Bhagat Singh: Life and legend

It was, to quote King James Version, “[a] time to be born, and a time to die; [….] A time to love, and a time […] of war […]” It was a time to dream, a time to struggle – dream for liberation, struggle for liberation.

The setting was this colonized subcontinent – undivided India, colonized by the British brutes. The tortured land had heroes – dreaming for emancipation of millions, organizing people defying the colonizers’ whips, and making supreme sacrifice, but keeping the scarlet flame of liberation bright and brighter with blood the Shaheeds, Martyrs, shed. Bhagat Singh was a central character of those brave hearts.

Chaman Lal, the renowned professor, now retired, of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and an ardent activist engaged with keeping Bhagat Singh’s spirit inflamed, has completed an essential reader of Bhagat Singh – Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh, a pictorial volume (Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, 2022,

Chaman Lal presents a perspective:

bhagat singh“Bhagat Singh was the product of his times, the epical times of glorious Indian freedom struggle, and his tenaciousness is what made him into an icon which he is today. Been born in a family which had a long tradition of patriotism since many generations, had a deep imprint on him and there are several instances from his childhood which are a tell-tale sign of the indelible mark he would eventually leave on the Indian history.” (“Preface”)

“Bhagat Singh”, writes Chaman Lal, “wanted to awaken his countrymen and provoke them to fight for their freedom, and thus experimented with various revolutionary tactics. One such approach was to use public platforms such as courts to propagate their ideas. Their statements in courts, shouting of slogans and singing of patriotic songs became a kind of folklore and got high publicity. Their fearlessness and intellectually sound answers to trial judges made the whole prosecution look as persecution! They proved British colonial jurisprudence to be based on revengefulness, and being punitive, not reformist, which is considered the best form of jurisprudence all over the world.” (ibid.)

One of the aspects of development of political struggle in this land is cited by the retired professor, as he writes about Bhagat Singh: “Prior to Bhagat Singh, no revolutionary movement had emphasised on mass organisations or mass movements. Bhagat Singh, while joining the revolutionary organisation HRA in 1924, also conceived ‘Naujwan Bharat Sabha’ (NBS), a mass organisation of the youth, with Bhagwati Charan Vohra, which was simultaneously formed in the end of 1924. So much so, the idea of mass organisation was taken to children’s level, and ‘Bal Bharat Sabha’ and ‘Bal Students Union’ were formed for 10-to-16-year-old youngsters. It was for the first time that mass organisations were considered necessary to recruit future revolutionaries. Bhagat Singh introduced qualitative advancement in the ideology and perception of HSRA. Generally, revolutionary organisations are underground, armed group of activists, but both HRA and HSRA had its civil wing also.” (ibid.) This aspect, mass organization and mass movement, is still ignored by many striving to carry forward the struggle for emancipation, although the ruling elites/classes in all parts of this land try, by many means including using money and muscle power, mobilizing the masses for marketing the elites’ agenda in politics, economy, society, culture and ideology. Long ago, MK Gandhi, Bapuji to millions, succeeded in mobilizing the masses – the half-fed, hungry, bare-bodied and bare feet people around this land, and that came out as a challenge to the colonizing brute British masters. Bhagat Singh (b. September 28, 1907) was one of the pioneers in reaching the masses – a powerful approach impossible to subdue by the masters.

The 212-page book details Bhagat Singh’s family background: His uncle Ajit Singh, well-known for launching the Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement, later exiled to Burma, today, Myanmar, for organizing farmers, his father Kishan Singh, and another uncle Swarn Singh, both were imprisoned, later released, his home in Bange district, Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in today’s Pakistan’s part of Punjab), his family’s genealogy and farm land, adopting the Sikh religion, and other related information.

