Committed communicator, perceptive, passionate, admirable…any young person would be flattered to be the subject of any one of these adjectives. What would happen if all of them, and many more, were used for the same person?
Well, he would be a legend. A legend who is a martyr, a Shaheed.
The legacy of the man is such that his name sounds incomplete without this prefix. Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter, has been immortalized as martyr, so much so that we often forget to acknowledge the person who accomplished the feats that helped change the course of Indian history.
Was it his sacrifice alone that made Bhagat Singh great? No, not at all! There is much more to this man who did not get to celebrate his 24th birthday, but has left a robust and inspiring legacy recognized even 80 years after he was martyred.
To understand Bhagat Singh is a difficult task. Though he did not live for long, as we journey through his life, we realize that it was the action-packed events around him which shaped Bhagat Singh’s mind. Eventually, he would have a tremendous effect on shaping history.
The Punjab, during the days of Bhagat Singh’s childhood, was in turmoil. He was only 12-year-old when, on April 13, 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. The firing lasted about 10 minutes and 1,600 rounds were fired. Official sources placed the casualties at 379, others said the number was over 1,000, with more than 2,000 wounded. It is one of the most horrific events of Indian history.
Bhagat Singh initially studied at District Board Primary School in Banga, Jalandhar, and then later he studied at DAV High School, Lahore. It was regarded by the British as a “nursery of seditious activities”. Bhagat Singh was precocious, but not studious. He read a wide range of books, and was fluent in Urdu. He used this language to write his first letter to his grandfather, Arjan Singh.
He was 14 when, on February 20, 1921, at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev ji, an incident occurred which left a deep impact on him. Narain Das, who was the custodian of Nankana Sahib, and his men, fired on Akali protesters. The firing was widely condemned, and an agitation was launched and carried out until the control of the historic gurdwara was restored to the Sikhs. Bhagat Singh served food from the langar kitchen to volunteers who passed through his village on their way to Nankana Sahib.
When he was 16, there came the Jaito Morcha of 1923, which was an Akali agitation for the restoration of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha who had strong nationalistic sympathies.
It was in this backdrop of unrest, and the harsh coercive power of the state, used to quell legitimate protests, which helped to shape the martyr Bhagat Singh. Often the youth are accused of being rudderless, but what is forgotten, is that sometimes young people have a clear vision of what they see as their role in future, and single-mindedly work on it.
By the time he was 16, Bhagat Singh had made conscious choices about what he had to do with his life. He dedicated it to the cause of securing freedom for India. In doing so, he did not follow the constitutional approach of B.G. Gokhale, and his supporters. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement did not hold his interest for long. For Bhagat Singh his course lay in following a revolutionary course, even if it meant taking a route of violence in facing the might of the British Raj.
In 1923, Bhagat Singh joined National College, Lahore, where he made a positive impression, academically. He was also a member of the college dramatics society. One of the very few pictures available of Bhagat Singh is a portrait of the members of dramatics club taken at National College in 1921-22. By that time, he was fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Gurmukhi, English, and Sanskrit.
Bhagat Singh won an essay competition organized by the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in 1923. His essay, Punjab’s Language and Script, quotes Punjabi literature and discusses the problems of the Punjab.
He joined the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and a year later, after being pressured by his family to get married, Bhagat Singh left his house in Lahore and went to Kanpur. In a note left behind for his father, Bhagat Singh said: “My life has been dedicated to the noblest cause, that of the freedom of the country. Therefore, there is no rest or worldly desire that can lure me now…”
Bhagat Singh was arrested in 1927 on charges of association with the Kakori Train Robbery Case. He was also accused of being responsible for a bomb explosion at Lahore during the Dussehra fair. He was let off for good behavior against a heavy security of ₹60,000.
In September of 1928, a meeting of various revolutionaries from across India was called in Delhi under the banner of the Kirti Kissan Party. Bhagat Singh was the secretary of the meet. His later revolutionary activities were carried out as leader of this association.
Bhagat Singh and his compatriots killed a British police officer to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai who succumbed to his injuries following a brutal beating by the police. Later, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, another revolutionary, threw a bomb in the Central Assembly to protest against the Defense of India Act which gave more power to the police.
They were arrested and imprisoned. Bhagat Singh used all his court appearances not to press for his acquittal, or freedom, but to espouse the cause of the freedom of the nation, till the very last, and, in fact, even beyond that.
The martyred Shaheed Bhagat Singh became an even more potent rallying point against the Raj, than when he lived. The slogan “Inqulab Zindabad” that he had rallied under, as he lived the life of a revolutionary, was substituted by “Bhagat Singh Zindabad.”
Shaheed Bhagat Singh became a significant icon that everyone wanted to adopt. During the course of decades to followe, the legendary young man was appropriated by political groups who claimed him as their own, and continue to do so even now, as we have recently seen in Punjab.
When we look back at the legacy of Bhagat Singh, the picture that emerges is of a person with an intellect, and expression far beyond his years. He was well read, and a number of his letters from the Lahore Jail refer to books, or request his friends to send him book,s and other reading material. On March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were all hanged in Lahore.
Bhagat Singh was a nationalist, a hero, and a youth who became an icon. Even as political parties seek mileage by associating with his name, one cannot but help feeling that Bhagat Singh would have taken to task the pretenders who are not, by any stretch of imagination, as committed to ideals as he was.