the Indian National Congress. That was followed by the founding of the International League Against Imperialism whose patrons included some of the most distinguished personalities of the world such as Einstein, Romain Rolland and Madame Sun-Yat Sen. The All India Trade Union Congress was also affiliated with the League Against Imperialism. When Nehru returned from his visit to Moscow in December 1927 ”as a self-conscious revolutionary radical”, he began to describe himself a ‘socialist’. The Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) of the nationalist revolutionaries of north India was converted in September 1928 into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). The Kirti (Peasant) movement in Punjab and the organisation of All India Peasants and Workers movement with Sohan Singh Josh as its first President, became a new kind of anti-imperialist political platform. Riasti Praja Mandal was organised in July 1928 to carry on the struggle in the native states of Punjab.

The year 1928 also witnessed an extraordinary labour militancy and a series of big strikes. There was a big strike by the workers of the South Indian Railway on one side, and a strike by the scavengers of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation on the other. The famous long strike of the Bombay textile workers from April to October 1928 was described as “massive, total and peaceful”. The Governor of Bombay was amazed and upset. In a secret letter to the Secretary of State for India dated August 16, 1928, he admitted:

It is really amazing how the men are holding out.... I have been considerably disturbed by the fact that... not a single man returned to work.7

The Calcutta Congress session in December 1928 witnessed the challenge of radical “Left-wingers”, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose, who moved an amendment to the official resolution and called for nothing less than Complete Independence as the objective of the Congress. Though the amendment was defeated, it was a pointer to the change in the mood of Congressmen. Bhagat Singh and a number of his comrades were there at that time. Calcutta was also the venue for a number of other political conferences at that very time.

Next year followed the first general strike in the jute mills under the Bengal Jute Worker’s Union largely controlled by the Communists. The arrest of 31 labour leaders on March 20, 1929 led to the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case. It was in reaction to these developments that
the government resorted to extraordinary measures like the Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill. And that was the occasion considered appropriate by Bhagat Singh and his comrades to throw the two harmless bombs in the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929. That incident, which was meant not to hurt anyone, as Lord Irwin admitted, but to attack the institution, captured the newspaper headlines in India and abroad. He and B.K. Dutt were arrested soon after, but not before scoring a propaganda point. Within a week the leading members of the HSRA and others suspected of collaborating with them were arrested and put behind bars.

The Defence Committee for the Meerut Cospiracy Case prisoners included at least eight Congressmen and towering advocates such as Motilal Nehru, M.C. Chagla, Dewan Chaman Lal and Jawaharlal Nehru. Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to meet the Meerut prisoners in jail tended to give an impression of the coming together of the nationalist forces. The developments like declaration of “Complete Independence” at the Lahore session with the young Left–winger Jawaharlal Nehru as its President and then the launching of the historic Salt Satyagraha in 1930, created an air of expectation.

As an early day political guru of Bhagat Singh, Jaichandra Vidyalankar, observed,

The people came to know him for the first time when he threw a bomb in the Central Assembly.

The admiration for their valour and increasing curiosity to know more about the man, his party, and his ideas and activities whetted the appetite for news and information on their life and activities, their trial, and their sufferings and struggles inside the jails.

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The second factor was his exceptional focus on connecting with the people of India particularly the youth, and giving voice to their inner feelings. That included

(a) explaining their objectives and methods through conferences, posters, pamphlets and the press;

(b) using the court and the trial as a platform to expose the farce of British legal and justice systems and for political education; and

(c) a chiding engagement with the Congress-led national struggle.

Organising students’ and youth conferences and lectures, writing and circulation of pamphlets, publishing articles, responding to important social and political issues, criticising the wrong notions and actions of leaders, clarifying the confusing and complex issues and their own position became their regular pursuits. The meetings of the Naujawan Sabha were addressed by leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. The members of the Punjab Naujawan Sabha included popular leaders such as Sohan Singh Josh, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Kedar Nath Sehgal and Dhanwantri. The British Intelligence service recorded that its members were a combination of certain extreme members of the Congress, Akali irreconcilables, Kirti group of Sikh communists and the student revo-lutionaries.8 A “Tract Society” was established for circulating small tracts. A.G. Noorani thought that Bhagat Singh “was a pamphleteer in the great tradition”. 9 His comrades recollected that the quality of his speeches and the clarity of his mind left a deep impression on all those who listened to him.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades decided to use the trial in the court as an opportunity for their political propaganda. If the British Government tried to make conscious use of the court of law as a political weapon in order to crush the rebels, they would use that weapon to expose the farce of justice. They did not wish to miss any opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the judicial system and of the judges in the eyes of the public. Written statements in the court, such as the classic one of June 6, 1929, read out by Asif Ali in the Sessions Court, and letters to government officials and newspapers became a major source for reports by the press. What appeared in the newspapers was carefully perused and responded to. In one of Sukhdev’s letters to Bhagat Singh, he wrote:

