Associate Professor, South Asian and World History School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW, Australia
Today marks the 87th anniversary of the execution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. In my book, A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, I have argued that Bhagat Singh's famous hat portrait, and the extraordinary campaign around it, explains how Bhagat Singh in particular became so famous (see pic). By posing for his photograph, Bhagat Singh was providing a pivotal ingredient for a publicity campaign that created a powerful movement around his pending martyrdom. The press was vital in spreading images of this and other photographs of revolutionaries that brought their politics to life.
The power of this arresting image, in concert with the way it was deployed in the media and disseminated widely throughout India in the charged context of his prolonged trial and execution, extends our understanding of how Bhagat Singh became so famous, so quickly. The degree to which this was successful is evident in Jawaharlal Nehru's autobiography, Toward Freedom, on Bhagat Singh's popularity in the wake of his death:
“Bhagat Singh … became a symbol; the act [of violence] was forgotten, the symbol remained, and within a few months each town and village of the Punjab and to a lesser extent in the rest of northern India, resounded with his name. Innumerable songs grew up around him and the popularity that the man achieved was something amazing.”
The campaign began with the print media, but rapidly moved beyond what was, in the 1930s, a realm of limited reach. The portrait soon circulated independently of text, in the form of reproductions, facsimiles, posters and even badges, in which the hat served to symbolise Bhagat Singh and his imperial challenge.
The Tribune, then based in Lahore, closely covered and documented the news of the HSRA's trials, hunger strikes and the carrying out of their sentencing. The Tribune was the first newspaper to publish the class photograph of Bhagat Singh, taken at Lahore Central College in 1924, just days after his arrest on April 13, 1929.
The Tribune also managed to get access to, and publish, a harrowing postmortem photograph of Jatindranath Das on the front page of September 15, 1929 (see pic). This photograph communicated in gruesome terms the struggles of the revolutionaries who had been undergoing hunger strikes in prison. The hunger strikes, in protest at prison conditions and the brutal treatment of revolutionaries in court by police, substantially slowed the trial. The daily coverage of the trial in the press merely led to greater support for the revolutionaries among the general public. The Assistant Editor at The Tribune, Mr Jang Bahadur Singh, recalled that he and his wife had given shelter to women revolutionaries, Durga Devi Vohra (the widow of Bhagwati Charan) and Kumari Sushila, in 1930.
A Special Ordinance eventually enabled the Lahore Conspiracy Case prisoners to be trialed by a Special Tribunal, in the absence of the accused. Mr Jang Bahadur Singh was called to testify in the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial, in 1930. He was asked to affirm whether HSRA writer Bhagwati Charan Vohra had visited The Tribune office in 1928, to get HSRA manifestoes printed. He responded boldly that it was “revolting to my conscience to answer any question or make any statement as a witness so long as the accused are not here to cross examine me and scrutinize my statement.”
In an interview held at the University of Cambridge, Mr Jang Bahadur Singh said that “this simple episode is illustrative of the fact that everybody was then inspired by the thought-wave that had been released by the patriotic action of these revolutionaries. … Sardar Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were sentenced to death and they were hanged and that shook the country to its very roots. From one end of the country to the other, there was an unprecedented agitation. I was present in Lahore on the day on which the executions were carried out. I cannot recall any other occasion on which there was such deep and widespread commotion in Lahore as that occasion.”
In 1931, the widespread dissemination of the portrait in the press and also in poster format enabled the masses to imagine Bhagat Singh independently of imperial allegations that he was a terrorist, and to visualise the legendary stories, songs, poems and sayings that quickly grew up around him.
Shortly after his execution, probably during a condolence meeting in Lahore, unknown mourners made a blood sacrifice in the memory of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Slicing their thumbs, they let the blood fall on to the front page of The Tribune of March 25, 1929, which had announced the executions, and carried Bhagat Singh's photograph.
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