By Waseem Altaf
March 23 marks the 91st death anniversary of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, who were executed in Lahore Central Jail on this day in 1931.
Looking at our history books, we find numerous characters, glorified as national heroes, however, when closely examined we discover that they were nothing but opportunists and collaborators. We also find that since history books in Pakistan, as a matter of policy, focus on the Pakistan movement rather than anti-colonialism, these men do not deserve any mention in our writings, particularly the official ones.
On the other hand, there are a significant number of real heroes, who have been conveniently pushed aside by our “ideologues” and the establishment. There is no mention of these men in our textbooks and few, if any, know them in this country. However, these men were the true symbols of defiance against the oppressive colonial rule, while the freedom the sub-continent won, to a great extent, is owed to these unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives for the liberation of their fellow countrymen.
Without indulging in an unending debate as to who is a terrorist and who qualifies as a freedom fighter, and to what extent the application of violence is justified in a liberation struggle, the focus of the following is on the lives, the conviction and struggle of these men.
Finally, it can be concluded that they were fighting a war of liberation against an oppressive colonial rule. Hence, they were revolutionaries and freedom fighters and not terrorists. And not to mention that, unlike today’s terrorists, they never targeted innocent civilians to achieve political ends, and they renounced their present, for future generations, so that they can live in a free country and have the right to decide for themselves. We should also realize that when no constitutional means are available to achieve political ambitions, the tendency to resort to violence increases manifold.
He was brought up in an orphanage. Both his parents passed away by the time he was seven. On April 13, 1919, Udham Singh was serving water to a peaceful gathering of around 20,000 Indians at Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when on the orders of General Dyer, around 90 armed soldiers opened fire on the unarmed civilians who had assembled there to listen to the speeches of their leaders.
Estimates of death range from 379 to 1800, but official records verify that 1650 rounds of ammunition were used. The latest research has revealed that the massacre had occurred with the full connivance of the Governor of Punjab Michael O’ Dwyer.
Udham Singh who survived the killings then vowed to take revenge in the Golden temple. For 21 years, he continued with his revolutionary struggle and waited for the right moment to hit the main culprit until on March 13, 1940, he got the opportunity to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. At Caxton Hall London, he killed Michel O’ Dwyer with a revolver. He never tried to escape, was caught, and tried.
During the proceedings, when the court asked his name, he replied “Ram Muhammad Singh Azad” an unprecedented transcendence of caste and creed rarely witnessed in the history of mankind. On July 31, 1941, he was hanged at Pentonville prison. In July 1974, his remains were exhumed and brought back to India by a special envoy of the Government of India. He got a martyr’s reception. Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Congress President, and Gyani Zail Singh, the Punjab CM in 1974, received the casket. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi laid a wreath. Udham Singh was later cremated at his birthplace Suna in Punjab and his ashes were immersed in the river Sutlej.
Ashfaqullah Khan along with Thakur Roshan Singh and Ramprasad Bismil were furthering the freedom struggle through fundraising. Due to the severe paucity of funds to buy arms and ammunition, the group decided to rob the government treasury carried in the trains. On August 9, 1925, they looted a train in Kakori near Lucknow. However, the group was soon caught. In prison, while Ashfaq was saying his prayers an English officer remarked, “I would like to see how much of that faith remains in him when we hang the rat.
”When Ashfaqullah was being taken for the execution, he was taking two steps at a time; he reached for the rope, kissed it, and put it around his neck. Being a religious man, he was reciting the “kalima” when he swung on the gallows.
Today, Ashfaqullah is a forgotten name, hanged at the age of 27, strongly believed that nationalism does not constitute religious identity.
Bhagat Singh was born in the village Banga, near Lyallpur (now Faisalabad). As a teenager, he became an atheist. He thoroughly studied European revolutionary movements, while Karl Marx and Engels appear prominently in his diary. During his studies, he won an essay competition and was a great admirer of Iqbal the poet. To avenge the death of veteran freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai, killed by police violence, he shot and killed police officer J.P Saunders.
Again, on April 8, 1929, he threw a cracker in the assembly corridor and shouted “inqilab zindabad”. Bhagat Singh along with Rajguru and Sukhdev were arrested for the murder of the police officer.
Bhagat Singh while quoting Irish revolutionary said, “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release”. This was when his father filed a mercy petition. While in the condemned cell he wrote a pamphlet “Why I am an atheist.”
During his life and after his death Bhagat Singh inspired thousands of youth to actively join the independence movement which ultimately culminated in the liberation of the subcontinent from colonial rule. He was reading Lenin when at 4 AM in the morning jail warder Chater Singh asked him to take his last bath.
Bhagat Singh along with comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged in Lahore Central Jail on March 23, 1931.
Chandrashekhar Azad, was a freedom fighter who was inspired by the non-cooperation movement of Mahatma Gandhi, while he actively participated in revolutionary activities. At the tender age of 15, he was caught and awarded 15 lashes for being an activist. With each stroke of the whip, he would raise a slogan. He then vowed that the British police would never capture him alive.
He was also a poet and one of his poems is still recited which says “Dushman ki goliyon ka hum samna karenge, Azad hee rahein hain, azad hee rahenge”. Azad kept his freedom struggle and remained involved in covert activities when finally he was betrayed by a police informer. The British police in Alfred Park encircled him, Allahabad on February 27, 1931. Instead of surrendering to the enemy, he shot himself in the temple.
Chandershekhar Azad died for freedom while keeping his pledge that he would not be captured alive.
These unsung heroes and several others from diverse backgrounds; Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and atheists; all fighting for the cause of Indian nationalism shed their blood for the liberation of the people and the land, so that we, belonging to a different generation live a better life unfettered by the ignominy of imperialist domination and colonial exploitation. The debt of gratitude we owe to them can never be repaid.
Waseem Altaf is a social media influencer.