marks the birth anniversaries of two of India's heroes. As
everyone knows, that of Mahatma Gandhi falls on Oct 2. Of
the other - I am ashamed to say that until a couple of
days back I didn't even know Bhagat Singh's birthday. I
only learnt of it from an article
by Mahir Ali , to be informed that September 28, 2007 was Bhagat
Singh's birth centenary!
It is the
lot of many historical figures to be known for one thing. Gandhi
is anchored in Indian consciousness as the leader of India's independence
struggle, and known in the rest of the world as an apostle of
non-violence. Ask anyone in India about Bhagat Singh and they
would say that he went to the gallows for shooting a British policeman.
Others might add that he did so without flinching, refusing even
to appeal his case. Some might know that he had exploded a bomb
in India's Central Assembly. Part of this name recognition
can be credited to a couple of recent Bollywood films about
When I read
that Bhagat Singh would have been 100 this year, it
was somewhat shocking and sad; a real but absurd feeling
of wistfulness at a youth suddenly turned old. Famous people who
die young forever remain that way in our memories. Bhagat
Singh was exactly 23 1/2 when he died. By that age he had blazed
across the Indian political sky, lighting it up with an electricity
that dazzled the entire country. Even in the glow of an Indian
Golden Age (1915-1947) that witnessed a galaxy of towering
political figures, Bhagat Singh's story has a special luminance.
a family of freedom fighters (father imprisoned, one uncle
hanged, and another in exile, all for anti-British activities),
Bhagat Singh was a patriot and erstwhile follower of Gandhi, who
later became disenchanted when Gandhi abruptly called off his
non-cooperation movement after a mob burnt a police station killing
a number of policemen (see The Great Trial, 1922).
by a British officer's assault of a veteran leader of Punjab,
Lala Lajpat Rai (who died shortly after), Bhagat Singh
and other young associates planned to kill the officer to redeem
Indian honor. As it turned out, they killed another British
officer, and, though they were prepared to die in their attempt
or be arrested, every one of them escaped.
In a separate
incident later, to protest the promulgation of the Defence
of India Ordinance (akin to the Patriot Act, giving unprecedented
powers to the police), Bhagat Singh and another colleague, Batukeshwar
Dutt, exploded a bomb in the Indian Central Assembly in Delhi. They
deliberately designed it so as to hurt no one but to cause
the maximum noise. Following this Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt planned
to give themselves up to the authorities. Their purpose was to
rouse the nation's outrage. The bomb went off without hurting
anyone (deliberately set off in a vacant section of the gallery),
and they duly turned themselves in.
It was only following their arrest that the British realized (by
means of confessions extracted by torture of other prisoners)
of Bhagat Singh's connection in the Saunders's murder. From being
sentenced to imprisonment in the Andamans, Bhagat Singh and two
other associates were instead sentenced to hang.
protest the promulgation of the Defence of India Ordinance
(akin to the Patriot Act, giving unprecedented powers
to the police), Bhagat Singh and another colleague, Batukeshwar
Dutt, exploded a bomb in the Indian Central Assembly in
Delhi.╩They deliberately╩designed it so as to hurt no
one but to╩cause the maximum noise. Following this Bhagat
Singh and BK Dutt╩planned to give themselves up to the
authorities. Their purpose was to rouse the nation's outrage."
fighting the charges, Bhagat Singh fully accepted them,
having decided to use his trial as an opportunity to inspire
young India. So quickly did his popularity soar that the government
decided to conduct the rest of his case without having him in
the courtroom. His time in prison was spent organizing a
movement for betterment of prison conditions for political prisoners,
in studying and keeping a prison notebook, in rallying his fellow
freedom fighters and, through osmosis, the entire country.
belief, Bhagat Singh and Gandhi occupy two antipodes
in India's struggle for freedom - the former representing the
young generation impatient to overthrow foreign rule by any means
necessary, the latter navigating a plodding course alternating
between negotiation and struggle.
is that they had a lot in common.
about Bhagat Singh, one is struck by three qualities that he shared
with Gandhi: fearlessness, calm, and an enormous spirit of
self-sacrifice. Torture of prisoners was common in British prisons
in India (freedom has brought no changes here, incidentally),
and Bhagat Singh and his associates were physical wrecks when
they were brought to trial. From his writings it appears that
Bhagat Singh accepted this as a matter of course ("we have done
the deed and we must now pay the price", he writes to a fellow
Like Gandhi, too, he had the capacity to be stoical without turning
cynical. Instead of complaining of his own abuse in prison, he
organized a 63-day hunger strike for proper treatment of all political
prisoners. The British authorities would try to to force-feed
the prisoners, who took deliberate measures, even in their weakened
condition, not to permit the British to do so. In the end the
authorities had to concede these prison reforms.
