Requiem for a freedom fighter
By Mahir Ali
ON A midwinter afternoon in 1928, pistol shots rang out in the heart of Lahore. They were aimed at an assistant superintendent of police, J.P. Saunders. He wasn’t the intended target, though. The two young men who ambushed him were actually lying in wait for the superintendent, J.A. Scott.
Thus it was that a case of mistaken identity lay behind what subsequently was recognised as a significant moment in India’s struggle for independence.
It was an instance of unprovoked violence that launched the cycle of events that led to the killing. On Oct 30 that year, members of the Simon Commission — an all-British body established to report on the Indian political situation — were greeted by peaceful protesters when they arrived in Lahore.
Scott ordered a lathi charge and personally assaulted Lala Lajpat Rai, a prominent Hindu nationalist who was among the leaders of the protest. When Rai died less than three weeks later, it was widely assumed that Scott’s blows had hastened his demise.
The secular Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) did not share Rai’s vision of an India divided along confessional lines but venerated him as a patriot and interpreted the treatment he had received as symbolic of British contempt for ‘natives’. The organisation’s young firebrands decided to strike back. Various other factors contributed to their attitude, not least widespread resentment, particularly among the youth, over M.K. Gandhi’s decision earlier in the decade to suspend the non-cooperation movement following the Chauri Chaura riot in UP that resulted in the death of 22 policemen.
Furthermore, at least some of the HSRA activists strongly felt that independence from British rule would not suffice if it merely entailed a transfer of power from white sahibs to brown sahibs.
Inspired, inter alia, by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, they looked forward to dynamic changes in the political and economic structure of society. A precocious 21-year-old by the name of Bhagat Singh stood out among them, alongside the likes of Sukhdev Thapar and Chandrasekhar Azad.
Vengeance wasn’t the only motivating factor behind the plan to kill Scott: the act was not only intended to serve as a warning to the shock troops of the Raj, it was also meant to inspire freedom fighters on the lookout for an alternative to Gandhi’s strictly non-violent strategy.
Bhagat Singh had witnessed the attack on Lala Lajpat Rai, and it was he who was supposed to shoot first during the ambush scheduled for Dec 17, 1928, exactly a month after Rai had died. Earlier that day, a colleague, Jai Gopal, had informed them that Scott had reported for work as usual. It wasn’t true: in fact, he was unable to tell the difference between Scott and Saunders.
When the latter emerged from the police station at about 4pm, Bhagat Singh realised he was the wrong officer and shouted a warning to his comrades, but it was too late. A crack shot by the name of M. Rajguru had already pulled the trigger, killing Saunders instantly. Bhagat Singh used his pistol, too, but a subsequent forensic investigation revealed he was effectively pumping bullets into a corpse.
The gunfire was heard far and wide, but only one British officer emerged from the police station to investigate. He ran back inside when Azad, who was covering his two comrades, fired in his direction. The only policeman who gave chase was chief constable Charan Singh. Reluctantly, the HSRA militants shot him, too.
They didn’t have an escape plan, having assumed that some sort of a police encounter would follow their act of violence, but it didn’t happen. The perpetrators were all able to leave Lahore in the days that followed.
Bhagat Singh wasn’t nailed for the Saunders killing until an even more dramatic episode in his brief career as an activist: bomb blasts in the central legislative assembly in Delhi on the day that the Defence of India Act was due to be promulgated.The idea behind the explosions, carried out by Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, was to make a noise loud enough for the deaf to hear, rather than to cause bodily harm — which is why the low-intensity incendiary devices were hurled at unoccupied benches, at a reasonably safe distance from the gathered luminaries, who included Motilal Nehru and M.A. Jinnah.
The two bomb-throwers then showered the smoke-filled assembly with pamphlets and subsequently courted arrest: the idea behind their plan was to attract attention to the cause they espoused.
Both of them were sentenced to transportation for life for this transgression, but ballistic evidence and betrayal by former comrades meant Bhagat Singh also faced trial for the Saunders murder. He, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to hang after refusing to offer a defence.
The nearly two years Bhagat Singh spent in prison were at least as important as his experience of militant activism in the evolution of his political consciousness and, had he lived longer, chances are that he would have made more valuable contributions to the struggle for freedom. However, by then he was convinced that laying down his life was the best thing he could do for the country he loved.
He retained his capacity for reckless bravery until the end, but there is no evidence of any plan — or even desire — to escape from the Central Jail in Lahore where he spent his last days. His reputation was enhanced, meanwhile, by virtue of his leading role in a hunger strike that led to better conditions for Indian political prisoners.
He read voraciously and wrote prolifically during his incarceration. One surviving request for books from a library lists titles by Karl Liebknecht, Bertrand Russell, Upton Sinclair and Nikolai Bukharin.
On his last day, his lawyer brought him The Revolutionary Lenin. When Bhagat Singh was summoned to the gallows shortly before 7pm on March 23, 1931 — the authorities having advanced the time of execution by 11 hours — he reputedly expressed the regret that he hadn’t been able to finish even the first chapter of the book.
In one of his prison tracts, Bhagat Singh offers a potent critique of terrorism as a political method, saying: “I am not a terrorist and never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.”
In another, he offers a well-reasoned argument against the charge from a devout fellow prisoner, angered by Bhagat Singh’s refusal to pray, that his atheism was a reflection of vanity. Decrying any system of belief that cannot “stand the onslaught of reason”, he says he has devoted his life to the cause of independence without any expectation of a reward here or in the hereafter.
Earlier this month, in the run-up to Bhagat Singh’s birth centenary this Friday, the Governor of Punjab, Khalid Maqbool, announced at a seminar that a memorial would be built to “the subcontinent’s first martyr”, where his possessions would be displayed.
That is a welcome move. He also deserves a place in history books, not least to reduce reliance on bowdlerised Bollywood versions of the past. To lionise him without acknowledging exactly what he stood for would be an insult to the memory of an exceptional freedom fighter.
The writer is a journalist based in Sydney