An important work that throws light on the life & times of Bhagat Singh
In the 100-year-old fight for Indian independence, quite a few martyrs are constantly alive though there are sharp differences in assessment about their contribution. Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) and his fellow revolutionaries, Rajguru and Sukhdev, are among the most discussed and written about.
Following the death of the Lion of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), by brutal police badgering, countless Indians were enraged and they silently prayed for revenge. The revenge came in the killing of J. P. Saunders, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Lahore, in December 1928 [a month after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai], and the bombing of the Central Assembly, New Delhi, in April 1929.
Bhagat Singh was just over 20 when he was arrested and charged along with his colleagues for the revolt against British imperialism. One does not have to say that the worst of torture was inflicted upon them though they openly admitted the charge. In March 1931, Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were hanged at the Lahore Jail and their bodies were disposed of in a great hurry and in an unprecedented manner.
It is well known that Bhagat Singh was not an impetuous rebel but a meditative revolutionary who could articulate his thoughts and action with lucidity. Though in his early twenties, he did a great quantity of writing on his vision of the revolution and of free India.
Understanding Bhagat Singh is an important work that throws much light on the life and times of the young martyr which was indeed an eventful period in contemporary Indian history. It is a compilation of articles by Prof. Chaman Lal, who has been researching and bringing out publications on Bhagat Singh. He has also written on the revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash. The author, a winner of several awards including one given by the Sahitya Akademi for translation, has analysed the significance of Bhagat Singh from different angles and presented it in a manner that even an uninitiated person in Indian history can appreciate well.
Relying on the strength of enormous documents including hitherto-unknown letters of Bhagat Singh, the historian has given a comprehensive account of the revolutionary. What is more important is that Lal has accessed not just the material available in English but also those in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tamil and many other Indian languages. Not many historians, especially Indians, do such exhaustive work.
The book brings out adequately how the British, who had enjoyed the image among sections of Indian intelligentsia of the late 19th century and early 20th century for being fair-minded, were ruthless when it came to handling Bhagat Singh and his compatriots.
Though the means adopted by Bhagat Singh went against the core Gandhian philosophy, the two important actions that he carried out — the assassination of Saunders and the dropping of bombs at the Central Assembly — were not aimed at creating a feeling of terror but born out of a deep sense of hurt and humiliation.The trigger
In fact, the author indicates amply that but for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh and his Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) would have renounced violence. Lala Lajpat Rai, on October 30, 1928, was leading a demonstration against the Simon Commission when Saunders charged on the agitators and he personally rained blows on Lajpat Rai which resulted in the latter’s death on November 17. At that time, the appeal of Basanti Devi, the widow of C. R. Das, to the youth to avenge the insult had acted as a trigger.
The author also points out that Saunders was killed in a case of mistaken identity and after killing the police official, a notice, pasted on the walls of Lahore, talks of not just avenging the death but also expressing regret over the death of a man, even though the dead individual was identified as a representative of “the most tyrannical” of governments in the world.
Likewise, as a mark of protest against the British government’s adamant attitude to get the Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill notified as laws, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt, in April 1929, dropped harmless bombs to cause a loud noise. This was “to make the deaf hear.” The two Bills, which had several repressive clauses, had then caused much resentment among the people. Bhagat Singh had undergone two trials but it was for the Saunders murder case that he and the two others were executed. The way the trial of the Saunders case was conducted did not do anything positive to the ‘reputation’ of the British of being fair-minded. An ordinance was promulgated, envisaging the transfer of the case from the magistrate concerned to an exclusive tribunal and leaving no room for appeal in the High Court except the option of going to the Privy Council. All these details have been brought out vividly by Prof. Lal. At a time when there are concerns in certain sections of society about miscarriage of justice, the account of the Saunders murder trial assumes greater relevance.
Conscious of the greatness of Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi, the author has dealt with the issue of relationship between the two figures dispassionately. His article on the subject is a review of a book by V N Datta but, in this piece of writing, Lal, despite having reservations over the treatment of the subject, displays sincerity and objectivity. He has also brought out a less-known facet of Mohammed Ali Jinnah defending Bhagat Singh through his insightful debating skills in the Central Assembly in September 1929. Jinnah was no supporter of violence then but he had urged the British government to study the cause of resentment.
The author also discusses an interesting question of how Bhagat Singh, despite being in his early twenties, had acquired knowledge over intricate nuances of law. Though he does indicate in one or two places that Asaf Ali might have embellished his statements, Prof Lal leaves the reader no doubt that Bhagat Singh belonged to a special class of men. His elaborate account of Bhagat Singh’s employment of the method of hunger strikes is another interesting aspect of the book.
The author would have done well by giving a chronological account separately about Bhagat Singh. There is one minor error. Talking of hunger strikes, Lal says Potti Sriramulu gave up his life for the creation of Andhra Pradesh. The original nomenclature used was Andhra. In October 1953, the State of Andhra was formed after the death of Sriramulu. In November 1956, the State was rechristened as Andhra Pradesh in the wake of the merger of Telugu-speaking areas of the Hyderabad State with Andhra .
In the ultimate analysis, this work brings out to the fore forcefully the personality of Bhagat Singh, by which the reader gets the message that oppression and exploitation, at no point of time, should go unchallenged, unmindful of consequences.
Keywords: Understanding Bhagat Singh