People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 12

March 19, 2006



Bhagat Singh Remains Our Symbol of Revolution


Harkishan Singh Surjeet


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 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.


The whole edifice of this civilisation, if not saved in time, shall crumble. A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realise it to reorganise society on the socialistic basis. Unless this thing is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, suffering and carnage with which humanity is threatened today, cannot be prevented. All talk of ending war and ushering in an era of universal peace is undisguised hypocrisy.


By Revolution, we mean the ultimate establishment of an order of society which may not be threatened by such break-down, 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.

— From the statement of Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt in Assembly Bomb Case, read out by Asaf Ali in the sessions court, Delhi on June 6, 1929.


MARCH 23 this year marks the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev who, along with their comrades, challenged the might of the British empire and set before their countrymen an example of supreme sacrifice for the cause of the country’s independence. On their part, our people too have no doubt always cherished the memories of these and countless other martyrs. But the fact is that remembering the sacrifice of these martyrs has never been of so crucial significance in the history of independent India as it is today when US imperialists are seeking to dominate us and draw India into their global hegemonic designs.   


This is the reason that our party, the CPI(M), has given a call to all its units to observe the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his comrades on March 23 this year, and to utilise the occasion to propagate their message of anti-imperialism, secularism and socialism.


Here we will do well to recall the fact that when Bhagat Singh went to the gallows in a cheerful, singing mood, he was hardly 23 years and a half. Yet, he came to symbolise the best of aspirations of a nation that was struggling for independence and for a worthy life for all its members. In fact, no other national revolutionary (“terrorist” in British imperialist parlance) of the earlier generations identified himself so closely with the Indian masses on the move, as did Bhagat Singh, and in the process he himself became the symbol of revolution, insofar as the Indians are concerned. Just to take one example, while our national liberation movement produced numerous slogans, ranging from “Do or Die” to “Delhi Chalo,” none of these proved as enduring as the slogan of “Inqilab Zindabad” (Long Live Revolution) that was upheld by Bhagat Singh and his comrades-in-arms. Even today, almost every political meeting through the length and breadth of the country starts and concludes with this slogan.




BHAGAT Singh was born in village Khatkar Kalan, tehsil Banga, district Jalandhar, on September 27, 1907, though his father, Sardar Kishan Singh, had shifted to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan) some time before his birth. A canal was recently dug out through this area and numerous peasants came forward to colonise it. Only two years before Bhagat Singh’s birth, these newly irrigated areas had seen a powerful peasant agitation against the hike in land revenue and other charges, effected by the British government. This agitation (which produced the immortal song “Pagadi Sambhal Jatta”) was led by Lala Lajpat Rai and Sardar Ajit Singh who was Bhagat Singh’s own uncle. These leaders were soon externed by the British to Burma. But while Lala Lajpat Rai, after his release from prison, made a political tour of the USA and some other countries and then returned to India, nothing much is known about what happened to Sardar Ajit Singh, except that his voice was last heard from Radio Rome in 1941. A young Bhagat Singh always looked to his uncle’s example for inspiration.


A large part of Bhagat Singh’s student life was spent in Lahore, the capital city of Punjab province, which was then developing into a hotbed of radical movements. It was in this city that the British launched the first Lahore Conspiracy Case in 1915, sentencing more than two dozen youth to death and hundreds of others to life imprisonment and other heavy jail sentences. Though the government was able to crush the Ghadar Party revolutionaries through such brutal repression, their saga left an indelible impression on the minds of later generations on Indians. Those who went to the gallows in this case included Kartar Singh Sarabha, a youth of merely 16 years, whose image got itched in Bhagat Singh’s psyche. So much so that when Bhagat Singh, Bhagawati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev and others formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (Young India Society) in 1926, as an open forum for revolutionaries, its inaugural session in Bradley Hall of Lahore started with the unveiling of Sarabha’s portrait. That too in open defiance of the British authority that always fulminated over any mention of Sarabha’s name.      


The brutal massacre of innocent civilians in the Jallianwala Bagh in the adjacent city of Amritsar, on April 13, 1919, and following it the repression under the Martial Law foisted all over Punjab, also agitated the youth of Bhagat Singh’s generation. 




IT was in this evolving situation that Gandhi electrified the whole atmosphere with his promise of “Swaraj in one year.” Ever since the Nagpur session of Indian National Congress passed the non-cooperation resolution in August 1920, the people began preparations in earnest for a showdown with imperialism. This turned, eventually, into an occasion when the common, downtrodden masses of this country registered their entry into the independence struggle, and on a much bigger and wider scale than in 1857. While Gandhi never clearly defined what he meant by Swaraj, the masses were equally clearly anticipating their emancipation from the British Raj and its Indian stooges, and were itching to make any sacrifice called for by this struggle. Gandhi’s act of making a common cause with the Khilafat Committee gave a boost to communal unity in the country, with the hope that the British won’t be able to play upon sectarian divisions in order to perpetuate themselves in power. This explains why the masses of the country over-fulfilled Gandhi’s call for a Tilak Swaraj Fund of Rs one crore and for one lakh volunteers.