The 1st chapter of the book, “Family legacy and early childhood life”, is lively with photographs that include photos of Bhagat Singh’s family home, interior of the home, farm land, grandfather and grandmother, parents, uncles, aunts. One of Bhagat Singh’s forefathers, according to the family history, “fought against the British efforts to occupy Punjab, after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.” The family had “ironies” also: Surjan Singh, one of the uncles of Ajit Singh, “used to run after the foreigners”. “Surjan Singh”, as the narration goes, “was abjectly loyal to British colonisers and his son Dilbagh Singh, who had become a British official, even reported Bhagat Singh to the British officials saying that he could control his whole village but not his own nephew!” The rebel, disloyal to the masters, Bhagat Singh, “own nephew”, appears on the scene. The disloyal remained disloyal till his hanging, and disloyal with spirit after his hanging. At that time, Bhagat Singh, 14 years old, “was serving food and water to the protestors of Sikh morchas against the British Raj, who were crossing through their village”; and “[d]uring these protests, Sikhs used black turbans to show resentment, and Bhagat Singh too wore black turban in protest.” (All cited parts are from chapter 1)

The book with nine chapters and a photo gallery also covers, among other issues, Bhagat Singh’s “Training Center for Revolutionary Nationalism”, “Hindustan Republican Association”, “Making of Naujwan Bharat Sabha”, “HSRA and Its Role in Freedom Movement”, “Lahore Conspiracy Case”, “Disintegration of HSRA”, and “Bhagat Singh: An Unmatchable Personality”.

The “Photo Gallery” is itself a mine of historical information. The photos cover (1) members of Hindustan Republican Association /Hindustan Socialist Republican Association/Army and Naujwan Bharat Sabha /Students Union/Bal Bharat Sabha/Bal Students Union, 58 photos; (2) memorabilia, 16 photos; (3) letters and documents, 58 photos; (4) newspaper clippings, 16 photos; (5) news reports related to execution of Bhagat Singh, 26 photos; (6) others, 41 photos; and (7) miscellaneous, 11 photos. The photos, especially copies of Bhagat Singh’s writings, of colonial government documents and of newspapers are useful for researchers interested with the colonial rule and people’s struggle in this land. Many of the photos in the book are stunning, and demand deep reflection. Many of the photos are of Bhagat Singh’s comrades, which tell the collective courage of the time of struggle. The photos can be put as an album in future, and can be translated in other languages so that wider sections of the masses of people can have a glimpse of the years of colonial lies, brutalities, and of people’s struggles.

Other than the photo gallery, the book is full with photos in all the chapters that speak of the reality the book is telling about. More than one hundred and twenty photos is a valuable collection that speaks of Chaman Lal’s labor with the works. The photos that tell about a history Professor Chaman Lal telling us is itself a subject of study. The photos cover places, personalities, pyres, pistol and press. Revolutionaries, their birthplaces, residences, place of secret meeting, offices, letters, directives, leaflets, prisons, courts, government documents, national political leaders. Still, today’s generation find a link to that epoch of liberation struggle: There’s a photo of Chaman Lal, an HSRA member from NWFP [North-West Frontier Province, now, Khyber Pakhtoonkhawa,] Peshawar [now, in Pakistan]. He along with DD Khanna, Ranbir and Virender planned to assassinate Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. Chaman Lal, Ranbir and DD Khanna were sentenced to death in this case, but later acquitted from High Court. The revolutionary later found assassination of individual is not the path of people’s struggle, and turned to Marxism-Leninism, and marched along the revolutionary proletarian path of class struggle – political power to the exploited. The spirit of struggle of this man, now old, isn’t extinguished yet. At times, he fights lonely, but never imagines of capitulating to defeat. This book –   Life and Legend of Bhagat Singh – is part of his relentless struggle to spread ideas of liberation and revolutionary spirit.

The book chronologically documents Bhagat Singh’s life, struggles including its phases and developments, organizations, and political developments in the wider setting. Not only Bhagat Singh, but also other revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the colonial rule, politics of those days, to much extent, and a number of political leaders’ role on some major issues of those days have found place in the book.

It informs: “[A] few times Bhagat Singh and his associates had opposed Lala ji [Lala Lajpat Rai] for his active association with communal organisations. [….] On one occasion, Lala ji had shut the doors of his bungalow on Bhagat Singh, yet during Simon Commission’s visit to India in 1928, Bhagat Singh and his associates, convinced Lala ji to lead the procession.” (p. 111)

Simon Commission’s appointment increased political fervor in this land. The 1928 found stupendous strike movement of the workers in the subcontinent: near about 32 million working days were lost. Union membership increased by 70%. The working class took a leading political role in demonstrations against the Simon Commission. This background shouldn’t be missed while going through relevant political developments of the period mentioned in the book.

