Bhagat Singh’s unfinished struggle


By Lal Khan
On March 23, 1931 Bhagat Singh, along with his comrades Sukhdev and Raj Guru were hanged. Their bodies were burnt, stuffed in gunny bags and dumped on the banks of the Sutlej, miles from the Lahore Central Jail. Today – no memorial of these revolutionaries exists at the site (Shadman Chowk) of their execution. Yet their revolutionary legacy lives on. Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary struggle had galvanized millions of youth and ordinary souls throughout the Indian Subcontinent. His popularity had soared. Sir Horace Williamson, Director of British India’s Intelligence Bureau noted at the time, ‘His photograph was on sale in every city and township and for a time (Bhagat Singh) rivalled in popularity of Mr Gandhi himself.’
The Gandhi-Irwin Pact between the British Viceroy and native elite’s political representative Mohandas Ghandi was signed on March 5, 1931. These revolutionaries’ were executed just days after this ignominious agreement exposing Ghandi’s tacit approval of the execution. Gandhi’s foxy comment was, ‘The government certainly had the right to hang these men. However, there are some rights which do credit to those who possess them only if they are enjoyed in name only.’ Masses throughout pre-partition India were outraged. The New York Times had reported, ‘(There is a) reign of terror in the city of Cawnpore in the United Provinces and an attack on Gandhi by the youth outside Karachi was amongst the answers of the Indian ‘extremists’ today to the hanging of Bhagat Singh and two fellow assassins.’
Named, as ‘Bhaganwala’ or ‘The lucky one’ at birth, Bhagat Singh joined the liberation struggle early in his life. On April 14, 1919, when he was twelve years old, Singh visited the Jallianwala Bagh where the British army, under General Reginald Dyer’s orders had slaughtered thousands of innocent people hours before. Bhagat Singh felt betrayed when Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement against the British in 1922. At the National College Lahore, which he joined in 1923, Bhagat Singh studied and was deeply influenced by the subcontinent’s revolutionary movements, such as the Kuka movement of 1872 and Ghadar party’s clandestine armed struggle in 1914-15. Ghadar party’s legendary hero, Kartar Singh Sarabha became his ideal.
Bhagat Singh joined the HRA (Hindustan Revolutionary Association/Army) in 1924. In December 1927, four of the Kakori accused: Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Thakur Raushan Singh and Rajendranath Lahiri, were hanged. This proved to be a major turning point in Bhagat Singh’s life and struggle. A sense of revulsion gripped Bhagat’s mind-set. His vigorous struggles and influence on the youth led to his first arrest in May 1927. By 1928, Bhagat Singh became convinced of the ideas of revolutionary socialism, played a key role in changing the name of the party from the HRA to HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Army).
In November 1928, at a protest against the Simon Commission in Lahore, police violence took the life of Lala Lajpat Rai, a leader of the liberation movement. The HSRA vowed to take revenge. Bhagat Singh, along with his comrades Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar, and Chandrashekar Azad shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police and managed to escape. However on April 15, 1929, the police arrested Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, and 21 others and were charged with the Saunder’s murder and the Delhi Legislative Assembly bombing case of 1929.
During imprisonment, Bhagat Singh and his comrades continued their protest and thoroughly studied Marxism. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia had transformed them politically. The whole concept of a successful socialist revolution had transformed their political thinking. In ‘A Letter to Young Political Workers’ dated, February 2, 1931 Bhagat Singh wrote, “Revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order. For that purpose, our immediate aim is the achievement of power… the state, the government machinery is just a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to further and safeguard its interest. We want to snatch and handle it to utilise it for the consummation of our ideal, ie, social reconstruction on new, ie Marxist, basis. All along we have to educate the masses and to create a favourable atmosphere for our social programme.
In the struggles we can best train and educate them… but if you approach the peasants and labourers to enlist their active support, let me tell you that they are not going to be fooled by any sentimental talk. They ask you quite candidly: what are they going to gain by your revolution for which you demand their sacrifices, what difference does it make to them whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin! It is useless to appeal to his national sentiment. You shall have to mean seriously and to make him understand that the revolution is going to be his and only for his good. The Revolution of the proletariat and for the proletariat… We require, to use the term so dear to Lenin – the ‘professional revolutionaries’.
Their passion for the socialist emancipation of humanity was vividly expressed in their Delhi Court Statement on June 6, 1929. Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt had submitted, ‘The whole edifice of this civilization, if not saved in time, shall crumble. A radical change, therefore, is necessary and it is the duty of those who realise this, to reorganise society on the socialistic basis. Unless this is done and the exploitation of man by man and of nations by nations is brought to an end, sufferings and carnage with which humanity is threatened today cannot be prevented.
(The writer is the editor of Asian Marxist Review and International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. He can be reached at