It was moving to read a news report that the local administration of Lahore has decided to name an intersection or chowk after Bhagat Singh, the young revolutionary who was hanged by the British in that city on 23 March 1931, along with his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. A public acknowledgement of his sacrifice was long overdue, especially in the city from which he had waged his struggle.
Bhagat Singh was only 23 years old when he was hanged but his struggle against British imperialism reverberated throughout the subcontinent and his name became a household word. He hailed from a family of revolutionaries. He was fluent in many languages, was extensively well read, wrote prolifically and was remarkably clear-headed about his ideological leanings. He was impressed by the doctrines of anarchism and Marxism. Whether he was justified in using violence to promote the cause of independence depends on one’s view about the imperatives of achieving freedom. Of his passionate patriotism there can be no doubt because of which, in spite of his youth, he is regarded as one of South Asia’s great freedom fighters.
Going on a hunger strike is the ultimate weapon of political prisoners, in fact of all prisoners. Bhagat Singh went on hunger strike when he was held in prison and was being tried for murder and conspiracy against British rule. He protested against discrimination between European and Indian prisoners and demanded certain basic amenities so that he and his comrades could live in prison with some degree of dignity. But he was force fed against his will and treated brutally.
Quaid e Azam Jinnah, during his distinguished career as a parliamentarian, made landmark speeches on many issues of public importance. When Bhagat Singh and his colleagues went on hunger strike, he made a powerful speech in the Legislative Assembly of India, pleading for compassion and that they should not be treated as ordinary criminals. He said,
The man who goes on hunger strike has a soul. He is moved by that soul and he believes in the justice of his cause. He is no ordinary criminal, who is guilty of cold blooded, sordid wicked crime. I do not approve of the action of Bhagat Singh…I regret that rightly or wrongly the youth today is stirred up … however much you deplore them and however much you say they are misguided, it is the system, this damnable system of governance, which is resented by the people.
Jinnah’s words, more than eight decades later, are relevant to all systems of discriminatory governance, imperial, colonial or post-colonial, which deny justice and dignity to the people.