“Challenge to Imperial Hegemony – the life story of a great Indian Patriot
On 31 July 1940 the great Indian patriot, Udham Singh, was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the murder, on 13 March 1940, of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab and the notorious butcher of the Amritsar Massacre. For 56 years his life remained something of a mystery, as his statement in court and many other facts concerning his life remained locked up in the vaults reserved for the government’s secret documents. As a result of efforts by the Shaheed Udham Singh Trust and of Comrade Avtar Jouhl, General Secretary of the IWA(GB), this vital material was released to the Public Records Office in the spring of 1996. This material furnished the basis for this authoritative biography of Udham Singh, which is the fruit of collaboration between the Shaheed Udham Singh Trust in Birmingham and the Punjabi University, Patiala (India).
13 April this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, which inspired Udham Singh to take up the fight against British imperialism and for India’s freedom from colonial subjugation. By way of a tribute to the victims of British colonial terror, a salute to those such as Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh and countless other martyrs who laid down their lives for India’s freedom, and introducing this book, I publish here the `Forward’ to it which I wrote last May. It is to be hoped that our readers will buy and, more importantly, read this book, which is bound to give them an insight into the life of Udham Singh and the tyranny of the `civilised’ British rule in India alike.
[Editor – Harpal Brar]
Two myths are widespread in bourgeois historiography, in India as well as abroad. First, that Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, with the methods of non-violence and peaceful non-cooperation and civil disobedience, were instrumental in achieving India’s independence from the much-hated British Raj.
Second, that revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev and Udham Singh were individual terrorists pure and simple, who believed in bloodshed and armed robberies – just for the fun of it. Is it, therefore, not fortunate, assert the despicable purveyors of these myths, composed in equal part of the ignorant and the malicious, that India adopted Gandhi’s path rather than taking the line advocated by the revolutionaries?
Formation of the Ghadar Party
Nothing could be further from the truth than these twin assertions. India’s struggle against British rule is as long as that rule itself. The 1857 national revolt of the Indian people – known as the first war of Indian independence – being the most prominent example of the earlier struggles to free India from the clutches of British rule. But the latest and the most modern phase of India’s freedom movement begins in 1913 with the formation (on 21 April 1913) of the Ghadar Party – the Party of Revolt – by the Indian revolutionaries then living in Canada and the USA. With the formation of the Ghadar Party, the revolutionary movement in India takes a giant step forward, for this party was both internationalist and secular in its outlook; it recognised the importance of revolutionary work in the army with the aim of inciting the latter to revolt against the British imperialist rule, and overwhelmingly drew its ranks from the peasants turned factory workers, unlike the earlier revolutionaries who had by and large belonged to the lower middle class intelligentsia.
The major weakness of the Ghadar Party was its exceptionally poor sense of secrecy, which made it an easy target for British imperialism, armed as the latter was with the knowledge of the Ghadarites’ plans, not to say a monstrous police and military machine for suppression of the Indian people. The second weakness of the leadership of the Ghadar Party was its failure to understand the essence of imperialism. Hence the entertainment of the illusion by it that it could rely on the assistance of imperialist Germany for India’s freedom, whereas German imperialism was only interested in using the Ghadarites against Britain and snatching the latter’s colonial possessions for itself. Such an understanding had to await the epoch-making victory of the October Revolution in Russia.
Notwithstanding these weaknesses, the Ghadar movement, though cruelly suppressed by the British imperial authorities, left a rich revolutionary legacy and made an indelible mark on the freedom movement, inspiring a whole generation of revolutionaries with its courage and self-sacrificing heroism. It produces a weekly publication,
the very first issue of which boldly declared:
“Today there begins in foreign lands a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Mutiny. What is its work? Mutiny. Where will mutiny break out? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pen and ink.”
From time to time,
published the following advertisement in its columns:
“Wanted enthusiastic and heroic soldiers for organising Ghadar in Hindustan. Remuneration – Death; Reward – Martyrdom; Pension – Freedom; Field of work – Hindustan.”
The Ghadarites faced the gallows and firing squads with indomitable courage.
One of the youngest of the Ghadarites, Kartar Singh Sarabha, courted death with these words:
“I will get life imprisonment or capital punishment. But I will prefer the latter so that after rebirth I may again be prepared for the struggle of India’s freedom. I will die again and again till India becomes free. This is my last wish.”
