About the Book
Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) lived at a time when India's freedom struggle was beginning to flag and when Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent, passive resistance to partial liberation was beginning to test the patience of the people, The youth of India was inspired by Bhagat Singh's call to arms and enthused by the defiance and daredevilry of the army wing of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association to which he and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, belonged. His call, Inqtlilab Zindabadl, became the war-cry of the fight for freedom.
When Bhagat Singh was executed by the British after a sham trial for his involvement in the Lahore Conspiracy Case at the age ofrwenry-three, he was glorified by Indians as a martyr - for his youth, his heroism, and his steadfast courage in the face of certain death. It was only many years later - after Independence in 1947- that his jail writings came to light. Today, it is these works that set Bhagat Singh apart from the many revolutionaries who laid down their lives for India. They reveal him as not just a passionate freedom- fighter who believed in the cult of the bomb but a widely read intellectual inspired by the writings of, among others, Marx, Lenin, Bertrand Russell and Victor Hugo; a revolutionary whose vision did not end with the ouster of the British, but who looked further, towards a secular, socialist India.
In IPithollt Fear: The Life and Trial 0/ Bhagat Singh, Kuldip Nayar takes a close look at the man behind the martyr: his beliefs, his intellectual leanings, his dreams and his despair. It explains for the first time why Hans Raj Vohra turned approver and betrayed Bhagat Singh, and throws new light on Sukhdev, whose loyalties have been questioned by some historians. But most of all it puts in perspective Bhagat Singh's use of violence, so strongly condemned by Gandhi and many others as being extremist. Erudite and engaging, this book is a fascinating portrait of one of India's greatest freedom fighters and a man of rare intellectual honesty.
About the Author
Noted journalist, author, diplomat and Parliamentarian Kuldip Nayar was born in Sialkot in 1924. He studied at Murray College in Sialkot and procured an LLB from Law College in Lahore before joining the Medill School of Journalism in Northwestern University, Evanston. He served as press information officer to Govind Ballabh Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri, as high commissioner to the UK, and as a member of the Rajya Sabha, besides holding important positions in several news agencies like UNI and PIB and in newspaper offices like the Statesman and the Indian Express. He was a correspondent of The Times, London, for twenty-five years. His syndicated column, which appears in over eighty publications around the world, is widely read and he is the author of several books including Scoop! - Inside Stories from Partition to the Present, Between the Lines, Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent, India After Nehru and India House.
THE MINARET OF AN ELEGANT MOSQUE RISES FROM ACROSS the spot where Bhagat Singh's cell 'Phansi lei Kothi' once stood, but no arch, no plaque, not even a stone, marks the spot where Bhagat Singh and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were executed.
Today, Lahore Central Jail, where the three young revolutionaries were hanged on 23 March, 1931, is in a state of ruin. The cells that housed these three martyrs are falling apart. The scaffold on which they were hanged is now a traffic roundabout. Vehicles careen around it as waywardly as they do through the rest of Lahore. Noise, smoke and dust shroud the crossing. The road between the mosque and the ruins of the jail leads into the gateway of a mental hospital. It is as if the establishment does not want any sign of them to remain. Ironically, the authorities have named the colony that has sprung up around it 'Shadman' - the abode of happiness.
On a visit to Pakistan, I asked the residents of Shadman if they knew who Bhagat Singh was. Not many had heard the name. A few had a vague idea of his imprisonment and hanging. 'When we came here, there were only police quarters, which were pulled down as the colony expanded,' said a man in his fifties. But there is a story about the roundabout that has been retold many times after the execution of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, almost three decades ago. It was the spot where Nawaz Mohammad Ahmed Khan, father of Ahmed Raza Kasuri, then a member of Pakistan's National Assembly, was shot. Bhutto had reportedly ordered his killing. When the guns were fired Kasuri had been negotiating the roundabout. Sitting beside him in the car, his father was fatally wounded. Kasuri's grandfather had been one of the officials on duty called upon to formally identify the bodies of the three revolutionaries. Old-timers believe that nemesis caught up with the Kasuri family when Mohammad Ahmed Khan was killed at the same spot.
