Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bhagat Singh: India's First Revolutionary

(Articles appeared in the 'Letters to Indira' supplement of The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Photos: Bhagat Singh; Khuidram Bose; Chandrasekhar Azad and Bagha Jatin 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Simon Commission came to India in 1928, to discuss constitutional reform, there were black-flag protests all over because there was not a single Indian member. One such response, on October 30, 1928, was by nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai. He led an all-party delegation towards the Lahore railway station to protest the arrival of the Commission. However, there was a lathi charge by the police. Lajpat Rai received was critically injured and died on November 17.

This inflamed a young man named Bhagat Singh. He, along with fellow associates Shivaram Rajguru and Chandra Sekhar Azad decided to take revenge. They decided to kill James A Scott, the superintendent of police, who had ordered the lathi charge. However, in a case of mistaken identity, the group ended up killing John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, as he was leaving the District Police Headquarters in Lahore on December 17, 1928.

Thereafter, the trio went on the run and managed to evade capture for several months.

Then on April 8, 1929, Singh, accompanied by another revolutionary Batukeshwar Dutt, entered the Central Legislative Assembly at New Delhi and threw two bombs from the public gallery when it was in session. Nobody died, but a few legislators were injured. There was smoke all around and confusion reigned. Singh and Dutt could have easily escaped. But they remained where they were and kept shouting 'Inquilab Zindabad' before they were arrested by the police.

Later Singh released a statement: 'We hold human life sacred beyond words. We are neither perpetrators of dastardly outrages, nor are we 'lunatics' as some others would have it believed. Force when aggressively applied is 'violence' and is, therefore, morally unjustifiable, but when it is used in the furtherance of a legitimate cause, it has its moral justification.'
In the subsequent trial, Singh was found guilty and hanged in March 1931. He was only 23. 

Following his death, Singh became a folk hero and is now regarded as the first revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement.

Said Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: "Bhagat Singh did not become popular, because of his act of terrorism but because he seemed to vindicate, for the moment, the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him of the nation. He became a symbol; the act was forgotten, the symbol remained, and within a few months each town and village of the Punjab, and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of northern India, resounded with his name."

Khudiram Bose: He gave up his life for the nation

Douglas Kingsford was the Chief Magistrate of the Presidency court of Alipore, Bengal. He presided over the trial of a few editors of the Bengali newspaper, 'Jugantar', in which fiery articles against the British were published. Kingsford found them guilty of sedition and sentenced them to rigorous imprisonment.

There were widespread protests against the ruling. Several people were arrested including a young Bengali youth by the name of Sushil Sen. Kingsford ordered a whipping of Sushil. This made Kingsford Enemy No. 1 among the nationalists. They decided to kill him. By this time, Kingsford had been transferred to Muzzafarpur.

So, two young revolutionaries by the name of Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki were assigned the task. They spent three weeks monitoring the movements of Kingsford.

On the evening of April 30, 1908, they waited within the branches of a tree outside the Kingsford residence, with a couple of home-made bombs with them. Meanwhile, Kingsford was playing bridge at the British Club, some distance away, with his wife and the wife and daughter of Pringle Kennedy, a leading pleader of the Muzaffarpur Bar.

At 8.30 p.m., the group left in two identical single-horse carriages. When one of the carriages appeared near the Kingsford residence, Khudiram and Prafulla ran up and threw the bombs. 

Unfortunately, that particular carriage contained the wife and daughter of Pringle. While Miss Pringle died within an hour, Mrs Kennedy passed away two days later.
Khudiram and Prafulla escaped on foot. They walked all through the night. However, the next day, both were apprehended. While Prafulla shot himself, Khudiram was taken into custody.

When he was brought to Muzzafarpur, the people gathered to have a look at the young revolutionary who was now surrounded by armed policemen.

As a report in Kolkata's The Statesman stated: 'A mere boy of 18 or 19 years old, who looked quite determined. He came out of a first-class compartment and walked all the way to the phaeton, kept for him outside, like a cheerful boy who knows no anxiety.....on taking his seat the boy lustily cried 'Vandemataram'.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing trial, in May, 1908 he was found guilty and was sentenced to die by hanging on August 11. Khudiram was thereafter taken to Kolkata.

On that day, a huge crowd gathered in front of the prison at 6 a.m., the scheduled time for the execution. Many people held garlands. Following the hanging, the funeral procession went through the city, and crowds of people threw garlands on the funeral cortege.

At 18, Khudiram was one of the youngest revolutionaries of India. Today, a railway station, a metro rail station and a stadium are named after him in West Bengal.

Chandra Shekhar Azad: The man who refused to surrender

In the tiny village of Bhavra in Madhya Pradesh, a mother gave birth to a boy. The moment she held the baby in her arms, she had a wish: her son Sukhdev should become a great Sanskrit scholar.

