Revolution is an inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is an imperishable birth-right of all
Bhagat Singh, hanged to death by the British when he was just twenty-three, is an enduring icon of India's freedom struggle. Though today few people are aware of his radical revolutionary philosophy, in the national imagination he ranks next only to Mahatma Gandhi and, perhaps, Subhas Chandra Bose.
This selection of Bhagat Singh's writings helps us understand his fiercely idealistic vision for his people. It contains his critiques of imperialism, capitalism, communalism and 'Utopian nonviolence'. It contains, too, his compelling defence of pure socialism and the 'Great Revolution that will bring freedom to all, rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible'. As economic disparities and religious extremism continue to take their toll sixty years after the Indian republic was established, Bhagat Singh's words have new relevance.
Books in the series
Aruna Asaf Ali
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
Subhas Chandra Bose
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Periyar E.V. Ramasami
Shaheed—literally, 'martyr'—Bhagat Singh is an enduring icon of India's struggle for independence. In popular imagination he ranks next only to Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps Subhas Chandra Bose, as a hero of the freedom movement; he is celebrated in calendar art, songs, folklore and cinema. However, while his execution by the British when he was just twenty-three brought him immortality, few people today have a clear understanding of his revolutionary philosophy. To many, the political thought that Bhagat Singh and his comrades championed was an alternative to the ideology and strategy of the Congress. It never found pan-Indian acceptance, but one of the more intriguing and challenging 'what if questions of modern Indian history remains: What if Bhagat Singh had lived longer and displaced Gandhi as the pre-eminent leader of the independence movement?
Bhagat Singh was born on 27 September 1907 in Lyallpur, Punjab into a family of revolutionaries. His uncles, Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh, as well as his father, Kishan Singh, were members of the Ghadar Party. (Swaran Singh was hanged in 1927, four years before his nephew, for his involvement in the Kakori train robbery of 1925.) While still in school, Bhagat Singh joined Gandhi's Non-cooperation movement, but within a few years broke with his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He embraced Marxism and anarchism and joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), headed by the revolutionaries Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan. He soon assumed a leadership role in the HRA and renamed it the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), to emphasise the organisation's belief that their fight was not only for an end to British rule but also to every political system that led to socio-economic inequality. As Bhagat Singh wrote: 'Swaraj for the 90%; Swaraj not only attained by the masses but also for the masses.'
In 1928, the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai was injured in a police assault during a protest march in Lahore. He succumbed to his injuries and Bhagat Singh and his comrades vowed revenge. They planned the assassination of the police chief J.A. Scott, but in a case of mistaken identity,. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar shot a deputy superintendent of police, J.R Saunders, instead. The following year, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt exploded two primitive bombs in the Legislative Assembly in Delhi, to protest the Defence of India Act which gave the British government sweeping powers to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of terrorist or treasonous activity. No one was killed, and both men turned themselves in. They were sentenced to 'transportation for life'.
It was during the trial for the Assembly bombing that the British found evidence of Bhagat Singh's involvement in the killing of Saunders. He went on trial for the murder, along with Rajguru and Sukhdev. The three decided to use it as a platform to express their views on imperialism and British rule in India. This, together with Bhagat Singh's successful sixty-three-day hunger strike demanding equal rights for British and Indian prisoners, made him a popular symbol of resistance to foreign rule, not just in Punjab but across the country. Through the trial and imprisonment, Bhagat Singh resisted all attempts to appeal for clemency on his behalf. He was hanged in Lahore jail on 23 March 1931.
While in jail, Bhagat Singh kept a diary which details his revolutionary philosophy. It was a philosophy based on the principles of socialism, anarchism, atheism and secularism. To him, political independence was only one aim of the Revolution; his fight was for abolition of the state, organised religion and private property.
In revolutionary discourses even today, Bhagat Singh is a man of greater intellectual clarity, integrity, humanism and courage than every other icon of India's freedom movement, especially Gandhi. Those opposed to this view see in Bhagat Singh's thought and conduct a glamorisation of violence (though he maintained that violence was the last resort), an obsession with individual glory and the cult of martyrdom, and an absolutism that had little to offer to the toiling masses except fiery words and perpetual war. That the debate continues almost eight decades after Bhagat Singh's death and six decades after Gandhi's is proof of their stature and immense popularity, and of the enduring strength of their separate visions for India.
To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Indian Republic, the Words of Freedom series showcases the landmark speeches and writings of fourteen visionary leaders whose thought animated the Indian struggle for Independence and whose revolutionary ideas and actions forged the Republic of India as we know it today.