It is March 23 now on the clock, the most significant day for the revolutionary movement of not only India, but the whole of South Asia, at least as important for Pakistan as for India. The greatest martyr of both India and Pakistan held the head of dignity of the Indian nation of 1931 and revolutionary movement of the whole world high, with the resounding sounds of ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ and ‘Down with Imperialism’. The event made British colonialism hang its head in shame before the brave three—Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev!
I am trying to imagine the three days of March 1931. On March 20, Bhagat Singh wrote to the Governor of Punjab, daring him to send a firing squad in order to shoot them, as they were ‘war prisoners’, since a war was on between the Indian nation and British colonialism. On March 22, Bhagat Singh wrote a letter to his comrades, exhorting them to continue the struggle, though they would face immense hardships; more than dying, living and struggling will be more difficult... And on the 23rd itself, I presume, all the three slept well at night, after singing revolutionary songs. They knew March 24 would be the day of their execution.
At the time of meeting, Pran Nath Mehta, their friend and advocate, brought the book on or by Lenin as sought by Bhagat Singh, a day earlier. In all likelihood Pran Nath Mehta must have informed Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev that their families refused to avail themselves of the last meeting with them, though all the three families were present in Lahore that day for the last meeting. Rajguru’s poor mother travelled all the way from Maharashtra to be with her son. Sukhdev’s mother was there with Sukhdev’s uncle, Lala Achint Ram Thapar, who was like a father to Sukhdev after the death of his father earlier. The jail authorities refused permission to Lala Achint Ram to accompany them for the last meeting, because of ‘not being a blood relation’. To protest against this, all the three families refused to meet the three prisoners.
I was trying to gauge the pain of the three mothers, particularly of Rajguru’s poor mother, who came all the way from a village near Pune in Maharashtra, and had not got many chances to meet her son during the trial, being far away. At least Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev’s families had many chances to meet them, being in Punjab. Bhagat Singh was worried that at the last meeting his mother might cry, so he advised her not to come; however, she did come, but now showing exemplary courage bearing pain, all of them refused to see their sons for the last time, exposing the British colonial regime’s cruelty in its worst form.
Bhagat Singh could understood everything. When Bogha, the Dalit jail worker, came, Bhagat Singh asked him to cook lunch for them. In 1931, Bogha cried, he could not commit this ‘sin’ to cook for a ‘high caste’, but Bhagat Singh told him that before going to the gallows, he had to eat from the hands of ‘bebe’, they used to call Bogha, bebe (mother), since like the mother he cleansed their toilets. Bhagat Singh had his way and got his last food from ‘bebe’. Then he started reading Lenin and around four, the jail warder, Chatar Singh, requested them to have a bath, could not explain anything except crying. Bhagat Singh understood that the ‘time was up’, they got ready for the ‘last and final journey’. Bhagat Singh again continued reading Lenin’s book. When around six the jail staff came to fetch them, Bhagat Singh smiled and said: ‘Wait for a while, let me finish this page, a revolutionary is meeting another revolutionary, don’t spoil the beauty of their meeting.’ They waited!
All three, arm-in-arm and singing, started moving towards the gallows. Bhagat Singh’s weight increased by ten pounds, with the expectation of execution (mind ‘expectation’ and not ‘apprehension’), as he was so happy and excited to sacrifice his life for the country and its people, in order to awaken them. I sometimes wonder whether we shall celebrate March 23 with happiness or express sorrow as many people do. Bhagat Singh would have said: ‘Celebrate your struggles on this day, don’t spread gloom, be cheerful and strong!’
At 7 pm or around that time they were at the gallows. Bhagat Singh refused to wear the black cloth on his face and told the British officer: ‘You are lucky to see how happily Indians go to the gallows for the nation.’
Saddam Hussein was not the first to go to the gallows with uncovered face; Bhagat Singh was the first one to do so.
And what did the British do after the executions were over? Scared of the anger of the people gathered at the jail gate, and the news spread fast, they mutilated the bodies by cutting them into pieces, put those into sacks, took those from the back gate towards Hussainiwala, and burnt the bodies with kerosene oil with some Pandit/Granthi around from Kasur. A large number of people walking by foot collected the half-burnt body-pieces, brought those to Lahore and a lakh of people joined the funeral march to the banks of the Ravi in Lahore on March 24 evening. Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest men and patriots of history at the age of 23 years and five months plus, whose slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ became the war-cry of the freedom struggle after their martyrdom.
‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ II—Long Live Revolution!
Writing ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ on March 23, I wrote that I would write part two of it. So now I am trying to jot it down. I wish to share here what brought me close to Bhagat Singh in my life.
After passing the Matriculation in my home town Rampura Phul with rather low marks, I was almost lost in the wilderness. There was no college in those days in the town and my father was not in a position to support my college education in nearby towns, Bhatinda or Barnala, at an equal distance of 30 kilometres on opposite sides, where the colleges were located.
My father, a petty trader, always under some debt, did not join as a school teacher, being middle pass in his days, due to ‘little pay’, and had no such sensitivity to educate his children by all means. Under the circumstances, the Public Library of Rampura Phul took me out of my pensive state by opening a whole new world of literary creativity before me. It started with Munshi Prem Chand’s Godan, and I could never settle for a lower level of literary creation. That’s why Punjabi novels did not attract me as much as Hindi ones and translations of Indian and world classics in Hindi. After a while, I became a member of the Hind Pocket Books, Delhi’s scheme of ‘Readers Club’, getting nine rupees worth books for eight rupees, with free postage. And one book for one rupee by Manmath Nath Gupta, Bharat Ke Krantikari having 16 sketches, including that of Bhagat Singh; this was my first encounter with the revolutionary freedom fighters. Manmath Nath Gupta was himself a part of the Kakori Conspiracy Case and got life conviction though being just 15 years or so at that time. I was so impressed that I started translating the book into my mother-tongue, Punjabi. By that time I had done the JBT, teachers training course, and passed Prabhakar (Honours in Hindi) examination as a private candidate, securing the first position in Punjab. This got me a job as a Hindi teacher in a Government High School in Poohla village of Bhatinda district.
These sketches were serialised in Desh Bhagat Yaadan, the fortnightly brought out by the legendary Ghadarite, Baba Gurmukh Singh Lalton, from Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, Jalandhar. Some of the pieces were published also in Preetlari, and Aarsee, respected literary journals.
Till that time I could read and understand books in Hindi and Punjabi only, English was a distant dream yet. So I read many books in these languages on the revolutionary heroes and got particularly enchanted with Bhagat Singh. Perhaps the first meeting on Bhagat Singh I attended was on March 23, 1969 in the Public Library, Bhatinda on his martyrdom day, which was addressed by the well-known Punjabi short-story writer and joint editor of Preetlari, Navtej Singh, with his father Gurbux Singh Preetlari at that time.
But I had to struggle a lot, while doing a job, passed graduation privately and even MA Part-I privately. I joined Panjab University, Chandigarh to complete MA Part-II in Hindi. This opened a new path of life for me. Though I continued with my school job even after completing my MA, my teachers’ union activity and doing MA, Punjabi, again privately, kept me close to study about revolutionaries as well as a lot of creative Indian and world literature. Though I registered for Ph.D in Hindi with Prof Romesh Kuntal Megh, I could not proceed much. In this period, I became quite active in the Punjabi cultural movement and with some writings and translations to my credit, became known as Chaman Lal ‘Prabhakar’ in literary circles. Kumar Vikal, Mohan Bhandari and Bhushan, known as Dhianpuri at that time, and myself became part of a circle and by organising the Punjabi Sahit Sabha at Rampura Phul came in contact with the stalwarts of Punjabi literature as well, that is, Prof Mohan Singh, Sant Singh Sekhon, Gurdial Singh, etc. Paash, Waryam Sandhu, Surinder Hemjyoti, Ajmer Aulakh, Amarjit Chandan, Harbhajan Halwarvi, Attarjeet, Sant Ram Udasi, Lal Singh Dil, etc. were all part of the same stream at that time.
We worked together in the Panjabi Sahit Sabhiachar Manch, with guidance from the Nagi Reddy group of the ML movement in Punjab at that time. During the 1975 Emergency, I spent seven months in Bhatinda and Patiala jails.
In 1977, I joined the JNU for research and left the school job. Five years in the JNU as a student have been the best period of my life so far. After doing a Hindi officer’s job for sometime in Bombay, I had a short stint in journalism as a sub-editor in the Jansatta Hindi daily brought out by Prabhash Joshi, before getting a long-term job at Punjabi University, Patiala as an academic. Before leaving for Patiala, I completed editing Bhagat Singh aur Unke Sathiyon ke Dastavez with Jagmohan Singh for Rajkamal Publishers, Delhi, which got published in 1986, to become an all-time best-seller till now. From 1985 to 2002, I remained confined to literature and have many publications in Hindi, Punjabi and English, books as well as articles in journals/ newspapers.
