Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017
Two-Year Battle Fought From Prison: How Handcuffed Prisoners Defeated Biggest Imperial Power
Saturday 25 March 2017
by Bharat Dogra and Jagmohan Singh
The following article is being published to mark the eightysixth anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. They were executed in Lahore on March 23, 1931.
Despite many adversities after their imprisonment, Bhagat Singh and his comrades by their courage and noble conduct were able to inspire and mobilise millions of people for greater participation in the freedom movement. This period of the imprisonment of Bhagat Singh and his close comrades thus became one of the most glorious chapters in the freedom movement of India and indeed in all liberation struggles. During these two years April 1929-March 1931 Bhagat Singh and his close comrades can justly be credited with not only defying but even defeating the world’s biggest imperial power from behind the bars. The more the colonial government tried to repress and torture them, the more reverence and affection they received from the entire country because of the courage and determination with which they faced the onslaught. This is why the colonial power with its vast reach and strength was defeated by its handcuffed prisoners.
Much more than their own defence, Bhagat Singh along with B.K. Dutt and other comrades concentrated on focusing attention on the rights of all political prisoners and issues concerning this. In the course of the various struggles of the freedom movement, a large number of political prisoners (mostly freedom fighters) were all the time being imprisoned and the terrible conditions in jails posed a serious threat to their life and health much beyond the punishment to which they were sentenced by the legal system. Bhagat Singh and his close comrades went on fasts ranging from 60 to 95 days to demand the essential rights of all political prisoners.
Secondly, despite the fact that the colonial government was violating all norms of justice to rush up the case against Bhagat Singh and his close comrades, denying various essential rights to the accused, Bhagat Singh and his colleagues worked very hard to present their views and ideology in careful, well-thought-out ways. As a result it became increasingly clear to people that these revolutionaries had actually taken all care to save human lives in the Assembly Bombing Case. A terrorist generally tries to take more human lives, whereas these freedom fighters had taken the maximum precaution to ensure that there was no loss to human life. This was evident from the way the bombs were prepared, and the way in which these were used. They had also given away their revolvers on their own to the security-men, although they could have used these weapons to make good their escape.
It was becoming increasingly clear to the people from the conduct and statements made by the revolutionary prisoners that far from indulging in any indiscriminate violence, they had planned their activities very carefully keeping in view only the interests of their country and the freedom movement for which they were willing to make any sacrifice and bear any hardship.
This became apparent from the courage and nobility with which they faced torture and beatings. They endured fasting for very long periods. Even as they saw their own health and the health of their dearest friends collapsing before their eyes, they did not surrender. Paralysis gradually spread from one part of the body of the fasting freedom fighter, Yatindranath Das, to another part, and yet he did not break his fast. Prison authorities used to mix milk in the water, so that when they drink water the fast of the revolutionaries would automatically break. Instead of drinking this milk-mixed water, the thirsty prisoners simply broke the pitchers containing this water. When the authorities tried to force feed them in a cruel way, the prisoners still resisted so much that they were injured. Ultimately fearing loss of life due to force-feeding the jail officials had to discontinue these efforts.
As news of such acts of courage and determination spread, the support for these revolutionaries grew rapidly in the country, just as these young freedom fighters had hoped.
In a paper, ‘Bhagat Singh as Satyagrahi’ (Modern Asian Studies 43, 3 -2009), Neeti Nair has summarised the impact on the nation thus:
“Soon after news of the hunger strike spread, 30 June (1929) was observed as Bhagat Singh-Dutt Day in a majority of districts in the Punjab. In Lahore, 10000 people attended a meeting organised by the City Congress Committee..., The Tribune reported that thousands of Lahorians had expressed their solidarity with the hunger-striking prisoners by fasting that day.... Bhagat Singh and Dutt were hailed as the honour of Punjab and Bengal.... Volunteers from the Congress and the youth leagues marched in procession with red banners carrying photo-graphs of the hunger-striking prisoners bearing the inscription ‘all for the country’s honour sixteen young men are starving to death’.
“When the success of these processions unnerved the administration and Section 144 was suddenly imposed, Congress, Ahrar and Akali leaders including Sardar Mangal Singh and Zafar Ali Khan courted arrest by shouting the newly banned slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ along with members of the newly banned Naujawan Bharat Sabha.
“The Satyagraha Committee won its first victory when the District Magistrate was forced to modify his order and release the defiant demonstrators. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha celebrated its victory by announcing that 21 July will be celebrated as All India Bhagat Singh-Dutt Day. The proposed programme included fasting, processions, the collection of funds for the Conspiracy Case Defence Committee and meetings to explain the purpose of the hunger strike and protest the treatment of political prisoners.”
When fasting freedom fighter Yatindranath Das died on September 13, 1929 after a continuous fast of 63 days,
“50,000 funeral processionists marched through Lahore. The Central Legislative Assembly passed a motion of adjournment to censure the government for their policy regarding the hunger striking prisoners in the Lahore Conspiracy Case...... In the Punjab, Drs. Muhammad Alam and Gopi Chand Bhargava resigned from the Punjab Legislative Assembly. Subhas Bose led the miles-long funeral procession in Calcutta.... Rabindra-nath Tagore was inspired to compose a song.
“Later, when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to death, Bhagat Singh Appeal Committees were established in every district of the Punjab. At a Bhagat Singh day on 17 February 1931, colleges emptied out into streets, 15,000 people met in Lahore. Over 1,38,000 signatures seeking the commutation of the death sentence were sent by the All Punjab Bhagat Singh Appeal Committee to the Viceroy. In Amritsar, a public meeting organised by the Workers and Peasants Party demanded the immediate release of all political prisoners. The Tamil Nadu Congress Committee insisted that commuting the death sentence was an essential condition for peace.”
Indeed the protest against the glaring unjust trial and death sentence even reached Britain where an appeal titled ‘Stop the Lahore Executions!’ was signed by thousands of people. This appeal stated:
“We, the undersigned electors in Great Britain, emphatically protest against your sanction being given to the sentences, including three death penalties, passed by the judge in the Conspiracy Case at Lahore, India, after a trial, the character of which arouses the gravest misgivings.
“We are aware that the twenty-seven Indian youths accused in this case were not only tried without a jury but by the special personal instructions of the Viceroy. Extraordinary regulations were adopted to conclude the trial without regard to the usual procedure.
“We regard the sentences passed under these circumstances as a violation of justice and demand that they should be disallowed by you. If the three death sentences are put into operation, we shall hold you and your Government responsible for sanctioning what amounts to the murder of political opponents under the guise of official judicial sentences.
“Without entering into the question whether there was any justification at all for the trial of the accused men at Lahore, whose conviction could only be obtained by such extraordinary means, we desire as strongly as possible to press our views upon you that there should be in all cases, without exception, an open, normal trial by a jury of the countrymen of the accused persons.”
Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements. Jagmohan Singh, a nephew of Bhagat Singh, is the Chairperson of the Shahid Bhagat Singh Research Committee.