Born on 27 September 1907 in the village of Khatkar Kalan of Jalandhar district in Punjab, Bhagat Singh was inspired by his uncle Ajit Singh, who was seriously involved in the struggle for independence from Britain. Most of his student life was spent in Lahore, capital of the undivided Punjab, against a background of increasing British repression and the growing radicalisation of Indian people, especially the youth. It was in this capital city that British imperialism staged the first Lahore Conspiracy case in 1915, at the end of which over two dozen young people were sentenced to death and several hundreds of others to life imprisonment or long jail sentences. While the colonial authorities were able through harsh repression to crush the Ghadar Party (Party of Revolt) veterans, the heroism, fearlessness, audacity and spirit of self sacrifice of the Ghadar revolutionaries left a lasting imprint on the minds of subsequent generations of Indians.
One of those who cheerfully went to the gallows following the Lahore trial was a mere 16-year old youth, Kartar Singh Sarabha. His sacrifice left such a strong impression on Bhagat Singh that when the latter, along with close comrades, founded in 1926 the Navjawan Bharat Sabha (Young India Society) as a rallying point for the revolutionary youth, its inaugural session was preceded by the unveiling of Sarabha’s portrait in open defiance of British colonial authorities who considered it a crime even to mention Sarabha’s name.
The first Lahore Conspiracy case was shortly thereafter to be followed by the mass murder of hundreds of innocent and unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, on 13 April 1919 in an incident which enraged the Indian population as a whole and left its mark on the youth of India. Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries seethed with anger at the abomination that went by the name of the British Raj and were fired by an insatiable desire to free India from British rule as well as to eliminate the entire system of exploitation of one person by another and one nation by another nation.
Realising the growing restlessness among, and the radicalisation of, the masses, the Congress Party at its Najpur session passed the non-cooperation motion in August 1920, with Gandhi promising ‘Swaraj’ (independence) in one year. Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation electrified the Indian masses, who entered the arena of political struggle for national liberation on a scale never before witnessed. The revolutionary youth wholeheartedly threw itself into the non-cooperation movement. When Gandhi dropped a bombshell by unexpectedly and suddenly withdrawing the non-cooperation movement in February 1922, just as the movement was at its height, on the flimsy pretext of the Chauri Chaura incident (in which the masses had burned down a police station), depression set in and the Indian masses, especially the youth, were left dumbfounded. The pent up energy of the masses, instead of being vented in the fight against British imperialism, found an outlet in the form of religious and communal riots.
Drawing lessons from this fiasco, the revolutionaries began to reorganise themselves all over northern India and went on to form the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in December 1923, under the leadership of Sachim Sanyal. Shortly thereafter, a large number of young people, including Bhagat Singh, swelled the ranks of the revolutionary movement. Five years later there took place a most significant secret meeting in Delhi, on 8-9 September, 1928, in which Bhagat Singh played a leading role. The decisions of this meeting were nothing if not momentous. First, accepting socialism as the goal of the movement, the HRA changed its name to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Second, accepting the principle of collective leadership, the HSRA elected a central committee which had on it one representative each from Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, UC and CP, with the ideological work being assigned to Bhagat Singh and VK Sinha. Third, the HSRA was to have a political and a military wing, with Chandrashekhar Azad being elected the Commander-in-Chief although he had been unable to attend the Delhi meeting. The military wing was to be subordinate to the political wing. Finally, the focus was no longer to be individual terror but such actions as would help carry the revolutionary message to the masses. The main inspirer of these decisions was none other than Bhagat Singh.
In the immediate aftermath of the Delhi meeting, the HSRA threw itself into action with great vigour and vitality. In 1928, the British government sent a commission to India under Sir John Simon to review the constitutional reforms of 1919 and put forward proposals for changes. As the Indians were neither consulted nor represented on this Commission, the entire Indian population boycotted the Simon Commission and wherever the latter went it was greeted by a chorus of ‘Simon, go back’.
