This week 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 mainly for one thing. Gandhi is anchored in the 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 his life.
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.
Coming from 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, later growing 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).
Outraged by a British officer’s assault of a veteran leader of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai (shortly following which Rai died), 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 unprecedent 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 (the Guantanamo of the Raj), Bhagat Singh and two other associates were instead sentenced to hang.
Far from 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 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.
In popular 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.
The truth is that they had a lot in common.
Reading 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 prisoner). 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 as one who would sacrifice himself to inspire others.
Gandhi recognized 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:
“Bhagat 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.
“Bhagat 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.
“But we 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.
“Hence, 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.”
The temptation to pit Gandhi 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 youth 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 — as against that of the supplicants.
The journalist 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 children, in this case, Subhas Chandra Bose. But he might just as soon have said ‘grandson’ and “Bhagat Singh”.
Above all, both men 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.”
1. http://www.shahidbhagatsingh.org contains many photographs of Bhagat Singh and his associates, and a number of his writings including his jail journal.
2. Rajinder 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 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.