Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 42
Bhagat Singh as I knew Him
Tuesday 9 October 2007, by
I believe it was sometime in 1923 that I met Bhagat Singh for the first time. A young boy of about my age—I was fifteen at that time—he was introduced to me by B. K. Dutt in Cawnpore. Tall and thin, rather shabbily dressed, very quiet, he seemed a typical village lad lacking smartness and self-confidence. I did not think very highly of him at that time and told Dutt so when he was gone.
A few days later I saw him again. We had a long talk. Those were days when we used to dream boyish dreams of revolution. It seemed round the corner—a question of a few years at most. Bhagat Singh did not seem so confident about it. I have forgotten his words but I remember his speaking about the torpor and apathy that prevailed in the land, the difficulty of rousing the people, the heavy odds against us. My first impressions about him seemed confirmed.
Our talks drifted to past attempts at revolution and a change came over Bhagat Singh as he spoke of the martyrs of 1915-16 and especially of Sardar Kartar Singh, the central figure of the first Lahore conspiracy case. Neither of us had met Kartar Singh, he had already been hanged when we were yet kids but we knew how he, then a mere youth of 18 and a comrade of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, Baba Rur Singh and Prithvi Singh Azad, had become the undisputed leader of the Ghadr Party men who came to India in 1915-16 with the aim of organising armed revolt against British rule. A fearless fighter and a superb organiser, Kartar Singh was a man admired even by his enemies. I literally worshipped him and to hear one talk inspiringly of my hero was a great pleasure. I began to feel a liking for Bhagat Singh. Before he left Cawnpore we were close friends though I never ceased to make fun of what appeared to me his pessimistic outlook...
ONE day in 1928 I was surprised when a young man walked into my room and greeted me. It was Bhagat Singh but not the Bhagat Singh that I had met two years before. Tall and magnificently proportioned, with a keen, intelligent face and gleaming eyes, he looked a different man altogether. And as he talked I realised that he had grown not merely in years.
He was now, together with Chandra Shekhar Azad—the sole remaining absconder of the Kakori conspiracy case—the leader of our party. He explained to me the changes that had been made in our programme and organisational structure.
We were henceforth the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association with a socialist state in India as our avowed objective. Also the party had been reorganised with a Central Committee and with provincial and district committees under it. All decisions were to be taken in these committees, majority decisions were to be binding on all.
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 it was held. 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 that movement, act as its armed detachment and give it a socialist direction.
Our very contribution towards ensuring the success of the movement would ensure that free India became socialist India.
All those who meet Bhagat Singh then and afterwards have testified to his remarkable intelligence and to the powerful impression he made when talking. Not that he was a brilliant speaker. But he spoke with such force, passion and earnestness that one could not help being impressed. We talked the whole night and as we went out for a stroll when the first streaks of red were appearing in the grey sky, it seemed to me that a new era was dawning for our party. We knew what we wanted and we knew how to reach our goal.
Such was our socialism in those days. We had lost faith in the existing national leadership, its constitutionalism, its slogan of boring from within disgusted us. And we looked upon ourselves as men who by their example would create the basis for the rise of a new leadership. Socialism for us was an ideal, the principle to guide us to rebuild society after the capture of power...
IN April 1929 streamer headlines announced the arrest of Communist and trade union leaders all over the country. P.C. Joshi, then a student in the Allahabad University and a Youth League leader, was arrested; his arrest being followed by a huge protest demonstration of students.
Bhagat Singh and some others among us had already met a number of Communist leaders. We felt sympathetic towards them and at one time even contemplated some sort of a working alliance with them—Communists to organise the masses and conduct the mass movement, we of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association to act as its armed section. But when we learned that Communists considered armed action by individuals to be harmful to the movement, we dropped the idea. While we did not look upon Communists as revolutionists—revolution for us meant primarily armed action—we felt one with them in many respects: in their hatred for imperialism, in their opposition to constitutionalism and insistence on direct action, in their striving for socialism.
