TFI remembers Hutatma Bhagat Singh on his 114th birth anniversary. Not many have good memory in India. For them, if someone has subjugated the British, it is only the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and his alleged cronies, including his most devoted student Jawahar Lal Nehru. Tales like that of Surjya Sen’s liberation of Chattogram (Chittagong now) and the annihilation of the British army at Jalalabad Hills normally remains forgotten, with only a few history nerds who actually know about it. But one story stands out. The confluence of revolution with true Satyagraha, that gave both the British and Gandhi a taste of their own medicine. 87 years have passed since, but 15th June shall remain etched in history as the day, when two revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, began their historic hunger strike, which lasted a record 116 days.
It all began on Monday, 8th April 1929, when protesting against the draconian Public Safety Bill and Trade Disputes Bill, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt dropped bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly (now the Constitutional Hall of the Parliament). They did not try to escape in the chaos, and willingly surrendered to the police. Tried under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code, they were accused of waging war against the King and his ‘just’ subjects, by the imperial courts, and sentenced to transportation for life, or in short, ‘Life Imprisonment’.
However, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were rearrested in connection with the Saunders case, and their sentences were withheld until the final verdict in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (the name given to Saunders encounter case). This was the reason why Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, who were lodged in the jail of New Delhi, were transferred to the jails of Lahore. While Bhagat was imprisoned in the Mianwali Jail, Batukeshwar was imprisoned in the Borstal jail.
In the jails of Lahore, Bhagat Singh noticed a stark difference from that of the jails of New Delhi. According to the law, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were political prisoners, and were treated the same in New Delhi, with the necessities supplied to them, even though grudgingly. Here, Bhagat Singh was not even given the basic cleanliness. He was treated as a C class prisoner, just any other prisoners. Initially disturbed, Bhagat Singh then took a decision that was to go down in history as one of the boldest; that of a hunger strike.
Now Gandhiji was well known for his nonviolent struggle. His hunger strikes were as common for the British as paying their taxes. But Bhagat Singh’s strike was different. This was a strike unto death. With this, they would not only expose the callousness of British imperialism, but also expose the double standards of Mahatma Gandhi and his alleged cronies in Indian National Congress. Bhagat’s strike was not futile either. All he wanted was equal rights for the Indian political prisoners, who were not given any necessities, while the British prisoners, even if in for a petty crime, were accorded with all privileges, from well ventilated rooms, to clean clothes, newspapers, nutritious food, etc.
Soon enough, the news of the strike spread like wildfire. Unlike what is told to us, Gandhi disapproved of the revolutionaries move from the start. He feared that it would dominate his movement for independence, thus defeating his purpose of alleged compromise. He wanted to make sure that there was almost no support to the movement of Bhagat Singh. However, he failed. If not for the elders, at least the youth was mesmerized by Bhagat Singh’s struggle.
When the first proceedings of the Lahore Conspiracy Case began, on 10th July 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt had to be carried to the court, handcuffed on the stretcher.
The fellow comrades were moved by the duo’s act, and decided to carry his struggle forward. While everyone else volunteered to join the strike, one man initially hesitated to do so.
That was Jatindra Nath Das, an alumnus of Vidya Sagar College, Calcutta (now Kolkata). He was not against the strike altogether, but was against the enthusiasm, because in his opinion, death in hunger strike was worse than that by the gallows. It would be inching towards death, bit by bit, which would be intolerable for most of them. In such case, withdrawing from the battle would be imminent, but that was not the cup of tea for the revolutionaries. However, once he joined, it was Jatindra Da who sustained till the very end.
The news of the popularity of the hunger strike alarmed the British authorities. They tried their usual gimmicks: false promises of listening to their wishes, which bit the dust. Then, the authorities placed different types of delicacies in their cells, in order to test the revolutionaries’ temptation. None budged even an inch. Then, the British replaced the pitchers of water with milk, so that either the revolutionaries remained thirsty, or were compelled to break their strike. However, this plan, too failed miserably.
Irritated and terrified, the British imperialists now resorted to force feeding. However, the revolutionaries were prepared as well. Some had maverick, rather macabre ways up their sleeve to prevent the authorities from having their way. One revolutionary, Kishori Lal Rattan, swallowed a fistful of red chillies to clog the passage of the tube used for force feeding. Another named Ajoy Ghosh, swallowed some flies alive to induce vomiting that would further prevent the force feeding. Jatindra Da, in his struggle, kicked so hard, that two policemen were later found nursing their injured private parts! That was the intensity with which our heroes carried on the struggle, within the Lahore Central Jail, where all the convicts were transferred.
What both British and Gandhiji feared had finally come true. What leaders, what common folk, the whole of India had swarmed in support of these young heroes, whose average age was less than 25 years. Even someone like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was in full support of the revolutionaries. Leaders like Moti Lal Nehru, Jawahar Lal Nehru, and Gopi Chand Bhargava protested against the Imperial Legislative Assemblies. One of the revolutionaries, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was about to be released, started the hunger strike in support of these revolutionaries. He was imprisoned for another 3 years by the British authorities as a result. Even though Gandhiji allegedly hated it, the trusted members of the Congress party too silently supported him, if not openly.
The revolutionaries, however, faced a tragedy, when victory knocked at their doors. After 63 days of intense struggle, Jatindra Nath Das passed away, on Friday, 13th September 1929. Given his condition, the jail committee ordered an unconditional release. However, the Punjab Governor refused, offering to release him on bail. Jatindra Da’s death appalled the nation. The whole of India went into mourning. Bhagat Singh himself was reduced to tears, and he wept bitterly on Jatindra Da’s death. Fellow comrade Durgwati Devi, affectionately addressed by the revolutionaries as Durga Bhabhi, gave a shoulder to the hearse of Jatindra Da, all the way from Lahore to Calcutta. Eminent patriot and revolutionary leader Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose himself sent a financial assistance of Rs. 600/- (Rs. 60000 to 75000/- as of today, approximately), to bring Jatindra Da’s hearse home.
Jatindra Da’s death not only steeled the revolutionaries’ resolve, it also defeated the British face down. Ultimately, they gave in, accepting the demands of the revolutionaries. Some say they never won their struggle. If that was so, how was Bhagat Singh, who was a C class prisoner, according to the jail manual, bestowed with clean clothes, newspapers, pen, papers and books? How did Sukhdev have the privilege of having a carom board in his final days? This means, that the revolutionaries had won! However, it took Bhagat’s father, Kishan Singh, to break Bhagat Singh’s strike, on 5th October 1929,a record 116 days since he first took it up with Batukeshwar Dutt on 15th June 1929. Even though Bhagat and two of his comrades were hanged later, his victory for Indian prisoners is something that deserves to be mentioned.
At a time, when people like Kanhaiya Kumar start equating themselves with the likes of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev etc., they forget that these revolutionaries never back tracked from their ideals, like Umar Khalid did, running away from the police. The revolutionaries were no mere flukes. They were hardcore, committed individuals, who could die for the ideals, something that was rare to see, even in a leader like Mahatma Gandhi. It is to them that I pay this tribute. Their resolve can be seen through this quote:-
‘Use yeh fikr hai hardam, naya tarz e zafa kya hai….
Hamein yeh Shauq Hai, Dekhein Sitam ki Inteha kya Hai’
(They are worried with what next trouble is in store for them,
We enjoy seeing, what is the limit of torture for us!)
Lahore Conspiracy Case, Proceedings, as retrieved by Sukhdev’s brother, Mathura Das Thapar