Bhagat Singh (بھگت سنگھ) (September 27, 1907 – March 23, 1931) was an Indian freedom fighter, considered to be one of the most influential revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement. He is often referred to as Shaheed Bhagat Singh (the word shaheed means “martyr“).
Born to a family which had earlier been involved in revolutionary activities against the British Raj in India, Singh, as a teenager, had studied European revolutionary movements and was attracted to anarchism and communism. He became involved in numerous revolutionary organizations. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) and became one of its leaders, converting it to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Singh gained support when he underwent a 63-day fast in jail, demanding equal rights for Indian and British political prisoners. He was hanged for shooting a police officer in response to the killing of veteran freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. His legacy prompted youth in India to begin fighting for Indian independence and also increased the rise of socialism in India.
Bhagat Singh at the age of 17
Bhagat Singh was born into a Sandhu family to Sardar Kishan Singh Sandhu and Vidyavati in the Khatkar Kalan village near Banga in the Lyallpur district of Punjab. Singh’s given name of Bhagat means “devotee”. He came from a patriotic Sikh family, some of whom had participated in movements supporting the independence of India and others who had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh‘s army. His grandfather, Arjun Singh, was a follower of Swami Dayananda Saraswati‘s Hindu reformist movement, Arya Samaj, which would carry a heavy influence on Singh. His uncles, Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh, as well as his father were members of the Ghadar Party, led by Kartar Singh Sarabha Grewal and Har Dayal. Ajit Singh was forced to flee to Persia because of pending cases against him while Swaran Singh was hanged on December 19, 1927 for his involvement in the Kakori train robbery of 1925.
Unlike many Sikhs his age, Singh did not attend Khalsa High School in Lahore, because his grandfather did not approve of the school officials’ loyalism to the British authorities. Instead, his father enrolled him in Dayanand Anglo Vedic High School, an Arya Samajist school. At age 13, Singh began to follow Mahatma Gandhi‘s Non-Cooperation Movement. At this point he had openly defied the British and had followed Gandhi’s wishes by burning his government-school books and any British-imported clothing. Following Gandhi’s withdrawal of the movement after the violent murders of policemen by villagers from Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, Singh, disgruntled with Gandhi’s nonviolence action, joined the Young Revolutionary Movement and began advocating a violent movement against the British.
In 1923, Bhagat famously won an essay competition set by the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. This grabbed the attention of members of the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan including its General Secretary Professor Bhim Sen Vidyalankar. At this age, he quoted famous Punjabi literature and discussed the Problems of the Punjab. He read a lot of poetry and literature which was written by Punjabi writers and his favourite poet was Allama Iqbal from Sialkot.
In his teenage years, Bhagat Singh started studying at the National College in Lahore, but ran away from home to escape early marriage, and became a member of the organization Naujawan Bharat Sabha (“Youth Society of India”). In the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Singh and his fellow revolutionaries grew popular amongst the youth. He also joined the Hindustan Republican Association at the request of Professor Vidyalankar, which was then headed by Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan. It is believed that he had knowledge of the Kakori train robbery. He wrote for and edited Urdu and Punjabi newspapers published from Amritsar. In September 1928, a meeting of various revolutionaries from across India was called at Delhi under the banner of the Kirti Kissan Party. Bhagat Singh was the secretary of the meet. His later revolutionary activities were carried out as a leader of this association. The capture and hanging of the main HRA Leaders also allowed him to be quickly promoted to higher ranks in the party, along with his fellow revolutionary Sukhdev Thapar.
Later revolutionary activities
Lala Lajpat Rai’s death and the Saunders murder
The British government created a commission under Sir John Simon to report on the current political situation in India in 1928. The Indian political parties boycotted the commission because it did not include a single Indian as its member and it was met with protests all over the country. When the commission visited Lahore on October 30, 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai led the protest against Simon Commission in a silent non-violent march, but the police responded with violence. Lala Lajpat Rai was beaten with lathis at the chest. He later succumbed to his injuries. Bhagat Singh, who was an eyewitness to this event, vowed to take revenge. He joined with other revolutionaries, Shivaram Rajguru, Jai Gopal and Sukhdev Thapar, in a plot to kill the police chief. Jai Gopal was supposed to identify the chief and signal for Singh to shoot. However, in a case of mistaken identity, Gopal signalled Singh on the appearance of J. P. Saunders, a Deputy Superintendent of Police. Thus, Saunders, instead of Scott, was shot. Bhagat Singh quickly left Lahore to escape the police. To avoid recognition, he shaved his beard and cut his hair, a violation of the sacred tenets of Sikhism.
