Singh and His Comrades A Page From Our
Ajoy Ghosh was one of close comrade and was
co-accused in the Lahore conspiracy case )
( This was first
Published in 1945)
Few cases in this country have attracted such attention as
the Lahore conspiracy case of 1929-30. From the day bombs exploded in the
Central Assembly till the time curtain was rung down with the execution of
Bhagat Singh, Rajguru,
the floodlight of public attention was
focussed on the case, on the
prisoners, on the countless struggles they waged for the cause of political
prisoners and for the principles they cherished. Bhagat Singh and his comrades
became the heroes of many legends - some of them were true, some were fond
creations of the popular mind. Songs and poems about them could be heard
wherever one went.
these people that overnight became so popular? What was it they stood for? Why
did they evoke such sympathy and admiration? These questions I shall try to
answer in the following pages.
I believe it
was sometime in 1923 that I met Bhagat Singh for the first time. A young boy
of about my age - I was fifteen at that time - he was introduced to me by
Tall and thin, rather shabbily dressed, very quiet, he seemed a typical
village lad racking smartness and self-confidence. I did not think very highly
of him at that time and told Dutt so when he was
A few days
later I saw him again. We had a long talk. Those were days when we used to
dream boyish dreams of revolution. It seemed round the comer -a question of a
few years at most. Bhagat Singh did not seem so confident about it. I have
forgotten his words but I remember his speaking about the torpor and apathy
that prevailed in the land, the difficulty in rousing the people, the heavy
odds against us. My first impressions about him seemed
drifted to past attempts at revolution and a change came over
Bhagat Singh as he spoke of the
martyrs of 1915-16 and especially of Sardar
Kartar Singh, the central figure
of the first Lahore conspiracy case. Neither of us had met
Kartar Singh. He had already been hanged when we
were yet kids but we knew how he, then a mere youth of 18 and a comrade of
Baba Rur Singh
had become the undisputed leader of the
Ghadr Party. He came to India in
1915-16 with the aim of organising armed revolt
against British rule. A fearless fighter
and a superb organiser,
Kartar Singh was a man admired even by his enemies. I literally
worshipped him and to hear one talk inspiringly
of my hero was a great pleasure. I began to feel a liking for Bhagat Singh.
Before he left Cawnpore
we were close friends though I never ceased to make fun of what appeared to me
his pessimistic outlook.
Arrests and After
In 1925 like
a bolt from the blue came the Kakori arrests most
of our leaders were in prison within a few weeks. More round-ups followed:
searches and arrests, harassment of suspects became the order of the day.
but what really shattered my dreams was the effect
of these arrests. Men who had professed sympathy with our
cause would now avoid us. Boys
who had talked now began to leave the gymnasium we had started in
Cawnpore for physical culture and as a recruiting
centre. The whole province was in the grip of panic.
1926, I went to Allahabad to join the university. We tried to rebuild the
party out of the shattered remnants of the Kakori
round-ups. It was an uphill task. Revolution, it seemed now, was far, very far
of frustration, which prevailed in the ranks of the revolutionary minded youth
of that period and inevitably drew them towards terrorism
was the outcome of the general political situation then prevailing. Following
the failure of the great mass movement of 1921-22, the Congress had split into
two factions—no-changers and pro-changers-and
now the Swaraj Party with
Gandhiji's blessing held the field. Of political activities
outside the legislatures there were none, mass meetings were rarely held and
scantily attended. Stillness hung over the land, the stillness of a stagnant
discussions took place in our ranks about what to do to break this stagnant
calm. Socialist literature was trickling in, the triumph of the November
revolution, the consolidation of the socialist regime in Russia and more than
anything else, the aid given by the Soviet Union to Asian countries like
Turkey and China against imperialist powers attracted us towards the new
socialist state and towards the ideas and principles it embodied.
