Bhagat Singh was born in Punjab on September 28, 1907, and was hanged by the British on March 23, 1931. So it may be said that in his short life-span of 24 years political activities covered at the most a period of seven to eight years. The young Indian revolutionary was sentenced to death before he could reach his thirties. It should not be expected that his concepts regarding revolution were full-fledged and mature and had taken definite shape at such an early age. Yet, his short political career which came to an abrupt end gave remarkable and significant colour to his thought and actions.
Bhagat Singh did not come from a mere nationalist background. His family had a distinct revolutionary heritage. His father, Sardar Kishan Singh, and his uncles, Sardar Ajit Singh and Sardar Swaran Singh, were all connected with the Bharat Mata Samiti, the oldest revolutionary organisation in Punjab. They had to suffer greatly at the hands of the British. Ajit Singh, who was initially exiled to Burma in 1907, had to escape from his motherland to Iran, Turkey, Germany, and ultimately to Brazil.
Coming as he did from such a family, in his childhood and adolescent years Bhagat Singh naturally came in close contact with well-known revolutionaries like Lala Pindi Das, Ananda Kishore Mehta and others.
To young Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarava, the Ghadr Party leader, was like a mythical hero. In 1916 young Sarava had become a martyr at an even younger age than Bhagat Singh. So in his formative years his family and environment had left a deep nationalist and revolutionary impact on Bhagat Singh. While studying in the National College he had met Professor Jaychandra Vidyalankar and students like Bhagwaticharan, Sukhdev, Yashpal and Ramkishen who later earned fame as prominent revolutionaries.
Bhagat Singh went to Kanpur in 1924 and was introduced to Batukeshwar Dutta, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Jogesh Chattopadhyay and other revolutionaries of the region by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the famous Congress leader of UP. (It may be mentioned that this is also the 50th year of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s martyrdom. He died while participating in the anti-comunal movement.) Bhagat Singh became a member of the group known as the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) because of his intimate ties with these revolutionaries.
In the constitution of the revolutionary group it was declared that the ultimate aim of the organisation was to establish a federal republican form of government in India through organised and armed revolution…..The fundamental principles of this Republic would be establishing universal suffrage and eradicating the social system in which there is class-exploitation.
The programme of the HRA also spoke of ‘organising workers and peasants’. In spite of the close watch by the imperialist guardians of India, some news of the remarkable success of Soviet society and communism reached India. It seems all these revolutionaries were greatly influenced by those developments.
BHAGAT SINGH returned to Lahore early in 1925. He worked for some time on the editorial staff of Kiriti—a communist journal edited by Sohan Singh Josh. Meanwhile, after the Kakori Railway Raid in August 1925, HRA members were arrested and harassed. Bhagat Singh became involved in a plan to release the arrested leaders. Side by side, in March 1926, he established a young revolutionary group known as the ‘Naojawan Bharat Sabha’. The President of this organisation was Comrade Ramkishan, the well-known revolutionary of Punjab, and Bhagat Singh was its Secretary. The ‘Naojawan Bharat Sabha’ went ahead of the HRA and declared that its objective was to establish “a completely independent Republic of Workers and Peasants in India”.
The transformation of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) into the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in August-September 1928, at a meeting in Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla Ground, was a natural consequence of this process. According to Dr Deol, the biographer of Bhagat Singh, the motion for renaming the Association was moved by Bhagat Singh. (Shahid Bhagat Singh—A Biography, p. 27) So Bhagat Singh not only wanted to establish an independent Republic based on universal franchise or a sketchy society devoid of exploitation. He clearly aimed to establish a completely independent socialist Republic.
But old forms of thinking and practice persisted in the struggle for independence and socialism. According to Ajoy Ghosh, a colleague of Bhagat Singh who later became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, As for the most important question, however, the question in what manner the fight for freedom and socialism was to be waged, armed action by individuals and groups was to remain our immediate task. Nothing else, we held, could smash constitutionalist illusions, nothing else could free the country from the grip in which fear held it. When the stagnant calm was broken by a series of hammer blows delivered by us at selected points and on suitable occasions, against the most hated officials of the Government, and mass movement unleashed, we would link ourselves with the movement, act as its armed detachment and give it a socialist direction…. Such was our socialism in those days. (Bhagat Singh and his Comrades)
In 1927 a prominent Communist leader of the time, Shaukat Usmani, had connections with Bhagat Singh, Batukeshwar Dutta, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, and other revolutionaries. Usmani wrote:
Now I don’t exactly remember when I first met Sardar Bhagat Singh. Either I met him in Lahore or in Kanpur….At that time HRA was being transformed into HSRA and it was decided that the new organisation would work in cooperation with the Communist International. At the same time I was informed that before they drop armed action by individuals they would complete some important actions which were in their list…I told Bejoy Babu (Bejoy Kumar Sinha), ‘Come on, let’s go to Moscow.’ Personally I believed that Bhagat Singh and Bejoy Sinha’s presence in Moscow would mean active armed assistance from the Soviet Union.
