The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)


“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

And then came Bhagat Singh, a young lad who had grown up in the Lyallpur district of Punjab under the shadow of revolution.  Several male members of the family, including his father and uncles, had been associated with the Ghadar Movement—or so it is told.  A sure sign of the canonical status occupied by Bhagat Singh in the Indian imaginary is the thick lore that circulates around him. One story has it that the young Bhagat was all of three years old when his father and a fellow sojourner in revolutionary politics found him digging in the field outside the family home.  When Bhagat was asked what he was planting, he replied:  “I am sowing guns, so that we will be able to get rid of the British.”

Another story, accepted by most biographers and given a prominent place in Bollywood films such as Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh, places the young Bhagat, now eleven years old, at the site of Jallianwala Bagh the day after General Dyer and his troops mowed down thousands of Indians and left at least 379 dead.  Bhagat collected, writes his biographer Hansraj Rabhar, “a thimbleful of soil which was coloured with the blood of martyrs” and applied some to his forehead while preserving the rest in a glass vial.  Some say that he took a vow to avenge this atrocity.


Bhagat Singh at Jallianwala Bagh:  a scene from Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, “The Legend of Bhagat Singh”.

We can let the positivist-minded historians worry about whether these stories are apocryphal or not.  These stories have been critical in giving shape to a certain view of Bhagat Singh as a hero who was born and bred in the lap of revolution; but what has also determined the place of Bhagat Singh in the national imaginary is his densely rich albeit brief political career.  The arc of his political life takes us from his initial reverence for Gandhi to disenchantment when the Mahatma, after the outbreak of violence at Chauri Chaura in early 1922, called off the non-cooperation movement.  At Lahore’s National College, Bhagat Singh acquired another kind of political education, and soon thereafter he came to be associated closely with revolutionaries who had constituted themselves into the Hindustan Republican Association, later reborn, quite likely under the influence of Bhagat Singh, as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.


Bhagat Singh in jail, awaiting the execution of the sentence of capital punishment handed out at his trial in the Saunders murder case.

The death of the nationalist icon, the so-called “Lion of the Punjab” Lala Lajpat Rai, from wounds inflicted on him by the police at a demonstration in 1928 against the Simon Commission, which had been appointed to inquire into political conditions, enraged Bhagat Singh and his comrades. They hatched a plot to assassinate the Superintendent of Police, James Scott.  In a case of mistaken identity, they shot and killed John P. Saunders, an Assistant Superintendent of Police.

The murder of Saunders, and there is no other word for it, raises, to say the least, difficult ethical questions that virtually no biographer has adequately addressed.  Writing some years later in his autobiography, Nehru had this to say:  “Bhagat Singh was not previously well known; he did not become popular because of an act of violence, an act of terrorism. Terrorists have flourished in India, off and on, for nearly thirty years, and at no time, except in the early days in Bengal, did any of them attain a fraction of that popularity which came to Bhagat Singh.”

Bhagat Singh had enlisted the help of Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev, and Chandrasekhar Azad.  They fled the crime scene.  To escape capture, Bhagat Singh cropped his hair and shaved his beard. He put on a fedora:  and so came into being the iconography of a political rebel.


The following year, Bhagat Singh came up with the yet more dramatic idea of exploding a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly, but doing so in a manner that would not take the life of anyone. It has been argued, quite rightly, that Bhagat Singh and his comrades desired that they should be taken captive.  The idea was that the British would launch a prosecution, and that Bhagat Singh would find a stage to air publicly his grievances, and that of a nation, against British colonialism.

Bhagat Singh would have known that, with his action, he would be walking into the jaws of death. I would like to believe, however, that Bhagat Singh had had enough of killing.  Saunders may have been the instrument of colonial rule, and by that logic was as guilty as Scott; nevertheless, the wrong man had been killed. There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.

Bhagat Singh must have learned something about how publicity can act as the oxygen of a nationalist movement; he doubtless also understood, from his study of nationalism, how Gandhi, Tilak, and many others had mastered the courtroom and turned that quintessential British space against the British themselves.  But there is something more profound at stake here:  If violence is inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn, we should also think of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life.

Bhagat Singh got his wish: though the many twists and turns in the story are interesting enough, they need not detain us, and it suffices to say that he went on trial for both the Assembly bombing and, later, the Saunders murder case.  Sukhdev, Rajguru, and Bhagat Singh were sentenced to death.  I have said that Nehru thought he had seen everything; but he had not, since, for a time, the popularity of Bhagat Singh appeared to exceed the popularity of Gandhi.  He found the popularity of Bhagat Singh “amazing”.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades went to the gallows, and the country went into mourning.