We are sick of the stigma of violence attached to us. We are neither killers, nor terrorists.10

They were stung by the remarks in some newspapers and from leaders like Dewan Chaman Lal. The need to remove that impression was the subject of most of their writings. For putting these ideas and sentiments across in an effective manner the party relied largely on the knowledge and skill of Bhagat Singh. That was, according to his comrades, the reason why, on the insistence of Sukhdev, the earlier decision of the HSRA was revised so as to depute Bhagat Singh with B.K. Dutt to throw the bombs in the Assembly and to let Bhagat Singh use the occasion to explain and propagate what they stood for. The message given—“it takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear”—hogged the headlines in the newspapers in India and abroad.

Shiv Verma, his close friend and comrade, recalled that Bhagat Singh was the first among the revolutionaries of India to focus on the basic necessity of letting the people know what the revolutionaries wanted to do and why; to emphasise that the strength of their movement depended on the willing and passionate support of the people. Therefore, Sangthan ka janvaadikaran, that is, giving a public and popular base to their organisation, was necessary. According to Verma, Bhagat Singh tried to impress upon them as follows:

The people of the country appreciate our courage and our actions but they are not able to directly connect with us. So far we have not even told them in clear words regarding the meaning of the freedom that we talk about—what would be the form and content of that freedom. What would be the shape of the government to be constituted after the exit of the British and who would constitute that government? To give our movement a popular support base we will have to take our objectives and programme to the people. Because without gaining such a support our old type of sporadic individual actions of killing one or the other British official or government approvers will not do.11

No less important to them was a continuous and critical engagement with the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi. The long and active association of his father and his uncle Sardar Ajit Singh with the Congress seemed to have created in him an affinity with it. In his letter “To The Political Worker”, he stated clearly:

All our activities were directed towards one aim i.e. identifying ourselves with the great movement, as its military wing. If anybody has misunderstood me let him amend his ideas.

So whether it was an earlier occasion to express their revulsion at Lajpat Rai’s drift towards the Hindu Mahasabha’s communal politics or of making a choice between the ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru on the one hand and those of Subhas Bose on the other, or of discussing the futility of the Swarajist party’s constitutionalism, he and his comrades remained engaged. Yet they never wavered in their respect for those leaders.

The most important issue was, of course, Gandhi’s creed of non-violence and his
opposition to the activities and methods of the revolutionaries. Bhagat Singh was conscious of the fact that Gandhi‘s struggle had awakened the masses and that his role in removing apathy and fear from the minds of the common people and peasants and workers was no small deal. Therefore, he emphasised that “the Revolutionary must give to the angel of non-violence his due”.12 In the Manifesto of the HSRA, it was clearly mentioned:

Mahatma Gandhi is great and we mean no disrespect to him if we express our emphatic disapproval of the methods advocated by him for our country’s emancipation.13

After the Congress passed Gandhi’s resolution condemning the attack on the Viceroy’s train, Gandhi had followed it up by an article condemning the “Cult of the Bomb”. Bhagwati Charan and Bhagat Singh prepared and circulated a rejoinder titled “The Philosophy of the Bomb” in which the issue was seriously discussed. More important for our purpose here is their perception of where they stood in relation to the Congress.

There might be those who have no regard for the Congress and hope nothing from it. If Gandhi thinks that the revolutionaries belong to that category, he wrongs them grievously. They fully realise the part played by the Congress in awakening among the ignorant masses a keen desire for freedom. They expect great things of it in future.14

However, they had serious problem with the conduct of the Congress in the popular movements, such as the Ahmedabad workers’ strike of 1920, and with the kind of compromises made towards the end of the Bardoli satyagraha of 1921-22. The crucial fault, as they viewed it, was that the Congress was

controlled mostly by men with stakes in the country, who prize their stakes with bourgeois tenacity, and it is bound to stagnate. It must be saved from its friends.15

Bhagat Singh and his comrades were not inclined to view themselves as rivals or enemy of the Congress-led national movement, but as a determined force which must “save” the national movement from the influence of vested political and economic interests.

