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Death by bullet, not noose


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One can’t but be inspired by Bhagat Singh who wanted to be treated as a war prisoner. He wanted to be shot dead by a military detachment, not hanged.

It’s not so much the name of Bhagat Singh, but the idea that Indians and Pakistanis share a common, anti-colonial past that seems to bother those who attacked a group of activists in Lahore on Saturday.

The activists, who had gathered in Lahore to demand that Shadman Chowk be renamed Bhagat Singh Chowk, faced the ire of right-wingers opposed to the idea.

The issue of re-naming has not only faced the wrath of right-wingers, it also led to intervention by the Lahore High Court, which restrained municipal authorities from going ahead with the change.

Brave, well-read, tremendous organiser, Bhagat Singh went to the gallows on March 23, 1931. On the eve of his hanging along with Sukhdev and Rajguru, for “waging war” against the British State, he wrote to the British Punjab governor:

We have to point out that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore, war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged. It rests with you to prove that you really meant what your court has said. We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.  

Eighty-two years later, these words still have the ring of true sacrifice. A man, sentenced to death, is asking that the British government follow its own law and execute, not hang him.

In today’s world, where the pursuit of ideal seems like a near-worthless exercise, men like Bhagat Singh remain a powerful reminder of what went into the creation of a free India and Pakistan.

Bhagat Singh was a superb writer, his words fired with passion and reason. He was more than a worthy match for the British colonialists – both, in his writings and in his fearlessness.

He took to task his father Kishen Singh for submitting a petition in his defence in these words:

Father, I am quite perplexed. I fear I might overlook the ordinary principles of etiquette, and my language may become a little harsh while criticizing or rather censuring this move on your part. Let me be candid. I feel as though I have been stabbed in the back. Had any other person done it, I would have considered it to be nothing short of treachery. But, in your case, let me say that it has been a weakness – a weakness of the worst type.

It is such words and the spirit of sacrifice that have made Bhagat Singh the man he is. Dead, gone, executed but living, present and here for all those who believe that the battle against injustice, intolerance and oppression must go on.

Earlier, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were sentenced to “life transportation” in May 1929 in the Delhi Assembly bomb case. As undertrials, they received good treatment but after the transfer to Mianwali and Lahore central jails all that changed. Both demanded they be treated as political prisoners and went on a hunger strike.

After a long hunger-strike by Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the colonial government relented and set up a jails inquiry committee. One of his comrades, Jatindranath Das, was too far gone following the hunger strike to be saved and died in Lahore on September 13, 1929.

Speaking in the colonial Central Legislative Assembly, Mohammed Ali Jinnah spoke in eloquent defence of the hunger-strikers on September 12, 1929:

The man who goes on hunger-strike has a soul. He is moved by the soul and he believes in the justice of his cause; he is not an ordinary criminal who is guilty of cold-blooded, sordid, wicked crime.

Again, on September 14, a day after Jatindranath Das’s martyrdom, Jinnah said:

Do you think any man wants to go to jail? Is it an easy thing? Do you think any man wants to exceed the bounds of law for the purpose of making a speech which your law characterises as seditious speech, knowing full well the consequences, that he may have to go to jail for six months or a year? Do you think that this springs out of a mere joke or fun or amusement? Do you not realise yourself, if you open your eyes, that there is resentment, universal resentment against your (British) policy, against your programme?

Bhagat Singh and his associates don’t belong to India, Pakistan or any other nation. While they are steeped in national context, they belong to the world and the struggle of ordinary people against foreign oppressive rule.

It’s a pity that we have reduced their vision to tatters.

  (Note: The extracts from the documents and Jinnah’s speech are taken from documents published in A.G. Noorani’s superb book The Trial of Bhagat Singh, Oxford University Press).


Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Author Image

Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan. He tweets @abaruah64.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (46) Closed

Akash Mar 25, 2013 08:37am
Great article
rich Mar 25, 2013 09:04am
so very ordinary, nothing original, it has been reapeted so many times, would have apprciated if an article was written as to who is in favour and who is not in naming the street and why
Sonia K Mar 25, 2013 09:14am
Umair Mar 25, 2013 09:18am
It is a shame that we do not get to learn about freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh in Pakistan.
satram sangi Mar 25, 2013 09:20am
Bhagat singh, outshining, outstanding, brave and bold icon of our mutual nation. There is no any chance to say sorry. what a hero of our nation. proud. good Amit Baruah.
sham Mar 25, 2013 09:32am
For once I thought a Pakistani writer had seen the light - then its not the case
Berliner Mar 25, 2013 10:21am
Distortion of history in Pakistan is the cause of renaming of Shadman chowk.
AHA Mar 25, 2013 10:56am
So true. We must remember that we fought together (and lost together) in 1858. For as late as 1946, there was some possibility that we could have remained united. The partition was the result of some stubborn leadership on both sides of the divide.
Aamir Mar 25, 2013 11:04am
A true hero of independence. More heroic than many of our Muslim shoe polishers of the British Crown. It is shame that people opposed the square to be named after him. Do they have a better name from Lahore?
citizen Mar 25, 2013 11:10am
Bhagat SIngh, Great !
silli Mar 25, 2013 11:25am
This article is a testament to the fact that right wing mentality won in Pakistan. As long as that is there....there can be no aman ki asha. Period.
Hundal Mar 25, 2013 11:41am
How can the people of pakistan forget them (Bhagat singh and his comrades) ?They fought for combined India.
PJ Singh Mar 25, 2013 12:19pm
I feel that, I have let Bhagat Singh down by not helping build the nation/region as much I should have or could have. Thank you Amit for remind me of that. I an Indian, but don't feel that I am Indian or Pakistani, but feel that what has been endowed to me is because of heroes like Bhagat Singh. I wish I could hold a candle to him, but I am not worthy yet. ..Time to do something about that
Humanity & love Mar 25, 2013 12:20pm
Pakistan Government should cross religious border and should tell all the students about the great freedom fighters history, otherwise it is like fooling yourself, if you start telling the Good thing about all other religion people, Pakistan can turn in to heaven as hospitality will be good for tourists/travelers to pakistan, all this days you guys have seen the effect of hate, do you want to see the effect of love?
winston Mar 25, 2013 12:38pm
Pakistan is hijacked by islamists, who are intolerent and narrow minded.
Zak Mar 25, 2013 12:46pm
Jinnah was brilliant and a giant amongst minions in his honesty and his field
Salman Mar 25, 2013 12:54pm
Great article, I would say that Bhagat Singh lives in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis.He was hailed as one of the heroes of Punjab by Hanif Ramay's Punjab ka Mukadama.He was compared with Raja Porus and RaI Ahmad Kharal, its true that we have got issues with right wing rather rabid right wing people in our country but let me tell you that Bhagat Sing died for the motherland, he did not die for Pakistan or India. It does not really matter whether M K Gandhi or right wing Pakistani mindset, no one can diminish the stature of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. I think there should be a memorial on the border between Indian and Pakistan to honour Bhagat Singh and his comrades and all those who died fighting illegitimate British rule. Very well written Amit sahab
Md Imran Mar 25, 2013 01:17pm
Why not name the circle after others who fought for Pakistan's independence and died for it ? How about Iqbal or Maududi ?
Shakoor Alam Mar 25, 2013 01:54pm
Dear Sham, you might have missed the 3rd paragraph of the article about gathered activists and let me add here,it included writers like Abdullah Malik as well.Try not to be too sarcastic about Pakistani intelligentsia!
SBB Mar 25, 2013 02:00pm
Excellent, eye-opening article. Thank you. The closing says it all. Bhagat Singh does not belong to India or Pakistan, but to the world!
Alam Mar 25, 2013 02:35pm
chaman, their names are already there in many chowks. the current demand to name it as Bhagat Singh is justified.. only silly political mullas can be averse to it
Irfan Baloch Mar 25, 2013 02:46pm
Bless his soul Mar 25, 2013 02:49pm