Again after 2002, my interest returned to Bhagat Singh and this time I collected documents of Bhagat Singh alone with the title, Bhagat Singh ke Sampuran Dastavez (Complete Documents of Bhagat Singh).
The preface of the book was written by Kultar Singh, the younger brother of Bhagat Singh, and the book was released during the World Book Fair in Delhi in February 2004. This also became as much a hit as was the early collection. In the meantime, National Book Trust Chairman Prof Bipan Chandra asked me to write a monograph on Kartar Singh Sarabha, which I completed only after joining the JNU as a Professor in Hindi Translation in 2005. By this time, I got the Central Hindi Directorate award for translating Surjit Patar’s poetry in Hindi, Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize for translating Paash’s poetry in Hindi in 2002 and the Punjab Government’s Shiromani Hindi Sahitkar award in 2003.
By the time I joined the JNU, I had enough publications on Hindi and Punjabi literature, including those of criticism and translation, which were getting published every year. However, from 2006, my whole interest seemed to be concentrated on Bhagat Singh and other revolutionary heroes during the 75th martyr-dom anniversary (2006) and the 2007 birth centenary of Bhagat Singh. I became an active campaigner and writer on Bhagat Singh in this period, more at the non-official level, but some at the official level also. By impressing upon the Left parliamentary parties, which were suppor-ting the UPA Government in those days, I got the Bhagat Singh centenary included in official functions also, and this resulted in publication of Bhagat Singh’s documents from the Publications Division for the first time in 60 years. This was edited by me as Shaheed Bhagat Singh: Dastavezon ke Aaine Mein. Also I got Jail Notebook and Other Writings, with my introduction, published from Leftword, Delhi, which has got many reprints in paperback till now. The NBT also got Bhagat Singh ke Rajnitik Dastavez edited by me. On my own I prepared a book in Punjabi, my mother-tongue, Bhagat Singh: Vicharvan Inquilabi, published by Navyug Press, Delhi, the best in a Punjabi language publication. My own writings in Hindi on Bhagat Singh were published in 2009 under the title, Bhagat Singh, by Medha Books, Delhi. Another collection of my writings on Bhagat Singh, including some in EPW and Monthly Review, is now being published as Understanding Bhagat Singh from Aakar Books, Delhi. The Hindi literary monthly Gyanoudey also got a column on Indian revolutionaries from me during 2007, which is now ready to be published in book form any time. In Punjabi my book appeared as Inquilabi Itihas De Sunehari Panne in 2006, by Tarak Bharti Publishers, Barnala. During 2006-2010, I delivered fifty plus lectures on Bhagat Singh in different parts of the country and abroad. My NBT collection of Bhagat Singh’s documents has recently come out in Urdu translation also, which I hope reaches Pakistan. The Publications Division’s large collection of documents has also been translated in Urdu and is likely to be published soon.
Why did I get so involved with this theme? As part of the Left and democratic movement, I realised that one needs to have heroes from one’s own tradition to have emotional appeal among the masses. Bhagat Singh is one such hero, who has mass appeal, and who had the best enlightened Leftist ideas during the freedom movement. Bhagat Singh, like Che Guevara, is an ideal hero for not only India, but South Asia as a whole, as Che Guevara is for the whole of Latin America and both together for the whole world. The other reason was to place Bhagat Singh in the proper ideological perspective. He was just projected as a brave, fearless patriot, but despite his writings being available, he was not projected as a clear socialist revolutionary thinker, to some extent deliberately. Prof Bipan Chandra brought out his ideological position clearly in the 1970s. I took it further by bringing into light his writings in focus, so that the people could know him directly from his writings.
I have more material to focus on him, like the official documents from the National Archives including intelligence reports, which I want to use in a book, Bhagat Singh: Through Colonial and Nationalist Perspectives. I have a desire to get a complete set of articles published in the Mainstream journal in book form as Bhagat Singh in Mainstream which could prove to be the best collection of articles on Bhagat Singh. I am working now on my magnum opus, Bhagat Singh Reader, assigned to me by Penguin India for the international edition. It may be completed this year. This will present Bhagat Singh’s complete documents in English at the international level. And this will provide me with the greatest satisfaction of my life, as and when it comes out.