With Bhagat Singh’s death, the phenomenon of Bhagat Singh found a new, extended, and more complicated lease of life.  There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own.  Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme.  I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing.  He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.

First published on September 28 at ABP News Network under the same title, here.

Also published in Hindi as:  भगत सिंह की कहानी एक अद्भुत घटना है, online:

6 thoughts on “The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

  1. The Hindu nationalist attempts are clearly motivated by a desire to cast alternative anti-colonialists to Gandhi. Their distaste for Gandhi is well known given the fact that it was a Hindu nationalist who killed him and many other Hindu nationalists who wanted to see him killed. For Bhagat Singh, his ideology is less well known and it is therefore easier for them to appropriate him.

  2. Eleven Indians I admire the most:

    1. Rabindranath Tagore.
    2. Mahatma Gandhi.
    3. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
    4. Jawaharlal Nehru.
    5. Sardar Patel.
    6. Bhagat Singh.
    7. Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay.
    8. Chakravarty Rajgopalachari.
    9. Maulana Azad.
    10. Aruna Asaf Ali.
    11. Sarojini Naidu.

    Eleven Indians I am ashamed of the most:

    1. Nathuram Godse.
    2. V.D Savarkar.
    3. M.S Golwalkar.
    4. Lal Krishna Advani.
    5. Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
    6. Narendra Modi
    7. Amit Shah.
    8. Arnab Goswami.
    9. Ajay Singh Bisht.
    10. Anupam Kher
    11. Pragya Thakur.

  3. you are yourself a phenomenon but in a weird way! what sort of phenomenon are you? ask yourself this question first before discussing phenomena, dear professor!

  4. “There are many troubling aspects to the appropriation of his legacy, none more so than the attempt by Hindu nationalists to claim him as their own. Bhagat Singh was an atheist; he was also a committed communist; and, for someone his age, well-read in the extreme. I suspect that he also understood well the difference between a nationalist and a patriot. We can be certain of one thing. He was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.”

    Reactionaries around the world seem intent on bastardizing the cultural and creative inheritance left to freedom-loving peoples by such freedom fighters as Bhagat Singh. Not to draw comparisons between Bhagat Singh and the Beatles, but I am struck dumb with confusion every time I hear “Come Together” used at rallies to ready Trumpian hordes. This is evidence I believe of the population in question being so deficient in creative energies so as to be incapable of producing a single artist who might supply original anthems to such rallies. I also believe this is evidence of the population in question not placing particular importance on the lyricism of song. For this population, revolutionary music which rails against the very core of the Trumpian brand can be tolerated, as such music is only background noise. The lyrics of such songs, which cry for the American right to run far and fast away from their affair with authoritarianism, are left hollowed and divorced from their original meaning by the Trump crowds.

    It is equally annoying to see Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” mistaken for an ode to the glory of war. Both of these songs seem to be favored by American martial types of all kinds, all of whom are indifferent to the fact that they are violating the legacy of Jimi Hendrix on really the deepest level imaginable.

    Thank you very much for this piece Professor Lal.


  5. The Indian intelligentsia had long ago been run over by those who hold a deep antipathy towards the Hindu faith and people. Bhagat Singh is just one more of these, and you are right that those who have Hinduism’s best interests at heart, though you uncharitably refer to them as “Hindu nationalists”, ought not to appropriate him. But then we must all come to an agreement that saying that Hinduism should not perish from the one nation it calls home, which is all that those who have been termed “Hindu nationalists” say, is not some radical position, or even fascist as many screeching anti-BJP people have said. They even say Narendra Modi is like Hitler. It is getting to a point where whenever someone says that India, too, should not become a Muslim country like so many countries are, they are called right wing. Never has there been this much ill feeling from the intelligentsia towards a sitting Prime Minister.

    • There is a large body of Hindus who are extremely protective about their faith in India, more particularly because, unlike Christianity, Islam, or even Buddhism, ‘Hinduism’ has not been a world religion and historically has been associated only with India. (I am aware, of course, of the so-called Indianization of Southeast Asia from 100-1400 CE. I likewise am aware that Bali is over 80% Hindu, and know of the presence now of HIndus in a large number countries. None of that alters the argument an iota.) I think we have to understand this sentiment, and what place it has played in the rise of Hindu nationalism, even if one might think, as I do, that these apprehensions are groundless and that Hinduism can do very well without its supposed protectors. But you do no one any service in describing the critics of the BJP/RSS as “screeching” types, because present-day Hindu nationalism shows every sign of being xenophobic, intolerant, and so on.

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