To his fellow-prisoner
Rajguru (later hanged with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev), who once
contemplated suicide rather than face a life-sentence at the notorious
Andaman Prison (British India's Guantanamo, you might say), he
counseled the same attitude, asking, "If the prison conditions
irk you, why don't you fight for their betterment?" Life to Bhagat
Singh was an opportunity to sacrifice for the country and to improve
conditions for all mankind. Mahir
Ali observes that he explicitly rejected terrorism as a means
of struggle, always saw his role an exemplar - one who would sacrifice
himself to inspire others.
had the capacity to be stoical without turning cynical.
Instead of complaining of his own abuse in prison, he
organized a 63-day hunger strike for proper treatment
of all political prisoners. The British authorities would
try to to force-feed the prisoners, who took deliberate
measures, even in their weakened condition, not to permit
the British to do so. In the end the authorities had to
concede these prison reforms.
Bhagat Singh's heroism, although he rejected his technique.
What he said about Bhagat Singh after the execution (on
March 23, 1931) remains as much an example of Gandhi's political
courage even as Bhagat Singh's own attitude to the
gallows represented the pinnacle of physical courage. (It should
be remembered that this was at a time when Bhagat Singh had
acquired legend/martyr status and Gandhi himself was under attack
for not having done enough to secure his release). On March
29, 1931 Gandhi wrote in his journal, Young India:
Singh and his two associates have been hanged. The Congress made
many attempts to save their lives and the Government entertained
many hopes of it, but all has been in a vain.
Singh did not wish to live. He refused to apologize, or even file
an appeal. Bhagat Singh was not a devotee of non-violence, but
he did not subscribe to the religion of violence. He took to violence
due to helplessness and to defend his homeland. In his last letter,
Bhagat Singh wrote: 'I have been arrested while waging a war.
For me there can be no gallows. Put me into the mouth of a cannon
and blow me off.' These heroes had conquered the fear of death.
Let us bow to them a thousand times for their heroism.
should not imitate their act. In our land of millions of destitute
and crippled people, if we take to the practice of seeking justice
through murder, there will be a terrifying situation. Our poor
people will become victims of our atrocities. By making a dharma
of violence, we shall be reaping the fruit of our own actions.
though we praise the courage of these brave men, we should never
countenance their activities. Our dharma is to swallow our anger,
abide by the discipline of non-violence and carry out our duty."
and Bhagat Singh against each other is little more than a
dilettantish pastime. For all their differences, Gandhi could
criticize Bhagat Singh's violence with a free conscience only
because he himself was equally ready to die for the country. Bhagat
Singh (as Subhash Bose later, who gave Gandhi the title of Father
of the Nation) knew what Gandhi meant to India, and urged the
young to join Gandhi's movement.
Similarly, despite Gandhi being a man of faith and Bhagat Singh
a non-believer (though I read that he began his letters to his
uncle with an OM - a Hindu symbol of auspiciousness), neither
one held with religious sectarianism (a-la a Jinnah or a Savarkar).
Thus in the larger battle, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh must be classed
in the same camp - that of activism - as opposed to that of the
and cartoonist Rajinder Puri, who is highly critical of Gandhi's inability
(he hints at reluctance) to save Bhagat Singh from the gallows,
relates a wonderful story: At the height of the communal
frenzy in India in 1946-47, when the Congress leadership overrode
Gandhi's objections and accepted partition, Gandhi remarked, I
only wish I had my son by my side. "Who are you talking about?
Harilal? Manilal...?" asked someone nearby, echoing the names
of Gandhi's sons. "No, No", said Gandhi, shaking his head. "Subhas..."
He was talking
about his political progeny, in this case, Subhas Chandra Bose. But
he might just as soon have said 'grandson' and "Bhagat
both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were Idealists who could lay claim
to these words of the young Karl Marx (written before his own
conversion to Materialism): "If we have chosen the position
in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens
can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of
all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy,
but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live
on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be
shed the hot tears of noble people."
contains many photographs of Bhagat Singh and his associates,
and a number of his writings including his jail journal.
Puri's critique of Gandhi and the Congress with regard to Bhagat
Singh's execution can be found in his book, "Re-discovery of India."
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast. His
writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com.
He can be reached at [email protected]
or visit http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com
Other articles by Niranjan Ramakrishnan:
And Timid Men
Fig (Leaflet) Of Warning
Power Of Arrogance
Trade Or Free Speech
Use It Or Lose It
Paradox Of Prosperity