Bhagat Singh (1907 – 23 March 1931) was an Indian revolutionary socialist who was influential in the Indian independence movement. Born into a Jat Punjabi Sikh family which had earlier been involved in revolutionary activities against the British Raj, he studied European revolutionary movements as a teenager and was attracted to anarchist and Marxist ideologies. He worked with several revolutionary organisations and became prominent in the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), which changed its name to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928.
Seeking revenge for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Singh assassinated John Saunders, a British police officer. He eluded efforts by the police to capture him. Soon after, he and Batukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs and leaflets inside the Central Legislative Assembly, and offered themselves for arrest. Held in jail on a charge of murder, he gained widespread national support when he undertook an 116-day hunger strike demanding equal rights for European prisoners, and those Indians imprisoned for what he believed were political reasons. During this period, sufficient evidence was brought against him for a conviction in the Saunders case after trial by Special Tribunal, and an appeal to the Privy Council in England. He was convicted and hanged for his participation in the assassination, at the age of 23.
His legacy prompted youth in India to continue fighting for independence and he remains an influence on some young people in modern India, as well as the inspiration for several films. He is commemorated with a range of memorials including a large bronze statue in the Parliament of India.
Bhagat Singh, a Sandhu Jat, was born in 1907 to Kishan Singh and Vidyavati at Chak No. 105, GB, Banga village, Jaranwala Tehsil in the Lyallpur district of the Punjab Province of British India. His birth coincided with the release of his father and two uncles, Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh, from jail. His family members were Sikhs; some had been active in Indian Independence movements, others had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. His ancestral village was Khatkar Kalan, near the town of Banga in Nawanshahr district (now renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar) of the Punjab.
In 1928, the British government set up the Simon Commission to report on the political situation in India. Some Indian political parties boycotted the Commission because it did not include a single Indian in its membership and there were protests across the country. When the Commission visited Lahore on 30 October 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai led a march in protest against it. Police attempt to disperse the large crowd resulted in violence. The superintendent of police, James A. Scott, ordered the police to lathi charge (use batons against) the protesters and personally assaulted Rai, who was injured. Rai died of a heart attack on 17 November 1928. Doctors thought that his death might have been hastened by the injuries he had received. When the matter was raised in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the British Government denied any role in Rai’s death.
After killing Saunders, the group escaped through the D.A.V. College entrance, across the road from the District Police Headquarters. Chanan Singh, a Head Constable who was chasing them, was fatally injured by Chandrashekhar Azad’s covering fire. They then fled on bicycles to pre-arranged safe houses. The police launched a massive search operation to catch them, blocking all entrances and exits to and from the city; the CID kept a watch on all young men leaving Lahore. The fugitives hid for the next two days. On 19 December 1928, Sukhdev called on Durgawati Devi, sometimes known as Durga Bhabhi, wife of another HSRA member Bhagwati Charan Vohra, for help, which she agreed to provide. They decided to catch the train departing from Lahore to Bathinda en route to Howrah (Calcutta) early the next morning.
1929 Assembly incident
For some time, Singh had been exploiting the power of drama as a means to inspire the revolt against the British, purchasing a magic lantern to show slides that enlivened his talks about revolutionaries such as Ram Prasad Bismil who had died as a result of the Kakori conspiracy. In 1929, he proposed a dramatic act to the HSRA intended to gain massive publicity for their aims. Influenced by Auguste Vaillant, a French anarchist who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris,Singh’s plan was to explode a bomb inside the Central Legislative Assembly. The nominal intention was to protest against the Public Safety Bill, and the Trade Dispute Act, which had been rejected by the Assembly but were being enacted by the Viceroy using his special powers; the actual intention was for the perpetrators to allow themselves to be arrested so that they could use court appearances as a stage to publicise their cause.
Assembly case trial
According to Neeti Nair, associate professor of history, “public criticism of this terrorist action was unequivocal.” Gandhi, once again, issued strong words of disapproval of their deed. Nonetheless, the jailed Bhagat was reported to be related, and referred to the subsequent legal proceedings as a “drama”. Singh and Dutt eventually responded to the criticism by writing the Assembly Bomb Statement:
We hold human life sacred beyond words. We are neither perpetrators of dastardly outrages … nor are we ‘lunatics’ as the Tribune of Lahore and some others would have it believed … Force when aggressively applied is ‘violence’ and is, therefore, morally unjustifiable, but when it is used in the furtherance of a legitimate cause, it has its moral justification.