Bomb in the assembly
In the face of actions by the revolutionaries, the British government enacted the Defence of India Act to give more power to the police. The purpose of the Act was to combat revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. The Act was defeated in the council by one vote. However, the Act was then passed under the ordinance that claimed that it was in the best interest of the public. In response to this act, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association planned to explode a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly where the ordinance was going to be passed. Originally, Chandrashekhar Azad, another prominent leader of the revolutionary movement attempted to stop Bhagat Singh from carrying out the bombing. However, the remainder of the party forced him to succumb to Singh’s wishes. It was decided that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, another revolutionary, would throw the bomb in the assembly.
On April 8, 1929, Singh and Dutt threw a bomb onto the corridors of the assembly and shouted “Inquilab Zindabad!” (“Long Live the Revolution!”). This was followed by a shower of leaflets stating that it takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear. The bomb neither killed nor injured anyone; Singh and Dutt claimed that this was deliberate on their part, a claim substantiated both by British forensics investigators who found that the bomb was not powerful enough to cause injury, and by the fact that the bomb was thrown away from people. Singh and Dutt gave themselves up for arrest after the bomb. He and Dutt were sentenced to ‘Transportation for Life‘ for the bombing on June 12, 1929.
Trial and execution
Front page of The Tribune announcing Bhagat Singh’s execution.
Shortly after his arrest and trial for the Assembly bombing, the British came to know of his involvement in the murder of J. P. Saunders. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were charged with the murder. Bhagat Singh decided to use the court as a tool to publicize his cause for the independence of India. He admitted to the murder and made statements against the British rule during the trial. The case was ordered to be carried out without members of the HSRA present at the hearing. This created an uproar amongst Singh’s supporters as he could no longer publicise his views.
While in jail, Bhagat Singh and other prisoners launched a hunger strike advocating for the rights of prisoners and those facing trial. The reason for the strike was that British murderers and thieves were treated better than Indian political prisoners, who, by law, were meant to be given better rights. The aims in their strike were to ensure a decent standard of food for political prisoners, the availability of books and a daily newspaper, as well as better clothing and the supply of toilet necessities and other hygienic necessities. He also demanded that political prisoners should not be forced to do any labour or undignified work. During this hunger strike that lasted 63 days and ended with the British succumbing to his wishes, he gained much popularity among the common Indians. Before the strike his popularity was limited mainly to the Punjab region.
Bhagat Singh also maintained the use of a diary, which he eventually made to fill 404 pages. In this diary he made numerous notes relating to the quotations and popular sayings of various people whose views he supported. Prominent in his diary were the views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The comments in his diary led to an understanding of the philosophical thinking of Bhagat Singh. Before dying he also wrote a pamphlet entitled “Why I am an atheist”, as he was being accused of vanity by not accepting God in the face of death.
On March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged in Lahore with his fellow comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. His supporters, who had been protesting against the hanging, immediately declared him as a shaheed or martyr. According to the Superintendent of Police at the time, V.N. Smith, the hanging was advanced:
Normally execution took place at 8 am, but it was decided to act at once before the public could become aware of what had happened…At about 7 pm shouts of Inquilab Zindabad were heard from inside the jail. This was correctly, interpreted as a signal that the final curtain was about to drop.
Singh was cremated at Hussainiwala on banks of Sutlej river. Today, the Bhagat Singh Memorial commemorates freedom fighters of India.
Ideals and opinions
Bhagat Singh in jail at the age of 20
Bhagat Singh was attracted to anarchism and communism. Both communism and western anarchism had influence on him. He read the teachings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Mikhail Bakunin. Bhagat Singh did not believe in Gandhian philosophy and viewed that Gandhian politics will replace one set of exploiters by another. Singh was an atheist and promoted the concept of atheism by writing a pamphlet titled Why I am an Atheist.
Bhagat Singh was also an admirer of the writings of Irish revolutionary Terence MacSwiney. When Bhagat Singh’s father petitioned the British government to pardon his son, Bhagat Singh quoted Terence MacSwiney and said “”I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release” and told his father to withdraw the petition.
