This year marks the 103rd birth anniversary of one of the great Indian revolutionary-martyrs, Bhagat Singh. Born on September 28, 1907, Bhagat Singh was a mere 23-year-old young man when he was judicially murdered on March 23, 1931, by the British.
Although his life was plucked so early, during the short period of time he lived, he became a cult figure, who literally aroused devotion on the part of the Indian youth and the wider downtrodden masses. To no small extent was the “phenomenon of Bhagat Singh” to borrow Nehru’s apt description, due to this remarkable young man’s spotlessly clean life, his lofty ideals, his passionate commitment to the cause of Indian freedom, his devotion to secularism and uncompromising hostility towards religious fundamentalism, his hatred of narrow nationalism and his dauntless courage, unwavering fortitude and a self-sacrificing heroism that defies belief in the pursuit of the ideals to which he had devoted his life.
By all accounts, Bhagat Singh was of a scholarly bent of mind and a deep thinker who understood the power of ideas. “The sword of revolution”, he told the judges trying him, “is sharpened at the whetstone of thought”. On being asked as to what set him apart from other revolutionaries, Shiv Verma, a fellow revolutionary and a close comrade-in-arms, replied thus: “I can tell you that in just one sentence: Bhagat Singh was our undisputed ideological leader. I do not remember a single moment when Bhagat Singh did not have a book in his pocket. The other virtues of Bhagat Singh like tremendous courage and so on were there in the other revolutionaries amongst us also. But his uniqueness lay in his great studiousness. The degree of clarity and integrity that he had about the aims of our movement was not there in any of us at that time”.
It was to the ideals of freedom of the Indian masses that he had committed himself while still in his teens. In 1924, learning that his father was insistent upon marrying him, Bhagat Singh left for Kanpur, leaving behind a letter addressed to his father. In this letter, he explained that he had no time for a peaceful married life, devoted as had become to the cause of liberation of the Indian masses. His father had tried to put pressure on him by alluding to the desire of his grandmother to see Bhagat Singh married. Bhagat Singh countered his father’s plea with the following unanswerable remark: “You are caring for Dadi, but in how much trouble is our mother of 33 crores, the Bharat Mata. We shall have to sacrifice everything for her sake.”
It was in the pursuit of the self-same ideals that Bhagat Singh along with Sukhdev, B.C. Vohra and Ram Krishan, formed the Naujawan Sabha in March, 1926, played a leading role in the formation of the Hindustani Socialist Republican Association in September 1928; took part along with Sukhdev, Rajguru and Chandrashekhar Azad, in the killing of the British Police Officer, J.P. Saunders on December 17, 1928, and on April 8, 1929, he and Butukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs in the Central Assembly Hall.
In the Second Lahore Conspiracy case, which lasted from July 10, 1929 to October 7, 1930, Bhagat Singh and his fellow accused formed, as had been their intention all along, the court room into an arena for trying the crimes of British imperialism against the Indian people, for propagating their revolutionary programme and rousing the Indian masses to revolt against the alien rulers who had so abused their subjects.
The verdict was a forgone conclusion with Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev receiving the death sentence, while seven others were transported for life and the remaining two were given prison sentences of seven and five years.
Meanwhile, as the judgment day neared, unable to contain his paternal feelings, Bhagat Singh’s father, Kishen Singh, petitioned the Tribunal in a last desperate effort to save his son’s life. On hearing of his father’s petition, Bhagat Singh was incandescent with rage and wrote to his father a remonstrative letter, which brings out clearly Bhagat Singh’s exacting standards of conduct — standards which he followed and expected others, including those he dearly loved and respected, to abide by. Bhagat Singh’s letter, published in full by The Tribune on October 4, just three days before the Tribunal’s judgment, reflects not only his legendary courage, fidelity to principle and indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice but also the deeply-felt injury to his feelings inflicted on him by the father that he loved and respected. This is what, inter alia, Bhagat Singh wrote to his father on this occasion (the original written in Urdu is translated here):
“My dear father,
I was astounded to learn that you had submitted a petition to the members of the Special Tribunal in connection with my defence. This intelligence proved to be too severe a blow to be borne with equanimity. It has upset the whole equilibrium of my mind. I have not been able to understand how you could think it proper to submit such a petition at this stage and in these circumstances. In spite of all the sentiments and feelings of a father, I don’t think you were at all entitled to make such a move on my behalf without even consulting me.
