There was a lot of activity in the house. Mango saplings were being planted in the garden. The little boy watched the men dig the soil, plant a sapling and push the earth around it into a mound. After watching for a while, he set to work. He picked up bits of straw and planted them into the earth, pushing the earth round it, just as he has seen the men do. Just then his father’s friend came into the garden.
“What are doing?” he asked the three-year-old boy, who was busy with his ‘planting’.
“I’m sowing rifles”, replied the boy without lifting his head.
“Why, my boy?”
“To make my country free”, the boy replied solemnly.
The man who asked the question was Anand Kishore Mehta, a great nationalist and a friend of the boy’s father, Sardar Kishan Singh. The little boy was Bhagat Singh.
For Bhagat Singh, fighting for the freedom of the country was everything. His grandfather, uncles and father were all nationalists and so he grew up listening to the talk of British atrocities on Indians. He heard his elders discuss plans and make speeches. To him, therefore fighting for the country was the most natural thing in the world.
There was another reason for his fierce determination. One of his uncles had died for his country, while another, Ajit Singh, who was his favourite uncle had to flee the country to avoid arrest by the British government. Seeing his aunts weep made him very sad.
“Aunty, I will drive away the British, when I grow up. Please don’t cry”, he would wipe their tears with his small hands, angry with the British for causing sorrow to them.
Bhagat Singh loved reading and read everything he could lay his hands on — including copies of revolutionary speeches and articles, which were there in the house. He also read the pamphlets urging Indians to rise in revolt which were printed clandestinely and stored in their house. His house was also the meeting place for political leaders and revolutionaries like Sufi Amba Prashad, Anand Kishore Mehta, Lala Lajpat Rai and Rash Behari Bose.
When he was about 12 and a student of D.A.V School in Lahore, the ghastly Jalianwala Bagh massacre took place. The entire nation was plunged in sorrow and anger. To Bhagat Singh, it was as if a tragedy had befallen his own family. He resolved to visit Amritsar. It was almost like a pilgrimage for him.
He left home one morning as usual, but instead of going to school, he boarded a train to Amritsar. The entire city was tense. British soldiers patrolled the streets shooting anyone and everyone at the slightest provocation. But Bhagat Singh was least afraid. Eyes shining with anger at the British, he stealthily entered the place where thousands of innocent people including children had been brutally killed some days ago.
He stood there, tears pouring down his cheeks. Then he bent down and picked up some mud, soaked with the blood of his countrymen, and smeared it on his forehead. He put some of it in a small bottle he had brought along. Before leaving the place, he made a vow to avenge the outrage committed by the British.
Heavy of heart, he returned home late at night. Everyone was worried about him since he had not informed anyone about his going to Amritsar, not even his friends at school. But no one scolded him for what he had done, when they took one look at his face. Before going to bed, he placed flowers around the bottle, just as one would offer flowers to a deity.
Around 1920, various agitations like the Anti-Rowlatt Act agitation and the Khilafat were already taking place. The Jalianwala Bagh tragedy spurred the Non Co-operation Movement, which was launched by Mahatma Gandhi. This consisted of the boycott of schools, colleges, courts etc. Many national institutes were started in various states. And in response to the call by Mahatma Gandhi to the youth of the country, thousands of students left their respective schools and colleges to join these national institutes.
How could Bhagat Singh be left behind? So, when he was in the ninth standard he left school to join the National College in Lahore that had been set up by Lala Lajpat Rai and Bhai Parmanand. Though he was not old enough to join college, he and another boy, Jai Dev Gupta were allowed to appear for an entrance exam, which they both passed. Bhagat Singh thus entered the first year of college in 1921.
The flames of revolution were spreading in several parts of the country, like Bengal, Kanpur and Punjab. It was in the National College that Bhagat Singh come into contact with the well-known revolutionaries of the time, including Bhagwati Charan, Sukhdev, Yash Pal and Ram Krishan.
