Reginald Massey’s book Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the Forgotten Indian Martyrsis inspired by Massey’s memories of India’s freedom struggle, the trauma of Partition and his own personal uprooting from the great city of Lahore.“Bhagat Singh was hanged in Lahore and I was born in Lahore before Partition. I think Bhagat Singh deserves his rightful place in history” Masseyrecently remarked during the launch of his latest book at Keats House in London.
It is well established that the writing of history in independent India has had its slants and focus on certain leaders while ignoring others. The contribution of Bhagat Singh and his associates in India’s struggle for freedom from British rule hasbeen clearly underrated. Leave aside historians of foreign origin, even the writings of Indian historians have mostly centred round Congress bigwigs such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders who can be counted on one’s fingertips. Due to this trend, even, the massive contribution of a popular leader like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who took the British Empire headon, appears like a mere subtext, while the heroism, idealism and sacrifice of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan and many other freedom fighters have been relegated to a few brief footnotes in the annals of history.
Massey’s book through its very title,announces that it does not merely deal with the saga of Bhagat Singh. It tells the reader that it will throw light on other forgotten Indian martyrs too.
Besides Bhagat Singh, Massey’s book unravels the life and times of a selection of Indians who fought for their country’s liberation from British colonial rule such as the revolutionary turned philosopher Sri AurobindoGhose, the young militant student Madan LalDhingraand his mentor the revolutionary leader VinayakDamodarSavarkar. Curiously he has also included a chapter on Gandhi. Here he has highlighted more of Gandhi’s contradictions than his virtues by emphasising how, during his leadership, his sudden political turnabouts had taken everyone (including some of his closest associates), by surprise.He also mentions the biggest turnabout or volte-facemade by Gandhi in 1923 when the Non-cooperation Movement was in full swingall over the country,on the pretext of the violence committed at ChauriChauraby some of his followers. After being supported by all big national leaders like Nehru and people who left their jobs to support this Non-cooperation Movement, Gandhi suspended this movement because some policemen were burnt alive as a protest by some followers. Gandhi wanted to repent for this mistake.
Massey argues that Gandhi’s experiments with truth and nonviolence when conducted on the national level led to the loss of many lives. This was true as many people died during Non-cooperation (1920), Civil Disobedience (1930) and Quit India Movement (1942) led by Gandhi.
“But that is inevitable when people believe, implicitly and naively in the gospel of a great leader. Years later, in 1945, the people of Germany suffered the same fate. As did the people of Japan, Russia and China”, comments Massey in his book.
The chapter on Bhagat Singh provides the background ofBhagat Singh’s father,Kishan Singh, a devotee of the famous reformist national leader LalaLajpat Rai of the Punjab. His uncles were members of the Ghadar Party that was active in America and Canada and worked assiduously to free India from British rule.
The chapter also dwells on the psyche and inner strength of Bhagat Singh. “He mastered Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English and wrote prolifically in these languages. For a time he edited Urdu and Punjabi newspapers published from Amritsar. When his family suggested that he get married he retorted that his life had been dedicated to the noblest of causes, that of freedom of the country. Therefore there was no worldly desire that could lurehim now. Death, he said famously, would be his bride.”
Surprisingly, the chapter on Bhagat Singh is not detailed though it does cover the pivotal events of his life. It also reveals some interesting facts by referring to the fact that the fear of a backlash had led the British government to bring forward theexecution of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdevby one day (at 7.30 pm on 23 March 1931instead of 24 March 1931).
“The timing was most unusual”, writes Massey.“At that late hour no magistrate was available to witness and certify the execution…So scared was the Government that there could be a spontaneous uprising in the entire Punjab that a wall behind the jail was knocked down, and the bodies,sewn in gunny bags, were taken in a truck to a village by the banks of the Sutlej river.”
Finally, it is important to add that Massey does not support violence and killings. In this regard, perhaps it will be best to let the author speak for himself by focusing on his postscript: “This book is not an attempt to justify assassination. It is, rather, a factual account to set the record straight.”
Lalit Mohan Joshi is a writer, film historian and documentary filmmaker and edits the thematic journal South Asian Cinema. He is the founder Director of South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), London. Lalit has written and edited several books – Niranjan Pal (2011), Bollywood –Popular Indian Cinema (2001), A Door to Adoor (2006), India My India and Other Films by Yavar Abbas (2010). Lalit’s documentaries East Meets West (2015), Niranjan Pal –A Forgotten Legend (2011) and Beyond Partition (2006) have won critical acclaim.