In the eighties, Lahore was the venue of the World Punjabi Conference. The hall where the conference was held had only one portrait on its walls - that of Bhagat Singh. I asked the organizers why they had chosen to felicitate Bhagat Singh at the cost of ignoring another distinguished Punjabi freedom fighter, Mohammad Iqbal, the renowned Urdu poet and visionary, who had first dreamed of a land called Pakistan. 'Only one Punjabi laid down his life for the country's independence, and that man was Bhagat Singh,' they replied. Soon after my trip to Pakistan, I had the opportunity to travel through the towns of southern India. I was surprised to find Bhagat Singh's statue in many small towns in the south and I wrote an article on him on my return to Delhi. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from Harjinder Singh and Sukhjinder Singh - both of whom had been given the death sentence for assassinating General A.S. Vaidya, former chief of army staff, in Pune. What they wrote made me think. They questioned my judgment. Why did I hail Bhagat Singh and call him a 'revolutionary' while condemning them as 'terrorists', they asked. They said that they too had served a cause. Bhagat Singh had avenged the death of Lajpat Rai, the Lion of Punjab, at the hands of a British police officer, while they had settled scores with Vaidya for having planned the attack in 1984 on the Golden Temple, their Vatican.
Fearing that more and more militants would compare themselves with Bhagat Singh, I thought it worthwhile to trace his life and philosophy, and explain the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary. What does killing mean to a revolutionary? Bhagat Singh explained it in his own words:
We attach great sanctity to human life, we regard man's life as sacred… We would sooner lay down our lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone.
There was no revenge, no vendetta, on Bhagat Singh's mind:
These actions (killings), have their political significance inasmuch as they serve to create a mentality and an atmosphere which shall be very necessary to the final struggle. That is all. A revolutionary believes in the complete overthrow of any established government or political system that 'does not give economic equality to the people. In his scheme of things, citizens should be empowered against economic powerlessness and given individual dignity. On the other hand, a terrorist is motivated by personal revenge against a particular person, who is a mere instrument in the hands of rulers. So, while one transcends hatred, the other is a victim of it.
Researching this book was an arduous task. Work continued sporadically for more than seven years. The Archives of Pakistan is the best, most comprehensive, source for material on the life and times of Bhagat Singh but it is not open to Indians. New Delhi and Islamabad have no agreement that allows nationals of one country access to the archives of the other. I approached the Pakistan government through a friend. A lame excuse was dug up to deny me access. They said they were afraid they might get entangled in the Sikh problem. I could not fathom the connection between the Sikh problem, fifty years later, with the 1931 execution, except for the fact that Bhagat Singh was a Sikh.
The India Office Library in London has practically nothing on Bhagat Singh. In any case, the library has distributed its books, reports and documents in different libraries all over the UK. This is meant to dissuade India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and other ex-colonies of Great Britain, from ever staking claim to what should have rightfully come to them after Independence. After the partition of the subcontinent, India and Pakistan could not agree upon a formula for the division of the library, thus giving the UK a pretext to usurp it entirely.
Some information on the appeal in the privy council in London against the death sentences of the three revolutionaries is available. This material is in our archives as well. My feeling is that crucial files have been destroyed or withheld. I'm sure that telegrams and documents, as yet uncovered, indicating that the British establishment was determined to hang Bhagat Singh and his two comrades to smother revolutionary ferment, must exist somewhere.
Bhagat Singh's revolutionary ideas had been fed by the French Revolution, the American Declaration of Independence, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The struggle against social evils, the awakening of oppressed castes and the rise of peasants and workers against social oppression and inequality all became an integral part of the freedom struggle. In the course of my research, I found that Bhagat Singh had written as many as four books in jail. The History if the Revolutionary Movement in India, The Ideal of Socialism, Autobiography and At the Door if Death. I tried in vain to locate them. I was told that the manuscripts, which had been smuggled out of jail before Bhagat Singh's execution and kept by the revolutionaries in custody, were handed over, in the forties, to Kumari Lajyavati, who later became the principal of Kendriya Mahavidyalaya,Jalandhar. Lajyavati, who is now dead, reportedly gave them to someone in Lahore, just before Partition, to send them back to India. This someone, not identified, is said to have told her that he burnt all the manuscripts in panic before immigrating to India in August, 1947. The story is not credible. I still believe the manuscripts will surface some day.
