Bhagat Singh (1907-1931)
Bhagat Singh is a popular Indian revolutionary. He is considered as one of the most influential nationalist leader of Indian Independence movement. Bhagat Singh is often referred to as ‘Shaheed’ Bhagat Singh. The word ‘Shaheed’ means a martyr.
Bhagat Singh was born on 28th September 1907 in a Jat Sikh Punjabi family to Kishan Singh Sandhu and Vidyavati Kaur. He was born in Chak no. 105 in the village of Banga, Jaranwala Tehsil in the Lyallpur district of the Punjab province of British India. Bhagat Singh’s family is a patriotic family, the members of which have participated in the Indian independence movement. Some of their members have also served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. Bhagat Singh’s ancestors hailed from the village of Khatkar Kalam near the town of Banga in Nawanshah district of Punjab. This district is now renamed as the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar of Punjab. Singh’s name ‘Bhagat’ means devotee. His grandfather Arjun Singh was a follower of Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s Hindu reformist movement. This also had a great influence on Bhagat Singh. His father and his uncles Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh were members of the Ghadar Party which was led by Kartar Singh Sarabha and Har Dayal. Bhagat Singh did not attend the Khalsa High School in Lahore, as his grandfather did not approve of the school officials loyal virtues to the British authorities. His grandfather then enrolled him into the Dayanand Anglo Vedic High School which is an Arya Samaj institution. Bhagat Singh was deeply influenced by a number of incidents during his childhood. These events ignited the patriotism feel and his desire to take up the struggle for India’s independence. In the year 1919, when Bhagat Singh was 12 years old, he visited the site of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, where a public meeting was held by a group of non violent people, and the people were fired upon by soldiers without warning. These soldiers were led by General Dyer and the firing killed hundreds of people and injured thousands. Bhagat Singh also took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement in 1920 and openly defied the British by following Gandhiji’s wishes of burning his government school books and any imported British clothing he could find.
When Bhagat Singh was 14 years old, he welcomed protesters against the Gurudwara Nankana Sahib firing of 20 February 1921 which killed a large number of unarmed protesters. He welcomed them to his village for the protest. In the year 1922, he joined the Young Revolutionary Movement advocating the violent overthrow of the British Empire in India. He did not favored Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non violence and was disillusioned after Gandhiji called off the non cooperation movement. Bhagat Singh studied European revolutionary movements and was attracted to anarchist and Marxist ideologies. He also became involved with numerous revolutionary organizations and quickly rose through the ranks of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) to become one of its main leaders and eventually changed the name of the association to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HRSA). The association had prominent leaders such as Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandrasekhar Azad and Asfaqulla Khan. In the year 1923, Bhagat Singh joined the National College in Lahore. He excelled both in studies and extra curricular activities during his student life. He was a participant of the dramatics society in the college and was fluent in English, Urdu, Punjabi and Sanskrit languages. In the year 1923, Bhagat Singh won an essay competition set by the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sanmelan. In his essay titled ‘Punjab’s Language and Script’, he wrote Punjabi literature and showed a deep understanding of the problems of afflicting Punjab. Bhagat Singh joined the Indian nationalist youth organization ‘Naujawan Bharat Sabha’ along with fellow revolutionaries and became popular in the organization. A year later, when his parents insisted marriage, in order to avoid the marriage, he ran away from his house to Cawnpore. It is also widely believed that Bhagat Singh went to Cawnpore to free the Kakori train robbery victims from jail but again returned to Lahore for various reasons. During a Dussehra celebration in October 1926, a bomb blasted in Lahore. Bhagat Singh was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Dussehra bomb blast case on 29th may 1927 and was subsequently released for exhibiting good behavior with a fine of Rs. 60,000. He was released about five weeks after his arrest. Bhagat Singh used to write for and also edited Urdu and Punjabi newspapers which were published from Amritsar. In September 1928, an All-India meeting was organized by the Kirti Kisan Party which included the revolutionaries in Delhi as Singh as its secretary. Bhagat Singh later became the association’s leader.
