Did Bhagat Singh help Nehru push Congress to demand complete independence?

It is impossible to predict how things would have turned out had Singh’s rhetoric not captured people's imagination.
Updated 01 Oct, 2019 04:37pm

The article was first published in March 2018 and has been replugged for Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary.

The reaction to the assassination was not what Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev had anticipated.

On December 17, 1927 the three freedom fighters shot dead JP Saunders, assistant superintendent of police outside the Superintendent’s Office in Lahore. The act, originally intended for Superintendent of Police James Scott, was meant to avenge the death of freedom fighter and Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai.

Rai had died exactly a month ago, a few days after he was thrashed by the colonial police led by Scott outside the Lahore Railway Station, where he was protesting against the Simon Commission. The British had set up the commission to report on the progress of constitutional reforms in India, but it was criticised for not including a single Indian member.

Rai had been a mentor to Bhagat Singh. He was a former ally of Ajit Singh, Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary uncle and role model. The young leader had also studied at Lahore’s National College, which Rai had established, and had imbibed revolutionary literature at the Dwarka Das Library that Rai had set up in the city.

A matter of principle

A committed communist, Bhagat Singh had ideological differences with Rai, who was regarded as a Hindu communalist. Besides being a member of the Congress, Rai was also part of the Arya Samaj, an organisation that had played an important role in the communalisation of national identity in India.

However, despite his differences with Rai, Bhagat Singh and his comrades felt it was essential to avenge the death of one of the leading politicians of the country. Rai was a former president of the Congress and he, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal – known as the Lal-Bal-Pal trio – had been responsible for adding fervour to the Indian national struggle.

For Bhagat Singh, Rai’s death was a blow to the honour of the people of India. However, when the honour was avenged with the death of Saunders, it failed to inspire the revolutionary reaction Bhagat Singh had anticipated.

Many prominent leaders and politicians distanced themselves from what was described as a “terrorist” act, while numbers at the regular meetings of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, the parent organisation of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, also dwindled. Even The People, a weekly newspaper Rai had founded in Lahore, called the assassination a desperate action.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades reasoned that a more courageous act was required to inspire the revolutionary spirit of the people – an act that would “Make the deaf hear.” Thus it was decided that a bomb would be thrown in the Legislative Assembly in Delhi, making sure no one was harmed in the process. But Bhagat Singh realised that even that might not achieve their objective.

He then suggested that the bombers court arrest thereafter. He argued that they would use their trial to educate the people about their revolutionary ideas, thus setting up the conditions for an eventual communist revolution in the country. However, the country’s leading politicians also condemned the bombing in the Legislative Assembly, much like they did with Saunders’ assassination.

Gandhi equated the bombing with the murder of the Hindu publisher Rajpal in Lahore for publishing a controversial pamphlet on the Prophet of Islam. Motilal Nehru declared that the choice for the people of India lay between Gandhi (the adherent of non-violence) and “Balraj”, a pseudonym used by Bhagat Singh for the assassination.

At this stage the young revolutionary leader was far from the hero he was to become shortly after.

Bhagat Singh’s popularity

The situation began to change dramatically during the record-breaking hunger strike that Bhagat Singh and his comrades undertook in jail to protest against the deplorable conditions there. Overnight, the public sentiment changed in their favour. Meetings arranged by the Naujawan Bharat Sabha and other organisations sympathetic to Bhagat Singh’s agenda began attracting thousands of people.

The zeal increased even further following the death of their comrade Jatin Das, who lost his life on the 63rd day of the hunger strike due to the damage to his lungs after being force-fed. The hunger strike touched the conscience of the people, making the nationalists household names. Many argue that around this time, Bhagat Singh began rivalling the popularity of Gandhi.

In the meantime, the Indian National Congress was also experiencing a transition. A new cadre of leadership, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, was emerging. They were both leftist in their ideology and critical of the existing leadership, which included Gandhi and Motilal Nehru.

