• Saturday, July 02, 2022

Arts and Culture

The extraordinary real story of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh

UNTOLD STORY: Satvinder Singh Juss

By: Manju Chandran



ICONIC Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was executed on March 23, 1931, aged just 23, and has since then continually captured the imagination of countless people across different generations.

British writer Satvinder Singh Juss has revisited the legendary story of a young man who stood up to an empire with his fascinating new book The Execution of Bhagat Singh: Legal Heresies of the Raj.

The meticulously researched book revisits the events leading up to Bhagat Singh’s imprisonment, infamous criminal trial and subsequent hanging.

The professor of law at King’s College London and practising barrister first connected to Bhagat Singh as a youngster when listening to stories about him from hisgrandfather.

He also saw him commemorated annually by the Indian Workers Association, upon arriving in the UK as a nine-year-old, and became enthralled by his freedom-fighting story.

“It was a story that was not known at all within mainstream historical accounts of India’s path to freedom in the way that stories of Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah were. This was despite the irony that surveys today consistently show that more than anyone else, it is Bhagat Singh who is the most popular figure in India,” explained Satvinder Singh Juss.

This legendary story and the values Bhagat Singh stood for inspired him to write the book.

“Whenever there is a talk of embracing the modern values of diversity, pluralism and tolerance it is the name of Bhagat Singh that is on everyone’s lips. For all these reasons, it seemed to me that Bhagat Singh was a story whose time had come. It was a story that had to be told and re-told.”

Juss was fascinated by the way Bhagat Singh along with his co-accused Sukhdev and Rajguru had smilingly kissed the hangman’s noose, and put it around their necks themselves, but what remained unclear was the manner of their death.

As a lawyer he remained fascinated by this and noticed how previous documentations of the full story remained incomplete because the legal proceedings had taken place in what is modern-day Pakistan, which meant previously unexplored material remained untouched there.

Then a 2013 newspaper article referred to the existence of 132 files, which lay concealed and inaccessible in the Punjab archives of Lahore, and would shed new light on the story of Bhagat Singh. Juss decided to access this never before seen material and started the journey to writing his book.

“The biggest challenge was getting permission as a writer to have access to the Bhagat Singh archive.

After various written applications, I was able to do so and was only met with the utmost generosity by officials at the Lahore Punjab Secretariat, where the papers on Bhagat Singh are kept in excellent condition, with a proper index.

There was also the challenge of meeting people who were still connected to the story of Bhagat Singh,” he said.

He was able to meet a descendent of a judge involved in the case, who was removed and replaced by a more compliant judge, which eventually resulted in the hanging. Juss used all the meticulous research to tell the story, but also describes the legal machinations in a wholly accessible way, including wrongdoing in the process.

“While writing the book, I learnt the full extent of the illegality, and denial of the rule of law in the trial and execution of Bhagat Singh.

This is because the trial had earlier been taking place before a proper magistrate in Lahore for a period of 10 months. From there it was face-lifted after over 200 witnesses had already been examined and put before a ‘special tribunal’ convened under an unlawfully passed Lahore Ordinance III of 1930.

“Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were then hanged following an appeal to the London Privy Council, which wrongly refused to hear the appeal in full, even though it was by that stage argued by renowned London counsel DN Pritt, who subsequently then went on to argue all the anti-colonial cases during the final phase of British Empire.”

When asked who he hopes connects with the book, Juss said: “Lovers of the people of the Indian sub-continent; of a harmony that once was, of an inclusive communal existence that is still possible, and those that believe in the best of humanity and co-existence.”

Juss thinks Bhagat Singh still captures the imagination because he represents so many revolutionaries, who stood against Gandhi’s non-violent, non-cooperation policy with British imperialism and risked their lives for freedom.

“Bhagat Singh comes to epitomise them all because he wanted an India that was anti-caste and anti-communal in the way that India is not any longer; he used the trial to publicise himself during which he was constantly able to out-manoeuvre the authorities, leaving everyone in no doubt that his trial was both unlawful and rigged.”

There are many aspects of Bhagat Singh that Juss admires, including his belief in being anti-caste and anti-communal along with his sacrifices in a fight for freedom.

“He believed in personal sacrifice for the attainment of his ideals, including having to give up his life, if that was necessary. Prison gave him the opportunity to read voraciously. That is something which leaves me awe-struck about him.”

The clearly passionate writer believes there are lessons modern day society can learn from Bhagat Singh and many of these inspiring moments are there in his meticulously researched book, which has unseen images and documents, including one showing how he influenced freedom fighter Udham Singh.

“In the old days, those that fought for India’s freedom had a vision for the kind of society that they wanted after liberation. It would be a society that would be free of the oppression and injustice of the past. These ideals of a higher calling are mostly today forgotten.

In our highly precarious and uncertain times, they are even further away from realisation than ever before. Bhagat Singh reminds us how to look into our better selves and to carve out a life for the future that is based on tolerance, pluralism, and broad-mindedness.”

Eastern Eye

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