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The revolutionary Bhagat

Published Mar 25, 2013 08:10pm

For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have a few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing at the door as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/
-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/

The sentence was to be executed on 24th of March. But due to inevitable reasons, the sentence had to be advanced for almost 16 hours. Jail administration had worked hard to ensure that the word should not reach inside the jail so the trio kept waiting for the next day. Punjab was blooming under late spring. When the twilight began to fade and Dadi Jai Kaur covered the earthen pot, something broke down inside her. This was 7.30, in the evening and the year was 1931.

Away from the village, when the sounds of the azaan from Data Durbar, in Lahore, began to fade out, panic engulfed Lahore Jail. The duty magistrate had refused to show up and the superintendent managed an honorary magistrate, Nawab Muhammad Ahmed from Qasur (not knowing that after another 48 years, the Nawab would send another leader to the gallows i.e. Mr. Bhutto). At about time, all three walked up to gallows with pride. One of them addressed the English surgeon, “Saheb, this is how we deal with death”. The executioner elbowed him and his victorious smile was hidden by a black mask. The big hand of the clock was on the heels of the small one, when an arm waved in the air and the three bodies slung on the rope. This was 7.30, in the evening and the year was 1931.

After a dark hour, the rear wall of prison was razed. An ambulance carried the dead bodies to Ganda Singh Wala, where they were cremated and the ashes were immersed in Sutlej. The day Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev were hanged, was the first day, when somebody raised a slogan against Gandhi in India.

The train now runs wild in Doaba. It inherits the happy-go-lucky mood of a farmer. Putting aside the rains, the Shylock, the yield and the cattle, his indifference is purely rural. The train, now, whistles for Tandlian Wala but a village, away from the track, hooks it up. This is 105 Gogera Branch, Banga, the village of Bhagat Singh. It was here that this dervish revolutionary was born.

Bhagat Singh, aged 10 years.

I asked Baba, "How do you differentiate between a dervish and a revolutionary?"

Baba replied, "The one who averts the beaten track is a revolutionary and the one who cares the least is a dervish. In hindsight, there aren't any differences".

Revolution was a common creed in this family. Arjun Singh, Bhagat Singh’s grandfather had three sons. Kishen Singh, the father, had been to prison many times and so was uncle Ajit Singh, who introduced Lala Lajpat Rai to Indian politics and was instrumental in many anti-imperialism movements. Uncle Sowran Singh, however, was special. Dadi Jai Kaur often told Bhagat that the day, Sowran Singh was tortured to death in prison was the day when he was born.

On his way to college, Bhagat had read almost every leftist book available, be it from the National College or the Dwarka Das Library. Revolution was in the air, the world had just seen a Great War and India had started her affair with nationalism.

Famous for its dusehri mangoes and embroidery work, the Kakori station gained prominence because of a train robbery. The revolutionaries had looted “8-Down” en-route Lucknow. The British wanted to set an example, while eliminating any trace of a political awakening in India. Scores of raids brought Ram Prasad Bismal, Ashfaq Ullah Khan, Thakur Roshan Singh and Rainder Nath Lahiri to court, which sentenced them to death.

Once in Lahore, he was arrested for suspected involvement in a bomb blast during the Ram Leela festival. After days of solitary confinement, he was informed about the charges against him and was released for a bail of 60,000 rupees. Kishan Singh sold a prized piece of land and brought the son home. Dadi Jai Kaur hurriedly had him engaged and the preparations for marriage kicked off. In their heart, everyone knew that he would never stay long. The insults at the hand of the police had fanned his anti-imperialism. The Hindustan Republic Association and the annexation of socialists to its title was a reflection of this thought process.

The Simon Commission toured India in 1928 and was greeted with angry Indians wherever they went. In Lahore, the peaceful protest under Lala Lajpat Rai, turned violent when Mr Scott, the superintendent police ordered baton charge. A blow to Lala Lajpat Rai proved fatal and he passed away after few days. On 17th December 1928, somebody shot Saunders, the assistant superintendent in front of the headquarters and the walls of Lahore carried posters by the Indian Republic Association Army ,who said that death of Saunders was Lala Lajpat avenged. The murder was originally planned by Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Raj Guru and aimed at taking out Scott, but Saunders came out instead and was wrongly shot at.

An English murder in India could not go down easily, so the complete police machinery was set in motion. The entrances and exits of Lahore were sealed but Bhagat Singh and his fellows managed to escape (thanks to Durga Bhabhi, a female lead in the freedom movement).

On 8th of April 1929, two men, dressed in western attire, entered the chambers. When the session was in process, they slung two bombs at the empty benches. The bombs exploded but no one was hurt. After the blast, they walked down the hall, raised the slogans, "Down with Imperialism", "Long live revolution" and showered leaflets containing the same material. On the arrival of the police, they turned themselves in.

The proceedings started on 7th May and with this, Bhagat Singh took his famous approach of saying-it-all in the court. It did not take long when every word spoken in the courtroom was published across India. The establishment tried to control the damage and handed down a 14-year sentence. During the course of investigations, some evidence implied his involvement in Saunder’s murder. After substantial proof was collected, the 14-year sentence was deferred and a murder trial started afresh.

Bhagat Singh in Jail.
Bhagat Singh in Jail.

During the proceedings, he was shifted to the Mianwali Jail, where he observed the discrimination of European prisoners. He put up the demand for political prisoner status and that too equivalent of British prisoners but nobody paid heed. Finally, he resorted to hunger strike. Jail authorities tried their best to break his resolve but nothing succeeded. His popularity grew day by day and transcended beyond India. When things started spinning out of control, the case was advanced and other than Saunder’s murder, fresh charges for the attempted murder of Scott and the declaration of war against King Emperor were also included. Singh continued with the hunger strike and was moved to Borstal Jail, Lahore, where after 116 days, he ended his hunger strike on the insistence of his father and a congressional resolution.

What followed next was a textbook imperial solution. A special tribunal, carved from vice regal prerogatives, set aside the legal procedures and delivered its verdict. The 300-page long judgment sentenced Raj Guru, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev to be hanged, till death. The sentence was to be executed on 24th of March.

The place near Ganda Singh Wala where the three were cremated has now been turned into a memorial, and hosts a Shaheedi mela every year. Across the border, their legend is kept alive through statues, roads, villages and trusts. While on this side, the place where Bhagat Singh was hanged is now the roundabout of Shadman. A few mad men decided to follow the course and demanded to rename the roundabout after Bhagat Singh. Initially, the state maintained her calm but then had to drag Islam in and eventually got rid of the issue.

The 404-paged diary of Bhagat Singh had flipped open. I wondered about the "who was who" in the Indian independence movement; were the real heroes the men who passed endless resolutions in political meetings or the men who gave up the comforts of their homes and meditated for a greater cause in the loneliness of prison dungeons? The 100-year-old fakir at the Shadman roundabout whispered, revolution is a mere transition from one status quo to another.

While France bled in revolution, it could only affect a face change. Activists like Robespierre faced the guillotine and Napoleon was crowned "the emperor" once again. The erstwhile Indians and Pakistanis won their sovereignty from British colonialism and lost it to their neo-con brethren. A system of discrimination was merely replaced by a system of nepotism. Revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh went to the gallows for the cause, while Muslim League and Congress decide the public fate in their glorious parliaments.

My spirits induce motion to the dust I am a lunatic, free in prison (An excerpt from the diary of Bhagat Singh)

Listen to this blog in Hindi-Urdu [soundcloud url="" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.



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.