And so the countrywide arrests of Communists were felt by us to be a matter of vital concern for the revolutionary movement. It was imperialist attack against a cause which was our own, against a movement which had our love and sympathy. We resolved to protest not merely against the arrests but against the whole imperialist policy of fostering the growth of constitutionalist illusions on the one hand and unleashing terror against the people on the other.
A few days later bombs exploded on the official benches in the Central Assembly just after the Trades Dispute Bill—a measure directed against the working class movement—had been passed. Bhagat Singh and Dutt were arrested on the spot.
In a ringing statement that revealed the powerful pen that Bhagat Singh wielded, they admitted their responsibility and explained what had led them to it. They were sentenced to transportation for life.
Soon followed the accidental discovery of our bomb factory in Lahore and the arrests of Sukhdeo, Kishori Lal and others. Jai Gopal confessed, then Hansraj Vohra, and the result was more round-ups, more confessions and within a few weeks most of our active workers and leaders of Bihar, United Provinces and the Punjab were in the hands of the police. Others went underground. My arrest came just when I was preparing to go underground.
It all seemed over, our dreams and our hopes. More depressing than anything else was the shocking fact that, unable to stand police torture, no less than seven, two of them members of our Central Committee, had turned approvers.
The Trial Begins
IN July 1929 we were produced in court—13 of us1—and there we met Bhagat Singh and Dutt again. No longer was he the Bhagat Singh of the magnificent physique whose strength had been a byword in our party. A shadow of his former self, weak and emaciated, he was carried into the court on a stretcher. For months he and Dutt had been tortured by the police and now they were on hunger strike demanding human treatment for all political prisoners. Our eyes filled with tears as we greeted them.
Though sentenced already to transportation for life Bhagat Singh and Dutt were our co-accused in the new case that now began—the Lahore conspiracy case of 1929. For three days we paid no attention to the proceedings but held prolonged discussions in which Bhagat Singh, though so weak that he had to recline in an easy chair all the time, took the leading part.
The first thing, he emphasised, was the need to get rid of the idea that all was over. Ours was not to be a defence in the legal sense of the word. While every effort must be made to save those who could be saved, the case as a whole was to be conducted with a definite political purpose.
Revolutionary use was to be made of the trial, of every opportunity to expose the sham justice of the British Government and to demonstrate the unconquerable will of the revolutionists. Not merely by our statements when the time came but even more by our actions inside the court and prisons we were to fight for the cause of all political prisoners, hurl defiance at the government and show the contempt we had for its courts and its police. Thus we were to continue the work we had begun outside—the work of rousing our people by our actions.
These talks had a galvanising effect on us. As a first step we resolved to join the hunger strike that Bhagat Singh and Dutt had already begun. Our central demand was the placing of all political prisoners in a single class, better diet for them, newspapers and reading material and writing facilities.
The Hunger Strike
THUS began the great Lahore conspiracy case hunger strike that continued for 63 days resulting in the self-immolation of Jatin Das and stirring the country to its very depths.
In the beginning the government and the jail authorities did not take the strike seriously. They believed it would peter out in a few days and this belief on their part was strengthened when two of the prisoners gave up the strike after a few days. Some of us were none too confident either and I for one wondered how long it would be possible for me to remain without food. All of us had undergone hardships before, physical conflict with the police now did not frighten us, but the prospect of starving ourselves for days, weeks and even months—this was a chilling prospect indeed.
For ten days nothing big happened. Hunger grew and with it physical weakness. Some had to take to bed after a week and, as the trial continued, it was a real strain for them to sit in the court room. But our first terror had gone. Hunger strike did not seem such a hard job after all. But we did not know that the real fight was yet to come.
After ten days forcible feeding was started. We were all in separate cells at that time. Accompanied by a number of tough and strong nambardars (convict overseers) the doctors came to each cell, the hunger-striker was thrown on a mattress, a rubber tube was forcibly pushed into his nostril and the milk poured into it.
Violent resistance was offered by everyone but with little effect at first. It almost seemed as if they had already beaten us.
In the night on the thirteenth day of the strike news reached me in my cell that Jatin Das was in a bad state and had been removed to the jail hospital. At first I could not make out what had happened for Das had appeared quite fit only a few hours ago. Then the man who had brought the news—he was a subordinate jail official—hesitatingly told me that something had gone wrong during forcible feeding and Das was now lying unconscious.
