Excerpt: Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh by Chaman Lal
On the 102nd anniversary of the colonial government’s execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, this extract looks at the reaction across the country to the hanging
After the execution of three revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, the country was on the boil. The ongoing protests since the announcement of judgment on 7 October 1930, escalated further after the executions. As the bodies of three martyrs were not given to the families for the cremation and taken out from back gate of the jail with some accounts mentioning, in mutilated form towards Ferozepur; a number of people led by Amar Kaur, younger sister of Bhagat Singh, and Parvati Devi, daughter of Lala Lajpat Rai, moved towards Ferozepur in the early hours of 24 March. There, at Ganda Singhwala village near the Sutlej River, they found half-burnt body parts of the martyrs, as the bodies had not been cremated properly and were thrown into Sutlej River before they could turn into ashes. The half-burnt bones and other body pieces were picked up and brought to Lahore. In Lahore, three pyres (arthis) were made, with one lakh people joining the funeral procession. They were properly cremated at the banks of Ravi, where a few years earlier Lala Lajpat Rai had been cremated. Congress party later formed a fact finding team led by Dr Satya Pal to find out how the bodies of martyrs were mistreated and why proper rituals were not performed during the cremation process. It held many meetings, which were covered in media extensively in those days, though its final report was not released.
On 24 March, the very next day and the actual date of execution, there was a huge uproar in Central Assembly at Delhi. Congress member, Rangacharya moved a resolution expressing deep anguish at the execution of three martyrs. The British Home secretary, symbol of colonial power in the house, did not allow the resolution. In protest, not only elected members even nominated independent members walked out of the house. Tragically on 25 March, during a protest in Kanpur against the executions, Congress leader and editor of Pratap from Kanpur, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was killed in communal riots while trying to douse the communal fire. As the Karachi Congress was going to begin from 26 March, all leaders were either leaving or on their way to Karachi. Even Kishan Singh was on his way to Karachi. Interestingly, he entered the same coach in which Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was travelling from Peshawar with his many associates. They were singing patriotic songs. Seeing Kishan Singh among them, Badshah Khan asked his associates to stop singing. But Kishan Singh told them to continue, as these were patriotic songs. At Karachi Railway station, Naujwan Bharat Sabha activists offered black roses to Mahatma Gandhi and he accepted the flowers of protest with all humility. Naujwan Bharat Sabha had arranged their own conference in Karachi, along with Congress session on 27 & 28 March. The Congress session was presided over by Sardar Patel, and a resolution was moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, which was seconded by Madan Mohan Malviya, praising Bhagat Singh’s bravery but at the same time voicing their disapproval towards the violent path. The resolution was moved under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi himself. Another resolution was also moved which praised the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh without any attached warnings. Both resolutions got huge number of delegate votes and the resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru was carried only by a thin margin. It showed that Bhagat Singh had huge following among Congressmen too!
Naujwan Bharat Sabha’s conference at Karachi was chaired by Netaji Subhas Bose and was attended by Krishan Kant Malviya (nephew of Madan Mohan Malviya and editor of Abhyudaya), Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Satyawati from Delhi, Kamala Nehru and others. Netaji paid glowing tributes to Bhagat Singh. Referring to Lahore executions, Netaji said that “Bhagat Singh was a symbol of the spirit of revolt which had taken possession of the country from one end to other. That spirit was unconquerable and the flame of the spirit that had lit up, would not die.”
All national leaders paid tributes to Bhagat Singh. Mahatma Gandhi praised his bravery, but asked youth not to follow his path. Sardar Patel was impressed by the courage and self-sacrificing spirit of Bhagat Singh. Madan Mohan Malviya had sent a telegram to Viceroy to commute their sentence and felt that there could be no justice in foreign rule. Jawaharlal Nehru felt that Bhagat Singh’s bravery and self-sacrifice was magnificent. EV Ramaswamy Naicker Periyar wrote an editorial in his Tamil journal Kuda Arasu wishing many more Bhagat Singh to be born in India! Dr BR Ambedkar wrote an editorial in his Marathi journal Janta that British Government sacrificed Bhagat Singh and his comrades, ignoring public opinion. Maulana Zafar Ali said that “unfortunate India never felt so helpless as on Bhagat Singh’s execution”. Asaf Ali said that I was not allowed to meet Bhagat Singh on 23 March, as I came with a message from Mahatma Gandhi for Bhagat Singh. There was perhaps no paper in the country in any language, which did not write about these unjust executions. The Hindu from Madras expressed the opinion that British Government crushed the feelings of whole country by these executions. Swarajya (English) opined that politically there could have been nothing more devilish than this act of British Government. Leader (English) said that execution of Bhagat Singh and his comrades would create a massive unrest among country’s educated youth. The Tribune said that by not commuting the death sentence of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, Government has committed biggest blunder. Riyast (Urdu) opined that rebellion will not be crushed by these executions, rather it would increase Government difficulties manifold. Awadh Akhbar (Urdu) opined that the Government had not only created difficulties for itself by these executions, rather it has put Congress party into more difficulties. Anand Bazar Patrika (Bengali) opined that Government was not moved by the entire nation’s appeals and Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev gave their lives on scaffold. They were happy in giving up their lives and did not beg for their lives to be spared. Arjun (Hindi) opined that Government was compelled to illegally hang Sardar Bhagat Singh.2 Not only Indian, many foreign journals also wrote about it. Manchester Guardian carried an article by Labour Party politician, Horace C Alexander, criticising British Government.
Naujwan Bharat Sabha decided to build a memorial at Lahore in the memory of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. They issued an appeal for funds, which was issued in Sushila Ghosh’s name. Sushila Ghosh was sister of Bejoy Sinha, who was serving life imprisonment and was a close friend of Bhagat Singh. To counter Naujwan Bharat Sabha’s move, a memorial committee of all eminent Congressmen of Punjab was formed for this purpose, which included Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, Dr Satya Pal, Kumari Lajjawati, Kishan Singh and many more, but Congress party lost interest in building the memorial as Mahatma Gandhi did not approve of it. Naujwan Bharat Sabha was eventually banned and the project remained unfulfilled.
With the disintegration of HSRA and Naujwan Bharat Sabha, the historic role of the best-known revolutionary movement in the freedom struggle of India came to an end. Though the organisation no longer existed, yet the fire it evoked in the minds and hearts of people to strive for their freedom, burnt strong. Bhagat Singh turned into an icon of revolution and revolutionary movements just like he had said before his execution, “After I am hanged the Fragrance of my revolutionary idea will permeate the atmosphere of this beautiful land of ours.” Following in the footsteps of Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh, who was elder in age than Bhagat Singh, performed another sensational act in 1940 by assassinating Michael O’Dwyer in London. He was responsible for Jallianwala Bagh massacre, acting as Punjab Lieutenant Governor at the time. Udham Singh was eventually punished and executed for the act.
It was quite evident that though British colonialism had managed to kill Bhagat Singh, his ideas had a wider reach. But it is indeed a matter of fascination that a young man of mere 23 years and half was able to leave an everlasting impact on the history and society of such a vast nation.
Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor of Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, Delhi Archives, New Delhi.