Bejoy Kumar Sinha also informs us that he was elected by Bhagat Singh and his party to visit Moscow.
But due to the pressure of the ensuing jobs they could not accomplish this project. Meanwhile circumstances changed. It may be recalled here that Asfakullah, the distinguished member of the HRA who was later sentenced to death in the Kakori Conspiracy Case, was arrested in the Tribal Area near Peshwar while he was on his way to Moscow. Before Shaukat Usmani returned to India from Moscow in December 1928 the situation here had changed sharply. The Police Commissioner, Saunders, was killed by Bhagat Singh and his group in Lahore, and to avoid arrest, Bhagat Singh and several other HSRA members had to abscond. At that time Bhagat Singh came to Calcutta secretly and established contact with the All-India Workers-Peasants Conference which was being held in the city, and with its President, Comrade Sohan Singh Josh.
A remarkable incident that next demanded attention was the throwing of bombs in the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929, by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutta. They courted arrest on the spot. A few days earlier, on March 20, 1929, there were countrywide arrests of Communists in connection with the Meerut Conspiracy Case. Moreover the amendment of the Public Security Bill and Trade Security Bill, after being rejected in the Central Assembly, was again forwarded to the Assembly as directed by the Governor-General. Both the Bills aimed at repressing communism and the working-class movement. Singh and Dutta wanted to protest against these measures by hurling bombs in the Central Assembly. That is clear from the leaflets distributed in the Assembly by the two revolutionaries: The Government is imposing the Public Security Bill and Trade Security Bill upon us, while it has kept away the important Sedition Bill regarding newspapers for the next Assembly session. The indiscriminate arrest of working class leaders also clearly indicates the attitude of the Government…Let the mass representatives return to their electorates and prepare the people for the future revolution. Let the Government also know that while protesting against the repressive Bills and the brutal assassination of Lala Lajpat Rai we want to stress again the established truth that it is easy to kill a person but it is not easy to destroy one’s ideology. Empires crumble. The Bourbons and Tsars are thrown away. The true ideology of the people survives.
On June 6, 1929, the statement of Bhagat Singh and Dutta also referred to the two Bills. Their explanation of the term “Revolution” would be pertinent in this respect. Revolution is not necessarily connected with a bloody struggle. It has no place for personal grievances. Nor is it a game of bombs and pistols.
By the term Revolution we mean dismissing the prevalent social system which is established on evident impropriety. Though the producers and workers are the most important component of society they are…deprived of the products of their labour and even of their fundamental rights. The farmer who produces corn for everybody has to starve with his family; the weaver who makes garments for all does not get enough clothing for himself. So until and unless this exploitation is prevented, the entire civilisation would crumble down. The cry of the day is absolute transformation and those who realise it bear the responsibility to reorganise society on the basis of socialism…By Revolution we understand the establishment of such a social system…. dictatorship of the proletariat and Communist internationalism which would save humanity from Capitalism and Imperial Wars.
If the British Government pay no heed to our warning and continue with the old measures of repression, a mighty struggle would start which would sweep away all obstacles and ultimately establish the dictatorship of the proletariat for the fulfilment of the Revolutionary ideology…. Every-one has a birth right to independence. Labour controls society. The future of the labourer lies in the sovereignty of the people.