This was shocking news indeed. I, like most others amongst us, had never met Das before my arrest. But during the few days that we had come to know him in prison he had won everyone’s affection. Though quiet and unassuming, he had a keen sense of humour and a fund of stories and anecdotes which he used to narrate to us and make everyone laugh.
I called the jailor and by bullying him got the permission to visit the jail hospital.
Das was lying there on a cot, unconscious, with doctors attending on him. They feared he might die that very night. He recovered but developed pneumonia and that weakened him so much—he refused all medicines and nourishment—that forcible feeding was now out of question.
From now on the strike became grim and determined. Das was followed by Shiv Varma and others. Soon the hospital was full. Court proceedings were now adjourned.
It was a veritable race for death that now began. Who would be the first to die—this became the subject of competition.
Many were the methods we devised to defeat the doctors. Kishori swallowed red pepper and boiling water to cause sore throat so that the passage of the tube led to such coughing that it had to be taken out lest he might die of suffocation. I swallowed flies immediately after forced feeding to induce vomiting. These devices came to be known to the doctors and guards were kept on us.
Determined to break us the jail officials removed all water from our cells and placed milk instead in the pitchers. This was the worst ordeal imaginable. After a day thirst grew unbearably. I would drag myself towards the pitcher, hoping every time to find water but drew back at the sight of milk. It was maddening. If the man who had hit upon this device had been there before me, I would have killed him.
Outside the guard sat—watching every move—ment-mute, impassive.
I could not trust myself much longer. I knew that a few hours more and I was bound to give way and drink the milk. My throat was parched, my tongue swollen.
I called the guard. As he stood outside the barred door I asked him to get me a few drops of water at least. His reply was: “I cannot do it. I have no permission.”
Fury took possession of me. I snatched the pitcher and hurled it against the door, breaking it to pieces, spilling the milk on the guard. He recoiled back in horror. He thought I had gone mad. He was not far from right.
The same torture was being undergone by Kishori and others who were then in cells. And everyone, as I learnt later, had done the same thing—broke their pitchers before their guards.
The jailor gave away. Water was brought to our cells. I drank and drank. Then I fell sick and vom—ited out every drop.
In the meantime sympathetic hunger strikes were taking place wherever there were political prisoners A powerful mass movement had grown to back our demands. Mass meetings and demonstrations were taking place in every part of the country.
The Meerut conspiracy case prisoners went on hunger strike after a few days. The news was flashed across the seas. It created a stir in England. World attention was now focused on conditions in Indian prisons.
Several times during the hunger strike Bhagat Singh came to our jail on the plea of consultation but really to meet us and know how we were faring. Though himself weak and emaciated he would sit by the side of Das and other comrades and cheer them up. His very presence infused new life in us and we looked forward eagerly to these visits.
At last when Jatin Das was on the point of death and the conditions of Shiv and others were very serious, the government yielded. A committee with a non-official majority was appointed to recommend changes in jail rules. The committee met us in prison, assured us that most of our demands would be conceded and on the basis of its assurances we resolved to end the strike.
Jatin Das was now beyond any hope of recovery. He could no longer talk or even hear. Victory, so it seemed at that time, had been won but the man who had more than anyone else contributed towards it was not to live to share its fruits.
There he lay, with all of us sitting round him, and a lump rose in my throat. As he passed away and I lifted my head, I saw tears even in the eyes of hardened jail officials. When his body was borne out of the jail gate, to be hauled over to the huge crowd that was waiting outside, Hamilton Harding, Superintendent of Police, Lahore, bared his head, bowing in reverence before the man whom all the might of the British empire had failed to defeat.
The promises made by the government on the basis of which we abandoned the strike were not kept forcing us to resort to two more hunger strikes and even afterwards the new rules were interpreted in such a manner as to exclude the vast majority of political prisoners from any benefit. But public attention was focused on the terrible conditions prevailing in the jails—conditions far worse than today. The sham pretensions of the government stood exposed.