Chaman Lal’s book also tells: “During the 1926 Central Assembly elections, Bhagat Singh and his associates had supported Swaraj Party of Motilal Nehru.” (ibid.)

It should be noted that, “[a]fter 1923,” Maulana Abul Kalam Azad writes in India Wins Freedom, “Congress activities remained mainly in the hands of the Swaraj party. It obtained large majorities in almost all legislatures and carried the fight on the parliamentary front. Congressmen who remained outside the Swaraj party continued with their constructive programme but they could not attract as much public support or attention as the Swaraj party.” This trajectory of political struggle in the subcontinent reflects alignment of class power, power of factions within certain classes, and of pattern of development of political struggle. Still today, it demands analysis for organizing the masses of people, for carrying forward people’s political struggle.

These, and similar many information in the book convey important sights for having an idea of Bhagat Singh’s political moves.

Chaman Lal refers to Jaidev Gupta, perhaps, according to Chaman Lal, Bhagat Singh’s “most close friend from his non-revolutionary contacts, whom he could ask for anything”; and Jaidev said: Bhagat Singh wanted his father to distribute all the land to his farm workers, as he firmly believed that land belongs to its tiller!” (p. 115) A Bhagat Singh appears – land belongs to the tillers. It’s a revolutionary slogan.

Jaidev’s some more narrations help readers perceive Bhagat Singh: “Bhagat Singh was very fond of Charlie Chaplin films. He had watched Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Three Musketeers based on novel by Alexander Dumas and watched the film Anarkali twice. [….] Bhagat Singh had no rancor against Britishers or Europeans, but he was very cold and hard towards the officials.” (ibid.) And, “Bhagat Singh used Sandhu as surname initially, but later he stopped using it. He did not believe in any caste, creed or religion. […] [H]e belonged to all countries and humanity in general. […] Bhagat Singh read big volumes of Karl Marx in 1926. Bhagat Singh used to tell Jaidev Gupta that “the day we begin to love money, we will not remain human beings, we will turn into beasts.” […] Bhagat used to hum Rabindra Nath Tagore’s poem– ‘Ekla Chalo Re….’ [Move on, even if alone …] When Jatin Das was on the point of death in jail, Bhagat Singh used to recite Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem Bidrohi [Rebel] to him. (p. 121)

The chapter “Disintegration of HSRA” is with startling facts: Yashpal made a plan to bomb Viceroy’s train; Bhagat Singh, from jail, opined against this action; Bhagwati Charan had set up a bomb factory in Rohtak; the plan was executed by Yashpal and Bhag Ram on December 23, 1929, at Tehkhand, about 3 kilometers from Delhi; the bomb planted under rail track exploded, but the Viceroy survived; Mahatma congratulated the Viceroy on survival and wrote Cult of the bomb in his journal Young India, criticizing the revolutionaries; Bhagwati Charan Vohra wrote Philosophy of the bomb in response, which was also published in Young India; Bhagat Singh appreciated Philosophy of the bomb, reading it inside the jail; Chandrashekhar Azad dissolved the central committee of HSRA on September 4, 1930 at their Delhi bomb factory; he distributed the arms and ammunition equally among the HSRA committee members; the reason for dissolving the committee was weakening of mutual trust and discipline in the organization; on December 23, 1930, the convocation ceremony was held in Punjab University, Lahore; Durga Das Khanna, Ranbir, Virender, AC Bali and Chaman Lal from Mardan, initially members of Punjab Students Union, later, members of HSRA, planned to shoot the Governor who was to attend convocation as Chancellor of the University; Chaman Lal introduced them to Hari Kishan, brother of Bhagat Ram Talwar, who later helped Netaji Subhas in exiting India through Kabul; [Talwar has a nice book on his journey with Netaji to Kabul on way to Soviet Union, then to Germany]; Hari Kishan agreed to shoot the Governor; Shaukat Usmani invited Bhagat Singh and Bejoy Kumar Sinha to accompany him to Russia, but they had declined as their presence was needed in India; Yashpal met Jawaharlal Nehru at Anand Bhavan in February 1931 to seek help in this matter; Pandit Nehru told Yashpal that he cannot help in any terrorist activity, but would think about helping them financially to be able to send a few revolutionaries to Russia; Yashpal told him that they were not terrorists but genuine revolutionaries and asked for five to six thousand rupees which would help them go to Russia; Shiv Murti Singh, an aide of Nehru, handed over 1500 rupees to Yashpal and said that more money would follow; the money, along with bullets and empty cartridges, found on Azad’s body was the same money which was sent by Nehru; Purushottam Tandon, Shiv Narayan Mishra and Kamala Nehru, along with a few hundred people stopped the cremation of Azad, mid-way; police did not allow any memorial meeting, but a meeting was held under the chairmanship of Congress leader Mohan Lal Gautam with Purushottam Das Tandon, Kamala Nehru and Pratibha Sanyal, wife of Sachindra Nath Sanyal addressing the meeting and paying glowing tributes to Chandrashekhar Azad. (pp. 99-105)