Enthusiasm was, obviously, not lacking. 


It was in such a situation that the national revolutionaries also put a hold on their activities and plunged into the non-cooperation movement in order to ensure its success to the extent possible. It does go to the credit of our revolutionaries that they never made a fetish of violence. Their aim was to secure the country’s independence, and to them the question of means did not matter. That was why they decided to give the new experiment a fair trial, and veterans of revolutionary activities like Sachindra Nath Sanyal wholeheartedly took part in non-cooperation. 


It was therefore nothing less than a bombshell for our revolutionaries when Gandhi decided to call off the movement in February 1922, that too when it was on a peak, on the flimsy ground of violence in Chauri Chaura. The whole nation was dumbfounded and Gandhi had to face criticism from within the Congress as well.


The withdrawal cost the nation dearly. Some historians do believe that the act forced the unspent energy of the masses into fratricidal channels; a spurt in the number of communal riots in the post-withdrawal phase is cited as evidence. In any case, the communal unity forged during the Khilafat-non-cooperation days did become a casualty and it was the period when the RSS was born.


As for revolutionaries who were seriously disillusioned after the withdrawal of the movement, they began to regroup all over north India. Sachin Sanyal too collected a group of dedicated youth and formed the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) some time in December 1923. Apart from them, there was a large number of other youth who joined the revolutionary movement shortly afterward. Bhagat Singh and his friends in Lahore as well as Shiv Verma and others in UP belonged to this very category. These were the youth who had boycotted their educational institutions at Gandhi’s call and saw no point in going back even after the movement was withdrawn. Most of them joined the parallel institutions thrown up by the non-cooperation movement, like the National College in Lahore, or existing non-governmental institutions like the DAV College in Kanpur.




THIS regrouping soon led, in August 1925, to a train hold-up at Kakori, a small station near Lucknow, where the HRA revolutionaries looted government money as a direct challenge to the British authority. Most of them were, however, rounded up soon. But what then followed in the name of Kakori Conspiracy Case was nothing less than a travesty of justice. This mockery of justice was so obvious that even Nehru, who had given up his practice, had to don the lawyer’s robe again. But the British were adamant at meting out as severe punishment to the accused as possible. During the train hold-up, one European was accidentally killed in the shootout as he had refused to heed the revolutionaries’ warning that passengers must remain inside their coaches and no harm would come to them. But the British revenge took four lives for one. Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh were hanged in November 1927, and several others were given jail sentences from three years to life terms. The youngest of these revolutionaries, Chandrashekhar Azad, was declared an absconder and the police failed to grab him till his end. He became the nucleus of another regrouping of revolutionaries.


The secret meeting that took place in the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds in Delhi on September 8 and 9, 1928, was a milestone in the history of national revolutionary movement in India because of its momentous decisions. First, the movement now accepted socialism as its goal and, as its reflection, the HRA was now rechristened as Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Secondly, contrary to the earlier generation of revolutionaries, the HSRA was to have a collective leadership. The meeting elected a Central Committee with UP, CP, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar represented by one member each, while Bhagat Singh and V K Sinha were given the charge of ideological work. Though Chandrashekhar Azad could not attend the meeting, he had beforehand given his approval to all such changes. He was elected commander-in-chief.


The meeting also realised the futility of individual violence and decided to abstain, as far as possible, from killing British officials or approvers. In its stead, the decision now was to take only such “actions” as may help in taking the message of revolution to the masses. The result was the idea of having two wings of the HSRA --- a political wing and a military wing --- of which the latter would be strictly subordinated to the former. It is another thing that repression and the compulsions of an underground life, a life always on the run, soon obliterated this distinction.


One will do well to remember here that the main aspiration for these changes came from Bhagat Singh.


The HSRA also tried to contact the Bengal revolutionaries and Shiv Verma was sent to Calcutta to talk to them, but to no avail. Steeped in individualistic leadership, the dadas of Bengal groups refused to accept the idea of collective functioning. Each of them wanted his personal control over the new organisation.     




IT was not too long before the HSRA plunged into action. In 1928 the London government constituted a commission under Sir John Simon to review the Montague Chelmsford reforms of 1919 and suggest constitutional changes for India. But, as it was a wholly British commission, the whole of India including the Congress and the Muslim League decided to boycott it. As a result, the cries of “Simon, go back” greeted the commission where it went.


When the Simon commission reached Lahore on October 30, 1928, the protest demonstration was led by Lala Lajpat Rai, and the whole HSRA contingent took part in its preparations as well as the actual demonstration. But the police resorted to brutal lathicharge here. Lalaji got seriously injured, got confined to bed and died on November 17. The whole nation cried in agony. Despite their differences with Lalaji, however, revolutionaries took it as an affront to the nation, and avenged Lalaji’s death on December 17 by assassinating J P Saunders, the police officer responsible for the lathicharge. In Nehru’s words, Bhagat Singh thus retrieved the nation’s prestige and the whole nation heaved a sigh of relief.


