Bhagat Singh: a media role model
It is well-known that colonial rule in India was very repressive towards the support of the freedom movement in the media, as is evident from the prison sentences given to peaceful freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Surendranath Bannerjee and Lokmanya Tilak for their writings.
Imagine how repressive the attitude of the government would have been towards revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh when they tried to use the very limited space available to them in the media to spread their ideas and articulate their demands for freedom and social-economic justice.
So it is all the more fascinating to understand how the revolutionaries were nevertheless able to turn the tables on the government and used the media effectively for their cause on several important occasions and in several interesting ways. Why, one of them even managed to become a busy reporter with Hindustan Times (then an evening newspaper) and managed to obtain a seat from where he could drop a box on the Finance Minister's head in the legislative assembly. (The Minister turned out to be a sport and when the reporter later went to the UK invited him for tea in his house).
A full time freedom fighter who still found time to write
Bhagat Singh was hanged at the age of 23. His first writing showing great political maturity was done at the age of only 16. In just seven years, he wrote many articles which are still cherished and widely read. These are still being published and re-published countless times and are also quoted time and again.
It is amazing and inspiring that Bhagat Singh wrote all this at such a young age and that too in the middle of all his other activities as a leading freedom fighter and organiser. This was possible only because of extremely hard work driven by very high levels of commitment, plus very creative use of whatever little opportunities existed. Bhagat Singh and some of his colleagues even turned their jail cells into a mini library and a campaign office.
What really helped to prepare Bhagat Singh for this role was his love for books from his childhood days. He was very well read on various struggles and freedom movements at a very young age, and this served him very well in his writings.
Despite all the restrictions imposed by colonial rule, some journals and newspapers devoted to the message of Indian freedom always continued, although these had to be closed from time to time. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues wrote mainly for these newspapers and journals including Pratap, Bande Mataram, Kirti (Punjabi) and Matwale. To escape detection, he used several pen names including Balwant Singh, Vidrohi, B.S. Sindhu.
One of Bhagat Singh's colleagues, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, was also an accomplished writer capable of tackling complex issues. His wife, Durga Devi, and her sister, Susheela, were also famous freedom fighters. In some writings under pen names, it is not clear who was the main author, or whether it was a joint effort of several close colleagues.
Bhagat Singh's first essay on the Punjabi language and script written in 1924 at the age of 16 reveals his deep thinking and commitment to communal harmony. This essay fetched the first prize (of Rs. 50) of Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan.
Most of Bhagat Singh's earlier writings are on other freedom fighters and their struggles. Chand journal brought out a special issue on freedom fighters who had sacrificed their lives and Bhagat Singh contributed to this. He also translated Dan Breen's "My Fight for Irish Freedom' into Hindi. In his later writings, he wrote more about the basic values and programmes which he wanted to spread for achieving freedom, equality, justice and communal harmony.
In his short life Bhagat Singh worked as a journalist first in Pratap in Kanpur and later with Kirti journal in Punjab. During his escape to Delhi to flee police attention, he found a job in Vir Arjun newspaper. A colleague, Sidhant Lankar, has left memories praising Bhagat Singh's competence in handling news. But most of his work in newspapers was done as a freelance contributor.
Some of his most durable work is in the form of messages, manifestos and statements to be read out in courts of law on behalf of himself and other prisoners of the freedom movement. Seldom has such meticulous care gone into court statements prepared in jail. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues used these court statements to convey their beliefs to people in a very powerful way.
Getting the message across amid raids and secrecy
To have a wider impact, these statements and messages had to be published in at least some newspapers and this responsibility fell to those few colleagues who had not been imprisoned yet. This was a very difficult task as firstly, press statements had to be prepared with photographs of revolutionaries for greater impact.
With the technology available at that time, preparing several prints of photos and delivering them by messenger to editors was a very risky proposition. In fact, some leading revolutionaries were apprehended by the police with photos and blocks and sent to prison. Some newspaper offices such as those of Bande Mataram were raided and if pictures were found, strong action was taken.
When it became known that Bhagat Singh had only a few days left outside prison walls, a decision was taken to obtain a photograph which could be widely publicised. Hence the famous photo with the hat was taken at a studio in Kashmiri Gate in Delhi. However, delivery of the prints was delayed till the newsmaker - Bhagat Singh - was already in jail.
It now became a risky proposition to go to the studio to obtain prints, but somehow these were taken, copies made and sent to many newspapers. Editors sat on these photos for several days, none daring to be the first to print, till Bande Mataram broke the impasse and was promptly raided by the police.