Simultaneously another phenomenon whose significance
we could only vaguely grasp then was being witnessed in our own country. At a
time when the whole country seemed quiet and sunk in the morass of apathy the
great strike of the Bombay workers led by the
Kamgar Union, strike struggles in
Calcutta and Cawanpore,
were attracting universal attention.
armed action against the enemies of the people, we were convinced, was
indispensable to rouse the nation. But, clearly, terrorism by itself could not
lead to freedom. In what channels and by what means was the mass movement
unleashed by terror to be directed, what sort of government would replace
British rule? These questions, vaguely formulated were beginning to be asked
in our ranks.
was in the meantime active in the Punjab. He and his comrades had formed the
Sabha, a militant youth
organisation which was to propagate socialist
ideas, preach the necessity of direct action against British rule and serve as
a recruiting centre for the Terrorist Party. The Sabha became tremendously
popular in the years that followed and played a leading part in the
of the youth of the Punjab.
also worked for some time on the editorial staff of the
Kirti - a socialist journal edited
by Sohan Singh
One day in
1928, I was surprised when a young man walked into my room and greeted me. It
was Bhagat Singh but not the Bhagat Singh that I had met two years before.
Tall and magnificently proportioned, with a keen, intelligent face and
gleaming eyes, he looked a different man altogether. And as he talked I
realised that he had grown
non-merely in years.
He was now,
together with Chandra
Azad - the sole remaining
absconder of the
Kakori conspiracy case, the leader
of our party. He explained to me the changes that had been made in our program
and organisational structure.
henceforth the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association with a socialist
state in India as our avowed objective. Also the party had been
reorganised with a central committee and with
provincial and district committees under it. All decisions were to be taken in
these committees, majority decisions were to be binding on all.
As for the
most important question, however, the question in what manner the fight for
freedom and socialism was to be waged, armed action by individuals and groups
was to remain our immediate task. Nothing else, we held, could smash
constitutionalist illusions, nothing else could free the country from the grip
in which it was held. When the stagnant calm was broken by a series of hammer
blows delivered by us at selected points and on suitable occasions, against
the most hated officials of the government, and mass movement unleashed, we
would link ourselves with that movement act as its armed detachment and give
it a socialist direction.
contribution towards ensuring the success of the movement would ensure that
free India became socialist India. All those who met Bhagat Singh then and
afterwards have testified to his remarkable intelligence and to the powerful
impression he made when talking. Not that he was a brilliant speaker, but he
spoke with such force, passion and earnestness that one could not help being
impressed. We talked the whole night and as we went out for a stroll when the
first streaks of red were appearing in the grey sky, it seemed to me that a
new era was dawning for our party. We knew what we wanted and we knew how to
reach our goal.
Such was our
socialism in those days. We had lost faith in the existing national
leadership, its constitutionalism, its slogan of
boring from within disgusted us. And we looked upon ourselves as men who by
their example would create the basis for the rise of a new leadership.
Socialism for us was an ideal, the principle to guide us to rebuild society
after the capture of power.
The First Blow
The visit of
the Simon Commission in 1928 was the occasion for countrywide strikes and
demonstrations. The Bombay workers came out in a gigantic one-day protest
strike. "Simon go back" was the slogan that rose
from the seething sea of humanity wherever the commission went. Such scenes
had not been witnessed since the non-cooperation days.
A wave of
indignation swept over the country when news came that at Lahore the protest
demonstration had been broken up by the police and
Rai, who was leading the procession, had himself been seriously
injured. A few weeks afterwards he died. The country was plunged in mourning.
than sorrow the common feeling was one of hatred and anger and also of
frustration. Here in broad day light in full view of tens of thousands, an
aged and universally respected leader had been done to death and nothing could
be done to meet out justice to the cowardly perpetrators of the crime.
decided to strike a blow. In December 1928
Saunders, the assistant superintendent of police, the man who had led
the lathi charge, was shot dead in front of the
police headquarters in Lahore. Well-timed and daringly
executed, it was an action that was acclaimed by the public with joy.
The first of the blows by means of which
we expected to stir the country had been struck.
