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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 40, September 27, 2014

Useful, if Controversial, Book on Bhagat Singh, his Life and Times

Sunday 28 September 2014, by Barun Das Gupta


Understanding Bhagat Singh by Chaman Lal; Aakar Books, Delhi; pages: xii+258; price: Rs 550.

Bhagat Singh was a star among the stars in the galaxy of India’s freedom fighters who immolated themselves for the emancipation of the country from the yoke of colonial rule. He was born in 1907 and was executed by the British rulers on March 23, 1931, at the age of 24. So strong was the public reaction to his trial and death sentence that fearing a huge explosion of public anger, the government executed him and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, in the evening, departing from the normal practice of early morning execution.

Bhagat Singh stands out among the freedom fighters for his exemplary courage and fearlessness. Briefly, the sequence of events was that Lala Lajpat Rai was leading a silent protest demonstration in Lahore, on October 30, 1928, against the arrival of the Simon Commission in the city. The SP of Lahore, one Scott, ordered a lathi-charge on the crowd and DSP Saunders personally beat up Lalaji. He fell to the ground and died on November 17. To register the nation’s protest, Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Associ-ation (HSRA) decided to kill both Scott and Saunders. Bhagat Singh and Rajguru shot Saunders on December 17, 1928; Bhagat Singh then escaped to Calcutta.

Then the British Indian Government brought the Public Safety Bill for enactment. Bhagat Singh and his comrades decided to register a protest by throwing harmless bombs in the Central Assembly (the present Parliament House). However, Bhagat Singh decided that this time he and his friends will not try to escape but allow themselves to be arrested, knowing full well that they would also be charged with the murder of Saunders and quite likely were to be hanged. Accordingly, on April 8, 1929, they threw two harmless bombs which made a loud noise but did not do any damage. And they raised, for the first time in India, the battle-cry of the working class—Inqilab Zindabad and Samrajyavad ka Nash Ho. After this, they laid their pistols on a table and calmly waited for the police to come and arrest them.

Bhagat Singh faced death calmly and without the slightest trace of fear. When he was being led to the gallows, he refused to have his face covered with a black cloth and proudly told the British officer: “You are lucky to see how happily Indians go to the gallows for the nation.” (p. 162) His execution, in fact, amounted to the judicial murder of a dedicated patriot who posed a potential danger to British rule.

Chaman Lal has been specialising in the life and writings of Bhagat Singh and has written several books on him. The present book is a collection of articles on Bhagat Singh written by him at different times and published in different newspapers and magazines.

Bhagat Singh lived ahead of his times. Even in his early teens it was evident that he was different from the other boys and showed revolutionary traits. At the age of sixteen, he joined the underground revolutionary organisation, the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA). But soon, he was attracted to the Marxist ideology. At the age of 19, he declared himself an atheist.

By then, the mighty waves released by the October Socialist Revolution had crossed the oceans and started hitting the Indian shores and Marxist literature was being clandestinely smuggled into the country. In jail, Bhagat Singh was reading Lenin. It was at his initiative that the HRA was rechristened as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). This was the first time that an Indian political organisation adopted the word ‘socialist’ in its name. By the time he had transformed into a committed revolutionary, he had also become ‘almost’ a committed Marxist as well. (p. 8) Later it grew into a conviction. He believed that after throwing off the foreign yoke India would have to become a socialist republic.

He had developed an ‘excellent rapport’ with the national leaders, from Subhas Chandra Bose to Jawaharlal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpati Rai and others. Though Nehru did not agree with their programme, but he gave them a thousand rupees to help the revolutionaries go to Russia. But for all his respect for Lalaji, Bhagat Singh was too honest not to criticise him for ‘going wayward with communal forces’. (p. 27) Yet Motilal Nehru, Malaviya and—what must be news to many—Mohammed Ali Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the courts. The patriot told the British that “Bhagat Singh dead will be more dangerous to British enslavers than Bhagat Singh alive”. He is the only freedom fighter who is acclaimed in both India and Pakistan and respected in both the countries.

The author has dwelt at length with a contro-versial subject: the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the execution of Bhagat Singh. Could the Mahatma have saved the revolutionary’s life by interceding on his behalf with the British autho-rities? The author’s contention is that the Mahatma could have but he did not. There is a sharp difference of opinion on this subject between scholars. In the past Mainstream also carried a number of articles presenting both points of view.

Bhagat Singh wanted that he and his two mates should be hanged at a time when the people rose en masse demanding their release. And that is what exactly happened. The author holds that “The execution proved Gandhi’s apprehension, as expressed to Irwin that ‘their execution will make them national martyrs’. Martyrs they did become, defeating the designs of both Gandhi and the British Crown.” The statement in the single quote marks is obviously attributed to Gandhiji. But there is no suppor-ting evidence or reference. Did the Mahatma really have an apprehension that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev would become national martyrs and that he did not want that to happen? One expected the source of this quote to be mentioned, the more so as it makes an innuendo that Gandhiji played a collusive role in the execution of the three revolutionaries.

He levels an equally disparaging and totally unfounded charge against Baikunth Shukul (Shukla), a fellow revolutionary of Bhagat Singh. He writes: “There were seven approvers in the [Bhagat Singh] case, out of whom Phaninder Ghosh was murdered in Bihar and Baikunth Shukal (sic) was executed.” (p. 106) So he brands Baikunth Shukul also as an approver against the revolutionary trio. This is atrocious.

Baikunth Shukul was a nephew of Yogendra Shukla, one of the founders of the HRSA. Baikunth was hanged in 1934 for murdering Phanindra Nath Ghosh who had turned approver in the trial of Bhagat Singh and others in the so-called Lahore Conspiracy Case. Ghosh’s evidence led to the execution of Bhagat Singh and the others.

Baikunth Shukul’s fellow prisoner, the late freedom fighter Bibhuti Bhusan Das Gupta, one of the founders of the Lok Sevak Sangh who later became a Minister in Ajoy Mukherjee’s Cabinet in West Bengal, has left us a graphic and touching account of Baikunth Shukul’s last days and hours in jail in his inimitable language in his book Sei Mahaabarashar Ranga Jal. 

Justices Khoja Mohammed Noor and J. F. W. James of Patna High Court, while confirming the death sentence passed by the Sessions Judge of Muzaffarpur, found Baikunth guilty and quoted from the Session Judge’s verdict: “You ... in furtherance of the common intention of you both did commit murder by intentionally causing the death of Phanindra Nath Ghose ... and thereby committed an offence punishable under section 302 read with section 34 of the Indian Penal Code.”

Bibhuti Das Gupta has also put on record that while Baikunth mounted the gallows he, too, like Bhagat Singh, refused to get his head covered by the regulation black cloth. And the jail authorities dared not refuse his last request. So, on what basis does Chaman Lal accuse Baikunth of having turned an approver? Was it necessary to portray Bhagat Singh as a fearless and death-defying martyr, to defame Baikunth Shukul, an equally fearless revolutionary patriot? To advert to Bhagat Singh again. The author quotes from V.N. Dutta’s book Gandhi and Bhagat Singh which, again, quotes from former Liberal Party MPRobert Bernays’ book, The Naked Faquir, that Sarojini Naidu had told him (Bernays): “Bhagat Singh ought to be punished for his crimes, but not by death. After all he is only a rebel.” Could not a less apocryphal and more credible evidence be found ? How Bernays looked upon Indian leaders is evident from the very title of his book which uses the derogatory terms in which Winson Churchill described the Mahatma.

All in all, it is a useful book for anyone who wants to know about Bhagat Singh, his life and times. The book, however, needed careful editing to improve the language.

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.