The charisma of Bhagat Singh

He was against everything Mahatma Gandhi stood for, and Gandhi was widely criticised for not preventing his hanging

By Author MR Narayan Swamy   |   Published: 9th Jun 2021   12:06 am

Shortly before his execution, Bhagat Singh petitioned the Punjab Governor that he was a prisoner of war and so should be shot dead and not hanged. “We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.”
By then, the British had realised that Bhagat Singh was a more dangerous enemy than Mahatma Gandhi. So they advanced the date of his execution (fearing mass protests). And after hanging him with Sukhdev and Rajguru in the Lahore Central Jail, the three bodies – in an act of unmatched cruelty — were chopped to pieces, burnt and the remains thrown into the Sutlej.

Before the Gallows

Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were to be hanged at dawn – as is customary — on March 24, 1931. But this was quietly brought forward by 11 hours. After the roll call at 5 pm on March 23, when all prisoners were in their barracks, the three were given a bath in their cells. Before being led to the gallows, they were asked to wear black clothes. Bhagat Singh refused, saying they were not criminals, but was persuaded by a jail official not to create a last-minute fuss.

As Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru left their cells, they raised their favourite slogans: “Inquilab Zindabad!”, “Down with British Imperialism”, “Down, Down Union Jack!” and “Up, Up National Flag”. The other prisoners, who realised they were being taken away to be killed, too shouted the same slogans in unison.

According to Shiv Verma, a contemporary of the revolutionary, Bhagat Singh visited them in Lahore’s Borstal Jail on the last Sunday of July 1930 on the pretext of discussing the line of defence. While chatting, he casually asked the others what punishment will be given to him, Sukhdev and Rajguru.

When everyone remained silent, Bhagat Singh laughed. He answered his own question: “To be hanged by the neck till we are dead. That is the reality, comrades. I know it. You also know it. Then, why shut your eyes to it?” After a while, he added: “Bhagat Singh dead will be more dangerous to the British enslavers than Bhagat Singh alive.”

Thoughts in Mind

It is possible these thoughts were still in his mind when Bhagat Singh famously kissed the hangman’s noose after 7.30 pm. With a calm face, he glanced in both directions and placed the noose around his neck. As the trapdoor opened under his feet, Bhagat Singh ceased to live.

Watching the execution were Chief Superintendent PD Chopra and Deputy Jail Superintendent Khan Sahib Mohammad Akbar Khan. According to Barrister Satvinder Singh Juss, Khan struggled in vain to choke back his tears. For this emotional display, he was suspended and later reinstated as Assistant Jail Superintendent. He was stripped of his honorific ‘Khan Sahib’.

In sharp contrast, Chopra was promoted as the Deputy Inspector General of Prisons for Punjab.
The bodies were quickly taken down, chopped into pieces and stuffed into sacks which were driven to Kasur on the banks of the Sutlej. A Hindu and a Sikh priest hurriedly read out the final prayers as the dismembered parts were set ablaze. Before the pyre could burn out, the fires were put out and the charred bits flung into the river. After everyone left, villagers rushed to the area and retrieved the body parts for proper cremation.

Bhagat Singh was neither the first nor the last during the British rule to wield a gun. Nor was he the only one to be executed. But none could match the charisma of Bhagat Singh, who was only 23 years, 5 months and 27 days old when he was hanged. In his characteristic defiance, Bhagat Singh was against everything Mahatma Gandhi stood for. Gandhi came under widespread criticism for not doing enough to stay his hanging and for refusing to cooperate on raising a memorial in the memory of the three young men. So, what gave Bhagat Singh his immense popularity?

Man of Ideas

Unlike most revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh was a man of ideas and extremely well read. Every revolutionary was a patriot and an idealist. Bhagat Singh was much more. He was the first whose belief in terrorism was based on his extensive study of revolutionary movements around the world. The pamphlets and court documents he wrote reflected his grasp of various subjects in a manner that would put the best of lawyers to shame.

Both before and during the nearly two years he spent in jail (April 8, 1929, to March 23, 1931), Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader. In prison, he not only kept reading but kept a Note Book in which he made numerous notes, primarily in English. The 404-page Note Book was published by Bharati Bhavan, Booksellers & Publishers, Lahore. He was also into fiction, his best authors being Jack London, Oliver Goldsmith and Upton Sinclair.

According to Malwinder Jit Singh Waraich and Harish Jain, who have deeply studied the Note Book, Bhagat Singh wrote to a friend on July 24, 1930, asking him to send books from the Dwarka Dass Library and Punjab Public Library. He sought 10 books from the former, listing their names and authors. In the case of eight books, he even gave the books’ cataloguing number. These included ‘Why Men Fight’ by Bertrand Russel, ‘Collapse of II International, Mutual Aid’ by Prince Kropotkin, ‘Civil War in France’ by Karl Marx and ‘Spy’ by Sinclair.
Only 140 pages in the Note Book are filled. The rest are blank. His notes make it clear that Bhagat Singh devoured 24 books intently although he read much more. The subjects related to Marxism, Western thought, literature, anthology, law and India. The 24 books included ‘Lessons of October 1917’ by Leon Trotsky, ‘Poverty and Riches’ by Scott Nearing, ‘Rights of Man’ by Thomas Paine, ‘Social Contract’ by Jean Rousseau, ‘Man and Superman’ by Bernard Shaw, ‘Hindu Pad Padshahi’ by Veer Savarkar, ‘Unhappy India’ by Lala Lajpat Rai and the Simon Commission Report.

Bhagat Singh is also said to have written four books in jail: ‘The Idea of Socialism, Autobiography, History of the Revolutionary Movement in India’ and ‘At the Door of Death’. These were smuggled out of the prison by Kumari Lajjwati who claims she passed them on to Bejoy Kumar Sinha who in turn gave them to a friend who, tragically, destroyed them, fearing a police raid. Author Chaman Lal calls the loss of the books “one of the greatest tragedies of the period”.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)


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