The first thing I did while collecting material for my book was to locate Bhagat Singh's brothers. Unfortunately, Kulbir Singh, died before I could meet him. Kultar Singh, the younger brother, lived in Saharanpur, UP. His memory of Bhagat Singh's last meeting with his family was poignant and evocative. I learnt that others in Bhagat Singh's family also had a nationalistic streak. His uncle, Ajit Singh, was sharing a prison cell with Lajpat Rai in Burma when Bhagat Singh was born, while his grandfather openly contributed to the Congress party.
In December 1992, I was able to trace Mathura Das Thapar, Sukhdev's younger brother. I wrote him a letter that very month. Thapar replied to me in March, 1993. His story was touching. He said he had to leave Lyallpur (modern-day Faislabad) 'due to the constant troubles created against me by the Punjab Police on account of my being the blood brother of Sukhdev'.
Mathura Das Thapar, then eighty-two, was bitter. In his reply to my letter, he said:
Allow me the indulgence to add that the other political sufferers like Dr Kichloo's son, got a monthly packet of Rs. 5,000 and a flat, free of cost. Against Dr Kichloo's son, compare our clan's sacrifice.
He drew my attention to a copy of the 'Proceedings Book of the Lahore Conspiracy Case' which he had brought from Pakistan and had deposited with the National Archives in New Delhi. This copy had comments scribbled in the margins by Sukhdev, who was allowed to read it before he was executed. Pakistan has a record of the original proceedings in Urdu, which I have gone through.
Thapar's letter, which I retain (see Annexure 1), ends with the remark: 'Hoping to be of use in your great task of writing the masterpiece of great historical importance.' He too died before we could meet. I do not know what he would have thought of this book. My work may not be a masterpiece, but I have tried my best to present Bhagat Singh as he lived, thought and died.
I read the correspondence between Mathura Das Thapar and Hans Raj Vohra - who later turned informer in the Lahore Conspiracy Case - in a private collection. The correspondence, particularly Vohra's letter explaining his decision to turn informer, along with Thapar's rejoinder to the letter, form the epilogue of this book.
Also, through Kuhar Singh, I learnt that Durga Devi, wife of Bhagwati Charan, a leading revolutionary in those days, lived in Ghaziabad with her son. Although she suffered frequent memory lapses, she was able to reconstruct the story ofBhagat Singh's escape from Lahore after the assassination of deputy superintendent of police J.P. Saunders, in which she played a major role. She too died a few years ago.
Several books on Bhagat Singh and his own writings have helped me narrate the story and philosophy of his life. Words attributed to him have been culled from his letters, statements and speeches. I have not taken any liberties with the facts.
The police records of those days gave me an insight into the methods used by the British to suppress the revolutionaries. Intelligence reports, very few in our archives, have also been of some assistance. A repository of information is Amiya K Samanta'a six-volume collection of documents, Terrorism in Bengal, brought out by the Government of West Bengal. I have made use of some information from the collection. Many of Mahatma Gandhi's writings throw light on his attitude towards the revolutionaries. He admired their courage but not their use of guns and bombs. He did not doubt their commitment but he was definite that the use of force could not release India from the clutches of British power. Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were diametrically opposed to each other in their approach. Bhagat Singh believed in violence and did not flinch from using it to achieve independence. Gandhi, on the other hand, remained wedded to non-violence all his life and brooked no other approach.
It was a tribute to Bhagat Singh's remarkable achievement when Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya wrote in his History of the Indian National Congress that Gandhi and Bhagat Singh were equally popular - the first for his experiments with truth and the second for his essays in bravery. Bhagat Singh was twenty- one when he first met Gandhi; the Mahatma was fifty-nine.
I have gone through the newspapers of those days. I have also talked to a few people who knew Bhagat Singh. There are not many left. My main source was a friend, Virendra, editor of the Pratap, Jalandhar. He died seven years ago. He was in Lahore Central Jail when the trial of Bhagat and his comrades was underway. Virendra too was a suspect but nothing credible was found against him. He was released after a stint in prison.
Many people have helped me complete this book. They include Kavita, my younger daughter-in-law, who researched the trial; and R. Ramachandaran, Subramanyam and Gopal, who typed and retyped the draft before keying it into a computer. I thank them all.
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