The book presents much such information that helps analyze Bhagat Singh, his politics, political maneuvers. Tactical questions that surface help learn lessons.

A melancholy afloat as the chapter concludes: “With the arrest and conviction of Yashpal, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army/Association (HSRA) concluded its glorious role in the freedom struggle of Indian history!”

The history moves on as people in this land continue their struggle towards liberation with setbacks and forward marches. At times, setbacks, it seems to many, is the constant fact, but, ultimately, it’s people’s ceaseless journey forward, as Mao told: “Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again [. . .] until their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic. This is another Marxist law.” (Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle, Selected Works, vol. IV, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, now, Beijing, 1961) Chaman Lal’s book reminds that fact: The journey that ensued centuries ago, still goes on, and it’ll go on till triumph reaches the people.

Chaman Lal, the revolutionary since the days of struggle against colonial rulers, narrates startlingly in the last chapter, “Bhagat Singh: An Unmatchable Personality”:

“At Karachi Railway station, Naujwan Bharat Sabha activists offered black roses to Mahatma Gandhi and he accepted the flowers of protest with all humility. Naujwan Bharat Sabha had arranged their own conference in Karachi, along with Congress session on 27 & 28 March. The Congress session was presided over by Sardar Patel, and a resolution was moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, which was seconded by Madan Mohan Malviya, praising Bhagat Singh’s bravery but at the same time voicing their disapproval towards the violent path. The resolution was moved under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi himself. Another resolution was also moved which praised the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh without any attached warnings. Both resolutions got huge number of delegate votes and the resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru was carried only by a thin margin. It showed that Bhagat Singh had huge following among Congressmen too!

Naujwan Bharat Sabha’s conference at Karachi was chaired by Netaji Subhas Bose and was attended by Krishan Kant Malviya (nephew of Madan Mohan Malviya and editor of Abhyudaya), Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Satyawati from Delhi, Kamala Nehru and others. Netaji paid glowing tributes to Bhagat Singh. Referring to Lahore executions, Netaji said that ‘Bhagat Singh was a symbol of the spirit of revolt which had taken possession of the country from one end to other. That spirit was unconquerable and the flame of the spirit that had lit up, would not die.

All national leaders paid tributes to Bhagat Singh. Mahatma Gandhi praised his bravery, but asked youth not to follow his path. Sardar Patel was impressed by the courage and self-sacrificing spirit of Bhagat Singh. Madan Mohan Malviya had sent a telegram to Viceroy to commute their sentence and felt that there could be no justice in foreign rule. Jawaharlal Nehru felt that Bhagat Singh’s bravery and self-sacrifice was magnificent. E V Ramaswamy Naicker Periyar wrote an editorial in his Tamil journal Kuda Arasu wishing many more Bhagat Singh to be born in India! Dr. B R Ambedkar wrote an editorial in his Marathi journal Janta that British Government sacrificed Bhagat Singh and his comrades, ignoring public opinion. Maulana Zafar Ali said that ‘unfortunate India never felt so helpless as on Bhagat Singh’s execution’.

Bhagat Singh, our comrade, made us feel helpless as we find the gallows. Yet, this tormented land keeps alight the flame of the spirit that had lit up, and, would not die. Chaman Lal conveys this message through his book, a sign of hard labor.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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