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:

13 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.


  6. Pingback: A Country in Search of Itself:  Brief Reflections on the Occasion of India’s Independence Day | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  7. Dear professor,
    After reading your insightful analysis, I incidentally find a Indian Prime Minister, Modi, whose twitter mentioned about Bhagat Singh. Modi mentioned that “Bhagat Singh remains among the most popular icons in the mind of youth”. In this sense, the BJD party that pursues Hindu nationalism for its ideologies seems to be exploiting the legacy of “Bhagat Singh”. In my perspective, I am concerned that Bhagat Singh’s movement seemed to be same eventual purpose for independence with every Indian, yet his movement had a different directivity, compare with Gandhi. Bhagat Singh’s way was superficially violent movement using bomb terror. The way in which Bhagat Sigh’s bomb terror against British rule possibly was effective means since it could offset dissatisfaction of colonial rule for Indians. Overall, in my point of view, his movement was used as a venue for political struggle against colonial rule and for rallying anger and resistance from Indian citizens. He was sentenced to death and hanged for expressing Indian anger in a very different way than Gandhi. I respected all different shapes of independence movement either nonviolent or violent against colonial rule. However, I am wondering that if Modi and BJD party promotes Bhagat Singh’s legacy rather than Gandhi’s legacy for their political end in contemporary India society, what is going to happen in India.


  8. It is interesting to note that the picture is not as black and white as it is often made out to be. From the stories and Indian media that I was exposed to growing up, Bhagat Singh was painted as a heroic icon of patriotism – which, in Bollywood, can often easily be a segue into Hindu nationalism. I was surprised to learn that he was an atheist, as his legacy and actions are often conflated with the Hindu nationalist perspectives and adhered to by practitioners of this ideology. I also appreciated your statement that “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” and agree with the idea that you put forth. Being able to draw these parallels between Singh and Gandhi is interesting, and possibly a more palatable form of acceptance for those who equate nonviolence with inaction.


  9. While I do believe that violence can be “inescapably present to the practitioner of nonviolence at every turn,” I don’t think I’ve thought of the reverse, “of the nonviolence within some forms of violence that signals the reverence for life,” until I remembered Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who protested through self-immolation at the expense of his life. I do not know to which category his death would fit into above, as it was a violent act performed in public, but undertaken in the name of non-violence, or whether perhaps it the very opposite.

    What also my attention was the mention of the appropriation of Bhagat Singh by Hindu nationalists, as it reminded me of a post I saw years ago, that mentioned how some Nazi members online were attempting to claim actress Audrey Hepburn as one of their own. In denouncing them, the poster then detailed that these members were clearly unaware of Audrey Hepburn’s extensive history as a survivor during the human-induced famine created by the Nazi army when she was young and thus least likely to support the use of her image as Nazi iconography. The tone deafness of this revelation reminded me of more recent news in which conservative GOP party members who listened to Rage Against the Machine unaware of the strong political themes in the band’s songs since their conception and have since taken to denouncing it.


  10. It is written in this essay: “There may have been a Gandhi in that Bhagat Singh who threw a bomb with the express intention of not killing anyone.” I disagree slightly with this sentiment since I believe that Singh’s actions in fact go against all of Gandhi’s principles of conduct. Gandhi’s primary mode of protest was “passive resistance”, the former word implying a sense of stolidity, which can be seen in his ample desire to return to the traditional Indian society that was created before British colonization. Instead, Singh’s approach is far less sedentary; it can best be described as “active resistance” in that he is making grandiose gestures to call attention to himself and his viewpoints. While both activists are taking non-violent approaches in order to accomplish something “for the greater good” I feel as though their approaches cannot be compared without sacrificing some key nuances that mark their personal standards of behavior.


    • Hi Seher, It needs to be said very clearly that Gandhi was NOT an advocate of passive resistance. This is, I’m afraid, a mistaken view. In South Africa, for some years, he did describe himself as an advocate of passive resistance, but as his thinking about nonviolent resistance evolved, he began to differentiate quite sharply between satyagraha (a word that he coined to designate his mode of nonviolent resistance) from “passive resistance”. In “Satyagraha in South Africa” (Part I, ch. 13; pp. 126-31 of the Navajivan edition), he distinguishes between the two and states that passive resistance was conceived as a “weapon of the weak”. It will take me too long to go into this and I encourage you to look at some of his writings. Of course there are considerable differences between Bhagat Singh and Gandhi, but one has to be attentive to the fact that in throwing the bomb in the Central Assembly building, he did so with every intention of avoiding any loss of human life. One needs to understand why he took that view.


  11. The most important note I got out of this article is that there is a blurry line between nationalism and religion. Bhagat Singh is seen as a pioneer of Hindu rights today. However, to learn that he was actually an atheist makes me realize how actions can be interpreted differently by different groups in efforts of promoting their narrative- the way Nehru believed he was a pro-Hindu rather than pro-India. I think Bhagat Singh’s ideology (not actions) reflect the ways in which nationalism can be seen. In India today we see a new wave of nationalism that has strong ties to Hinduism. It promotes the narrative that one cannot be pro-India if they are not pro-Hindu and that people from all the other religions of India, specifically Muslims, are unable to be pro-India. In that way “he was everything that the Hindu nationalists of today are not.


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