Chaman Lal - Reporter Extraordinaire and friend
In these difficult conditions it was very helpful to have your own man in some leading newspaper. This too was achieved when Chaman Lal joined Hindustan Times in 1925 at the age of 22. By this time he had already served first in Darpan and Bande Mataram newspapers (both associated with the freedom movement). He had already lived at an ashram in Amritsar established by Sardar Kishan Singh, father of Bhagat Singh, where the teenage Bhagat Singh also lived.
Chaman Lal had also lived with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram and claimed to have his confidence too. But his heart was more with Bhagat Singh and he founded a Delhi branch of Naujavan Bharat Sabha while also working for Hindustan Times.
Chaman Lal's contacts in both streams of the freedom movement helped him to get very interesting news and he soon became a favourite of HT editor J. N. Sahni, who recalled later that Chaman Lal 'had the devil's energy and an insatiable curiosity for news" and that as a local reporter" he had few equals." As soon as he had finished his reporting duties, Chaman Lal would take to the streets and start beating a drum to attract people for his Naujawan Sabha meetings.
His presence in a leading paper like HT enabled the revolutionaries to get in some news and pictures of their liking. There is some indication that Bhagat Singh gave Chaman Lal advance information of some critical actions so that these could be well covered later in the newspaper.
Chaman Lal the revolutionary could not always control his feelings and so it was that he dropped a box on the Finance Minister in the Legislative Assembly. He lost his press pass after this. He was arrested twice, his second release taking place on the basis of a surety by Maulana Azad. In 1937, he wrote a book 'The Vanishing Empire' predicting that the British Empire would collapse by 1947. After independence he became a Buddhist monk.
It is clear that revolutionaries worked with dedication and a lot of creativity to obtain and use whatever media space they could within the constraints of those days. Bhagat Singh himself wrote tirelessly in four languages - Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu (He also had some grasp of Bangla). Some of his classics like 'Why I Am An Atheist' were written originally in English. Such tireless and dedicated efforts will always remain inspiring for members of the media.
1. Bhagat Singh Aur Unke Sathiyon Ke Dastavez, edited by Jagmohan Singh and Chaman Lal, Rajkamal Prakashan, N.Delhi
2. Sardar Bhagat Singh, Patra Aur Dastavez, edited by Virendra Sandhu, Rajpal , Delhi
3. Shahid Bhagat Singh Aur Unke Vichar, Bharat Dogra, Jagmohan Singh, Madhu Dogra, Social Change Papers, Delhi
4. Bhikshu Chaman Lal, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral History Transcript
5. Kama Maclean, a Revolutionary History of Interwar India, Penguin Books.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives. He is the co-author of a book and two booklets on Shahid Bhagat Singh.
Essay No. 01
Shaheed – e – Azam
Bhagat Singh is one of the greatest martyrs that India has produced. He is the icon and model of young people in particular.
He was born on Nov. 11, 1907 at Banga village in the district of Lyallpur in Pak. His father, kishan singh and uncle Ajit singh, both were revolutionary and were released from jail on the day he was born.
He was a very brilliant student at school. The famous revolutionary Kartar Singh Sarabha was his model. Even as a child he was greatly moved by the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre. He expressed his desire to grow guns in the Indian soil to force the British rulers to quit India.
He learnt about the brutal death of Lala Lajpat Rai at the hands of a British police officer in 1928 while leading a peaceful but noisy demonstration against the Simon commission. In order to avenge the murder of Lajpat Rai, he killied Saunders. He alongwith his companions, Rajguru and Sukhdev was hanged on 23rd march. 1931 on the bank of Ravi near Ferozepur. Earlier he had floated Naujawan Bharat Sabha and also thrown a bomb in the Assembly. He wanted a free, secular, happy prosperous India. Indians can never forget his sacrifice for the motherland.
Essay No. 02
Sardar Bhagat Singh
India : Great Martyr
Birth : 1907 Death : Martyrdom : 1931
The martyrdom of Sardar Bhagat Singh gave new momentum to the freedom struggle of India and showed a new path ‘to the younger generations of the country. The entire nation recalls his sacrifice with deep gratitude even today.