Lala Lajpat Rai’s death and the murder of Saunders
In the year 1928, the British government created a commission under Sir John Simon to report on the political situation in India of that time. The Indian political parties boycotted the commission as it did not have any Indian in its membership. The Commission thereby met with nationwide protests. When the commission visited Lahore on 30th October, 1928, a non violent protest against the commission was led by Lala Lajpat Rai in a silent march, but the police responded violently. James A. Scott, The superintendent of police, ordered the police to lathi charge the protesters and specially assault Lajpat Rai, who was grievously injured. When Lala Lajpat Rai died on 17th November, 1928, it was widely assumed that Scott’s blows led to his death. However, when this matter was put forward in the Parliament of the British, they completely denied the government’s role in Rai’s death. After that, Bhagat Singh vowed to take revenge and he and other revolutionaries like Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar, Jai Gopal and Chandrasekhar Azad planned to kill Scott. Jai Gopal was supposed to identify Scott and had to give signal to Singh to shoot Scott. However, in a case of mistaken identity, Jai Gopal signaled Bhagat Singh on the appearance of John.P. Saunders who was an assistant commissioner of police. Saunders was shot by Shivram Rajguru and Bhagat Singh while leaving the district police headquarters in Lahore in the evening on 17th December 1928. A head constable Chanan Singh was also killed when he came to Saunder’s aid. After killing John P. Saunders, fled to places of safety. The police launched a massive operation to find out the culprits and kept a block on all possible exits and entrances. Bhagat Singh and his associates hid for next two days. On 19th December, 1928, Sukhdev called on Durga Devi Vohra, wife of Bhagwati Charan Vohra for help which she agrees. They decided to catch a train from Lahore to Howrah. To avoid recognition, Bhagat Singh cut his hair short and shaved off his beard. In the early morning next day, dressed in Western attire, Bhagat Singh passed of a young couple with Vohra's child on his shoulder. Rajguru disguised as their servant carrying their luggage. At the station, Bhagat Singh managed to conceal his identity and escaped to Cawnpore. On reaching there, they boarded a train to Lahore. In Lucknow, Rajguru left separately for Benares while Bhagat Singh and Vohra with the child left for Howrah, with all except Bhagat Singh returning to Lahore few days later.
To combat the rise of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh in the country, the British Government implemented the Defence of India Act 1915 that gave the police a free hand. Bhagat Singh influenced by August Vaillant, a French anarchist who bombed the French Chamber of Deputies on 9th December, 1893, Bhagat Singh put forward a proposal to explode a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly. This plan was agreed to and was initially decided that Batukeswar Dutt and Sukhdev would carry out the bombing while Bhagat Singh would go to the USSR. However, in a subsequent meeting it was decided that Batukeswar Dutt and Bhagat Singh would carry out the bombing. On 8th April 1929, Bhagat Singh and Dutt threw two bombs inside the assembly from the visitor’s gallery shouting the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ and showered leaflets which stated that ‘it takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear’. The leaflet also claimed that the act was done to oppose the trade dispute and the public safety bill being presented in the Central Assembly and the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. The bombs filled the whole room with smoke and few sustained injuries though no one was dead. Bhagat Singh and Dutt claimed that this was deliberately done on their part. This was a claim which was sustained by British forensic investigators who found out the bombs were not powerful enough to kill people and by the fact that the bombs were thrown by people. Thereafter, as planned Bhagat Singh and Dutt was arrested by the police.
