Saheed Bhagat Singh is a national icon! A martyr who has served as a role model for growing generations of free India and continues to be so! Many movies have been made on his life and times that are inspirational and poignant in equal measure. He derives his status from his identification of being a true revolutionary whose spirit gave to the Indian freedom movement a different dimension altogether.
Saheed Bhagat Singh cannot be seen in isolation of his two friends, compatriots and brothers in arms, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Hari Rajguru. He has emerged as its most visible face but in fact all three were ideologically wedded to the cause of independence and worked in complete harmony towards the cause to the extent of sacrificing their lives together. From different backgrounds, religions and regions, they set a great example of the secular and pluralistic nature of the great Indian Nation.
Bhagat Singh was born on September 27, 1907 at Layllpur in Punjab (now in Pakistan) to a Sandhu Jat Sikh family; his father’s name was Kishan Singh and mother was Vidyavati. His family had earlier served Maharaja Ranjit Singh and was, at the time of his birth, deeply associated with the freedom movement. In fact, his birth coincided with the release of his two uncles, Ajit Singh and Swarn Singh from jail where they had been interned for being associated with the Indian freedom movement as a part of the famous Ghadar Party.
The Ghadar Party was one of the first multi-ethnic revolutionary organisations formed to agitate and rebel against British rule in India. Bhagat Singh was a big fan of Kartar Singh Sarabha, the founder of the Ghadar Party and also of Bhai Parmanand, another founding member. When Bhagat Singh was in his growing years the party was involved in challenging the authority of the British and had succeeded in forcing the British government into taking incremental steps to quell the rebellion, especially so in Punjab. It was because of this influence that Bhagat Singh took the path of revolution instead of the political path propounded by Mahatma Gandhi based on the concept of non-violence.
The grandfather of Bhagat Singh, Arjun Singh, was greatly influenced by Arya Samaj, the Hindu reformist movement of Swami Dayanand Saraswati for which reason young Bhagat was enrolled, not in the Khalsa High School in Lahore as was the norm for Sikhs at that time, but in the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School, an institute run by the Arya Samaj.
Bhagat Singh was, thus, brought up in an environment charged with the spirit of nationalism and in an environment that was essentially secular and nationalist in nature. A lot of attention was paid to his education and intellectual growth. It is no wonder then that he responded with such courage of conviction to the call of his nation.
After school Bhagat Singh was enrolled in the National College, an institution that had been founded by the great leader Lala Lajpat Rai, at Lahore in 1921. The college had been opened in response to a call given by Mahatma Gandhi for the boycott of government jobs and government educational institutions; a second institution in the same category is the Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi. The teachers of National College were also political activists and the college evolved as an all faith institution with a “passion for liberation.”
The curriculum of National College was designed to inculcate a spirit of nationalism among the students by increasing their awareness levels on social and political issues. There were special lectures by eminent scholars and many informal discussions between students and teachers. The concept of revolution was always prevalent and it had a profound effect on the students.
Bhagat Singh was greatly influenced by his teachers and mentors in the National College and most of all by the founder, Lala Lajpat Rai. Lala Lajpat Rai is one among the tallest leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, freedom movement and the Hindu reform movement – Arya Samaj. Popularly known as Punjab Kesari, he has been described as a “lawyer, politician, social reformer, philanthropist, journalist, educationist and writer who contributed to the national struggle for freedom in various capacities.” He travelled widely and minutely studied the political and educational systems of different countries. He was deeply impressed by the ideals of patriotism and nationalism outlined by Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppe Mazzini and it was such ideals that he inculcated in his most committed disciples like Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekar Azad and Sukhdev Thapar.
While in National Collage, Bhagat Singh and his contemporaries founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in March, 1926, an organisation dedicated to attracting the youth towards the freedom struggle and putting an end to evil practices like communalism that were dividing the society.
He also associated with the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) of which Chandrashekhar Azad was a prominent member among others. He, along with Sukhdev Thapar, was also founder member of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association (HSRA) which was founded at Feroz Shah Kotla, New Delhi in 1928. It was through this association that they came in touch with the third friend, Shivaram Hari Rajguru.
Bhagat Singh refused to get married on the premise that he was wedded to the concept of nationalism and revolution for freedom of his country.
Sukhdev Thapar, a resident of Ludhiana, also a student of National College and a big fan of Lala Lajpat Rai was the chief of the Punjab unit of HSRA. Among the group he stood out for his passion towards the study of Indian history and the revolutionary movements the world over. The famous Lahore Conspiracy Case on the basis of which the three friends were convicted was tilted, “Crown versus Sukhdev and others.” Obviously Sukhdev was the first to be named in the FIR as well, while Bhagat Singh was 12th among the 25 accused and Rajguru the 20th.
Shivaram Rajguru was not a student of the National College. He was born into middle-class family at Khed in Pune district of Maharashtra on August 24, 1908. A skilled wrestler and Sanskrit scholar he, at an early age, became disillusioned by the injustice and exploitation that marked British rule in those times. He was a big proponent of the concept of revolution as the best course in the fight for freedom from British rule. He got associated with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev through the HSRA.
