Even in these turbulent times when history is no longer a dispatch from the pages of a bygone era, his is a legacy that remains untouched. In recent days there has been a whiff of some old- fashioned nationalism in Punjab with the legendary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh making a resurgence in the state that he called his.
There are questions though about the emphasis on the basanti turban since there is little evidence to support that the freedom fighter favoured the colour. Bhagat Singh who was an atheist and a Marxist has over time also become an idea that is more intense than the dust of the past and the fading memory of the present.
While partition seems to increasingly lose its relevance in a land held sway by counter chronicles where freedom- then and now is increasingly irrelevant, some of us remain richer for what was passed on as a family legacy for it is a fallacy to think what our forefathers lived through doesn’t shape us.
Periphery of the freedom struggle
It was circa 1928 and protests, against the Simon Commission were gaining ground in Lahore. It was here that my grandfather Virendra who was in college and still at the periphery of the freedom struggle first met Bhagat Singh, little realizing then how their lives would keep getting intertwined in the future.
Events at the protest in Lahore soon spiral out of control with Lala Lajpat Rai injured in the lathi charge by the British. It was his death a month later that led Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru to initiate a chain of events that would eventually lead to their hanging.
The trio set out to avenge the loss of Lala Lajpat Rai and their target was James Scott, the police superintendent who ordered the lathi charge. But as history books tell us, in a case of mistaken identity Bhagat Singh and Rajguru shot another police officer in what came to be known as the Saunders case.
The two then calmly escaped on bicycles that they had stationed in the hostel of the DAV college, Lahore and in a twist of fate my grandfather was instead taken into custody. This was the first of his seven arrests during the freedom struggle before the age of 22.
In a suit and a hat
There are all of four photographs of Bhagat Singh in the public domain but the one in a hat with a moustache has a backstory. It was after the shooting in the Saunders case that the freedom fighter went into a disguise cutting his long hair and dressing in a suit and a hat.
Bhagat Singh did not believe in religious rituals and enjoyed watching movies and listening to music. Once after he went to the theatre to see the film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Chandrashekhar Azad- another revolutionary told him, “One day you will be arrested in the movie hall, I will be left waiting for you.” But Bhagat Singh firmly lived by the philosophy that why die before death comes.
The revolutionary movement in those times was run by the ideologies of youth, Bhagat Singh was just 23 years old when he was hanged. My grandfather remembered how the trial took place in a tent inside the jail as the British thought the three would try and escape. Bhagat Singh, though had no such intentions and the prison instead reverberated with “mera rang de basanti chola” through the trial.
Despite his own incarcerations, my grandfather was destiny’s child. On 23rd march, 1931 Pitaji was also in the same Lahore Central Jail as Bhagat Singh when the hanging took place. This is what he said of a day that redefined courage and grief.
'The end appears quite near'
Bhagat Singh and my grandfather had a common barber in jail, a man named Barkat. Three days earlier he had whispered into Pitaji’s ears, “the end appears to be quite near, jail officials seem to be making preparations.” The rumours had been swirling around that Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev would be hanged on the 24th.
But on 23rd morning Barkat rushed to my grandfather and said, “Everything is coming to an end. Sardarji says they will probably be hanged today. He has wished you Vande Mataram.” Emotions had been running high and anticipating a crowd the executions had been preponed secretly. When my grandfather sent a message to Bhagat Singh for a confirmation, he sent back a personally engraved comb with Barkat.
That evening all inmates of the jail were asked to go inside much before their usual time of being locked up at 7pm. When they questioned the chief warden Charat Singh, the man couldn’t speak for a long time. In his silence they knew. My grandfather wrote in his memoir that no one ate in the jail that evening.
Soon, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru left their prison cell for the last time but they refused to be masked, walking with their heads high to their execution. The three had earlier dismissed all calls to petition for clemency. As they passed the other inmates, they shouted slogans of ‘inquilab zindabad.’ Soon the entire jail reverberated with the slogans and the banging of the prison bars.
Next day when Charat Singh came and opened my grandfather’s lock he was still emotional, having witnessed the hanging. After Bhagat Singh changed into his final clothes, Charat Singh said he pleaded with him to pray, “son, I have a request. It is a matter of just a few minutes more.
At least remember Wahe-guru now.” Charat Singh told my grandfather that Bhagat Singh laughed, “Sardarji, I did not take His name all my life. In fact when I saw how the poor and the oppressed were being treated I even rebuked Him.
Now if I pray to Him when death stares me in the face, He will say this man is a hypocrite and a coward. So what effect will my prayer possibly have on him? If I don’t change my opinion, at least He will concede that this man was honest.”
My grandfather believed that Bhagat Singh welcomed his hanging with pride, “Mr Magistrate you are fortunate to be able to see how Indian revolutionaries can embrace death,” he had responded to the death verdict, asking to be shot instead of being hanged.
Perhaps, there was something of his father Kishen Singh in him. Singh had gone to meet his son with his relatives on the 23rd, presuming that he still had a day. The authorities though would not allow everyone and outraged, Singh returned without meeting his son.
That evening while at a public meeting about his son when someone whispered the news of Bhagat Singh’s hanging, Kishen Singh is believed to have paused for a moment and then continued speaking, “I have just received the news that the inevitable has happened. I am going to claim Bhagat Singh’s body. Please remain calm.”
Bhagat Singh earned in 23 short years what people spend a lifetime searching for. As Nehru said after his death, “He became a symbol - the act was forgotten, the symbol remained.” What can be a bigger validation of that than the ability even 91 years later to transcend the winds, blowing as they do to take down the ideals of a freedom struggle itself.
Those times were special, for they made legends.