Ajoy Kumar Ghosh wrote that Bhagat Singh spent most of his time in prison studying socialist literature and during this time came very close to the communist ideology. Dr Deol refers to Bhagat Singh studying the life of Lenin and the Communist Manifesto. Gopal Tagore, another biographer of Bhagat Singh, relates that a few days before his death when asked what was his last wish, he replied that he was studying the life of Lenin and he wanted to finish it before his death. (Bhagat Singh—The Man and His Ideas, p. 30) When he was in prison he wrote two hundred pages of notes regarding capitalism, socialism, the origin of state, communism, religion, sociology, and also many facts regarding India, the French Revolution, Marxism, governmental structures, family, Communist International etc. (Shahid Bhagat Singh—A Biography, p. 30) The pamphlet Why I am an Atheist shows that Singh was very clear in his stand on religion. It is also seen in one of his letters written to his friend Joydeb that he requested him to sent books like Civil War in France by Marx, Left Wing Communism and Collapse of the Second International by Lenin. (Ibid., pp. 29-30)
It is further known from Ajoy Ghosh that Bhagat Singh and his colleagues sent a telegram to the Soviet Union on November 7, 1930, greeting the Great Russian Revolution. Dr Deol says that in Janaury 1930, to commemorate “Lenin Day”, they entered the Court Room wearing red scarfs and demanded that their greetings should be intimated to the President of the Third International. (Ibid., pp. 69-70)
Hearing about the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, the convicts of the Meerut Conspiracy Case sent a letter of condolence to Sardar Kishan Singh. They also demanded adjournment of the hearing that day. The organ of the Third International, International Corespondence, the organ of the British Communist Party and that of the American Communist Party, Daily Worker, also denounced the judicial murder (Ibid., pp. 77 and 90)
Bhagat Singh wrote to Sukhdev a few days before his death:
You and I may not live but the people of our country would. The ideology of Marxism and Communism would definitely triumph. -(Introduction, Gopal Tagore’s Biography)
I would like to mention another incident which I have come across in the book Prithvi Singh Azad in Lenin’s Land written by Prithvi Singh Azad, the 88-year-old revolutionary. In the latter half of 1930 Bhagat Singh and his comrades were in Lahore Jail. CID officials came to Bhagat Singh to interrogate him. During the interrogation they mentioned the name of Prithvi Singh Azad a number of times to find out whether Bhagat Singh knew his whereabouts or had any secret contacts with him. On the other hand, Bhagat Singh was keen to know about Azad’s activities and whereabouts. So he chalked out a plan. He utilised this opportunity and said that he knew nothing about Azad’s whereabouts. In fact he believed that Azad had died while underground. Thus he wanted to get information, about Azad from the police officials. The CID officials divulged they had definite information that Prithvi Singh was alive and was somewhere in Bombay or Gujarat. This bit of information was enough for Bhagat Singh to make arrangements to contact Azad. When his comrades went to meet him in prison he told them to contact Azad somehow and give him a message.
Dhanwantari, who later became a prominent Communist leader, volunteered to perform this job. He managed to meet Prithvi Singh in a house in Allahabad and told him that he was a member of the HSRA and Chandra Shekhar Azad had brought a message for Prithvi Singh from Bhagat Singh. It was decided that Prithvi Singh would meet Chandra Shekhar Azad and Dhanwantari in Alfred Park at 8 pm that very night (it was here that Chandra Shekhar Azad died after a few days fighting gallantly with the British police) and get from them the message of Bhagat Singh. Azad met the two as decided. They informed him that Bhagat Singh had asked them to contact Prithvi Singh as a member of the HSRA. Moreover he ardently wanted the HSRA to send Prithvi Singh to the Soviet Union to study the nature and process of the Revolution. This should be done for the benefit of Indian revolutionaries and the Indian Revolution.
Prithvi Singh was highly moved by the request of Bhagat Singh. He had never expected such a message from him. So without hesitation he said he was ready to accept this responsibility. Though Prithvi Singh was much older than Bhagat Singh, he was touched by the earnestness and sincerity of Bhagat Singh. When Prithvi Singh reached the Congress session in Karachi secretly, Bhagat Singh had already been hanged.
How Azad ultimately managed to reach the Soviet Union is another story, but what fascinates me is Bhagat Singh’s greatness. Even when he was on the threshold of death he wanted that the project of freeing the country from the imperialists must be accomplished. Moreover, the revolutionary movement should take a proper course enlightened by the Marxist and communist doctrine.
On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Chandra Shekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev and Harkishan Talwar (and also of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi), this humble tribute to their immortal memory is being paid.
(Mainstream, April 4, 1981)
The author, a leading figure in West Bengal’s progressive literary scene, was a noted Communist intellectual and historian. He passed away in Calcutta in May 1987.