On Bhagat Singh's 92nd death anniversary, a portrait of grand defiance

The historic Karachi session of the Congress took place in the immediate aftermath of his execution

March 23, 2023 marks Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh's 92nd death anniversary
March 23, 2023 marks Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh's 92nd death anniversary

Praveen Davar

The last week of this month marks two landmarks – the 92nd death anniversary of iconic revolutionary Bhagat Singh and the historic Karachi session of Indian National Congress, 1931. It was on March 23, 1931 that Bhagat Singh and his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged at Lahore central jail exactly six days before the Congress session which, inarguably, was one of the most important.

Two hours before he was hanged Bhagat Singhs lawyer Prem Nath Mehta met him and asked him in the presence of the head jail warden whether he had any message for the nation. This is what Bhagat Singh (as quoted by Kuldip Nayar in his book The Life & Trial of Bhagat Singh): 'Just the two messages – "Down With Imperialism!" and "Long Live Revolution!".' When Mehta asked him how he felt he replied, 'Happy, as always.' And when he asked if there was anything else he desired he said, 'Yes, I want to be born again in the same country so that I can serve it again.' Then Bhagat Singh asked Mehta to thank Pandit Nehru and Babu Subhash Chandra Bose because both of them had shown great interest in his case. In fact the young revolutionary held both Nehru and Bose in high esteem for their commitment to socialism. In 1928 he had written in journal, Kirti: "The most important young leaders in the present scenario are Bengal's Subhash Chandra Bose and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. These two leaders are making their presence felt and are participating in the movements of the youth in a big way. Both are wise and true patriots."

The three young revolutionaries were moved out of their cells to prepare them for the hanging. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru locked arms and strode behind the sentries broke into their favourite freedom song:

Kabhi woh din bhi ayega Kejab azad hum honge

Yeh apni hi zamin hogi Yeh apna aasman hoga

Shahidon ki chitaon par Lagenge har baar mele

Watan par marne walon ka Yahi nam-o-nishan hoga

(Someday that day will come when we are free/ This will be our land and our sky/ People will gather in the grounds where once/ Martyrs' pyres were lit/ A tribute to all those who/ Gave their lives for their land)

As the news of Bhagat Singh's execution spread, the nation went into mourning. There were processions throughout the country. Many went without food. People wore black badges and shut down their businesses to express their grief. The British stayed indoors. Among the Indian political leaders, Nehru was the first to pay his tributes. He said: "Bhagat Singh was a clean fighter who faced the enemy in an open field. He was a young boy full of passionate zeal for the country. He was like a spark that grew into a great flame in a short time and spread from one city of the country to other, illumining the darkness everywhere."

A pall of gloom hung over the Motilal Nehru pandal at the annual Congress Party session in Karachi. When the session was scheduled for March 29, 1931, nobody had an inkling that Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru would be hanged six days ahead of schedule. A procession to be led by President-elect Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was abandoned in grief. Reception Committee Chairman Choithram P. Gidwani said in a welcome speech that the tragic news had "plunged the whole country in sorrow and indignation" The public was desolate. It had expected that the lives of its heros would be spared. This was natural in the wake of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and the reconciliation between the Government of India and the Congress.

Subhash Chandra Bose had told Gandhiji that they should, if necessary, break with the Viceroy on the question of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, "because the execution was against the spirit, if the letter, of the Delhi pact." still, Netaji added: "It must be admitted that he (Gandhi) did try his very best." Gandhi's secretary Madadev Desai also quoted the Mahatma as saying in Gujarati: "I was not here to defend myself and hence I have not placed the facts as to what I have done Bhagat Singh and his comrades. I have tried to persuade the Viceroy with all the methods of persuasion I had. After my last meeting with the relatives of Bhagat Singh, on the appointed date, that is, the 23rd morning, I wrote a personnel letter to the Viceroy, in which I had poured in my whole being – heart and soul – but it has all gone in vain... Pujya Pandit Malaviyaji and Dr. Sapru also did their utmost."

Jawaharlal Nehru sponsored a resolution which was seconded by Madan Mohan Malaviya. The resolution said: 'This Congress ... places on record its admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of the late Sardar Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru ... This Congress is of the opinion that this triple execution is an act of wanton vengeance and is a deliberate flouting of the unanimous demand of the nation for commutation. ... the government has lost the golden opportunity of promoting goodwill essential at this juncture.'

Gandhi chose Nehru to pilot the resolution because he was popular among the youth. Patel was heckled. What acted as a catharsis was a speech by Bhagat Singh's father, Kishen Singh. Delegates wept loudly and openly as Kishen Singh recalled Bhagat Singh's words: "Bhagat Singh told me not to worry. Let me be hanged. One week after the execution, the country will get independence. He warned me against going to the Privy Council because he said slaves had no right to complain." Kishen Singh spoke about how he and other members of his family were not permitted by the jail authorities to meet Bhagat Singh a day before the execution: 'He was there, we could see him. But the police did not allow us to meet him. We just waved hands. How could they do this to a father whose son was being snatched away before his eyes?' But he also made a fervent appeal: 'You must support your general (Gandhi). You must support all Congress leaders. Only then will you be able to win independence for the country.'

Bhagat Singh and his brand of revolution caste system and communalism. It must be underlined that none of the communal organisations, be it the Hindu, Muslim or Sikhs, had spoken a word in favour or defence of these revolutionaries. Ironically, now all communal organisations want give a religious colour to these national martyrs despite Bhagat Singh being a committed atheist had refused to perform any religious rituals before going to gallows.

When Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were going to gallows arm in arm, laughing and singing, it was jail warden Charat Singh and the prisoners who were crying and shouting 'Inqilab Zindabad' with the three revolutionaries. Having great affection for Bhagat Singh, the deeply religious jail warden had requested to recite the Gurbani before going to the gallows. Bhagat Singh told him politely and affectionately that if he did so, the coming generations would think of him as a coward who could not remain true to his conviction in the face of death. ix months before his execution Bhagat Singh had underlined this spirit in his celebrated essay 'Why I am an atheist' that he will not remember 'God' while going to the gallows, even if he was dubbed as vain, something he was sure of even before the judgment came.

Bhagat Singh is an icon whose popularity is no longer restricted to India. He is increasingly, in South Asia, especially Pakistan, being recognised as a 'shared hero' between the two countries.

Praveen Davar is an ex Army officer, columnist and author of ‘Freedom Struggle and Beyond‘

Edited by Rishitha Shetty

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