So Jagran Devi Tiwari, the third wife of Sitaram Tiwari, persuaded her husband to send Sukhdev to the Kashi Vidyapeeth in Varanasi. The years passed. When Sukhdev was 15 years old, Mahatma Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement. Sukhdev joined the protests. Subsequently, he was arrested.

When he was produced before a magistrate, he gave his name as 'Azad' (The Free), his father's name as 'Swatantrata' (Independence) and his residence as 'Jail'. It was from that day that he came to be known as Chandra Shekhar Azad.

In 1922, Gandhiji suspended the Non-Cooperation Movement. During this time Azad met another freedom fighter Pranvesh Chatterji, who introduced him to Ram Prasad Bismil.

Bismil had founded the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), a revolutionary organisation. Asked whether he had the strength to fight for India's Independence, Azad put his hand over a lamp and did not remove it till his skin burnt. An impressed Bismil invited him to become a member. He began collecting funds for the HRA, but this was done through robberies of government property.

One was the famous Kakori Train Robbery. On August 9, 1925, a train was travelling from Shahjahanpur to Lucknow. But when it approached the town of Kakori one of Azad's associates pulled the chain to stop the train and overpowered the guard. They managed to collect bags containing Rs 8000 but in the process, a passenger was killed by an accidental shot. Thus, it became a murder case. The British administration launched a massive manhunt, and

Bismil was captured along with a few others. But Azad escaped detection. Later, Bismil was hanged. Thereafter, Azad took control of the HRA and it was renamed as the Hindusthan Socialist Republican Association.

But the police were constantly on the lookout for him. On February 27, 1931, thanks to a tip-off that he was at the Alfred Park at Allahabad, they surrounded the area. There was an exchange of fire and Azad was wounded. But he managed to kill three policemen. Earlier, he had pledged that he would never be captured alive. So, with the last bullet of his Colt pistol, he shot himself dead.

When the incident came to light, the people surrounded the park and raised slogans against the British.

The park was renamed as the Chandrashekhar Azad Park. Many schools, colleges, roads and other public institutions are also named after him.

Bagha Jatin: The man who killed a tiger

One day, in March, Jatin Banerjee heard that there was a leopard wandering about in his native village of Koya. He went in search of it and came across a Royal Bengal tiger. They had a fight. The tiger managed to claw Jatin many times, but somehow, the latter managed to plunge a Gorkha dagger on the tiger's neck and killed it.

He was immediately taken to Kolkata. One of the city's well-known surgeons Lt-Colonel Suresh Prasad Sarbadhikari operated on Jatin. In the end, Jatin survived. But impressed by his bravery Dr Sarbadhikari wrote an article in the English press. Later, the Government of Bengal awarded Jatin a silver shield with the scene of him killing the tiger engraved on it. Thereafter, Jatin got the title of 'Bagha', which means 'Tiger' in both Bengali and Hindi, and that was how his name became 'Bagha Jatin'.

Jatin was well known for his physical prowess. Once when he was travelling on a train, he noticed four British officers were harassing a young woman and her grandfather in a neighbouring compartment. Jatin barged in and attacked all the officers. He was arrested a few days later. However, the judge felt that the publicity about his actions would inspire other young Indians. So Jatin was released.

However, Jatin continued with his opposition to the British. He felt the use of violence would enable India to gain freedom. So he taught other young revolutionaries on the way to use bombs and firearms.

All this work was done at night. During the day, he worked as a stenographer for the Governor's secretary. The police commissioner, Tegart, was puzzled by the continued spate of deadly assaults on British officers. He did suspect Jatin to be the mastermind, but he had no proof. However, a young revolutionary finally revealed the identity of their leader. Based on this confession, Jatin was arrested and was held for 15 months. But he was released for lack of proof. 

When his fellow revolutionary Arabinda Gosh left for Pondicherry, Jatin took over the leadership. Soon, a plan was hatched by Jatin, Rash Behari Bose and other revolutionaries to launch an armed conflict against the British army on February 21, 1915, in Punjab and the rest of North India. Unfortunately, an informant relayed this to the British. Immediately, the revolutionaries were arrested. But Jatin escaped.

He was located at Kaptipada. He, along with four other revolutionaries, were cornered on a small hill and managed to hold off the British officers for hours. But, in the end, when the troops reached the top, one revolutionary was dead and the other four were severely wounded.

As Jatin was being taken to the hospital he insisted that he himself was entirely responsible for the day's events. Jatin's undying devotion and single-minded devotion to India's freedom commanded the respect of those who worked with him.
Jatin passed away on September 15, 1915. Officer Tegart said, “Bhaga Jatin was one of the bravest Indians I had ever seen.” 

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