YOUNG India seems to be rising up in turmoil today. A large part of our thinking classes stands by with great hope that such turmoil will result in something good. A similar hope had arisen in 1929, when the young revolutionaries captured the imagination of the people of India like no one else had done till then. For the next three years, their actions would remain at the centre of popular memory and continue to inspire the young for many decades later. Their actions also forced the leaders to consider the exasperation of the Indian people at being ruled by an alien government. As Sukhdev’s letter, published posthumously in The Tribune on March 28, 1931, explained, their effort was to inspire the people to oppose the British more vigorously.
Bhagat Singh (21) of Lahore and his friend, Batukeshwar Dutt (19) of Burdwan, had courted arrest after throwing a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly on April 8, 1929. The bombs were thrown just after the Assembly had passed the Trade Disputes Bill and the President of the Assembly, Vithalbhai Patel, had risen to give his ruling on the Public Safety Bill. Vithalbhai was the older brother of the peasant leader Vallabhbhai Patel who would later become the first Home Minister of India. Later, the Chief Inspector of Explosives would testify that the bombs were made of cast iron, weighed 3.5 to 4 ounces (about 100 gram), and had used a mixture of potassium chloride and picric acid as explosive.
‘Bomb outrage by communists in the Assembly,’ screamed the newspaper headlines the next day. The newspapers also reported that as the members of the Assembly began to flee after the first bomb explosion, a second bomb was thrown at the treasury benches, on the members who were ‘fleeing at first explosion’. Fifteen minutes later, the members had returned to the chamber from the lobbies where they had taken refuge. Inside the hall, they discovered pamphlets that had been thrown from the visitors’ gallery. The ‘Red pamphlets’, as they were known in those times, purported to be ‘notices’ from the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and were signed by Balraj, commander-in-chief. This was the pseudonym that Chandrashekhar Tiwari (23) used for signing pamphlets, he went by the nickname ‘Azad’.
‘It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,’ said the pamphlet referring to French anarchists and justifying the bomb. It alluded to the downfall of the French and Russian monarchies through revolutionary action and condemned the constitutional methods. ‘This House, the so-called Indian Parliament,’ the pamphlet said, had only heaped humiliation on India during the past ten years. ‘The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association...realising its full responsibility, has decided and ordered its army to do this particular action so that a stop may be put to this humiliating farce and to let the alien bureaucratic exploiters do what they wish but make them come before the public eye in their naked form,’ it said as it urged the elected representatives to ‘return to their constituencies’ and ‘prepare the masses for the coming revolution.’ ‘Long live revolution,’ it concluded, while hoping that ‘the sacrifice of individuals at the altar of revolution… will bring freedom to all rendering the exploitation of man by man impossible.’
Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was sitting in the Assembly, called the action, ‘shocking and most deplorable’ as did Dewan Chamanlal, the founder and first general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). ‘A dastardly crime against the national movement itself,’ he called it. The nationalist newspaper from Madras, The Hindu, described it as ‘a work of mad fanatics’. On April 11, addressing a public meeting at Bezwada, Gandhi said that because of the bomb blast, ‘Swaraj had receded a step…it had set back the progress of the national movement.’ He would blame the government for creating a situation in which youngmen out of a feeling ‘of mad revenge and impotent rage’ resorted to violence in order to have their voice heard by the government.
Pandit Motilal Nehru issued a press note saying that ‘such an incident is a catastrophe to India.’ He called the revolutionaries ‘a few misguided and hair-brained youths’ while insisting that the ‘real India does not believe in the cult of the bomb.’ He warned that at this stage, the country was faced with a choice. ‘The choice lies between Gandhi and ‘Balraj’. Motilal Nehru, at this juncture, had cobbled together a consensus on power-sharing among the Indian political leaders through what was known as the Nehru Report, a scheme for creating a constitutional government that was run by the Indians, with India acquiring dominion status within the British empire. Only Jinnah disagreed with the Nehru Report. He demanded that Muslims, as they were a minority in India, should be given a larger share of power than the proportion of their population. Any violence at this stage, we guess, would have derailed such efforts towards dominion status.
Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt refused to make any immediate statement either at the time of their arrest or in the days that followed. Rather, they said, they would say whatever needed to be said in the courts.
Much of the public interest in their case hovered around what was reported to be their ‘rigid silence’. They insisted on making a statement only before a judge. There was also a growing admiration for them, having poked the imperial government. Police reports said the public was increasingly coming forward in appreciation of the revolutionaries.
When the trial began in Delhi on May 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and Dutt came before judge AB Pool in the courtroom at the district jail, shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Down with imperialism’. Later, they would spell out their condemnation of alien rule over India, the need for the people to regain control over their destiny and the insensitivity of the government towards the concerns of Indians.
Well-known lawyer Asaf Ali came forward to fight the case of the revolutionaries. He insisted that ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ was merely a slogan and could not become the basis to prosecute anyone. Ali also insisted that the ‘Red pamphlet’ was a ‘schoolboy’s joke’, and there was no reason for the police to presume them to be incitements to revolution. The young revolutionaries demonstrated a great ability to dramatise their opposition to the imperial government. Gandhi was perhaps the only Indian who remained unimpressed. People ‘do not seek the gallows for political freedom,’ Gandhi pointed out, disagreeing with Bhagat Singh’s method and insisting that the Gandhian method of peaceful persuasion was a better strategy for the Indians to achieve their ends.
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