Bombs in the Assembly
seemed to be moving apace. At its Calcutta session in December 1928 the
Congress resolved to unfurl the banner of independence if dominion status was
not conceded within a year. Torpor that had hung over the land like a black
cloud for years was slowly lifting. Youth Leagues were springing up
everywhere, another gigantic strike was impending in Bombay.
We felt a
big fight was ahead, an upheaval like that
which had convulsed the country in 1921-22. We were feverishly busy preparing
to play our part in it -collecting arms and money, training our cadres in the
use of arms. Jatin
brought from Calcutta to teach us how to make bombs.
1929, streamer headlines announced the arrest of communist and trade union
leaders all over the country P.C.
Joshi then a student in the Allahabad
University and a Youth League Leader, was arrested his arrest being followed
by a huge protest demonstration of students.
and some others among us had already met a number of communist leaders. We
felt sympathetic towards them and at one time even contemplated some sort of a
working alliance with them - communists to organise
the masses and conduct the mass movement, we of the Hindustan Socialist
Republican Association to act as its armed section. But when we learned that
communists considered armed action by individuals to be harmful to the
movement, we dropped the idea. While we did not look upon communists as
revolutionists - revolution for us meant primarily armed action - we felt one
with them in many respects: in their hatred for imperialism, in their
opposition to constitutionalism and insistence on direct action, in their
striving for socialism.
And so the
countrywide arrests of communists were felt by us to be a matter of vital
concern for the revolutionary movement. It was imperialist attack against a
cause, which was our own, against a movement which had our love and sympathy.
We resolved to protest not merely against the arrests but against the whole
imperialist policy of fostering the growth of constitutionalist illusions on
the one hand and unleashing terror against the people on the other.
A few days
later bombs exploded on the official
benches in the Central Assembly just after the Trades Dispute Bill - a measure
directed against the working class movement-had been passed.
and Dutt were
arrested on the spot.
In a ringing
statement that revealed the powerful pen that Bhagat Singh wielded they
admitted their responsibility and explained what had led them to it. They were
sentenced to transportation for life.
Soon followed the accidental discovery of our bomb factory
in Lahore and the arrests of
Gopal confessed, then
Vohra, and the result was more round-ups,
more confessions and within a few weeks most of our active workers and leaders
of Bihar, United Provinces and the Punjab
were in the hands of; the police. Others went underground. My arrest came just
when I was preparing to go underground.
seemed over, our dreams and our hopes. More depressing than anything else was
the shocking fact that, unable to stand police torture, no less than seven,
two of them members of our central committee had turned
The Trial Begins
In July 1929
we were produced in court - 13 of us - and there we met Bhagat Singh and
Dutt again. No longer was he the Bhagat Singh of
the magnificent physique whose strength had been a byword in our party. A
shadow of his former self, weak and emaciated, he was carried into the court
on a stretcher.
For months he and
Dutt had been tortured by the
police and now they were on hunger strike demanding human treatment for all
political prisoners. Our eyes filled with tears as we greeted them.
sentenced already to transportation for life
Bhagat Singh and
Dutt were our
co-accused in the new case that now began - the Lahore conspiracy case of
1929. For three days we paid no attention to the proceedings but held
prolonged discussion which Bhagat Singh, though so weak that he had to recline
in an easy chair all the time, took the leading part.
thing, he emphasised, was the need to get rid of
the idea that all was over. Ours was not to be a defence
in the legal sense of the word. While every effort must be made to save those
who could be saved, the case as a whole was to be conducted with a definite
political purpose. Revolutionary use was to be made of the trial, of every
opportunity to expose the sham justice of the British government and to
demonstrate the unconquerable will of revolutionists. Not merely by our
statements when the time came but even more by our actions inside the court
and prisons we were to fight for the cause of all political prisoners hurl
defiance at the government and show the contempt we had for its courts and its
police. Thus we were to continue the work we had begun outside the work of
rousing our people by our actions.
had a galvanising effect on us. As a first step we
resolved to join the hunger strike that Bhagat Singh and
Dutt had already had already begun. Our central demand was the placing
of all political prisoners in a single class, better diet for them, newspapers
and reading material and writing facilities.