Father, I am quite perplexed. I fear I might overlook the ordinary principle of etiquette and my language may become a little but harsh while criticising or censoring this move on your part. Let me be candid. I feel as though I have been stabbed in the back. Had any other person done it, I would have considered it to be nothing short of treachery. But in your case let me say that it has been a weakness.
This was the time when everybody’s mettle was being tested. Let me say, father, you have failed. I know you are as sincere a patriot as one can be. I know you have devoted your life to the cause of Indian independence, but why, at this moment, have you displayed such a weakness? I cannot understand.”
On the evening of March 23, 1931, with the shouts of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Down with Imperialism’, the three great revolutionaries forced the hangman’s noose. They were hanged while singing the following couplet, which has become a symbol of the revolutionary immortality of Bhagat Singh and his comrades:
Dil se niklegi na markar bhi watan ki ulfat,
Meri mitti se bhi khushboo-e-watan aaegi.
(Love for the motherland will not leave my heart even after death/ Its fragrance will still be there in my dusty remains.)
Surviving Beri tree in the house where Bhagat Singh was born
in Chak No.105, Banga
photo by Chaman Lal, 2007
While we freed ourselves from the alien rule about 63 years ago after bearing the merciless physical pain and agony of unrelenting batons and well aimed bullets, our country continues to flounder on the edge of economic despair.
The fire of nationhood actuated Shaheed Bhagat Singh and so many other patriots of the same genre who left their smiling children, beautiful wives, green fields and happy homes so that the people of India could live a life of honour and dignity — a cultured and prosperous life. But the dreams of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and those patriots remain unfulfilled.
Why has India deviated from the objectives of her freedom movement? Political freedom for our citizens is beyond the pale of the present if we proceed within the present structures at the present pace. Foremost amongst the obstacles are the lack of educational opportunities and the availability of even basic health care.
Around 300 million people live on less than Rs 25 a day. Every other child is malnourished in our country. But even more than these, at the level of basic existence, access to potable water, inadequate sewage facility, crucial shortage of decent housing and electricity remain but a dream.
As a policy maker, I pause here to focus upon the proud martial tradition of Punjab, which has had the privilege of guarding the borders of India’s ancient and refined civilisation for thousands of years. It was with excruciating anguish and searing pain that last time when I visited the Sainik School, Kapurthala, I was told that recruitment from Punjab to the armed forces in the officers’ cadre was coming down. I was told that no one was willing to join the armed forces to defend the motherland to carry forth the tradition to lead a life of honour, discipline and noble purpose.
I ask the young people of India on the Shaheed’s birthday: does the younger generation truly prefer the life of an executive of a multinational company? Is earning money the only imperative of higher thought and honourable living? If the glitter of gold and the clatter of silver were the only criteria, then, there would never have been a Bhagat Singh.
The war is not merely against the enemy without but the enemy within and I hope some of us will devote part of our lives and one day turn the tide in favour of the starving millions of this great country.
Today is the day to make the pledge in all our hearts that while we have life and strength, we will fight the forces which have kept India poor and backward, i.e. corruption, communalism, lack of access to education, lack of opportunities, etc. I ask the young people that as we prepare to take forward our individual destinies, it is also time to move on the destiny of India and change it forever.
Bhagat Singh had his primary education in this school building. Chak No 105, Banga
photo by Chaman Lal. 2007
It is not an easy task to learn to give back to society from which one has always taken so far. This would require a deep sense of honour and courage. Let us remember what the great Shaheed wrote to his brother Kultar in his last letter from Lahore Central Jail in 1931:
Daher (duniya) se kyon khaffa rahen
Charakh (ruler of the sky) se kyon gila karen
Sara jahan Addu Sahi (dushman)
Aao mukaabla aren
[Why should we remain annoyed with the world? Why should we complain against the God (ruler of skies)? Let us face stoically the opposing world.]
Today, while marking the 103rd birth anniversary of this great son of India, the people of India, especially its youth, must vow to carry forward the revolutionary teachings of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. This is the only way to honour them. There is no more fitting tribute that can be paid to them — and no more appropriate monument to commemorate them.
The author Manpreet Singh Bādal is Finance Minister in the (East) Punjab government