Hindustan Republican Association
The formation by Shachindra Nath Sanyal of the Hindustan Republican Assocation towards the end of 1923 marks a further step forward in the development of the revolutionary freedom struggle in India. Under the direct impact of the Great Socialist October Revolution, the Manifesto of the HRA, circulated throughout India on the night of 1 January 1925, decidedly came on the side of an “armed revolution” with the aim of establishing a society which “aims not at competition but co-operation … and follows the footsteps of the Bolsheviks in Russia.” Sanyal’s formulations are vague and far from being Marxist or materialist. Nevertheless they represent an advance on the formulations of the Ghadarites.
Hindustan Socialist Republican Association
The real advance made by the national revolutionaries towards the acceptance of socialism only comes with the formation in 1928, at the initiative of Bhagat Singh, of an all-India organisation – the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. The formation of the HSRA must be seen in the context of the prevailing international and domestic situation. On an international plane, the Bolshevik regime had successfully defeated its enemies in the civil war and war of intervention organised by international imperialism, whereas the latter was entering a period of acute economic and political crisis. On the national plane, the twenties of this century saw the emergence of a powerful working-class movement as an independent agent in the industrial and political arena, with the country witnessing massive working-class strikes, both industrial and political. This decade also witnessed the birth of a virile peasant movement, with militant peasant struggles in many parts of the country. Not only was the Workers and Peasants Party formed during this time, but attempts were also made to form a united Communist Party through the merger of various communist groups in the country. In response to, and terrified by, this revolutionary activity, the British government responded with its usual carrot and stick policy. By granting a few minor concessions to the Indian bourgeoisie and its political representative, the Congress Party, it endeavoured to co-opt them to its side. To the revolutionaries, on the other hand, it could only offer arrest, torture, the jail and the gallows. Hence a succession of Bolshevik conspiracy trials, such as the Peshawar, Kanpur and Meerut cases, by means of which British imperialism hoped, and in some cases with success, to remove revolutionaries from the area of political struggle.
All these events, this reality, could not but leave its impress on the national revolutionaries. Unlike the earlier generation of revolutionaries, who looked to the ancient Indian past as an inspiration for the present and the future, and in whose outlook the masses and their problems had but little space, the modern generation of revolutionaries, beginning with the third decade of this century, inspired by the victory of the October revolution and its all-conquering and noble ideals, moved confidently in the direction of scientific socialism as the only system capable of freeing the masses of India from their age-old slavery and ushering in an era of economic, mental, spiritual and cultural regeneration on an unprecedented scale. This is reflected in the 1925 Manifesto of the Hindustan Republican Association, and much more so in the programme of its successor, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, formed in 1928 on the initiative of Bhagat Singh, that most brilliant, dauntless, steadfast and far-sighted revolutionary modern India has produced. Not without reason did the late comrade B T Ranadive summarise the Bhagat Singh phenomenon in this glowing tribute:
“No other revolutionary struck such deep rapport with the awakening people, no other became so endeared to the common people and youth as Bhagat Singh did. He symbolised his struggle in the slogan he raised after he threw a bomb in the Legislative Assembly of Delhi – “Long Live Revolution”, a slogan totally unfamiliar at that time to the Indian people. No doubt the Communist leadership had started raising it a little earlier, but it had not yet reached the people.
“This restless revolutionary was not content with slogans. He embodied the indomitable courage, the death-defying spirit, the capacity to sacrifice everything and unflinching courage in the face of torture, without which all talk of revolution just remains empty talk.
No revolution, no revolutionary ideology can succeed without individual heroism and suffering; without outstanding individuals rousing the people by their courage and sacrifices, by their readiness to face the gallows and the executioner’s axe. No revolutionary ideology can succeed without intense hatred for the enemy to be overthrown, without an all-sided war on the enemy, his institutions and instruments. Bhagat Singh combined the hatred for the British rule with intense personal heroism, and became the symbol of the struggling nation, the embodiment of its hatred for the foreign rule
” (Foreword to
Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh
, edited by the late Comrade Shiv Verma).
In addition to his indomitable courage and the willingness to sacrifice everything in the fight against the rotten system, represented by British imperialism and its Indian feudal and bourgeois collaborators, Bhagat Singh was endowed with a great intellect.
“As an intellectual,”
wrote Comrade Shiv Verma,
“Bhagat Singh was far superior to any of us.”
He was undoubtedly the first among the galaxy of revolutionaries around him – and he saw further than his comrades. Thus it was at his suggestion and insistence that the word socialist was added to the name of the HRA, and the ideas of socialism, formulated in greater depth and detail than ever before by any national revolutionary organisation, incorporated into the programme of the HSRA.