But it was his history professor Jaichandra Vidyalankar, who influenced him the most. His talks on socialism and about the great revolutionaries down the ages, inspired him and other students to follow their path.
Bhagat Singh was a good student, but was also interested in extracurricular activities. He took part in plays and the singing of patriotic songs with great enthusiasm.
A few years later, his family members began persuading him to get married. For Bhagat Singh, it was unthinkable to get married when India was still under British rule. To avoid being forced into marriage, he decided to leave college and go to Kanpur with Prof. Vidyalankar’s help and join the revolutionaries there. Before leaving, he told his friends, “…if my marriage takes place in the slave India, my bride shall be only death. The barat will take the form of a funeral procession and the baratis will be the martyrs of the country.”
In Kanpur he changed his name into Balwant and worked with Ganesh Shanker Vidyarthi in the ‘Pratap’, a nationalist newspaper published by the latter. It was here that he founded the Hindustan Republican Association and developed contacts with revolutionary leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad, Batukeshwar Dutt and Bejoy Kumar Sinha. Bhagat Singh wrote and distributed pamphlets to people who came to attend ‘melas’. He later served as the Principal of a nationalist school before returning to Lahore in 1925, when his grandmother fell ill.
Bhagat Singh and his associates subsequently changed the name of the Hindustan Republican Association, into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and formed a cell within it, called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army with Chandrashekhar Azad as the ‘Commander-in-Chief.’
The police, which had got wind of their activities were hot on their trail. With great ingenuity Bhagat Singh escaped arrest by dressing up in a policeman’s uniform.
It was during the agitation to protest against the Simon Commission, that Bhagat Singh became completely motivated to take revenge on the British through violent means.
Lala Lajpat Rai was leading a peaceful procession of protestors who shouted “Simon go back!” and held placards echoing similar sentiments. Bhagat Singh was in the vanguard of the procession.
The police warned the protesters to disperse and when they didn’t, began beating them up. Mr. Scott, the superintendent of the police beat Lala Lajpat Rai mercilessly till he collapsed.
Bhagat Singh watched, his eyes red with anger, but unable to act because the orders were to avoid violence.
Just as he had done in Jallianwala Bagh a few years earlier, he vowed to avenge Lalaji’s death. Subsequently the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army workers made a plan to kill Mr. Scott, on 10th December 1928. Those who were present included Bhagat Singh, Azad, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Jai Gopal and Durga Devi.
On 17th December 1928, Bhagat Singh Rajguru, Jai Gopal, Azad and Sukhdev set out to execute their plan. The first two were to fire at Mr. Scott and the last two were to cover them. Jai Gopal was to give the signal on the approach of Mr. Scott. At the appointed time and the signal, Rajguru fired at the white man who emerged from the Punjab Civil Secretariat building. When he fell, Bhagat Singh rushed to him and fired more shots to kill him. However it was not Scott, but J.P. Saunders the assistant Superintendent of the police. After this dreadful mix up, when they had killed the wrong person, they managed to escape from Lahore.
Bhagat Singh eventually reached Calcutta, where a bomb factory was set up in the headquarters of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. The representatives from various states got training and set up factories in their respective states. A factory was also set up in Lahore by Sukhdev and Shiv Verma.
The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association met to discuss further plans, where it was decided to drop a bomb in the Assembly Hall on the Day the Public Safety Bill was to be introduced. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt were selected for the job.
On 8th April 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K Dutt got into the Assembly and sat in the visitor’s gallery. As soon as the Bill was read out, Bhagat Singh threw the bomb, taking care to avoid hurting anyone. Even as chaos spread the two shouted “Inquilab Zindabad” and threw pamphlets which read: “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear……”
Though they had the chance to escape, they both stood and courted arrest. The trial began in June 1929.
On March 23rd, 1931, Bhagat Singh was executed along with Sukhdev and Rajguru. Their last words were, “Down with the British Empire!” as they cheerfully laid down their lives for his country.
(A version of this post first appeared in Children’s World, March ’98)