Remembering Bhagat Singh on the 75th Anniversary of His Martyrdom

Men cannot be sacrificed to the machine.  The machine must serve mankind, yet the danger to the human race lurks, menacing, in the industrial region. — Scott Nearing, Poverty & Riches

Scott Nearing was a frequent contributor to Monthly Review.   His column “World Events” ran in Monthly Review from 1953 to 1972.

Bhagat Singh, 23 years of age when hanged by the British on 23rd March 1931, remains to this day a model for the youth of India and the world.  The accomplishments and heroism of his short life are worthy not only of our remembrance, but of our homage.

In 1926 Bhagat Singh was already a leader in forming the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a mass organization of youth that aimed to expose the exploitative character of British colonialism. Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the communist movement and party in India, recalled meeting with the eighteen year old Bhagat Singh in that year.  The communist party had come into existence at Kanpur in 1925, and Abdul Majid of Peshawar and Muzaffar Ahmed had been imprisoned in the ensuing Kanpur Bolshevik conspiracy case.  Bhagat Singh had come to pay his regards to Muzaffar Ahmed at the house of his co-prisoner and comrade Abdul Majid.  Thus from the very beginning of Bhagat Singh’s active political life, there is evidence of his inclination towards the communist movement. 

Bhagat Singh, in jail and facing certain execution, wrote in 1930 the much reprinted pamphlet Why I Am an Atheist.  In his introduction to a 1970s edition of Why I Am an Atheist, the eminent historian Bipan Chandra wrote that “from 1925 to 1928, Bhagat Singh read voraciously, devouring in particular books on the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union, even though getting hold of such books was in itself at the time a revolutionary and difficult task.  He also tried to inculcate the reading and thinking habit among his fellow revolutionaries and younger comrades.”

In 1924, the sixteen year old Bhagat Singh joined the newly organized Hindustan Republican Association, which aimed to end colonial rule through armed resistance.  By 1927 much of the leadership of the HRA had been arrested, and several hanged. Leadership devolved upon Chandershekhar Azad and some extraordinary youths, among them Bhagat Singh.  By the end of 1928, he and his comrades had accepted socialism as the final object of their activities and changed the name of their organization from HRA to HSRA (the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association).  Adding the word “socialist” was immediately recognized to be of great significance, and the main motivation to add the word came from Bhagat Singh.  And it was not a vague kind of socialism that Bhagat Singh was carrying in his mind. Bhagat Singh accepted socialism as a concept by going through books on Marxism and the experiences of the Soviet Union.

Bhagat Singh had studied the tradition of violent resistance to British colonial rule and, in his 1928 writings, added the element of a Marxist understanding.

On 8th April 1929, Bhagat Singh landed in jail with B. K. Dutt after throwing a bomb into the Delhi Assembly.  They had not sought to flee. We have a full record of his thought while jailed.  His reading became even more organized and mature, despite the fact that, in the little less than two years before his execution on 23rd March 1931, Bhagat Singh repeatedly fought against the atrocities of the jail authorities by resorting to hunger strikes for weeks at a time.  His reading was to prepare to present the revolutionary viewpoint in the course of the two trials he faced: the Lahore conspiracy case, which resulted in his execution along with Sukhdev and Rajguru, and the prior Delhi Assembly bomb case, in which he and B. K. Dutt were sentenced to be transported for life.

He was treated with extraordinary cruelty, but the British could not crush his spirit. Sri Rajyam Sinha, in her memoir of her husband Bejoy Kumar Sinha (a comrade of Bhagat Singh) entitled A Revolutionary’s Quest for Sacrifice, has given graphic details.  The revolutionaries had refused to come handcuffed into court.  The court had agreed, but did not honor its word.  A scuffle began and hell broke out. With police prestige pricked, a special force of Pathan policemen (known for their brutality) was requisitioned and merciless beating began. Bhagat Singh was singled out. Eight ferocious Pathans pounced on him and, with their regulation boots, kicked him viciously and beat him with lathis. Mr. Roberts, a European officer, pointed at Sardar Bhagat Singh and said, “This is the man, give him more beating.”  They were dragged on the ground and carried like logs of wood and thrown on the benches.  All this happened right in the presence of the visitors in the court compound.  The Magistrate too was watching, later to claim that he had no jurisdiction as he was not formally presiding over the court.  Sheo (Shiv) Verma (later in the CPM) and Ajoy Kumar Ghose (who rose to be General Secretary of CPI) became unconscious.  Bhagat Singh then raised his voice and told the court: “I want to congratulate you on this.  Sheo Verma is lying unconscious and if he dies, you will be responsible.”

Bhagat Singh, just 22 years old at that time, by his towering personality terrorized the British colonial power.  They had learned how to deal with “terrorist groups” that had relied on confused religious and nationalist ideologies.  The British were confident they could deal with that kind of threat.  But British colonialism became really terrorized when HRA turned into HSRA, Bhagat Singh became its chief ideologue, and by his statements and mature political conduct in jail and court rallied the masses of the country.  Frequent hunger strikes for human and political rights for political prisoners were resorted to.  Jatin Dass, one of their dearest comrades, sacrificed his life on 13th September 1929 inside Lahore jail, and millions gathered at railway stations when his mortal remains were being taken by train from Lahore to Calcutta on their final journey.  The admission that the popularity of Bhagat Singh and his comrades reached the level of Mahatma Gandhi among the Indian masses was made by none other than B. Pattabhirammaya, who wrote the history of the Congress Party.