Realisation of the need for armed struggle
The founders of the HSRA fully grasped the basis and essence of British state power in India. The leadership of the HRSA, fully realising that the British had conquered India with the sword and the gun, and maintained their oppressive and exploitative subjugation of the Indian people primarily by force of arms, they could not be ”persuaded’ to leave India by peaceful protests
non-co-operation, civil disobedience and other such methods advocated by Gandhi to stunt the development of a mass revolutionary movement capable of sweeping the British and the Indian exploiting classes alike from the face of India. Hence the mobilisation of the masses and the organisation of armed struggle against the British rule was an integral part of the programme and practical activity of the HRSA, which at its 1928 Conference established an armed wing, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, with Chandar Shekhar as its Commander in Chief.
Bhagat Singh’s vision of a future India
Bhagat Singh, his close comrades and the new generation of national revolutionaries were determined to make revolution by relying on the masses and learning from the most advanced science of revolution. This is clearly revealed by the fact that, after throwing bombs in the Central Assembly on 8 April 1929, an act for which they were to pay with their lives, Bhagat Singh and his comrades made sure that the Assembly hall was strewn with red leaflets ending with the slogans Long live revolution and Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In their statement, prepared by Bhagat Singh and read by their lawyer Asif Ali on 6 June 1929 before the court trying them, Bhagat Singh and his co-accused explained that they had thrown the bombs to protest against the arrest of communists and other members of the labour movement, resulting in the Meerut Conspiracy case, and against the Trades Disputes Act which sought to prevent a general strike by industrial workers. Having made it clear that no plethora of Safety Bills, no amount of ordinances, no trumped up conspiracy cases, could snuff out the flames of revolution and stand in the way of its onward march, the statement went on to explain the reorganisation of society on a socialistic basis, saying that “unless this thing is done and exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, suffering and carnage with which humanity is threatened cannot be prevented. All talk of ending war and ushering in an era of universal peace is undisguised hypocrisy.”
Repudiating all notions of individual terrorism, isolated from the mass movement of the working class and peasantry, the statement went on to portray Bhagat Singh’s vision of revolution thus:
“Revolution does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife, nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By ‘Revolution’ we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society, are robbed by their exploiters of their labour and deprived of their elementary rights. The peasant who grows corn for all, starves with his family; the weaver who supplies the world market with textile fabrics, has not enough to cover his own and his children’s bodies; masons, smiths and carpenters who raise magnificent palaces, live like pariahs in the slums. The capitalists and the exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims. These terrible inequalities and forced disparity of chances are bound to lead to chaos. This state of affairs cannot last long, and it is obvious that the present order of society in merry-making is on the brink of a volcano.
“By ‘Revolution’ we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such breakdowns, and in which the sovereignty of the proletariat should be recognised and a world federation should redeem humanity from the bondage of capitalism and misery of imperial wars.”
On 21 January 1930, the death anniversary of V I Lenin, the accused in the Lahore conspiracy case appeared in the court sporting red scarves and shouting slogans: Long live the socialist revolution, Long live the Communist International, Lenin’s name will never die, and Down with imperialism.
Bhagat Singh read out this message to the Comintern and, with characteristic audacity, asked the trial judge to pass it on to that body: “On Lenin day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something to carry forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment which Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to imperialism.”
Bhagat Singh’s contempt for the compromising Indian bourgeoisie
These ideas of the national revolutionaries were an anathema to the cowardly and compromising leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie. Bhagat Singh understood the class character of this leadership as clearly as he understood the revolutionary potentialities of the masses. He contrasts the two, and exposes the utter wretchedness of the bourgeois leadership of the Indian freedom movement in a letter addressed to Young Political Workers, written from his prison cell on 2 February 1931:
“The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and cannot dare to tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber would become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at. After his experience with Ahmedabad labourers in 1920, Mahatma Gandhi declared: ‘We must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat’ (The Times, May 1921
). Since then, they never dared to approach them. There remains the peasantry. The Bardoli resolution of 1922 clearly defines the horror these leaders felt when they saw the gigantic peasant class rising to shake off not only the domination of an alien nation but the yoke of the landlords.
“It is there that our leaders prefer a surrender to the British than to the peasantry … That is why I say they never meant a complete revolution.”
As if anticipating a sustained slander campaign by the Gandhiite bourgeois leadership against himself and his fellow revolutionaries, and so as to leave no one in doubt on this score, Bhagat Singh, in this letter too returns to the question of individual terrorism, stating:
“Let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot get anything through these methods … I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb-throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. The military department of the party should always keep ready all the war-material at its command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not act independently.”
And a few lines earlier:
“Apparently I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist. I am a revolutionary who has got such definite ideas of a lengthy programme as is being discussed here.”
