It is amazing how deep in our sub-conscious the spirit of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh lives. His adult life to the end was spent in Lahore, where he was educated, carried out his activities, was tried and ultimately hanged till death on the 23rd of March 1931 at Lahore Jail’s gallows.
Yet we, officially, disown him because of our warped sense of nationhood. Last week the world celebrated the 110th birth anniversary of Lahore’s bravest son. Naturally in communal Pakistan no one cared, for most people think he solely belongs across the border. Nothing could be more wrong. Yet as the great historian Irfan Habib wrote last Thursday: “For Bhagat Singh there was no Bharat Mata ke Jai, Vande Matram, Sat Sri Akal and Allah-o-Akbar slogans. He only knew two: Inquilab Zindabad and Hindustan Zindabad”. It is mind-blogging just why his role in the freedom movement of our country is ignored, if disowned is not a better word.
Let me start this piece on a lighter note. A year after Independence, Pakistan’s hockey team participated in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. They reached the semi-finals where they lost to India 2-0. For the bronze medal they first tied 1-1 with The Netherland and then lost 4-0. On all the occasions, as Pakistan’s national anthem had not been written, the players sang the film song “Mera Rang de Basanti Chola” (Dear mother, dye my robe the colour of spring”). It was an unprompted response to a feeling of complete freedom as reflected in a film on the life of Bhagat Singh.
Of recent a Lahore lawyer by the name of Imtiaz Rashid Qureshi has moved the Lahore High Court for a retrial of the Bhagat Singh case. He claims that the FIR lodged against Bhagat Singh and Rajguru had a very serious lacuna. The plea is that the transfer of the case from a magistrate’s court to a tribunal set up under a Special Ordinance was ‘ultra vires’, the Latin for “beyond legal authority” as by the time of the sentences the ‘Special Ordinance’ had expired and was never ever made an ‘Act’ of law.
He claims the trial, sentence and punishment were, therefore, all ‘illegal’ and Bhagat Singh and Rajguru should be declared innocent, even if they are dead now. He wants to reclaim his hero’s name. This he says is critical if we in Pakistan are to claim them as our national heroes too.
Amazingly, Mr. Jinnah blamed “this damnable system which comes down hard on poor people”. Gandhi was to write after the hanging: “Bhagat Singh did not wish to live. He refused to even apologise for his actions. He even refused to appeal the sentence. He took to violence and I find violence as a tactic difficult to cope with”. Nehru though he admired his courage, suggested that a legal course should have been followed. “But then Bhagat Singh certainly did vindicate the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him the nation”, he diplomatically claimed.
It would make sense if we knew the man better, as well as know of the places where Bhagat Singh stayed and hid all over Lahore. He was a Sandhu Jat born in 1907 in Chak 105 GB, village Banga in Jaranwala. His father and two uncles were arrested for participating in the Ghadar Movement, while his great grandfather and his brothers were all soldiers in the army of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. He moved to Lahore to study in the National College set up in the famous Bradlaugh Hall on Rattigan Road just behind the Central Model School.
Once in Lahore he joined the National College and won an All-Punjab debate and also an essay competition. He read a lot, wrote articles in newspapers, and took a liking to Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy Movement. When his family arranged his marriage, Bhagat Singh ran away to Kanpur and wrote a letter telling his family: “I am wedded to the revolution”.
The incident that propelled him to fame was when Bhagat Singh and his friend Rajguru shot dead in December 1928 a young British police officer by the name of John Saunders by mistake. They believed that James Scott was responsible for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, a politician of Lahore, outside the city’s railway station at the tip of Landa Bazaar. A ‘lathi’ charge by Scott had seriously injured Lala Lajpat, who two weeks later died.
The shooter Rajguru thought he was aiming at James Scott, the man responsible for Lajpat’s death. Little did he know that Saunders was waiting for Scott outside the police lines, just opposite the DAV College, now known as Islamia College Civil Lines, just behind Lahore’s District Courts. The shots were fired from a second-storey window of Government College’s New Hostel. They then jumped the GC college hostel wall, crossed the road and jumped into the DAV College.
By the time the police rushed towards the New Hostel, the revolutionaries had fled through the DAV College. A police constable, Chanan Singh, saw them flee and chased them, only to be shot by a third revolutionary Chandra Shekar Azad, who was positioned to fend off chasers. It was a well-planned action.
Few know where Bhagat Singh hid after running away. Rajguru and Azad went towards Shahdara where they had set up an explosives manufacturing facility in a rented house, which still stands. But Bhagat Singh ran past the College of Veterinary Sciences, through Rattigan Road, past the shrine of Ali Hajveri and then into the old Walled City. There he spent a night in a relative’s house in Lohari Mandi and early next morning shifted to the Dyal Singh College hostel, where the superintendent Mr. Malhotra, hid him in his house. For four days he stayed there, just once going for a walk of Lakshmi Chowk to buy a few snacks. Then Azad and Rajguru joined him and they all left together. Mr. Malhotra’s son Arun recently came to Lahore and narrated details of this phase of Bhagat Singh’s life.
After this action the Lahore revolutionaries group put up posters all over Lahore. They then kept on the run for a long time and finally they set off bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi in April 1929. Amazingly, he and his friends all peacefully courted arrest, only to be charged for the killing of Saunders. Even the bombs let off were huge firecrackers that did not injure anyone. They had wanted to make a point, and they made it effectively. Amazingly Bhagat Singh also stayed for one night in the house of Khawaja Ferozuddin, whose daughter married Allama Iqbal. The Lahore lawyer Khawaja Haris is a grandson of Khawaja Ferozuddin. Other places have been claimed, but without adequate proof.
The trial of Bhagat Singh led to him becoming a national hero and his defiant stance led to demonstrations all over the sub-continent. He was tried and hanged in Lahore’s Central Jail on the 23rd of March, 1931, the gallows of which stood where today Shadman Crossing exists.
After his hanging he and his friends were cremated at Hussainwala, which became Pakistan in 1947. This sacred place was transferred to India in exchange for 12 villages near the Sulemanki Headworks. Amazingly no magistrate would handle the hanging, so Nawab Muhammad Ahmed Khan Kasuri did the ‘job’. Ironically this gent was shot dead at Shadman Crossing at the very place he approved the hanging of Bhagat Singh. For this killing Z.A. Bhutto was hanged.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2017
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