One event during the hunger strike moved us deeply. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the founder of the Ghadr Party and a hero of the Lahore conspiracy case of 1915-16, who was then in the Lahore central jail, joined the strike; he had already served 14 years in the Andamans and in Indian prisons and was about to be released. We were informed by the Superintendent that if he persisted, he would lose his remissions and would have to remain in prison much longer. Moreover, Babaji was old and in ill health, 14 years of hell had shattered his body and the hunger strike might end disastrously for him.
In vain, however, Bhagat Singh saw Babaji and pleaded with him—he was in tears when he reported the interview to us—to desist. Babaji continued the strike as long as we did. He lost a good part of his remissions and had to remain in jail for a year more.
The Man and his Ideas
BHAGAT SINGH had none of the characteristics of the traditional terrorist leader. We had differences amongst us on many occasions; several of the meetings we held were stormy and more than once Bhagat Singh had to follow a course of action with which he did not agree. Impetuous and strong-willed, he lacked the coolness and imperturbability of Azad and would at times fret and fume and lash at those who seemed to vacillate. But only seldom did he give offence and whenever he did so he felt mortified and begged forgiveness with such can- dour and sincerity that one could not bear any grudge against him. Of affectionate nature, tender towards ailing comrades, frank and open-hearted, with no trace of pettiness in his make-up, he was a man who claimed the love of all who were even acquainted with him.
Always passionately fond of studying Bhagat Singh spent most of his time in prison reading socialist literature. Perhaps the first among us to be drawn towards socialist ideas, he was an avowed atheist and had none of the religious beliefs of earlier terrorists. It would be an exaggeration to say that he became a Marxist, but more and more as a result of his studies, of discussions which we held frequently and under the impact of events outside—stirring events took place while we were in prison: the Sholapur uprising, the Peshawar upheaval, the heroic stand of Garhwali soldiers led by Chandra Singh—he began to stress the need for armed action only in coordination with and as an integral part of the mass movement, subordinated to its needs and requirements.
Studies in prison deepened the love that we already cherished for the Soviet Union and on the occasion of the 1930 anniversary of the November Revolution, we sent greetings to the Soviet Union, hailing its victories and pledging support to the Soviet State against all enemies...
IN October 1930, after a farcical trial lasting five months, the judgment was announced. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdeo were sentenced to death, seven to transportation for life, others to long terms of imprisonment. I was among those acquitted because the only evidence against me was that of two approvers, the third approver who had deposed against me having retracted his confession. As the jail gates closed behind me and I stood on the street outside, I felt like a man who had deserted his comrades.
What Bhagat Singh had come to mean to our countrymen I realised only when I was out. “Bhagat Singh Zindabad” was the slogan that rent the air wherever a meeting was held. “Inquilab Zindabad”—the slogan he had been the first to raise—had replaced “Bande Mataram” as the slogan of the national movement. His name was on the lips of millions, his image in every young man’s heart. My chest swelled with pride as I thought of my long association with such a man.
Hopes there were still of saving Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Everyone expected that the release of the Lahore case prisoners or at least the commutation of their death sentences would be one of the terms of any agreement between the Congress and the government. That expectation was belied. We had been guilty of violence and so while the Congress leaders desired to save Bhagat Singh that could not be made one of the conditions of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.
In April 1931, just on the eve of the Karachi session of the Congress, the death sentence were carried out. Bhagat Singh was barely 24 at that time.
I was then on my way to Karachi. Men who heard the news wept like children. As for me I was too stunned even to think.
Like a meteor Bhagat Singh appeared in the political sky for a brief period. Before he passed away, he had become the cynosure of millions of eyes and the symbol of the spirit and aspirations of a new India, dauntless in the face of death, determined to smash imperialist rule and raise on its ruins the edifice of a free people’s state in this great land of ours.n
1. Bejoy Sinha and Rajguru were arrested after the trial had begun. Bhagwan Das and Sadasiva (now members of the Communist Party) were arrested at Bhusaval and sentenced to long terms. A number of comrades were tried in Bihar separately in a dacoity case.