On the other hand, the fact that Gandhi’s resolution condemning the violent action targeting the Viceroy was carried only by a margin of 81 votes in a house of 1713 pointed to the emerging appreciation for their programme within the Congress. More so, as Sarla Devi Chaudhurani (whose close emotional bond with Gandhi has been a subject of interest following Rajmohan Gandhi’s recent book Mohandas) disclosed, many of them voted in favour of the resolution out of personal loyalty to Gandhi. A large section of the Congress seemed to recognise Bhagat Singh and his party as hardly less deserving of support and honour than Gandhi. Gandhi was not unaware of the changing wind. In his letter to Lord Irwin, he underlined the fact that the party of violence was, in their opposition to state violence, gaining ground among the masses.

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The third factor that turned the public attention towards Bhagat Singh and forged an emotional bond with him was the hunger-strike he and Dutt started in the jail for the rights of political prisoners. That has been rightly described as a ‘Gandhian method”. One of the most revolting manifestations of the British rule and of India’s bondage was related to the treatment of political prisoners in the jails. That the European prisoners be given special privileges was unacceptable. That had to be fought inside the jails with a suitable method.

We learn from B. K. Dutt that during the train journey from Delhi (soon after their conviction in the Assembly Bomb Case) to Lahore (Jail), Bhagat Singh told him that as soon as they reached the jails the two of them would begin a hunger-strike for claiming the rights of political prisoners. Accordingly, they started the hunger-strike immediately after reaching the jail on June 15, 1929. It is not clear what considerations weighed on his mind for making the hunger-strike a top priority action, but the experience, as Dutt wrote later, “revealed to them the infinite strength of the human mind”. They were able to resist the calls of thirst and hunger and also foil the strategems and force used by the jail authorities to break their will.16

Bhagat Singh’s letter to IG (Prisons) on June 17 stated that he had lost six pounds already. On July 10, when proceedings of the Saunders’ murder case started, those present were shocked to see a pale and weak Bhagat Singh being brought to the court lying on a stretcher. “Our eyes became wet,” recollected Shiv Verma and Ajoy Ghosh.17 When the newspapers reported about the event it spread anxiety and anger. On July 13 all their other comrades in jails went on hunger-strike. Soon there were reports that prisoners in more than half a dozen jails—Meerut, Agra, Bareilley, Mianwali, Rawalpindi etc.; the prisoners of Kakori case, Dakshineshwar Bomb Case, the Communist leaders in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, the Babbar Akalis, and many others had joined the hunger-strike. Many of these were subjected to torture and additional punishments for joining that strike. Newspapers reported about the brutal methods of forcible feeding, leading in some cases to serious complications. The Tribune reported that “Bhagat Singh bore marks of violence on his body”. Their sickness became the reason for a series of adjournments of the trial proceedings. What Noorani described as “Magisterial Farce” was becoming more evident. “The court in fact had all the appearance of a police office,” wrote the reporter of The Tribune. The examples of reporting on the worsening condition of the patriots on hunger-strike in a large number of newspapers in north India provide an idea of the expected impact.18

“The condition of Das was still serious and he had developed pneumonia, temperature being 103 degrees.”

“Jatin’s condition distinctly worse. Temprature—95 degrees F; pulse 52-pm. Very weak and exhausted. Extremities are cold. Complained of loss of sensation in the legs. Condition Grave.”

“Shiv Verma and Jatin are considered unfit for artificial feeding. Placed on dangerously ill list.”

“I wish to die,” says Jatin as Gopi Chand Bhargava talked to him in jail. “Why?”

“For the sake of my country, to uplift the status of political convicts.”

“The condition of Shiv Verma has suddenly taken a critical turn yesterday as a consequence of forced-feeding. He is reported to have vomited blood.”

“Bijoy, Ajoy and Kishori Lal... also vomited blood.”

“500 convicts and under-trial prisoners in the Borstal jail did not take the evening meal yesterday.”

“Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthy told the press after his interview with Das that Das was lying in a precarious condition.”

Let alone the other newspapers, even the Civil and Military Gazette wrote a leading article on the hunger-strike, while reporting on the condition of Jatin Das.

As the details of the forced feeding, the stories of resistance and the consequent further worsening of their physical conditions came to be reported by newspapers day after day, the public attention was getting more and more focused on their suffering, their courage and the alleged cruelty and torture on prisoners. Apprehensions, sympathy, anger were in the air.

Kiron Das, brother of Jatin Das, wrote that from July 14, processions, public meetings and house-to-house visits by leaders of the Congress and Naujawan Bharat Sabha, including a large number of ladies, were organised to sypmathise with the hunger-strikers. A sum of Rs 10,000 was collected for the defence of the hunger strikers.19 Doctors like Mohammed Ansari and B.C. Roy intervened, from a medical point of view, to warn of the dangers of forced feeding. Motilal Nehru referred, in his speech in the Central Assembly, to the lessons of forced feeding of the Irish nationalists in British jails when the practice had to be abandoned after Thomas Agase died of heart failure caused by forced feeding by doctors. Apprehensions were expressed about similar kind of anger and strong feeling after the death of Bhagat Singh and Dutt as it happened in Ireland following the death of Terrence McSwiny. Resolutions were passed at the provincial and local meetings of the Congress and student organisations. The under-trial prisoners gave warnings in the court. Ajoy Ghosh addressed the Court:

Das is on deathbed, if anything happens the court will be responsible for this. The treatment that we are receiving is simply callous and inhuman.20

The Viceroy was getting anxious. In his telegram of August 12, 1929 to the Secretary of State for India, he conveyed his concern as follows:

Reports from the Punjab Government say that public sympathy with the strikers is increasing, and was manifest even in quarters where it was not expected that it would arise. This sympathy is not confined to the Punjab, and there are definite signs that the Lahore situation is arousing great public interest all over India.

The death of any one of the accused would consequently be followed by a profound disturbance of public opinion...21

The Communist Party of Great Britain wrote about the so-called trial: “unparalleled in the history of political persecution, characterised by the most inhuman and brutal treatment”.

A large number of highly respected national political leaders and legal luminaries of the time, such as Motilal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and M.R. Jayakar, joined in questioning the government in the Central Assembly about its political design, expressing the public’s anguish and pleading for a civilised response to the legitimate demands of the political prisoners. In one of his historic speeches, while sympathising with the self-sacrificing patriots, Mohammad Ali Jinnah expressed his indignation against the callous attitude of the British officials:

Sir, you know perfectly well that these men are determined to die. It is not a joke. I ask the Hon’ble Law Member to realise that it is not everybody who can go on starving himself to death. Try it for a little while and you will see... The man who goes on hunger–strike has a soul... It is the system, this damnable system of Government, which is resented by the people.22

“Soul Force”. That was the word used by Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Bhagat Singh in their seriously written rejoinder to Gandhi—“The Philosophy of the Bomb”. It meant vindication of truth, not by hurting the opponent, but through infliction of suffering on oneself.

Besides meetings and demonstrations, there was an intense press agitation. Subhas Bose recollected a few years later that

there was intense agitation throughout the country over the hunger-strike and there was a public demand that the Government. should remedy their just grievances.

Bose was one of the many who were arrested In connection with a demonstration at Calcutta in September 1929 and was sent up for trial for sedition.23

When Jatindranath Das died on September 13, hartals followed all over India. As his dead body was being taken to Calcutta, the train was stopped at all the major railway stations where a large number of leaders and other people, particularly Congressmen, waited for long to offer their tributes. Subhas Bose was in-charge of all arrangements for the last rites. Next day Motilal Nehru tabled a “motion for adjournment” in the Central Assembly to censure the government on their condemnable attitude towards the hunger-strikers.

It is said, Sir, that Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. Our benign Government has gone one better than Nero. It is fiddling on the deathbeds of these young men...24

On February19, 1930, the Government of India issued the New Jail Rules. Henceforth no special privileges were to be given to prisoners on grounds of race. Many demands were conceded, though it was still far short of the desired reforms.

