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Friday July 12, 2024
From the History Books:
They Died For Our Freedom
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
Seventy five years ago on March 23rd, 1931, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivram Hari Rajguru were stealthily executed by the Imperial British Government in Lahore and their bodies were cremated on the bank of river Sutlej almost 100 km away. In the government’s case against them they adopted an unconventional defense of nationalistic speeches, which was designed to rouse the feelings of passion and pride in people but not to save them.

"It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear", said a leaflet flung in the air from the balcony after two bombs were thrown in the Central Assembly Hall, New Delhi on April 8th, 1929. The Indian Government called it an act of terrorism and in today’s charged atmosphere governments’ around the world would still call it so. But was that a straight forward, cut-&-dried terrorism kind of case?

Signed by Balraj, the commander-in-chief of Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA), the leaflet was inspired by the symbolic gesture of a French anarchist, Auguste Valiant, when in 1893 he threw a small bomb into the Chamber of Deputies to publicize the plight of people. The two HSRA soldiers, who had hurled the leaflets and the bombs wanted to use the incident and the ensuing trial to get the attention of the authorities and the public. They did get it, however, the event remains misunderstood even now along with many other events of the Indian independence struggle.

The commander-in-chief of HSRA, Balraj, was Chandra Shekhar Azad and the two soldiers were Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt. Singh and Dutt were convicted and sentenced for life. However, Singh was also convicted in another case, Lahore Conspiracy Case, along with Sukhdev Thapar and Hari Shivaram Rajguru and was hanged by the British India Government seventy five years ago on March 23rd 1931 in Lahore.

The two cases, Assembly Bomb and Lahore Conspiracy, did shine a spot light on the activities of Singh, Azad and the HSRA. Before Singh, Indian revolutionaries were waging a private battle against the British. The masses were not involved in their efforts. To a large extent they were even afraid of the revolutionaries. Singh wanted to bring the movement into the mainstream as he understood that the struggle for independence would go nowhere without the support and protection of the people.

Born on September 27, 1907, Singh was somewhat of an enigma. From his early days he was obsessed with the idea of freeing India from the shackles of British occupation. Folklore says that when he was 5-6 years old he wanted to plant seeds to grow rifles so as to use them against the British.

He was a born leader, who despite limited education was a prolific writer and reader. When he was 16, one of his essays, The Problem of Punjab, a long analysis of the teachings and writings of Sikh Gurus, Swami Vivekanand, Swami Dayanand and other Indian scholars won a competition organized by Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. With thoughts like, "An acquaintance of the literature of a society or a country is of prime importance for the understanding of that society or country", he showed his intellectual capacities at an early age.

Later he interned at a leading weekly of Kanpur, Pratap, under the guidance of a well known journalist and freedom fighter Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. With his penmanship and acute thinking, he strongly influenced the militant wing of the Indian freedom movement in the 1920’s.

Singh believed that the people of India needed to know that the revolutionaries were not anarchists or trouble makers rather they were idealists who were not averse to using force. Though he used violence to achieve his goals he did not believe in mindless violence and advocated restraint. In a letter from prison to the Second Punjab Students Conference held at Lahore on October 19, 1929, he wrote, "Today, we cannot ask the youth to take to pistols and bombs. Today, students are confronted with a far more important assignment." Even Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his paper, Young India, "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."

Through persuasive and articulate reasoning, he controlled the hotheads and shaped the political and philosophical identity of the group. Under his direction, the HSRA started involving the public through the creative use of pamphlets, flyers and underground newspapers. The objective was to generate awareness for the group’s activities and philosophy.

The revolutionaries were succeeding in their attempts and people in Punjab and United Province were becoming aware of its activities. However, this was not enough for Singh, who was constantly looking for opportunities to hurt the British government. He wanted to strike a big blow to it and government’s actions to suppress the agitation due to the Simon Commission presented such an opportunity.

The Simon Commission, set up in November 1927, was called for by the Government of India Act of 1919 to enquire into working of the Act. It was highly disliked and distrusted by Indians. Lala Lajpat Rai wrote in his biography, Unhappy India, "The culminating point of the policy of reaction is the appointment of an exclusively British Statutory Commission to enquire into the working of the Reforms and to recommend a constitution for India. Is it any wonder then that Indians have lost all trust in the good faith of the British, and that they often express their lack of faith in bitter words at the meetings of the central legislature?"

Protestors met the Commission everywhere including Lahore, Punjab, where on October 30, 1928 lathi-wielding police brutally beat them and their leader, Lala Lajpat Rai. Lala, who declared, "The blows, which fell on me today are the last nails in the coffin of British imperialism", succumbed to the injuries on November 17, 1928.

Singh was an eye witness to the police lathi-charge and vowed to avenge the death. Singh, Azad and HSRA planned retaliation and assassinated the Deputy Superintendent of Police, J.P. Saunders on December 18th, 1928 in Lahore. Same night they distributed pamphlets through out the city with statements like, "Beware, Ye Tyrants; Beware. Do not injure the feelings of a downtrodden and oppressed country. Think twice before perpetrating such diabolical deed". While warning the government to refrain from using excessive force on people they also regretted the loss of life with, "Sorry for the bloodshed of a human being; but the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of the Revolution that will bring freedom to all and make the exploitation of man by man impossible, is inevitable."

Though Singh, Azad and others escaped they did not lie low. British government and some Indian leaders were projecting them as terrorists and anarchists. Singh wanted to counter this propaganda. He wanted to take his case to the public and to show that they were not terrorists but freedom fighters. He wanted people to sit up and listen to the voice calling for independence. For this he needed a forum and an event. So he planned to explode a bomb in the Legislative Assembly to make a sound loud enough for the ‘deaf people of India’ to hear.

Azad wanted them to escape afterwards but Singh and Dutt wanted to stay and get arrested. They used their trial very effectively to propagate the views of the revolutionaries. In lengthy court statements, they carefully laid out their ideas and thoughts like, "We are next to none in our love for humanity. Far from having any malice against any individual, we hold human life sacred beyond words." They wanted to give the heedless a timely warning, as he said, "We dropped the bomb on the floor of the Assembly Chamber to register our protest on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heart-rending agony." They explained that they had carefully chosen the vacant spot within the wooden barriers in the Assembly Hall and the bombs were also deliberately made to be weak so as to avoid human injury. Even government’s forensic experts agreed that bombs could not have hurt anyone.

The defense of the Singh and Dutt in the Assembly Bomb Case and of Singh, Rajguru and Thapar in Lahore Conspiracy Case wasn’t conventional rather it was a set of nationalistic speeches designed to rouse the feelings of passion and pride in people. Naturally such a defense would not have acquitted them. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were convicted of killing Saunders and were sentenced to death. They were hung on March 23 1931. Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev were 24 and Rajguru was 23.

is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Mood Indico magazine, a niche publication for the affluent South Asians living in the north America


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