The Hunger Strike
the great Lahore conspiracy case hunger strike that continued for 63 days
resulting in the self-immolation of
Das and stirring the country to its
beginning the government and the jail authorities did not take the strike
seriously. They believed it would peter out in a few days and this belief on
their part was strengthened when two of the prisoners gave up the strike after
a few days. Some of us were none too confident
either and I for one wondered how long it would be possible for me to remain
without food. All of us had undergone hardships before physical conflict with
the police now did not frighten us, but the prospect of starving ourselves for
days, weeks and even months - this was a chilling prospect indeed.
For ten days
nothing big happened. Hunger grew and with it physical weakness. Some had to
take to bed after a week and, as the trial continued, it was a'
real strain for them to sit in the courtroom. But our first
terror had gone. Hunger strike did not seem such a hard job after all. But we
did not know that the real fight was yet to come.
days forcible^ feeding was started. We
were all in separate cells at that time. Accompanied by a number of tough and
(convict overseers) the doctors came to each cell, the hunger striker was
thrown on a mattress, a rubber tube was forcibly pushed into his nostril and
the milk poured into it.
resistance was offered by everyone but with little effect at first. It almost
seemed as if they had already beaten us.
In the night
on the thirteenth day of the strike news reached me in my cell that
Dass was in a bad state and had
been removed to the jail hospital. At first I could not make out what had
happened for Das had appeared quite fit only a few
hours ago. Then the man who had brought the news - he was a subordinate jail
official - hesitatingly told me that something had gone wrong during forcible
feeding and Das
was now lying unconscious.
shocking news indeed. I like most others amongst us, had never met
Das before my arrest. But during the few days that
we had come to know him in prison he had won everyone's affection. Though
quiet and unassuming, he had a keen sense of humour
and a fund of stories and anecdotes, which he used to narrate to us and make
I called the
jailor and by bullying him got the permission to
visit the jail hospital.
Das was lying there on a cot, unconscious, with
doctors attending on him. They feared he might die that very night. He
recovered but developed pneumonia and that weakened him so much - he refused
all medicines and nourishment – that forcible feeding was now out of question.
From now on
the strike became grim and determined. Das was
followed by Shiv
others. Soon the hospital was full. Court proceedings were now adjourned.
It was a
veritable race for death that now began. Who would be the first
to die - this became the subject of competition.
the methods we devised to defeat the doctors.
swallowed red pepper and boiling water to cause sore throat so that the
passage of the tube led to such coughing that it had to be taken out lest he
might die of suffocation. I swallowed flies immediately after forced feeding
to induce vomiting. These devices came to be known to the doctors and guards
were kept on us.
to break us the jail officials removed all water from our cells and placed
milk instead in the pitchers. This was the worst ordeal imaginable. After a
day thirst grew unbearably. I would drag myself towards the pitcher, hoping
every time to find water but drew back at the sight of milk. It was maddening.
If the man who had hit upon this device had been there before me, I would have
Outside the guard sat - watching every movement -mute,
I could not
trust myself much longer. I knew that a few hours more and I was bound to give
way and drink the milk. My throat was parched, my tongue swollen.
I called the
guard. As he stood outside the barred door I asked him to get me a few drops
of water at least. His reply was: "I cannot do it. I have no permission".
possession of me. I snatched the pitcher and hurled at against the door,
breaking it to pieces, spilling the milk on the guard. He recoiled back in
horror. He thought I had gone mad. He was not far from right.
torture was being undergone by
Kishori and others who were then in
cells. And everyone, as I
leamt later, had done the same thing -broke their pitchers
before their guards.
gave away. Water was brought to our cells. I drank and drank. Then I
fell sick and
vomitted out every drop.
meantime sympathetic hunger strikes were taking place wherever there were
political prisoners. A powerful mass movement had grown to back our demands.