The murder of Saunders was forgotten. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were viewed as brave heroes who were fighting the evil empire through personal suffering. Bhagat Singh understood the immense significance of their hunger-strike. In his rejoinder to Sukhdev’s letter referring to an idea of suicide, he underlined his sense of achievement:

Our suffering has brought positive results. A revolution is going on throughout our country. Our objective has been achieved.

The Right Moment

When the date of the execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru drew nearer, the public tempo of apprehension and expectation started rising. As the negotiations between Gandhi and Lord Irwin progressed, so did the call for Gandhi’s intervention for saving their lives. By the time Bhagat Singh came to be hanged alongside his two comrades, the Congress had owned him emotionally as a beloved national hero. Perhaps a majority of its members felt somewhat guilty that Gandhi could not save these patriots. He died at the pinnacle of his glory. The breaking of the news of their ‘execution in a stealthy manner’ surprised and shocked most Indians. No other revolutionary was executed at a time when the attention of the nation was focused with such deep interest on a patriot who symbolised the spirit of revolt in the country. His execution was followed by what Noorani described as “the Moral Abyss”. “In the aftermath,” as he wrote, “there was depression all around,”25 Questions continued to be raised whether Gandhi could have saved him. The Indian Communists were, by that time, not only opposed to revolutionaries indulging in individual terrorism, but were also “isolated from the mainstream freedom struggle”.26 But Bhagat Singh achieved exceptional glory and love of the people of India cutting across religion, caste, class and age. He was perhaps right in his belief that that was the right time for him and two of his comrades to die and that their sacrifice would do more to awaken the masses. n

[A revised version of the paper presented at the Inter-national Seminar on “Bhagat Singh and His Times”, organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi and the Institute of Punjab Studies, Chandigarh on September 27-29, 2007 at Chandigarh.]

References

1. Quoted in A.G. Noorani, The Trial of Bhagat Singh: Politics of Justice, Oxford India Paperbacks, New Delhi, 2005, OUP, New Delhi, 2005, p. 256.

2. cf. D.N. Gupta (ed.), Bhagat Singh—Select Speeches and Writings, National Book Trust India, New Delhi, 2007, (tr. from Urdu), p. 98.

3. Letter to Sukhdev, cf. ibid., p. 104.

4. Jawaharlal Nehru, Towards Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, Beacon Press, Boston, 2nd print, 1961, p. 132.

5. Ibid., pp. 136-37.

6. Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian Struggle—1920-1934, Thacker, Spink and Co., 1948, p. 225.

7. Cf. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885-1947, Macmillan, New Delhi, 1985, p. 271.

8. Government of India, Home, Political, 1928, File no.
1/28.

9. Noorani, op.cit., p. 5.

10. cf. Kuldip Nayar, The Martyr Bhagat Singh – Experiments in Revolution, Har Anand Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p. 64.

11. cited by Shiv Verma, Sansmritiyan (Hindi), Lok Prakashan Graha, Delhi, 5th Edition, 1967, pp. 19-20.

12. “Letter To The Young Political Workers”, February 2, 1931. Full text in C.E.S. Fairweather’s Secret Note on the Development of the United Front Movement in Bengal, dated Calcutta, November 1, 1933, p. 52.

13. Manifesto of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, in Gupta, op.cit., Appendix IV, p. 136.

14. Gupta, op.cit., Appendix V. p. 146.

15. “Letter To the Young Workers”. p. 51.

16. B.K. Dutt, “Inqulabi Jeevan Darshan”, translated version, in Jagmohan Singh (ed.), Shaheed Bhagat Singh ate Ohnan de Sathian dian Likhtaan, Punjabi, (Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and His Comrades), 1985, p. 323.

17. Verma, op.cit. p. 47.

18. Most of these from Kiron Das, Profile of A Martyr—Jatin Das, Public Relations, Haryana, 1979: passim.

19. Ibid., p. 22.

20. Ibid., p. 26.

21. cf. from ibid., p. 33.

22. Text in Noorani: Appendix III.

23. Bose, op.cit., pp. 226-27.

24. Cited from Das, op.cit., p. 74.

25. Noorani, op.cit., p. 254.

26. Gargi Chakravartty, P.C. Joshi; A Biography, NBT India, New Delhi, 2007, p. 12.

Harish K. Puri is a retired Professor of Political Science and B.R. Ambedkar Chair, Department of Political Science, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

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