At this point, the Congress was demanding Dominion Status from Britain, which would have allowed India autonomy within the monarchy, like Australia and Canada. To the younger leaders, this was a compromise. Jawaharlal Nehru particularly had serious reservations about it, but eventually accepted the idea after being persuaded by Gandhi.

However, the rise of Bhagat Singh’s popularity meant that the Congress started losing its influence over the youth, who were being increasingly drawn towards his political rhetoric. Jawaharlal Nehru was already sympathetic to the nationalist leader, whom he visited in jail. He also published the defence statement of Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the Congress bulletin, for which he was criticised by Gandhi.

The slogan of “Inquilab Zindabad” being used by Bhagat Singh and his comrades started replacing the slogan of “Vande Matram” popularised by the Congress. Towards the end of the 1920s, it became increasingly clear to the older leadership of the Congress that they would isolate their young followers if they did not accommodate their political agenda.

The rise of Jawaharlal Nehru

On September 28, 1929 much to the surprise of everyone, Nehru, backed by his father and Gandhi, was chosen as the new Congress president. This was to mark a shift in the Congress’ policies. A couple of months later, on New Year’s Eve, the tricolour flag of independent India was hoisted on the banks of the Ravi in Lahore, as the Congress changed its demand from Dominion Status to Purna Swaraj or complete independence.

Bhagat Singh’s popularity was at its peak in Punjab, with Lahore being his political home. He, Rajguru and Sukhdev were executed there on March 23, 1931, a little more than a year after the Congress called for Purna Swaraj. Their last rites were performed on the banks of Ravi by Bhagat Singh’s supporters who had snatched their remains from the colonial state.

It is impossible to predict how things would have turned out had Bhagat Singh’s rhetoric from jail not captured the imagination of the people. Would it have been possible for Jawaharlal Nehru to rise so quickly to the top in the Congress? Would the largest political organisation of the country have changed its demand from Dominion Status to Purna Swaraj so soon after first demanding Dominion Status?

There is, however, no doubting that Bhagat Singh’s popularity and rhetoric made it easier for Jawaharlal Nehru to convince the senior leadership of the Congress to revolutionise their agenda or risk losing their popular support to other more radical organisations.

This piece was originally published in Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.


Author Image

Haroon Khalid has an academic background in anthropology from Lums. He has been travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and cultural heritage. He is the author of four books — Imagining Lahore, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.