Further trial and execution
In 1929, the HSRA had set up bomb factories in Lahore and Saharanpur. On 15 April 1929, the Lahore bomb factory was discovered by the police, leading to the arrest of other members of HSRA, including Sukhdev, Kishori Lal, and Jai Gopal. Not long after this, the Saharanpur factory was also raided and some of the conspirators became informants. With the new information available, the police were able to connect the three strands of the Saunders murder, Assembly bombing, and bomb manufacture.Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, and twenty-one others were charged with the Saunders murder.
Hunger strike and Lahore conspiracy case
Singh was re-arrested for murdering Saunders and Chanan Singh based on substantial evidence against him, including statements by his associates, Hans Raj Vohra and Jai Gopal. His life sentence in the Assembly Bomb case was deferred until the Saunders case was decided. He was sent to Central Jail Mianwali from the Delhi jail. There he witnessed discrimination between European and Indian prisoners. He considered himself, along with others, to be a political prisoner. He noted that he had received an enhanced diet at Delhi which was not being provided at Mianwali. He led other Indian, self-identified political prisoners he felt were being treated as common criminals in a hunger strike. They demanded equality in food standards, clothing, toiletries, and other hygienic necessities, as well as access to books and a daily newspaper. They argued that they should not be forced to do manual labour or any undignified work in the jail.
To speed up the slow trial, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, declared an emergency on 1 May 1930, and promulgated an ordinance, the Lahore Conspiracy Case Ordinance No. 3 of 1930, setting up a special tribunal composed of three high court judges for this case. The ordinance cut short the normal process of justice as the only appeal after the tribunal was to the Privy Council located in England. The Tribunal was authorised to function without the presence of any of the accused in court, and to accept the death of the persons giving evidence as a concession to the defence. As a result of the ordinance, the trial was transferred from Kishan’s court to the tribunal, which comprised Justice J. Coldstream, Justice G. C. Hilton and Justice Agha Hyder.
Appeal to the Privy Council
In Punjab province, a defence committee drew up a plan to appeal to the Privy Council. Singh was initially against the appeal but later agreed to it in the hope that the appeal would popularise the HSRA in Britain. The appellants claimed that the ordinance which created the tribunal was invalid while the government countered that the Viceroy was completely empowered to create such a tribunal. The appeal was dismissed by Judge Viscount Dunedin.
Reactions to the judgement
After the rejection of the appeal to the Privy Council, Congress party president Madan Mohan Malviya filed a mercy appeal before Irwin on 14 February 1931. Some prisoners sent Mahatma Gandhi an appeal to intervene .In his notes dated 19 March 1931, the Viceroy recorded:
Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were sentenced to death in the Lahore conspiracy case and ordered to be hanged on 24 March 1931. The schedule was moved forward by 11 hours and the three were hanged on 23 March 1931 at 7:30 pm in the Lahore jail. It is reported that no magistrate at the time was willing to supervise Singh’s hanging as was required by law. The execution was supervised instead by an honorary judge, who also signed the three death warrants, as their original warrants had expired. The jail authorities then broke a hole in the rear wall of the jail, removed the bodies, and secretly cremated the three men under cover of darkness outside Ganda Singh Wala village, and then threw the ashes into the Sutlej river, about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Ferozepore.
Criticism of the tribunal trial
Singh’s trial has been described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence” because there was no opportunity for the accused to defend themselves. The Special Tribunal was a departure from the normal procedure adopted for a trial and its decision could only be appealed to the Privy Council located in Britain. The accused were absent from the court and the judgement was passed ex-parte.The ordinance, which was introduced by the Viceroy to form the Special Tribunal, was never approved by the Central Assembly or the British Parliament, and it eventually lapsed without any legal or constitutional sanctity.
Reactions to the executions
The executions were reported widely by the press, especially as they took place on the eve of the annual convention of the Congress party at Karachi. Gandhi faced black flag demonstrations by angry youths who shouted “Down with Gandhi”. The New York Times reported:
A reign of terror in the city of Cawnpore in the United Provinces and an attack on Mahatma Gandhi by a youth outside Karachi were among the answers of the Indian extremists today to the hanging of Bhagat Singh and two fellow-assassins.