All due respect to Bhagat Singh and what he stood for, freedom.. Its a great thing we can be what we want to be and become true masters of our own destiny. If we don
Irfan Baloch Mar 25, 2013 02:58pm
Maudidi fought for Pakistan? thats news for me he & his kind declared Pakistan NaPakistan and termed it a sin. if this was meant in a jest then it was distasteful
Thoughtful Mar 25, 2013 03:14pm
Maududi fought for Pakistan's independence? Which history book are you reading? You are a first rate ignorant and biased person.
Ali Mar 25, 2013 03:36pm
You just did-there is always a time for learning and for you it came now.
Shakoor Alam Mar 25, 2013 03:49pm
Well said, Mr. Salman.I like the term "rabid right wing people",really they have earned it.
Ramana Mar 25, 2013 04:12pm
Strange that a man cunning enough to make sure he was never jailed for even a day is commenting about the difficulties of being in jail....
Naeemchishti Mar 25, 2013 04:29pm
it is nice to read about brave man who fought for justice and fearless when death looked quite near......its great inspiration......
Avik Ray Mar 25, 2013 04:44pm
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Jytindranath Das (Bagha Jatin as was known in Calcutta) gave their lives for an independent India. Not India and Pakistan.
bnath Mar 25, 2013 04:59pm
Totally agree
sanjay Mar 25, 2013 05:26pm
and ofcourse there are intellectuals like Nazam Sethi, Hassan Nisar, Miraz sahab and Haider sahab in Pakistan.
hanif Mar 25, 2013 05:46pm
Maudoodi?, what the heck he did for Pakistan, except played with innocent people in the name of Islam. He should have been hanged
kumar Mar 25, 2013 06:58pm
I would like to thank those who are making sincere effort to restore Bhagat Singh in his birth place, looking at mixed comments it is very clear that even educated Pakistanies are not completely aware of their own history, In today's internet world where information is freely available I suggest educated Pakistanies to do their own research about history of their land. Once you accept the fact you were once Buddist Hindus before Arab invasion, introspection will lead you to believe you are a Indian Muslim If another 150 million Indian Muslims can co-exist with 850 Million Hindus and christians Sikhs, Jews may be you should be able to do the same. However these thoughts will send shivers to your war mongering leaders as they will not be able to rule you in pretext of protecting you from "Indians"
Tushar Mar 25, 2013 07:03pm
Very well written P J Singh. I totally agree with you. I share the same sentiments. We glorify the deeds of our past heros, and then, that is where the story ends. We do not/want to carry forward the torch of 'everything' they all stood for; for our current and future generations.
majidzadeh Mar 25, 2013 07:22pm
Most educated people in Pakistan respect the sacrifices of people like Bhagat Singh - how can they ignore the moving words of Jinnah who respected his actions. An articulate and moving piece. Although most sensible Pakistanis want to honour Bhagat Singh by renaming the Chowk, a small minority of ignorant people who know nothing of Jinnah, Bhagat Singh or the struggle against colonial rule will continue to be obscurantist and resist common sense.
umesh bhagwat Mar 25, 2013 11:08pm
gr8 article! congrats to the Dawn! inquilab zindabad!
shaha Mar 26, 2013 03:55am
Agreed Salman sahab....
miqbal Mar 26, 2013 04:34am
learn lesson from him
sudha karan Mar 26, 2013 04:49am
true spirit of a patriot
Bobby Srinivas Mar 26, 2013 05:47am
Great article indeed! More importantly, congratulations to Dawn newspaper, which has been unbiased and objective in publishing articles from variious angles, albeit the fringe right wing radicals! Bobby Srinivas, Nagpur, India
Dr. Baig Mar 26, 2013 06:46am
It is not a question of whose hero, the premise of creation of Pakistan is based not on shared roots but the fact that we are different. Indians can celebrate this mans life or death we don't have to. Soon you will start naming streets after Gandhi and Nehru or Mangal Pande. Pakistan decided to chart a separate course why do we have to debate this rubbish.
Ghazala Khan Mar 26, 2013 06:51am
IMHO, his example and him are not relevant these days.
bebark Mar 26, 2013 06:52am
when injustices become law then resistance become duty. it is proved by great heroes like bhagat...they think their duty to stand against it. no matter how much they live but they never die....
sheeraz Mar 26, 2013 09:28am
congrates to the Dawn for publishing it and Amit who has reminded us of our great heroes.....
JAT IS JAT Mar 26, 2013 11:58am
true friend ,if one chowk in Pakistan birth place of shaheede azam can give him his due respect what is wrong in naming it after him