Even in their conduct during the Lahore conspiracy trial and in the tactics they adopted in the court, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were just the opposite of the treacherous, cowardly and pusillanimous bourgeois followers of Gandhi. Gandhi had advised the fighters for Indian independence not to defend themselves before a British court, saying that the refusal to recognise the jurisdiction of the courts established by the British, the refusal to enter a legal defence and the readiness to face any sentence would strike at the prestige of British rule.
Such a course of action could not, and did not, satisfy the revolutionaries who were determined to turn their trial into a trial of British rule, with the Indian masses acting as judges.
Just a few days before his execution, Bhagat Singh sent a letter to the authorities demanding that he and his condemned comrades, since they were prisoners of war, be executed by a firing squad instead of being hanged.
Thus it can be seen that Bhagat Singh and his comrades were the product of their time and circumstances – a time when the economic and political development in the domestic and international arena were thrusting the masses into the whirlpool of revolutionary politics, radicalising the petty bourgeoisie and obliging the latter to adopt Marxism as the only weapon for the liberation of the masses from subjugation, oppression, misery, squalor and hunger. No one better symbolised this process than Bhagat Singh; no one better articulated the new socialist ideals than he did. Precisely for that reason he emerged as the most representative spokesman of this new vision of society, and, in the process, from being a mere youthful individual, he became a phenomenon.
Udham Singh too was a product of the same circumstances. Born at the very end of 1899, he had known nothing but hardship and poverty; he had witnessed the brutality of British imperialism, epitomised in the Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) massacre, which had left several hundred peaceful protesters dead and more than 2.000 wounded. He participated in several radical and revolutionary movements, notably the Ghadar Party. He travelled widely to acquire knowledge and gain experience, during the course of which time he established contacts with Indian and other revolutionaries and came to acquire an internationalist outlook. His patriotic feelings, his burning desire to see India freed from the jackboot of British imperialism, in no way constituted a hindrance to his internationalism, as is evident, inter alia, from his last statement, at the end of his trial for the murder in Caxton Hall, London, on 13 March 1940, of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the former Lt. Governor of Punjab – the butcher of the notorious Amritsar massacre.
During the course of his statement, Udham Singh boldly stated:
“I do not care about sentence of death. It means nothing at all … I do not worry about it at all. I am dying for a purpose. We are suffering from the British Empire. … I am proud to die to free my native land and I hope that when I am gone, … in my place will come thousands of my countrymen to drive you dirty dogs out; to free my country … you will be cleansed out of India. And your British imperialism will be smashed. Machine guns on the streets of India mow down thousands of poor women and children wherever your so-called flag of democracy and Christianity flies. Your conduct, your conduct – I am speaking about the British government. I have nothing against the English people at all. I have more English friends living in England than I have in India. I have great sympathy with the workers of England. I am against the imperialist government.”
Udham Singh concluded his statement by shouting the slogan:
“Down with British imperialism!”
After Udham Singh had left the dock, the judge, Mr Justice Atkinson, turned to the press and said:
“I give a direction to the press not to report any of the statement made by the accused in the dock. You understand, members of the Press?”
On 15 July the Court of Criminal Appeal heard and dismissed Udham Singh’s appeal against the death sentence, and he was hanged at Pentonville prison on 31 July. For 56 years Udham Singh’s statement, as well as many other facts about his life, remained buried in the dark rooms reserved for secret government documents. At long last, through the efforts of the Shaheed Udham Singh Centre and of Comrade Avtar Singh Jouhl, General Secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association (GB), this material was released to the Public Records Office in the spring of 1996. The release of this crucial information has facilitated the collaboration between the Punjabi University, Patiala, the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust and the IWA-GB in bringing out the present authoritative biography of this great son of India. Far from being the terrorist he has been branded in imperialist and other bourgeois quarters, Udham Singh emerges from the pages of this volume as a noble Indian patriot, filled with an intense hatred of British imperialism and a burning desire to see India free, as well as an out-and-out internationalist, with his love of the international proletariat, including the British proletariat.
The author, Dr Navtej Singh of the Punjabi University, Patiala, is to be congratulated and thanked for his painstaking work and scholarship in bringing out this volume. It is to be hoped that this book will become an essential reference book for researchers, students and others interested in the history of India’s freedom struggle and the part played in it by patriots such as Udham Singh. This would be reward enough for the author.
Last, though not least, our sincere gratitude and thanks are due to Dr Joginder Singh Puar, Vice-Chancellor of the Punjabi University, without whose generous and unstinting co-operation and assistance this project would not have been realised with such ease.