Even the bravest people tend to lose control over fear in the face of imminent death. The facade of fearlessness falls off when the reality of one’s life being cut short hits you. Life is precious to almost all. Even a 100 year old hopes he can cling on to dear life for as long as possible. Under such circumstances, the exemplary courage shown by some in sacrificing their lives for the sake of their country, and belief, serves as inspiration.
Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and few others were arrested by the British after the ‘Lahore Assembly incident’. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt had allowed themselves to be arrested after throwing a couple of bombs inside the Lahore Assembly on 8th April 1929. They had ensured none would get killed due to the bombs by throwing it in a safe area of the Assembly. They were promptly arrested. The purpose of the bombing, and getting arrested, was to heighten awareness of the revolution amongst Indians so it could inspire more to join the cause and hasten the process of India’s Independence from the British.
With the discovery of the revolutionaries’ bomb factory in Lahore, and arrest of few other members of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), the British were able to connect the Assembly bombing with the earlier murder of John P Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police of Lahore, on 17th December 1928. Thus the arrested revolutionaries were charged with murder, along with other offences.
The farcical trial and sentencing
Bhagat Singh and others were initially sentenced to life imprisonment in the Assembly Bombing case but were immediately re-arrested for the killing of Saunders and a new trial began. The revolutionaries boycotted the trial for the most part, due to the farcical and non-judicial nature of the pre-determined trial. The protests and non-cooperation by the freedom fighters intensified during the course of the trial.
One of the revolutionaries, Jai Gopal, turned approver and became a prosecution witness. During one of the trials, one of the accused threw a slipper at Jai Gopal. The magistrate ordered all the accused to be handcuffed and a melee resulted. The revolutionaries were beaten mercilessly in the court room itself, leading to their boycott of all future proceedings. The trial became very slow thereafter.
To overcome this delay, the British declared an emergency on 1st May 1930, passed an Ordinance and constituted a special tribunal with extra ordinary, and unjust, powers to try the revolutionaries. In spite of the non-participation of the accused in most of the trial, and in the face of the Ordinance expiring within 6 months, the tribunal hurried through and completed its trial very quickly and delivered its judgement on 7th October 1930.
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were to be hanged.
The zeal for sacrifice
The three of them, sentenced to death, received news of their fate without any fear or remorse. In fact, they were glad that their original purpose of giving up their lives for their country, while awakening fellow nationalists, was going to come true. Their relatives, and friends, however, did not give up. An appeal to the Privy Council was filed but was soon rejected.
Many protests were held throughout the country in which lakhs of people participated. All of them demanded the condoning of the death sentence to at least life imprisonment. Many freedom fighters, including Subhas Chandra Bose, tried their best to influence the British but they were adamant on killing the three.
The nation had high hopes on M K Gandhi to get the death sentence lifted, given his influence with the Viceroy. But he seemed to have made a small attempt, at best, which of course did not yield any result. All the while, the revolutionaries themselves were non-cooperative with all the efforts to get them released. Their mission was to sacrifice their lives for the nation — and they were not going to give up this chance.
Just a few days before their execution, the relatives of the three revolutionaries pleaded with them to file a mercy petition. Their reaction to this suggestion was one of shock! They thought of this idea as an impediment to their intended sacrifice! To ensure such attempts would not succeed, the three of them wrote a letter to the Governor of Punjab, through the jail superintendent, on the 20th of March, 1931. This was just 3 days before their execution.
In the letter, they rejected the grounds on which they were sentenced to death. They pointed out that the special tribunal had accused them of ‘waging war on the British’ and therefore sentenced them to hang. Using this particular justification of the British, they placed a demand to the Governor. That portion of their letter is worthy of being read in full
“…As to the question of our fate, please allow us to say that when you have decided to put us to death, you will certainly do it. You have got the power in your hands and the power is the greatest justification in the world. We know the maxim ‘Might is right’ serves as your guiding motto. The whole of our trial was just a proof of that.
What we wanted to point out was that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and we are therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to the shot dead instead of being hanged. It rests with you to prove that you really meant what your court had said.
We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution”
Here were three men, none of them older than 23, staring death in their face. Yet their belief in their cause was so strong and their desire to sacrifice so high — that they demanded the death of war heroes, instead of being hanged like criminals!
Their commitment to the cause of India’s freedom, their belief in their methods to achieve the same, and their willingness to sacrifice — is truly unmatched.
May their sacrifices continue to inspire us in nation-building!
The life & trial of Bhagat Singh — by Kuldip Nayar
Wikipedia article on Bhagat Singh
Shiv Verma (ed): Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, New Delhi, 1986