A major upheaval in the life of Bhagat Singh and his companions came in the form of the martyrdom of their beloved role model Lala Lajpat Rai. The tall leader died in 1928, due to a head injury received in the course of a Lathi (Baton) charge on protestors being led by him to agitate against the Simon Commission. The superintendent of police, James A. Scott personally assaulted Lala Lajpat Rai who died of the injury inflicted on 17 November 1928. The brutal death caused Bhagat Singh and his friends to take a vow to avenge the death of their leader. Shivaram Rajguru, who was the best shot with a pistol among them joined in for the cause. Along with them were associated other revolutionaries including Chandrashekhar Azad.
The assassination bid was planned and executed in December, 1928, within a month of the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. However, in a case of mistaken identity another British Officer named John Saunders was killed instead of James A Scott.
The trio then fled to Howrah (Calcutta) with the assistance of Durgawati Devi, the wife of another Naujawan Bharat Sabha and NHSRA member, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, who studied with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev in National College. Durgawati Devi, popularly called Durga Bhabhi, was a revolutionary of legendary caliber. The revolutionary exploits of Durgawati Devi and her husband, as also their close connect with Bhagat Singh would need a different commentary altogether. Here is would suffice to say that they carried on with the ideology of Bhagat Singh and his friends after they were jailed and hanged. Their contribution to the freedom struggle matches that of Bhagat Singh and his colleagues.
This act of the three revolutionaries and their associates elicited condemnation from such political circles that advocated non-violence as the hall mark of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi was candid in voicing his disapproval. The revolutionaries were undeterred by the condemnation and determined to continue with their activities. Towards this end they decided to do something big in order to get the requisite visibility for the organization, HSRA. Accordingly, in April 1929, Bhagat Singh along with an associate, Batukeshwar Dutt, exploded two improvised bombs inside the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi. They showered leaflets from the gallery on the legislators below, shouted slogans, and then allowed the authorities to arrest them. In the impending trial Batukeshwar Dutt was represented by a Muslim lawyer, Afsar Ali, whereas Bhagat Singh chose to defend himself. They were awarded life imprisonment by the Court for what was termed as “malicious and unlawful intent of the explosions.
In a short while after the sentencing, the Lahore police managed to find crack the HSRA infrastructure and arrested many members of the revolutionary organisation. Three among these, Hans Raj Vohra, Jai Gopal and PN Ghosh turned approvers which led to arrest of 21 co-conspirators in the John Saunders killing case including Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru. Bhagat Singh was thus, rearrested for trial in what was called the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Trial started against 28 accused in a special session court presided over by Judge Rai Sahib Pandit Sri Kishen, on July 10, 1929.
The three friends were interned in the Lahore jail where they continued with the revolutionary activities by agitating for the rights and better prison conditions for the prisoners. Bhagat Singh, along with a fellow defendant Jatin Das, went on hunger strike that led to the death of Das due to starvation.
The trial witnessed judicial action against the trio and 21 more co-conspirators under a regulation introduced specifically for this purpose. All were convicted of the charges and the three friends sentenced to death. The file and other documents have now been put up for public display by the Government of Pakistan. There are 50 odd documents pertaining to the case that have been displayed.
The court case that lasted two years is rated as one of the most celebrated in judicial history of India’s freedom struggle. In reply to the criticism heaped on them for the use of force Bhagat Singh is quoted to have said “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.” These words are somewhat akin to the philosophy of Guru Gobind Singh as written in the Zafarnama to Emperor Aurangzeb by him. All through the proceedings the trio was totally unrepentant for their acts and in a state of high morale ready to face the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that they held closest to their hearts.
On being condemned to be hanged the three friends went to the gallows together at Lahore jail on March, 23, 1931, while shouting “Inquilab Zindabad” (long live the revolution) a slogan coined by Bhagat Singh while he was at National College. The hanging date was brought forward by a day in order to avoiding rioting.
There are differing narrations with regard to the hanging. It is said that the death sentence was implemented in accordance to what was called “Operation Trojan Horse.” It entailed handing over of half hanged bodies of the revolutionaries to the family of the policemen, John Saunders, whom they had killed to take revenge by shooting the trio.
The second controversy is about the place of cremation. It is widely believed that the same took place at Village Ganda Singh Wala in Kasur, where they were taken from the back gate of the Lahore jail. Kasur is about 50 kilometers from Lahore and the journey would have taken a little more than an hour. At Ganda Singh Wala half their burnt bodies were left by the British and the cremation was done once again by the family of Bhagat Singh along Parvati Devi, the daughter of Lala Lajpat Rai.
The memorial for the martyrs came up at Hussainiwala which is on the Indian side and near to Ganda Singh Wala. Vidyavati, the mother of Bhagat Singh and his colleague, Batukeshwar Dutt, have also been cremated at the memorial in accordance to their choice.
At the time of their execution, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev Thapar were just 23 and Shivaram Rajguru was only 22 years of age. Every year on 23 March martyrs day (Shaheedi Diwas) is observed and everyday a beating of the retreat ceremony is carried out at the memorial by India and Pakistan.
The three friends were together in their love for the country and embraced martyrdom together. In their short life spans they created a movement that grew with time to challenge the might of the British Empire. They infused the spirit of self sacrifice that was strategized to great effect by the forthcoming generations.
(Jaibans Singh is a reputed scholar, columnist and author)