Reclaiming a Hero, Regaining a History
BHAGAT SINGH, hero of freedom struggle,
celebrated in Pakistan, and by
people in India.
SHAHEED BHAGAT SINGH did not have a long life. Born on September 26, 1907, he was hanged by the British rulers of India on March 23, 1931, so did not live to see his 24th birthday. But in those short years he had made a name as a fighter for freedom, and one who cared for the people -all the people. That's why his birth was celebrated yesterday by a gathering in Pakistan, which a party from India, including Singh's nephew, wanted to attend, but ran into that old standby of obstructive regimes, visa problems.
Shaheed Bhagat Singh was born in Banga village, Jaranwala Tehsil in the Lyallpur district of the Punjab Province of British India, now part of Pakistan. His family had come from another village, Narli in erstwhile Lahore district, now part of Tarn Taran district in India. His grandfather, Arjun Singh, was a follower of Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Hindu reformist movement, Arya Samaj, his father, and uncles Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh, were members of the Ghadar Party, led by Kartar Singh Sarabha and Har Dayal. Ajit Singh was forced to flee to Persia due to pending court cases against him, while Swaran Singh died at home in 1910 following his release from Borstal Jail in Lahore,
In 1919, at the age of 12, Bhagat Singh visited the site of the Amritsar massacre, where thousands of men, women and children gathered at a public meeting in the Jallianwala Bagh gardens found themselves trapped when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire into the crowd. They kept firing for ten minutes until ammunition was almost exhausted., getting through 1,650 rounds of ammunition. People trying to flee through the garden's narrow exits faced British armoured cars with machine guns fitted. Official Government of India figures said 379 people were killed and 1,100 wounded, the Indian National Congress estimated more than 1,500 casualties and 1,000 dead. It was April 13, 1919, one day in that imperial history we're exhorted to be proud of.
Bhagat Singh took part in Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement the following year, and at 14 he welcomed protestors against another massacre when they came to his village, but he became disillusioned with Gandhi's philiosophy of non-violence. In 1922, he joined the Young Revolutionary Movement.
In 1923, Singh joined the National College in Lahore, where he did well academically, becoming fluent in several languages, but also took part in nationalist youth politics. He also joined the Hindustan Republican Association, and persuaded it to change its name to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA).
In 1927 Singh was arrested, accused of being involved in a bombing in Lahore, but later released with a heavy fine. He wrote for and edited Punjabi and Urdu newspapers published from Amritsar, and in September 1928 when the Kirti Kisan Party ("Workers and Peasants Party") organised an all-India meeting in Delhi, Singh emerged as its secretary.
That same year the Superintendent of police in Lahore ordered a baton charge on peaceful demontrators protesting the British government's Simon Commission. Lala Lajput Rai who had organised the demonstration was injured and died not long afterwards. Superintendent Scott had personally asssaulted Rai, and Singh blamed him and vowed revenge. By mistake, Singh and his comrades shot the wrong man, an Assistant Superintendent Saunders.
Singh and the others went on the run,and might have remained free, but in 1929 he and Batukeshwar Dutt comrade were caught after bombing the Legislative Assembly. on April 8. It was more of a spectacular protest against repressive legislation than a terrorist act. They threw two bombs from the public gallery, shouted slogans, and scattered leaflets. Few people were injured and nobody killed, but Singh and Dutt were charged with conspiracy to murder and went to prison.
Then on April 15, 1929, the 'Lahore bomb factory' was discovered by the police, and many members of HSRA arrested. Some turned informants, helping the police to connect Singh with the murder of Saunders..While in prison he led a hunger strike for political status.After one of the prisoners died, and the continuing hunger strike won international attention -lasting 116 days - the authorities moved to bring the Saunders murder case forward.
While in prison Singh kept a diary in which he noted sayings by various people, notably Marx and Engels, and he also wrote a pamphlet, "Why I am an atheist".
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were sentenced to death in what had become known as the Lahore conspiracy case, and ordered to be hanged on 24 March 1931. But the hanging was carried out after dark on the evening before.
There were strikes and protests, and Bhagat Singh became a hero to the people and inspiration to the youth. India did in the end gain independendence, but it was partitioned, with tremendous bloodshed, and 25 million people caused to flee because they lived wrong side of the partition lines. The problems of the people remained unsolved. We can safely say that this is not the freedom for which Bhagat Singh and his comrades fought and died. But they have not been forgotten. Those who have tried this week to reclaim their heroism are regaining the path of history.