Mass meetings and demonstrations were taking place in every part of the
conspiracy case prisoners went on hunger strike after a few days. The news was
flashed across the seas. It created a stir in England. World attention was now
focused on conditions in Indian prisons.
times during the hunger strike Bhagat
Singh came to our jail on the plea of
consultation but really to meet us and know how we were faring. Though himself
weak and emaciated he would sit by the side of
Das and other
comrades and cheer them up. His very presence infused new life in us
and we looked forward eagerly to these visits.
At last when
Das was on the
point of death and the conditions of
and others were very serious, the government yielded. A committee with
a non-official majority was appointed to
recommend changes in jail rules. The committee met us in prison, assured us
that most of our demands would be conceded and on the basis of its assurances
we resolved to end the strike.
Jatin Das was now
beyond any hope of recovery. He could no longer talk or even hear. Victory, so
it seemed at that time, had been won but the man who had more than anyone else
contributed towards it was not to live to share its fruits.
lay, with all of us sitting round him, and a lump rose in my throat. As he
passed away and I lifted my head, I saw tears even in the eyes of hardened
jail officials. When his body was borne out of the jail gate, to be hauled
over to the huge crowd that was waiting outside, Hamilton
Harding, superintendent of police Lahore,
bared his head, bowing in reverence before the man whom all the might of the
British empire had failed to defeat.
made by the government on the basis of which we abandoned the strike were not
kept forcing»,us to resort to two more
hunger strikes and even afterwards the new rules were interpreted in such
manner as to exclude the vast majority of political prisoners from any benefit.
But public attention was
focussed on the terrible
conditions prevailing in the jails-conditions far worse than today. The sham
pretensions of the government stood exposed.
during the hunger strike moved us deeply. Baba
the founder of the Ghadr
Party and a hero of the Lahore conspiracy case of 1915-16, who was then in the
Lahore central jail, joined the strike; he had already served 14 years in the
in Indian prisons and was about to be released. We were informed by the
superintendent that if he persisted, he would lose
his remissions and would have to remain in prison much longer. Moreover,
Babaji was old
and in ill health, 14 years of hell had shattered his body and the hunger
strike might end disastrously for him.
Singh saw Babaji
and pleaded with him - he was in tears when he reported the interview to us -
to desist. Babaji continued the strike as long as
we did. He lost a good part of his remissions and had to remain in jail for a
The Man and His Ideas.
had none of the characteristics of the traditional terrorist leader. We had
differences amongst us on many occasions, several of the meetings we held were
stormy and more than once Bhagat Singh had to follow a course of action with
which he did not agree. Impetuous and strong willed, he lacked the coolness
and imperturbability of Azad
and would at times fret and fume and lash at those who seemed to vacillate.
But only seldom did he give offence and whenever he did so he felt mortified
and begged forgiveness with such candour and
sincerity that one could not bear any grudge against him. Of affectionate
nature, tender towards ailing comrades, frank and open hearted, with no trace
of pettiness in his make-up, he was a man who claimed the love of all who were
even acquainted with him.
passionately fond of studying Bhagat Singh spent most of his time in prison
reading socialist literature. Perhaps the first among us to be drawn towards
socialist ideas, he was an avowed atheist and had none of the religious
beliefs of earlier terrorists. It would be an exaggeration to say that he
became a Marxist, but more and more as a result of his studies, of discussions
which we held frequently and under the impact of events outside - stirring
events took place while we were in prison: the
Sholapur uprising, the
upheaval, the heroic stand of
Garhwali soldiers led by
Chandra Singh - he began to stress the
need for armed action only in coordination with and as an integral part of
the mass movement, subordinated to its needs and requirements.
prison deepened the love that we already cherished for the
Union and on the occasion of the 1930 anniversary of the November
revolution, we sent greetings to the Soviet Union, hailing its victories and
pledging support to the Soviet State against all enemies.
the trial we strove to carry out the policy we had chalked out in the very
beginning, the policy of propaganda by action. The success of that policy and
the tremendous publicity that our case received made the government furious.
Every opportunity was seized to break us. We were equally determined never to
give into humiliating orders, never to bow before the court and the police.
