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).
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