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

Mar 29, 2018 07:10pm
Deft weaving of many episodes into a readable narrative. Naman to Bhagat Singhji.
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Mar 29, 2018 07:46pm
Well articulated .
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Siddarth Tickoo
Mar 29, 2018 08:02pm
This author - Haroon Khalid - writes tantalizing prices of work. Original in current Pakistani context. Kudos to him.
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Mar 29, 2018 08:58pm
Good article and great effort to bring the truth. Kudos to the author. Wish to see more and bring the true colors of Gandhi and Nehru.
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Jai Ramwani
Mar 29, 2018 09:26pm
Very well explained facts of the time.
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Mar 29, 2018 09:57pm
Good article!
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Mar 29, 2018 10:31pm
Thanks to the author and Dawn for the excellent article.This piece of information from the history of Indian subcontinent is very interesting and educative. Bhagat Singh stands out to be one of the most famous and inspiring icons of Indian freedom struggle. He has admirers and followers on both sides of the border. The partition of 1947 was most unfortunate Incident in the history of the subcontinent. It is very interesting to know that the Indian tricolour flag was first hoisted in Lahore. Really beautiful article.
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Yet another Indian sri1
Mar 29, 2018 10:58pm
Very nice, thank you Haroon. Those were the true heroes who got us independence. We all should be thankful to them for compelling the Brits to finally leave India. But unfortunately, the British left us with deep divisions that they expected would take centuries to rectify. Luckily adapting civilizations can get up from any direst situation.
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Mar 30, 2018 08:13am
Thank you Haroon, very well researched article; I learned a refreshingly new perspective on Bhagat Singh's contribution to the freedom from British rule - thank you!
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Najma Hisham
Mar 30, 2018 10:02am
As an amritsari I can say that, Haroon Khalid truly is our Shaan-i-Panjab.
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Mar 30, 2018 11:00am
It's a beautifully written article.
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Mar 30, 2018 11:21am
Very good Article. Well written
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Bharat Dave
Mar 30, 2018 11:22am
This part of history is not known to many Indians. Thanks for educating.
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Mar 30, 2018 11:25am
Thanks Haroon for this great article. One of the finest pieces I have read on the Dawn site and I really like Dawn for its coverage and unbiased articles by other senior journalists and experts. Keep it coming.
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Mar 30, 2018 11:44am
You may disagree with his methods but Bhagat Singh - all of his 23 years - was among the few who isolated the root cause of the Indian malaise, namely, communalism. We could use some of his vision right now.
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Mar 30, 2018 12:08pm
In the complex maze of what is right & and what is wrong,Haroon presents a piece of history in a lucid manner.Thanks Haroon and Dawn.
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Mar 30, 2018 12:42pm
Thank you Haroon for a very informative article. Here is why I think we belong together. For me to know that the Tri Colour was first hoisted in Lahore brings an additional level of emotional connection to the city. Similarly when I came to know, Musharraf was from Delhi, there is certain level of pride and nostalgia. Just feel partition was terrible thing to have happened. It just tore apart families, people. Dawn, I would say is one of the finest publications in the sub-continent. Thank you Dawn for continuing to be voice moderation, rationality and unity. I hope one day people can cross borders freely and not judged by religion, caste and creed.
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Random Indian
Mar 30, 2018 01:31pm
Brilliant article, as usual! 1. Indian anti-colonial struggle is full of men and women of integrity. Even if they were politically not aligned, the spoke up or took to arms in support of the other when the latter was wronged. This tradition goes back to the Sikh gurus who endured extreme torture and gave up their lives speaking and acting on behalf of others. 2. Nehru family has always been "behind the curve", but very deft at survival and changing in the nick of time to win the mandate. Even today, they are trying to win back the young and impatient demographic but 70+ years of statist lethargy is hard to shake off.
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R Sultan
Mar 30, 2018 01:36pm
A particularly relevant piece and period of our (India/Pakistan) history. The 1920s and the 30's were seminal in leading up to independence from British rule to elf rule. This should be in our school/college history books.
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Dr BN Anand
Mar 30, 2018 01:49pm
This is real history and must be part of school history books on both sides of border.
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Mar 30, 2018 02:43pm
Bhagat Singh. Great son of this soil Al Hind. Thanks to him and scores of innumerable freedom fighters who got us out of the clutches of the British. Keep up the good work Khalid.
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Mar 30, 2018 03:55pm
Thanks to Dawn and Mr Khalid.. what a beautiful write up. Haroon, can you please write about Mr Jinnah. I read that he used to work with Motilal Nehru.. I can only imagine the Power of young Mr Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru in the same room!
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Ram K
Mar 30, 2018 05:14pm
Something about our shared history. Very well written and informed.
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Paul Gill
Mar 30, 2018 06:11pm
