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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Lessons from Bhagat Singh

Bhagat Singh's dedication to a cause and fearlessness reinforced by his extensive reading is worthy of emulation

Eighty-five years ago this month, Bhagat Singh, along with his revolutionary colleagues Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar, were hanged to death in Lahore Jail. They were executed for the (retaliatory) killing of Assistant Superintendent of Police John A. Saunders.

Bhagat Singh was born a mere 23 years before then to a politically active Punjabi Sikh family from Lyallpur district (now in Pakistan Punjab). Bhagat Singh’s grandfather, Sardar Arjun Singh, was strongly opposed to the British government and initiated his sons and his grandson into that tradition. Bhagat Singh learnt English, Urdu and Sanskrit at the DAV School in Lahore. A young Bhagat Singh had visited the scene of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and carried in his pocket for many years a packet of earth he had collected there. He subsequently attended National College in Lahore, which was set up by Lala Lajpat Rai in 1920 on a call from Mahatma Gandhi to boycott British goods and institutions. The students of National College, particularly Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev, were initiated into a deep love for India by Lala Lajpat Rai and into revolutionary ideals by professor Jai Chand Vidyalankar, a noted historian.

Even though the seeds of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary path were sown in the early days after his visit to Jallianwala Bagh, he became a committed revolutionary after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. In 1928, Rai had died of a heart attack after being wounded by a British lathi charge during a protest against the Simon Commission in Lahore. The police force led by James A. Scott resorted to quelling the crowd with batons and in doing so injured Rai.

Bhagat Singh and his colleagues pledged that Scott would not go free (General Dyer, the leader of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, had escaped with a rap on the knuckles).

The forum for the discussion of the response to Rai’s death was the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). The HSRA and its predecessor, the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), had been established in the immediate aftermath of the Chauri Chaura incident in which 22 policemen were burnt alive in a retaliatory incident. When Mahatma Gandhi eschewed the violence and withdrew his call for non-cooperation, Ram Prasad Bismil and others believed there was no choice but to resort to arms and created the HRA. The Congress split into two parts, appropriately called the Naram Dal (Tender Party) and the Garam Dal (Hot Party). The most significant action of the HRA was the Kakori train robbery undertaken in 1925 to finance its activities. Many leaders of the HRA, including Bismil, were hanged for that incident.

The born again HSRA, led now by Chandrasekhar Azad, Sukhdev Thapar and Bhagat Singh, vowed to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai by extracting “blood for blood". In a case of mistaken identity, members of the HSRA killed Saunders instead of Scott.

During the period of his incarceration following the incident, Bhagat Singh and his colleagues undertook several hunger strikes in their call to be treated as political prisoners. Bhagat Singh also read and wrote prolifically from jail. The hunger strikes and the strident patriotic calls from jail further stoked the desire for independence.

That was a different time and place. What lessons does Bhagat Singh’s life have for modern-day India? Today’s India is agog with angst in its universities about the freedom of expression. This freedom is being misused, according to some. There have been acts of sporadic (low-level) violence, and at least one high-profile case of suicide. Rumblings of violence have begun to appear in other locations. As of this writing, it is unclear whether this unrest in our universities is a fundamental dissatisfaction or one that has been stoked by political parties for narrow political objectives.

Bhagat Singh’s short and eventful life had many strands. He displayed an extraordinary commitment to his cause. He was an avowed atheist. He was a revolutionary and a socialist. He was a fearless patriot. He believed in using arms to gain self-respect and independence. He read and wrote a lot.

The failure of the HSRA to institutionalize itself beyond its founders provides the lesson once again that the path of violence cannot be a strategic one. Gandhi said this, “but I want you to realize Bhagat Singh’s error. The way they pursued was wrong and futile. I wish to tell these young men with all the authority with which a father can speak to his children that the way of violence can only lead to perdition".

Even though Bhagat Singh’s methods were wrong, his dedication to a cause is worthy of emulation. His fearlessness came from an inner determination and was reinforced by his extensive reading. That too is worthy of being followed. Bhagat Singh himself would have frowned upon a jingoistic, non-nuanced adoption of any of our heroes. That may be the most important lesson of all for today’s young.

PS: Shaheed Bhagat Singh, socialist and revolutionary, himself said, “bombs and pistols do not make revolution. The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting stone of ideas".

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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