Trial of Bhagat Singh
Both Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt were charged with attempt to murder and the trail began on 7th May 1929. There were doubts which rose about the accuracy of the testimony offered at the trial. One of the key discrepancies was the possession of a pistol by Bhagat Singh. The both accused were sent to the Sessions court of Judge Leonard Middleton who ruled that Singh and Dutt’s actions have been deliberate as the bombs had shattered the one and a half inch deep wooden floor in the hall. Their appeal was subsequently turned down and both were sentenced to 14 years of rigorous imprisonment. On 15th April 1929, the ‘Lahore bomb factory’ was discovered by the police which led to the arrest of the other members of HSRA out of which seven members turned informants and helped the police to connect the murder of Saunders with Bhagat Singh. Subsequently, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Rajguru were charged with the murder of Saunders. Singh decided to use the court of publicize his cause for the Indian independence. Bhagat Singh was re-arrested for murdering Saunders and Chanan Singh based on substantial evidence against him including the statements of some of his associates. Bhagat Singh’s life sentence in the Assembly Bomb case was deferred till the Saunder’s case was decided and he was transferred to the Mainwali jail from the Delhi jail where he witnessed discrimination between the European and Indian prisoners. This made other prisoners to go on a hunger strike to protest against the discrimination. The protesters demanded equality in food, clothing and toiletries. They also demanded availability of books and newspaper for political prisoners. It was also demanded that no manual labor or undignified work be forcefully done by them. The British government tried to break the strike through their different efforts. They kept food items and water pitchers to tempt them to end their strike, but the protestors refused to budge. The authorities then attempted forcing food using feeding tubes into the prisoners but were resisted. By then, since the activities of the hunger strikers has gained popularity and attention among the people, the government decided to begin with the Saunder’s murder trial which was later called the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Bhagat Singh was later shifted to Borstal jail where the trial began on 10th July 1929. In addition to charging with the murder of Saunders, Bhagat Singh along with 27 other prisoners were also charged with plotting a conspiracy to kill Scott and waging a war. During that time, the health of another hunger striker, Jatindra Nath Das, logged in the same jail was deteriorating considerably. Subsequently he was released on bail and on 13th September 1929, he died after a 63 day hunger strike. This death led to protests around India. Bhagat Singh then finally heeded to a resolution of the Congress party and his father’s request and ended his 116 day long hunger strike on 5th October 1929. During his strike, Bhagat Singh became popular among the Indians. Meanwhile, as the Saunder’s murder trial was running slow, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin declared an emergency on 1st May 1930 and promulgated an ordinance setting up a special tribunal which composed of three high court judges. The ordinance cut short the normal process of justice and on July 1930, the tribunal decided to press charges against only 15 out of 18 accused. The tribunal conducted the trial from 5th May 1930 to 19th May 1930. Finally on 7th October 1930, the tribunal delivered its 300 page judgement based on all the evidence and concluded that involvement of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru was proved beyond any doubt in Saunder’s murder and sentenced them to death by hanging. All The remaining 12 accused were all sentenced to severe life imprisonment. Mean while in Punjab, a defence committee was set up which drew a plan to appeal in the secret Council. Bhagat Singh was initially against the appeal, but later he agreed in the hope that the appeal would popularize the HSRA in Great Britain.The appellants made an objection to the ordinance that tribunal was invalid. The appeal was dismissed by Judge Viscount Dunedin. Bhagat Singh used to maintain a diary in the prison which eventually grew to include 404 pages. In the diary, he made notes regarding different sayings and quotations of various people he came across. There were prominent sayings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Singh also wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Why I am an Atheist’ in response to him being accused of vanity by not accepting God in the face of death. It is also said that Bhagat singh signed a mercy petition through a comrade Bijoy Kumar Sinha on 8th March 1931.
Death of Bhagat Singh
Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Rajguru were ordered to be hanged on 24th March 1931. On 17th March 1931, the Punjab home secretary, sent a telegram to the home department in New Delhi fixing the execution on 23rd March 1931. Bhagat Singh was subsequently informed that his execution was advanced by 11 hours on 23rd March 1931 just few hours of his execution. He was hanged on 23rd March 1931 at 7.30 pm in Lahore jail with his fellow comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. The authorities of the jail then broke the rear wall of the jail and secretly cremated the three martyrs under the cover of darkness outside Ganda Singh Wala village and then threw their ashes into the Sutlej River. Bhagat SinghThe execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were widely reported by the press, especially because they were on the eve of the annual convention of the Congress party in Karachi. Mahatma Gandhi faced black flag demonstrations by angry youths who shouted ‘Down with Gandhi’. Bhagat Singh’s death inspired thousands of youth to assist the remainder of the Indian Independence movement. After his hanging, many youths in north India rioted in protest against the British Empire and Mahatma Gandhi.