Bhagat Singh was born on 28th September, 1907 at Banga Village of Layalpur district (in West Punjab) in a reputed Sikh family of freedom fighters. His father and uncles had participated in the freedom movement, and this created a positive influence on Bhagat Singh. At school, Bhagat Singh was a very good and disciplined student. When he was studying just in 9th class he jumped into the non-Cooperation Movement launched by Gandhiji. In 1923, Bhagat Singh passed his Intermediate examination. When he forced to marry, he ran away from home and came to Kanpur where he got work in the paper Pratap, run by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. In Kanpur Bhagat Singh also came into contact with another well known revolutionary, Chandra Shekhar ‘ Azad’. Bhagat Singh also associated himself with the ‘Saunders Assissination Case’ in which Bhagat Singh together with Sukhdev, Rajguru and Chandra Shekhar Azad shot dead a police officer, Saunders who was responsible for lathi charge on Lala Lajpat Rai when he was leading a protest against Simon Commission when he visited Lahore in 1928. Bhagat Singh was also the hero of the sensational ‘ Assembly Bomb Case’ (1929). After throwing bomb in the Central Assembly on 8th April, 1929 in protest against the ‘Public Safety Sill’, Bhagat Singh surrendered to the police. In the ‘Lahore Conspiracy Case’ he was handed death sentence. On 23 March, 1931 Bhagat Singh together with Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged.
Bhagat Singh and his associates showed no sign of fear of death and kissed the noose chanting Inquilab Zindabad’. (Long live the revolution)
Bhagat Singh was born in a Sikh family of farmers in the village of Banga of Layalpurdistrict of Punjab (now in Pakistan) on September 27th of 1907. His family stood for patriotism, reform, and freedom of the country. His grandfather Arjun Singh was drawn to Arya Samaj, a reformist movement of Hinduism, and took keen interest in proceedings of the Indian National Congress. Bhagat Singh’s father Kishen Singh and uncle Ajit Singh were members of Gadar Party founded in the U.S. in early years of the 20th century to rout British rule in India. Both were jailed for alleged anti-British activities. Young Bhagat Singh was brought up in a politically charged state of Punjab which was left with a seething memory of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of more than 400 innocent lives and thousands injured (1919). As a lad of fourteen he went to this spot to collect soil from the park of Jalianwala (bagh) in his lunch box, sanctified by the blood of the innocent and kept it as a memento for life. Bhagat Singh studied at the National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai, a great revolutionary leader and reformist. To avoid early marriage, he ran away from home and, became a member of the youth organisation Noujawan Bharat Sabha which had memberships of all sects and religions. He met Chandra Shekhar Azaad, B.K. Dutt and other revolutionaries. They used to print handouts and newspapers in secret and spread political awareness in India through Urdu, Punjabi and English. These were all banned activities in India at that time punishable with imprisonment.
In 1928, when Siman commission arrived in India. The prominent leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai; Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya etc. decided to protest to the commission in open about their displeasure. Bhagat Singh also participated in the protest an eyewitness to the gruesome beating to Lala Lajpat Rai by police superintendent scot. Bhagat decided to take the revenge from Lala Lajpat Rai succumbed to the injuries. y he killed Mr. Sanders, a junior officer, in case of mistaken identity. He had to flee from Lahore to escape death punishment.
Instead of finding the root cause for discontent of Indians, the British government took to more repressive measures. Under the Defense of India Act, it gave more power to the police to arrest persons to stop processions with suspicious movements and actions. The act brought in the council was defeated by one vote. Even then it was to be passed in the form of an ordinance in the “interest of the public.” No doubt the British were keen to arrest all leaders who opposed its arbitrary actions, and Bhagat Singh who was in hiding all this while, volunteered to throw a bomb in the central assembly where the meeting to pass the ordinance was being held. It was a carefully laid out plot, not to cause death or injury but to draw the attention of the government, that the modes of its suppression could no more be tolerated. It was agreed that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt would court arrest after throwing the bomb. Accordingly, on April 8, 1929, Bhagat Signh and Barkeswar Dutt threw handouts, and bombed in the corridor not to cause injury and courted arrest after shouting slogans. Inqlab zindabad (Lona Live, Revolutions) Meanwhile the killers of Sanders were identified by the treachery of Bhagat Singh’s friends who became “Approves.” Bhagat Singh thought the court would be a proper venue to get publicity for the cause of freedom, and did not want to disown the crime. He gave a fiery statement giving reasons for killing which was symbolic of freedom struggle. He wanted to be shot like a soldier, and not die at the gallows. But, his plea was rejected, and he was hanged on the 23rd of March 1931. He was only 23 then. Bhagat Singh became a legendary hero for the masses.
Innumerable songs were composed about him, and the youth, throughout the country made him their idol. He became a symbol of bravery and of the struggle to free India.