A wonderful and well informative article. A very sweet Salute to Haroon Khalid Sahib Jee!
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Mar 30, 2018 07:42pm
Thanks to Mr. Haroon Khalid and Dawn from a great grandson of Bipin Chandra Pal for presenting an article of a hero of independence from Britain. We have been fed with the propaganda that only the leaders like Nehru and Gandhi brought independence while ignoring countless others who also gave their all.
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Terry Bola
Mar 30, 2018 08:57pm
Excellent article ! It is full of fascinating information. I eagerly await such writings. Keep doing such good work, my friend !
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Indian Patriot
Mar 30, 2018 10:40pm
Great article, Haroon kuods to your research.
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Mar 31, 2018 12:36am
Nicely said great work done by Bhagat singh Rajguru Batukeshwar Dutt Chandrasekhar azad Subhash Chandra Bose all immortalized in the song mere desh ki dharti ,in the Manoj Kumar classic upkar.as an Indian these names continue to inspire the entire nation of India and should inspire Pakistanis as well.we live in independent countries due to their sacrifices as they shook the foundations of the British empire
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Mar 31, 2018 05:12am
Awesome article! Haroon just has a knack for capturing history and presenting it with no prejudice. Present day Pakistan was home to many historical events from an Indian freedom movement standpoint. Showcasing them without bias touches us all.
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Dr Arslan
Mar 31, 2018 07:56am
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Mar 31, 2018 11:00am
Excellent article. Not many people know that Lahore was the place where Congress first called for "purna swaraj" or complete independence. Bhagat Singh was a true revolutionary and Mahatma Gandhi's' decision not to ask pardon for him in 1931 drew a lot of flak. But let is get some facts right. The British were law abiding. Blind violence would have made them adopt harsh means to put down agitations as happened earlier. The sight of ordinary peasants (men and women) marching towards the police to make salt in defiance of the law and stoically taking the brunt of the lathis moved the world (as shown beautifully in the film Gandhi) and Britain lost its moral conscience. Dawn should be congratulated for bringing out this article. I would also appeal to both the Govts. (Pakistan & India) to build a site on the river Ravi to signify that the first demand for independence of the entire sub-continent was made there for the benefit of all the countries.
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Kanwer Singh Arora
Mar 31, 2018 01:11pm
Excellent Khalid. So well written. Kudos to your analysis and so accurate description. Never knew this aspect of Independence.
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Mar 31, 2018 01:12pm
Nehru is more a villain then hero in my notes.
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Mar 31, 2018 08:48pm
Hats off once again Haroon ! I am a big fan of you and Bhagat Singh(more that any other figure of India and Pakistan's freedom struggle) This is a very accurate and well written article which does justice to Bhagat Singh. And let me be frank -while sitting on this side of border.Jinnah is criticized here ,but I would give him due credits - he supported Bhagat Singh when many other national leaders did not.
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Apr 01, 2018 02:00pm
Nice article, Kudos to Haroon Khalid
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Paul Gill
Sep 30, 2019 04:45pm
Well balanced and so informative article. Salute to The honourable author of this article!
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Sep 30, 2019 04:45pm
Why waste time doing analysis of useless matters.
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Sep 30, 2019 05:32pm
Nice work Haroon. Pakistan needs more and more people like you!
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Ashok Kumar
Sep 30, 2019 05:49pm
Excellent peace! Haroon's article really brings the emotion that many of would not otherwise realize. It makes you think there was time when people on both sides of the border had a common goal and that they fought together. alas, the euphoria of independence must have evaporated when the country was divided on communal lines. Kudos to Haroon and to Dawn. Excellent job!
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Oct 01, 2019 02:36am
Thank you Haroon Khalid for another great article. Informative for all in the sub continent.
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thomas benjamin
Oct 01, 2019 08:33am
Very informative. Thanks to the writer. But a thought popped in my mind.Had INC stayed with the slogan of Dominion instead of Purna Swaraj? There would have been no partition!Dominion is not too bad an idea.Australia and Canada are Dominion countries. But practically they have complete freedom.
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Oct 01, 2019 08:56am
Informative, insightful and objective... a rare mix in journalism today. Thanks for the wonderful read.
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Common Man
Oct 01, 2019 09:00am
Very well narrated reality of freedom struggle. Salute to Bhagat Singh
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Oct 01, 2019 02:47pm
Very interesting part of History about a single Nation/region that these Hero along with others fought for. Yes Nehru was an Opportunist who used the popularity of Bhagat Singh. Not only that he managed to throw out Subash Chandra Bose Using the vile Gandhi from Congress....
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Satya Sidhu
Oct 01, 2019 07:11pm
Great article man. Love your work. Keep going.
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Oct 02, 2019 05:23am
This has not been Pakistan's history so let's leave it there. What is the point in attempting to show a shared past when no one wants it?
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