In these last years Bhagat Singh read voraciously inside the jail, despite the certainty that he would be hanged for his political actions.  Even minutes before being taken to the gallows, he was reading a book by Lenin, obtained through his advocate.  The Punjabi revolutionary poet Paash, himself martyred by Khalistani terrorists on 23rd March, his hero’s martyrdom day, paid apt tribute to Bhagat Singh in one of his prose pieces by saying: “Indian youth have to read the next page of Lenin’s book, left unread by Bhagat Singh at his death.”

Letters written from jail by Bhagat Singh invariably list the books he asked his visitors to bring from the Dwarka Dass Library in Lahore.  These books were primarily on Marxism, economics, history, and creative literature. Thus in a letter to his friend Jaidev Gupta, on 24th July 1930, Bhagat Singh asked for the following books to be sent him through his younger brother Kulbir: (i) Militarism by Karl Liebknecht; (ii) Why Men Fight by Bertrand Russell; (iii) Soviets at Work; (iv) Collapse of the Second International; (v) Leftwing Communism by Lenin; (vi) Mutual Aid by Prince Kroptokin; (vii) Field, Factories and Workshops; (viii) The Civil War in France by Marx; (ix) Land Revolution in Russia; (x) The Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt by Darling; (xi) Historical Materialism by Bukharin; and (xii) the novel The Spy by Upton Sinclair.

Bhagat Singh had command of four languages, without much formal training or education.  He wrote in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and English.  His jail notebooks collect excerpts from one hundred and eight authors and 43 books, including prominently Marx and Engels, but also Thomas Paine, Descartes, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Lord Byron, Mark Twain, Epicurus, Francis Bacon, Madan Mohan Malviya, Bipan Chander Pal, and many others.  The only extensive original comments in the jail notebook are on the subject “The Science of State.”  Bhagat Singh seems to have been planning an essay or book on the history of the political development of society from primitive communism to modern socialism.

For today’s youth, the only name that compares is that of Che Guevera, who was as committed and who faced death with as much courage as Bhagat Singh.  Leaving behind the security of being a Minister in revolutionary Cuba and the boundaries of narrow nationalism, Che Guevera took to the jungles of Bolivia to fight U.S imperialism to liberate the whole of Latin America.  Che Guevara with his wide experience was of course far more advanced in thought than Bhagat Singh, yet the qualities of spirit, commitment for revolution, and sincerity bring these young revolutionaries close to each other.  Both fought imperialism and capitalist exploitation of mankind ferociously, and each died for a cause dearer to him than his own life.

In a letter to the Governor of the Punjab on 20th March 1931, three days before his execution, Bhagat Singh wrote: “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites.  They may be purely British capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian.  They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through a mixed or even purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus.  All these things make no difference.  No matter, if your government tries and succeeds in winning over the leaders of the Indian society through petty concessions and compromises and thereby cause a temporary demoralization in the main body of forces.  No matter, if once again the Indian movement, the revolutionary party, finds itself deserted in the thick of the war. . . . The war shall continue.  It shall be waged ever with new vigor, greater audacity, and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and the present social order is completely replaced by a new social order, based on social prosperity and thus every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace. . . . The days of capitalist and imperialist exploitation are numbered. The war neither began with us nor is going to end with our lives.  It is the inevitable consequence of historical events and the existing environments.  Our humble sacrifices shall only be a link in the chain that has very accurately been beautified by the unparalleled sacrifice of Mr. Das and the most tragic but noblest sacrifice of Comrade Bhagwati Charn and the glorious death of our warrior Azad.”

Netaji Subhash Bose in a big public meeting in Delhi on the same day (20th March) said, “Bhagat Singh is today not a person, but a symbol.  He symbolizes the spirit of revolt, which has taken possession of country.”  The Free Press Journal in its issue of 24th March 1931 wrote: “S. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev live no longer. In their death lies their victory let there be no mistaking it.  The bureaucracy has annihilated the mortal frame. The nation has assimilated the immortal spirit.  Thus shall Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev live eternally to the dismay of the bureaucracy. . . . To the nation, S. Bhagat Singh and colleagues will ever remain the symbols of martyrdom in the cause of freedom.”  And indeed the supremos and sahibs of the 1931 Raj are wholly forgotten, while millions and millions today recall and honor the twenty three year old they hanged.

Reading Bhagat Singh’s jail notebook and court statements, replace the word “British” with “American” and today’s reality is not far away. Bhagat Singh was clear that what mattered was not whether the leaders were British or Indian.  The Indian rulers of today fit into the category of those “pure Indians” won through “petty concessions” by U.S. imperialism; but in the words of Bhagat Singh — “The war shall continue.”  Che Guevera and Allende haunt the United States in today’s Bolivia just as Bhagat Singh remains to haunt the Bushs and Blairs and those who do their bidding in India.

Bipan Chandra has rightly concluded that “it is one of the greatest tragedies of our people that this giant of a brain was brought to a stop so early by the colonial authorities.”  It is the nature of colonialism and imperialism to cause such tragedies, be it in India or Vietnam, in Iraq, Palestine, or Latin America.  But the people do avenge these crimes by yet more ferocious struggles against imperialism, if not today, then tomorrow.  Our task is to keep the memory of our martyrs fresh, and by doing so we prepare the victories of tomorrow.

Chaman Lal

Chaman Lal is a professor at the Centre of Indian Languages (SLLCS) in New Delhi. He is the editor of   Complete Documents of Bhagat Singh in Hindi.