Thursday 23 March 2006 marked the 75th anniversary of the judicial murder of Shaheed (martyr) Bhagat Singh, the greatest socialist and anti-imperialist fighter in India’s history, and an important historical figure whose legacy is all too often overlooked.
Although only 23 years old when he was killed, Bhagat Singh made a profound impact on the course of the Indian struggle for independence, and his heroism, dedication and insight remain a shining light for communists today. At a time when the Indian nationalist movement against the centuries-old British colonial rule was dominated by the treacherous ‘non-violent’ clique surrounding Mohandas Gandhi (who repeatedly used the tiniest breach of his principles of non-violence to pull the plug on the nationalist campaigns that were driving the British to ruins), Bhagat Singh and his comrades represented the alternative to Gandhi’s sell-out. Bhagat Singh was by no means an advocate of random acts of terror, but understood very well that a system based on violence cannot be defeated with non-violent methods alone. He expressed himself very clearly on this point: “when patriots take up arms for the sake of their country and its safety, when they eliminate exploitation and oppression or when they avenge the injustice done to the oppressed and go to the gallows, they use violence but they do not spread terror” . (Cited in ‘Bhagat Singh and the revolutionary movement’ by Niraja Rao, Revolutionary Democracy, April 1997, www.revolutionarydemocracy.org)
Brought up in colonial Punjab, the young Bhagat Singh witnessed numerous atrocities and injustices perpetrated by the British against the local population. By the age of 13, he had become an active participant in Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. His political understanding continued to evolve throughout his life, and by the time he was 21 he was a confirmed Marxist Leninist. He was a hugely talented mobiliser, propagandist, speaker and writer. In court on the sixth anniversary of Lenin’s death, Bhagat Singh stood up and read out the following words, requesting that they be transmitted to the Third International: “On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin, we wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working-class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to imperialism.”
Bhagat Singh was murdered, along with his close comrades-in-arms Rajguru and Sukhdev, on 23 March 1931, having been found guilty of involvement in the assassination of JP Saunders, a deputy superintendent of the British colonial police force, and setting off a bomb in the Legislative Assembly (in relation to which incident the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, the organisation then led by Bhagat Singh, said: “We dropped the bomb on the floor of the Assembly Chamber to register our protest on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heart-rending agony. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and to give the heedless a timely warning … from under the seeming stillness of the sea of humanity, a veritable storm is about to break out.” ) Even though the trial (known as the Lahore Conspiracy Case) would end in death sentences for the defendants, Bhagat Singh and his comrades were able to use the proceedings brilliantly to expose the brutality, degeneracy and illegitimacy of British rule. Their words and their courage was an inspiration to millions and breathed new life into the Indian national struggle.
In the wake of the verdict, Bhagat Singh and his comrades-in-arms demanded that they be shot as prisoners of war rather than hanged as criminals. Their demand was not acceded to.
In the words of US civil rights activist Medger Evans, you can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea. Bhagat Singh, despite living only 23 years, will be remembered by history as the founder of Indian communism, a man of immense stature who lived and breathed revolution, who gave tremendous inspiration to the revolutionary youth of India, who contributed an immeasurable amount to the Indian struggle for self-determination, and who sacrificed everything for his country and the international working class. The slogan he popularised (inquilab zindabad – long live the revolution) continues to ignite the fires of revolution across India. It is especially important that he be remembered in Britain, since the imperialism he fought directly against was British imperialism – that same force that oppresses the working class of Britain on a daily basis.
May we celebrate the life of Bhagat Singh by learning from his example of courage, commitment, innovation and self-sacrifice.
Long live the memory of Bhagat Singh. Inquilab zindabad!