There have been suggestions that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an opportunity to stop Singh’s execution but refrained from doing so. Another theory is that Gandhi actively conspired with the British to have Singh executed. In contrast, Gandhi’s supporters argue that he did not have enough influence with the British to stop the execution, much less arrange it, but claim that he did his best to save Singh’s life.They also assert that Singh’s role in the independence movement was no threat to Gandhi’s role as its leader, so he would have no reason to want him dead. During his lifetime Gandhi always maintained that he was a great admirer of Singh’s patriotism. He also stated that he was opposed to Singh’s execution (and for that matter, capital punishment in general) and proclaimed that he had no power to stop it. Of Singh’s execution Gandhi said: “The government certainly had the right to hang these men. However, there are some rights which do credit to those who possess them only if they are enjoyed in name only.” Gandhi also once remarked about capital punishment: “I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to the gallows. God alone can take life, because he alone gives it.” Gandhi had managed to have 90,000 political prisoners, who were not members of his Satyagraha movement, released under the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. According to a report in the Indian magazine Frontline, he did plead several times for the commutation of the death sentences of Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, including a personal visit on 19 March 1931. In a letter to the Viceroy on the day of their execution, he pleaded fervently for commutation, not knowing that the letter would arrive too late. Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, later said:
Ideals and opinions
Singh’s ideal was Kartar Singh Sarabha. He regarded Kartar Singh, the founding-member of the Ghadar Party as his hero. Bhagat was also inspired by Bhai Parmanand, another founding-member of the Ghadar Party. Singh was attracted to anarchism and communism. He was an avid reader of the teachings of Mikhail Bakunin and also read Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. In his last testament, “To Young Political Workers”, he declares his ideal as the “Social reconstruction on new, i.e., Marxist, basis”. Singh did not believe in the Gandhian ideology—which advocated Satyagraha and other forms of non-violent resistance, and felt that such politics would replace one set of exploiters with another.
Singh began to question religious ideologies after witnessing the Hindu–Muslim riots that broke out after Gandhi disbanded the Non-Cooperation Movement. He did not understand how members of these two groups, initially united in fighting against the British, could be at each other’s throats because of their religious differences. At this point, Singh dropped his religious beliefs, since he believed religion hindered the revolutionaries’ struggle for independence, and began studying the works of Bakunin, Lenin, Trotsky – all atheist revolutionaries. He also took an interest in Soham Swami’s book Common Sense, which advocated a form of mystic atheism.
Killing the ideas
In the leaflet he threw in the Central Assembly on 9 April 1929, he stated: “It is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled, while the ideas survived.” While in prison, Singh and two others had written a letter to Lord Irwin, wherein they asked to be treated as prisoners of war and consequently to be executed by firing squad and not by hanging. Prannath Mehta, Singh’s friend, visited him in the jail on 20 March, four days before his execution, with a draft letter for clemency, but he declined to sign it.
Singh was criticised both by his contemporaries, and by people after his death, for his violent and revolutionary stance towards the British as well as his strong opposition to the pacifist stance taken by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. The methods he used to convey his message, such as shooting Saunders, and throwing non-lethal bombs, stood in stark contrast to Gandhi’s non-violent methodology.
Subhas Chandra Bose said that: “Bhagat Singh had become the symbol of the new awakening among the youths.” Nehru acknowledged that Bhagat Singh’s popuarity was leading to a new national awakening, saying: “He was a clean fighter who faced his enemy in the open field … he was like a spark that became a flame in a short time and spread from one end of the country to the other dispelling the prevailing darkness everywhere”. Four years after Singh’s hanging, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, Sir Horace Williamson, wrote: “His photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time rivaled in popularity even that of Mr. Gandhi himself”.
Legacy and Memorials
Bhagat Singh remains a significant figure in Indian iconography to the present day. His memory, however, defies categorisation and presents problems for various groups that might try to appropriate it. Pritam Singh, a professor who has specialised in the study of federalism, nationalism and development in India, notes that
Bhagat Singh represents a challenge to almost every tendency in Indian politics. Gandhi-inspired Indian nationalists, Hindu nationalists, Sikh nationalists, the parliamentary Left and the pro-armed struggle Naxalite Left compete with each other to appropriate the legacy of Bhagat Singh, and yet each one of them is faced with a contradiction in making a claim to his legacy. Gandhi-inspired Indian nationalists find Bhagat Singh’s resort to violence problematic, the Hindu and Sikh nationalists find his atheism troubling, the parliamentary Left finds his ideas and actions as more close to the perspective of the Naxalites and the Naxalites find Bhagat Singh’s critique of individual terrorism in his later life an uncomfortable historical fact.
The youth of India still draw tremendous amount of inspiration from Singh. He was voted the “Greatest Indian” in a poll by the Indian magazine India Today in 2008, ahead of Bose and Gandhi. During the centenary of his birth, a group of intellectuals set up an institution named Bhagat Singh Sansthan to commemorate him and his ideals.The Parliament of India paid tributes and observed silence as a mark of respect in memory of Singh on 23 March 2001 and 2005. In Pakistan, after a long-standing demand by activists from the Bhagat Singh Memorial Foundation of Pakistan, the Shadman Chowk square in Lahore, where he was hanged, was renamed as Bhagat Singh Chowk. This move was challenged in a Pakistani court and held. On 6 September 2015, the Bhagat Singh Memorial Foundation filed a petition in the Lahore high court and again demanded the renaming of the Chowk to Bhagat Singh Chowk.
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