As the next significant “action” by the HSRA, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw bombs in the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929, in protest against the Trade Disputes Bill and Public Safety Bill. The British wanted to have these laws at all cost but wanted to make the world believe that these draconian laws were passed by the Indian people’s own elected representatives. The Viceroy had already threatened that he would issue these bills as ordinances if the Central Assembly failed to enact them. The HSRA was of the opinion that a government wanting to take recourse to draconian measures, must not be allowed to enact a façade of democracy. This is what the leaflets thrown in the assembly after the bombs made absolutely clear. Moreover, Bhagat Singh and Dutt’s statement in the sessions court on June 6, 1929 made it plain that the bombs thrown in the assembly were not meant to hurt anyone but “to make the deaf here.” This historic statement made it clear that the HSRA was visualising a dictatorship of the proletariat and wanted to rouse the masses to attain this goal.


A significant point about this statement was that the HSRA wanted to register protest against “the wholesale arrest of leaders of the labour movement.” This was obviously a reference to the arrest of trade union and communist leaders from various parts of the country in the run-up to the infamous Meerut Conspiracy Case.


As a part of the tactic decided by the HSRA, Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not run away after throwing the bombs. Instead, they waited for the police to arrest them, so as to use the forum of courts for revolutionary propaganda. The reason was simple. While papers were facing strict censorship in those days, they could report court proceedings in detail, and the HSRA tried to use this channel to reach its message to the masses. It is another thing that the government later realised this tactic and the special tribunal constituted for the second Lahore Conspiracy Case closed this avenue as well.


The days of the second Lahore Conspiracy Case witnessed momentous hunger strikes in jail by Bhagat Singh and his comrades --- as a continuation of anti-imperialist struggle in the changed circumstances. Led by Bhagat Singh, these hunger strikes centred on the need of jail reforms, and one must note that political prisoners today owe a debt to those revolutionaries for many facilities they get.


It was in one of these momentous hunger strikes that Jatin Das courted martyrdom on September 13, 1929 after 63 days of hunger strike. In subsequent hunger strikes, Mahavir Singh (HSRA) and two others from Bengal courted martyrdom in the Andaman Cellular Jail and Manindra Banerjee (HRA) in Bareilly Jail.





THE second Lahore Conspiracy Case ended with death sentences for Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, and heavy jail sentences for others. But though these death sentences were to be carried out on March 24 morning, the government was afraid of the mass reaction and hanged the three revolutionaries on March 23 evening, though there was no convention of hanging anyone in the evening. On the day, however, a large crowd had already gathered in front of the Central Jail in Lahore and the panic-stricken authorities therefore slyly took the three dead bodies out from the back gate and tried to cremate them at Hussainiwala on the bank of the Sutlej river. When the crowd finally reached there, the authorities ran away, leaving the half-burnt bodies behind.


But Bhagat Singh dead proved far more dangerous for the British than Bhagat Singh alive. The first spin-off of his execution was that Gandhi’s prestige suffered a setback, though temporarily. When the whole nation was demanding that commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death sentence should be made a condition for the Gandhi-Irwin talks, the Mahatma simply refused to accept this demand because of his innate hatred for the revolutionaries. The result was that when Gandhi was on his way to Karachi for the Congress session (March 29-31), he was greeted with black flags at all the major railway stations from Lahore to Karachi --- by the same masses who did not tire of calling him Mahatmaji. 


The execution also evoked a series of violent protests in several parts of the country, and between 1931 and 1939 obscure youth shot at British officials at more than a dozen places in the name of avenging Bhagat Singh’s execution. In one such incident at Betia (Bihar), Vaikuntha Shukla and Chandrama Singh --- in no way related to Bhagat Singh ­­--- shot dead Phanindra Nath Ghosh who was the main approver in the second Lahore Conspiracy Case and did the maximum damage because he was a member of the HSRA Central Committee and was in the know of all its plans. Yet another act of such revenge took place at London in 1939.


The meaning is obvious. Bhagat Singh had by now become a symbol of revolution.


But what is still more significant is that, despite the lacunae in his ideas here and there, Bhagat Singh did not visualise revolution as a cult of bombs and pistols. His statement in the sessions court, his letter from the jail (written on February 2, 1931, published posthumously under the title “To Young Political Workers” and generally taken as his last testament) and other documents make one thing amply clear: He visualised a revolutionary transformation of society that would usher into a dictatorship of the proletariat and end forever the exploitation of man by man and on nation by nation. Mere political independence, he said, would be meaningless without the emancipation of the toiling masses from the age-old shackles of hunger, poverty, disease and illiteracy. As he said, what difference would it make to a worker or peasant if Lord Reading was replaced by Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas or if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaced Lord Irwin! 


It was thus that Bhagat Singh gave voice to the aspirations of our countrymen for a better order of things where nobody would be living a subhuman existence. His anti-imperialism was thus intricately connected with his ideal of a socialist society where there would remain no distinctions of caste and creed. Bhagat Singh thus symbolised all that was best in our struggle for national liberation, and that is why he is still a mighty source of inspiration for the present generations --- as he was for the earlier ones.