And the result was frequent struggles, physical clashes with the police,
of each of these was better exposure of the government more publicity and more
popular sympathy for us.
months of trial before the magistrate and long before even a small number of
prosecution witnesses had been examined, the proceedings were abruptly ended
and "in view of the emergency" that had arisen threatening "peace and
tranquillity" a special ordinance was promulgated
by the viceroy to try us known as the Lahore conspiracy case ordinance of
1930, its provisions were of an unheard of character. We were to be tried
before a special tribunal that could, if it deemed it necessary, dispense with
our presence. There need be no lawyers, no defence
witnesses, no accused in the court. Any sentence, including the sentence of
death, could be passed by the tribunal. And to crown it all, against its
judgement there was no right of appeal. Never had
any government calling itself civilised adopted
government intended, above all, was to defeat our policy of using the trial
for revolutionary propaganda. Another thing, it seemed, was worrying them. Mr.
the only police official present at the
spot when assistant superintendent Saunders
was killed, had failed to identify Bhagat
Singh. Due to the tremendous popular
enthusiasm that the case had evoked, a number of key witnesses had turned
hostile, more were likely to follow suit and two of the
approvers had retracted their confessions.
case was in danger of ending in a fiasco if ordinary legal procedure were
followed and ordinary legal facilities allowed us.
trial had proceeded in the court of the special tribunal for a fortnight the
expected clash came. Orders were passed by the president of the tribunal to
handcuff us for raising slogans when entering the court. On our pointing out
that this had never been objected to in the magistrate's court or even in the
High Court where we had been taken once the police were ordered to use force.
the presence of lawyers and visitors, scores of policemen armed with
lathis and batons pounced upon us. This was the
order they had been waiting for. We fought back with bare firsts
but the odds against us were too heavy. Blows rained on our chests, on
Thrown on the ground we were kicked and beaten with
lathis. We were removed from the court by force, bloodstained and
severely injured. The injuries were so serious that several comrades could not
move for days together.
withdrawal of the order and assurance that such things would not be repeated.
This was not forthcoming. Justice
the only Indian member of the tribunal, was so moved by the scene he had
witnessed that he issued a statement that he had been no party to the order to
handcuff us and to use force. A few days later the tribunal was reconstituted.
His name was missing from the reconstituted tribunal.
And so the
trial proceeded, without defense lawyers, without
defense witness, before a court from which the one
judge whose sense of justice would into permit illegal
beating-ups and who therefore might take
an independent stand on the question of sentences also had been removed. What
the judgment would be was a foregone conclusion.
1930, after a farcical trial lasting five months, the judgment was announced.
sentenced to death, seven to transportation for life, others to long terms of
imprisonment. I was among those acquitted because the only evidence against me
was that of two approvers, the third
approver who had deposed against me having
retracted his confession. As the jail gates closed behind me and I stood on
the street outside, I felt like a man who had deserted his comrades.
Singh had come to mean to our countrymen I realised
only when I was out. "Bhagat Singh
was the slogan that rent the air' wherever
a meeting was held. "Inquilab
Zindab" -the slogan he had been the first to
raise-had replaced "Bande
as the slogan of the national movement. His name was on lips of the millions,
his image in every young man's heart. My chest swelled with pride as I thought
of my long association with such a man.
were still of saving Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Everyone expected that the
release of the Lahore case prisoners or at least the commutation of their
death sentences would be one of the terms of any agreement between the
Congress and the government. That expectation was belied. We had been guilty
of violence and so while the congress leaders desired to save Bhagat Singh
that could not be made one of the conditions of the
evening of 23rd March 1931, just on the eve of the Karachi session of
the Congress, the death sentences were carried out. Bhagat Singh was barely 24
at that time.
I was then
on my way to Karachi. Men who heard the news wept like children. As for me I
was too stunned even to think.
Singh appeared in the political sky for a
brief period. Before he passed away, he had become the cynosure of millions of
eyes and the symbol of the spirit and aspirations of a new India, dauntless in
the face of death, determined to smash imperialist rule and raise on its ruins
the edifice of a free people's state in
this great land of ours.