When the Commission arrived in Lahore on 30 October 1928, it was greeted by a large protest demonstration led by the prominent Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai (Lalaji). The HSRA took an active part in this demonstration as well as the preparations leading up to it. The British authorities subjected the demonstration to a violent police charge. Scores of people were badly hurt, including Lalaji, who died from his injuries on 17 November. While they had serious differences with Lalaji, Bhagat Singh and his comrades, regarding the attack on Lalaji as an attack on the dignity of the Indian people, on 17 December avenged Lalaji’s death by killing JP Saunders, the police officer who had been responsible for the violent attack on the 30 October demonstration. Even Nehru observed that Bhagat Singh had rescued the honour of India.
In the next important action by the HSRA, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt lobbed bombs in the Central Assembly on 18 April 1929 by way of protest against the Trade Disputes Bill and Public Safety Bill. Although the British colonial authorities were determined to enact these laws, and the viceroy had intimated that he would promulgate these laws through an ordinance if the Central Assembly failed to pass them, nevertheless they wanted to hoodwink Indian and public opinion into believing that these repressive pieces of proposed legislation were the work of the elected representatives of the Indian people. The HSRA, on its part, was determined to deny British imperialism the opportunity of hiding behind a democratic façade while acting in practice in a decidedly fascist way. And the HSRA made this clear in the leaflets that Bhagat Singh and Dutt threw in the Chamber immediately after lobbing the bombs. And they followed this with their statement in the Court of Session on 6 June 1929 in which they stated clearly that they had thrown the bombs in the Assembly Chamber not to hurt anyone but “to make the deaf hear”; that they wanted to protest against “the wholesale arrest of leaders of the labour movement” in the run up to the notorious Meerut Conspiracy trial.
Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not run away. Instead, as was their intention all along, they waited to be arrested, put on trial and to use the court as an arena for revolutionary propaganda – particularly in view of the fact that details of court proceedings were not subject to news censorship. During their trial, known as the Second Lahore Conspiracy case, Bhagat Singh and his comrades staged hunger strikes in jail for jail reforms and by way of continuing the struggle against British imperialism in the new conditions of their incarceration. One of Bhagat Singh’s comrades, Jasim Das, died on 13 September 1929 after 63 days on hunger strike.
The case ended with the death sentences meted out to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, while others received hefty prison sentences. On 23 March 1931, a day earlier than scheduled, these three heroic characters were hanged in Ferozepur Central Jail. If the British authorities thought that by hanging these revolutionaries they would stamp out their revolutionary ideas, they were cruelly mistaken and were soon to be disabused of this notion. Dead, Bhagat Singh proved to be even more dangerous than Bhagat Singh alive. Gandhi’s prestige hit its nadir, as he had practically connived in the judicial murder of Bhagat Singh and his comrades – a point with which we shall deal in a subsequent issue. A week after the execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi, on his way to the Karachi session of the Congress (29-31 March) was greeted with black flags at the major railway stations from Lahore to Karachi.
Bhagat Singh, on the other hand, became a symbol of the revolutionary struggle of the Indian people against British imperialism and the entire system of exploitation. His conduct and his statements in court, his letter of 2 February 1933 from jail, and other writings, leave no doubt that the stood for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and an end to exploitation. Independence by itself, he said, would mean little if the rule of British imperialism was simply replaced by that of the Indian exploiters. So it was that Bhagat Singh gave expression to the desires and interests of the downtrodden, the deprived and the destitute; so it was that he worked tirelessly and with legendary zeal and devotion for creating a society without class, caste or national privilege. In fact, he symbolised all that is best in Indian and every other society. Precisely for this reason he continues to be an inspiration to the present generation of Indians as he has been to the preceding generations. “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long Live the Revolution) – the slogan that he popularised – continues to guide the present-day Indian revolutionaries. There is not a single progressive political gathering in India where this slogan does not ring out.
By way of our salute to this great son of the people of India, and by way of carrying forward the cause he bequeathed to us, we will reproduce, in our next issue, the statement with which he and Dutt littered the Central Assembly Chamber on 8 April 1929.