Bhagat Singh was influenced by anarchism and communism. He was a keen reader of Karl Marx, Angels, Lenin, Trotsky and Bakunin. He didn’t believe in Gandhian philosophy and felt that the Satyagraha and non violent resistance politics of Gandhiji would replace one set of exploiters with another. He used to publish a series of articles on anarchism from May to September 1928 in a Punjabi periodical ‘Kirti’. Bhagat Singh was also an admirer of the writings of Irish revolutionary Terence MacSwiney. Some of his writings like the Blood Sprinkled on the Day of Holi Babbar Akalis on the Crucifix were influenced by the struggle of Dharam Singh Hayatpur. Bhagat Singh also expressed concern over misunderstanding of the concept of anarchism among the public and tried to eradicate its misconception among the people. He was also influenced by Marxism and was an atheist. Having witnessed the Hindu Muslim riots which led to the conflict between two religions, Bhagat Singh dropped his religious beliefs as he believed that religion hindered the revolutionaries struggle for independence. Bhagat Singh was known for his appreciation of martyrdom. He considered himself a martyr for avenging the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. Bhagat Singh was very much fond of reading books. Even before his hanging on 23rd March 1931, he was reading the autobiography of Ram Prasad Bismil in his cell of Lahore jail. One of the theories was that Mahatma Gandhi had an opportunity to stop Bhagat Singh’s execution, but refrained from doing so. However, his supporters argued that Gandhi did his best to stop the execution.
Memorials of Bhagat Singh
On 15th August 2008, an 18 foot tall bronze statue of Bhagat Singh was installed in the Indian parliament next to the statues of Indira Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. A portrait of Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt also adorns the wall of the Parliament House. Bhagat Singh was cremated in Hussainiwala on the banks of the Sutlej River. During partition, the cremation spot went to Pakistan. However, on 17th January 1962, it was transferred to India in exchange for 12 villages near the Sulemanki Headworks to Pakistan. The National Martyrs Memorial was built on that cremation spot in 1968. The memorial is located one km from the India-Pakistan border on the Indian side and has memorials of Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Every year on 23rd March, the ‘Shaheedi Mela’ is observed at this memorial in which thousands of people pay their homage. This day is also observed across the state of Punjab. The Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Bhagat Singh Museum in Khatkar Kalan, Bhagat Singh’s native place was opened on his 50th death anniversary. The museum holds memorable belongings of Bhagat Singh, his half burnt ashes, the blood soaked sand and blood stained newspaper in which the ashes were wrapped. A page of the first Lahore Conspiracy Case judgement through which Kartar Singh Sarabha was sentenced to death and on which Bhagat Singh put some notes are also displayed there. A copy of the Bhagavad-Gita with Bhagat Singh’s signature which was given to him in Lahore jail and other personal belongings are also there in the museum. The Bhagat Singh Memorial was built in the year 2009 in Khatkar Kalan. The Supreme Court established a museum to display landmarks in the history of India’s judicial system. The first exhibition which was organized was the ‘Trial of Bhagat Singh’ which opened on 28th September 2007 on the birth centenary celebrations of Singh. The youth of present day India still draw immense inspirations from Bhagat Singh. He was voted as the ‘Greatest Indian’ in a poll by the Indian magazine ‘India Today’ in the year 2008 ahead of Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi. During the centenary of Bhagat Singh’s birth, a group of intellectuals set up an institution named Bhagat Singh Sansthan to commemorate Bhagat Singh and his ideals. The Indian parliament paid tributes and observed silence as a mark of respect in the memory of Bhagat Singh on 23rd March 2001 and 2005.
Portrayal of Bhagat Singh in Literature and Movies
Bollywood films have been made portraying Bhagat Singh and his life. The first is ‘Shaheed-e-Azad Bhagat Singh’ (1954) followed by ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh’ (1963) starring Shammi Kapoor as Bhagat Singh. After two years, Manoj Kumar portrayed Bhagat Singh in the film ‘Shaheed’. After that three more landmark films were released in the year 2002 based on his life. The first one ‘Shaheed-E-Azam’ was directed by Sukumar Nair and starred Sonu Sood. The second was ‘23rd march 1931: Shaheed’ where the character of Bhagat Singh was portrayed by Bobby Deol. Another film ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ the character was portrayed by Ajay Devgan. The 2006 film ‘Rang De Basanti’ draws parallel between the revolutionaries of Bhagat Singh’s era and modern India youth. In the year 2008, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) and Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), a non profit organization, co-produced a 40 minute documentary in Bhagat Singh titled ‘Inquilab’ and were directed by Gauhar Raza. There are many songs portraying the patriotism of Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries. The patriotic Hindi-Urdu songs ‘Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna’ and ‘Mera Rang De Basanti Chola’ while created by Ram Prasad Bismil are largely associated with Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and have been used in a number of films portraying the character of Bhagat Singh. In the year 1968, a postal stamp was issued in India commemorating the 61st birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh. On September 2006, the Indian Government decided to issue commemorative coins in his memory. However, the coins have still not been issued.
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