From May to September, 1928, Bhagat Singh serially published several articles on anarchism in Punjabi periodical Kirti. He expressed concern over misunderstanding of the concept of anarchism among the public. Singh tried to eradicate the misconception among people about anarchism. He wrote, “The people are scared of the word anarchism. The word anarchism has been abused so much that even in India revolutionaries have been called anarchist to make them unpopular.” As anarchism means absence of ruler and abolition of state, not absence of rule, Singh explained, “I think in India the idea of universal brotherhood, the Sanskrit sentence vasudhaiva kutumbakam etc., have the same meaning.” He wrote about the growth of anarchism, the “first man to explicitly propagate the theory of Anarchism was Proudhon and that is why he is called the founder of Anarchism. After him a Russian, Bakunin worked hard to spread the doctrine. He was followed by Prince Kropotkin etc.”
Singh explained anarchism in the article:
The ultimate goal of Anarchism is complete independence, according to which no one will be obsessed with God or religion, nor will anybody be crazy for money or other worldly desires. There will be no chains on the body or control by the state. This means that they want to eliminate: the Church, God and Religion; the state; Private property.
Bhagat Singh was also influenced by Marxism. Indian historian K. N. Panikkar described Singh as one of the early Marxists in India. From 1926, Bhagat Singh studied the history of the revolutionary movement in India and abroad. In his prison notebooks, Singh used quotations from Lenin (on imperialism being the highest stage of capitalism) and Trotsky on revolution.
During his teenage years, Singh was a devout Arya Samajist. However, he began to question religious ideologies after witnessing the Hindu-Muslim riots that broke out after Gandhi disbanded the Non-Cooperation Movement. He did not understand how members of these two groups, initially united in fighting against the British, could be at each others’ throats because of their religious differences. At this point, Singh dropped his religious beliefs, since he believed religion hindered the revolutionaries’ struggle for independence, and began studying the works of Bakunin, Lenin, Trotsky — all atheist revolutionaries. He also took an interest in Niralamba Swami’s book Common Sense, which advocated a form of “mystic atheism”.
While in a condemned cell in 1931, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Why I am an Atheist in which he discusses and advocates the philosophy of atheism. This pamphlet was a result of some criticism by fellow revolutionaries on his failure to acknowledge religion and God while in a condemned cell, the accusation of vanity was also dealt with in this pamphlet. He supported his own beliefs and claimed that he used to be a firm believer in The Almighty, but could not bring himself to believe the myths and beliefs that others held close to their hearts. In this pamphlet, he acknowledged the fact that religion made death easier, but also said that unproved philosophy is a sign of human weakness.
This section’s factual accuracy is disputed. Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page. (March 2009)
Bhagat is said to have mentioned to Randhir Singh, prison inmate, Gadhar revolutionary and a known figure in Sikh circles, that he (Bhagat Singh) had shaven “hair and beard under pressing circumstances” and that “It was for the service of the country” that his companions “compelled him to give up the Sikh appearance” adding to it that he was “ashamed” . He had supposedly expressed, as last wish before being hanged, the desire to get “amrit” from Panj Pyare including Randhir Singh and to adorn full 5 k’s. However, his last wish, of getting “amrit” from Panj Pyare was not granted by the British.
This version of events was largely discussed by Randhir Singh himself and so it has come under question. Some scholars claim that it was Bhagat Singh’s meeting with Randhir Singh that compelled him to write his famous “Why I Am An Atheist” essay.
Bhagat Singh was known for his appreciation of martyrdom. His mentor as a young boy was Kartar Singh Sarabha. Singh is himself considered a martyr for acting to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, also considered a martyr. In the leaflet he threw in the Central Assembly on 9 April 1929, he stated that It is easy to kill individuals but you cannot kill the ideas. Great empires crumbled while the ideas survived. After engaging in studies on the Russian Revolution, he wanted to die so that his death would inspire the youth of India to unite and fight the British Empire.
While in prison, Bhagat Singh and two others had written a letter to the Viceroy asking him to treat them as prisoners of war and hence to execute them by firing squad and not by hanging. Prannath Mehta, Bhagat Singh’s friend, visited him in the jail on March 20, four days before his execution, with a draft letter for clemency, but he declined to sign it. 
· “The aim of life is no more to control the mind, but to develop it harmoniously; not to achieve salvation here after, but to make the best use of it here below; and not to realise truth, beauty and good only in contemplation, but also in the actual experience of daily life; social progress depends not upon the ennoblement of the few but on the enrichment of democracy; universal brotherhood can be achieved only when there is an equality of opportunity – of opportunity in the social, political and individual life.” — from Bhagat Singh’s prison diary, p. 124
· “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long live the revolution)