Rediscovering Bhagat Singh (Part 2): The Hunger Strike

Jatindra Nath Das (1904-1929) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On September 13, 1929, 25 year old Jatindra Nath Das died after an epic 61 day fast. He had joined Bhagat Singh’s hunger strike against the unequal treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to European prisoners. Jatin Das had built bombs for the HSRA and had been arrested with the rest of his revolutionary comrades in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (regarding the assassination of Saunders). When he had first heard of Bhagat Singh’s idea of a hunger strike, he had been doubtful about the strategy. He had warned other enthusiastic strikers that “inching toward death in a hunger strike is far more difficult than death in a gun fight or on the gallows,” It wasn’t that Jatin Das lacked commitment. He was practical. “It is better not to join the strike than suffer a premature withdrawal,” he had warned. But when his comrades assured him of their determination to see this through, Jatin Das joined the hunger strike demanding that Indian political prisoners receive the same dignity and rights that are afforded to a petty European criminal in Indian jails. As his health declined and the public grew increasingly concerned about his well being, the British panicked. They tried all kinds of tricks to force the hunger strikers to break their fast. They filled the drinking water pots with milk, hoping to trick thirsty strikers into drinking milk. They placed tasty foods outside their cells and tried to tempt the strikers to give in. And eventually they tried to force feed these men, phyiscally holding them down and pushing food into them. Jatin Das struggled all of these torments. He fell sick when food that they had tried to force into him got lodged in his lungs. When he died, 61 days after he first started his fast, an entire nation stirred and the British quaked.

The archival video below shows a river of men in white flowing through the streets of Lahore as part of Jatin Das’s funeral procession. Subhash Chandra Bose had sent train fare to transport Jatin’s body from Lahore, where he had died, to his home in Bengal. The revolutionaries who had hoped to make the British tremble through planned violence, had achieved greater success through their adoption of Gandhi’s weapon of choice – fasting.

The video shows “fanatical hordes” (as the video calls them) peacefully and respectfully accompany Jatindranath Das’s body to the railway station for his final journey home. Source: British Pathe

This hunger strike that captured the attention of a nation had been Bhagat Singh’s idea. During his brief stint in prison in 1927, Bhagat Singh had noticed petty European criminals received better food and treatment in jails compared to Indian political prisoners. Surely there was a difference in quality between a European thief or murderer and an Indian political prisoner who was in prison for upholding their ideals and values.

But how do you protest effectively in prison? Bhagat Singh took a page out of Gandhi’s handbook. He decided on going on a hunger strike until changes were made. He found a way to sneak the message across to his comrade B.K. Dutt before he was sent to another jails. Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt spread the word in their respective jails. Word spread rapidly and political prisoners across the nation began to join the strike. Some like Jatin Das lost their lives. Some, like Baba Sohan Singh who was close to being released after serving a sentence of 15 years, joined the strike and were punished by having their sentences extended.

Bhagat Singh, as usual, put pen to paper. He wrote to the home member of the Government of India explaining why the strikers were protesting and what their demands were.

We, as political prisoners, should be given better diet and the standard of our diet should at least be the same as that of European prisoners… We shall not be forced to do any hard and undignified labour at all… books… along with writing materials should be allowed to us without restriction. Toilet necessities… better clothing… at least one standard daily paper should be supplied to every political prisoner.

from Without Fear by Kuldip Nayar

Bhagat Singh’s demands had been simple and clear. He was asking for dignity, respect and fairness. According to Nayar, Bhagat Singh had been concerned that the message of revolution was being misunderstood by the youth of India. He did not want revolution to be linked to the romance of guns, bombs and dramatic acts of violence. It was about sacrifice for a greater purpose. Bhagat Singh showed through his choices that if violence did not do the trick, then revolutionaries should change their ways and choose whatever path would lead them most expediently to their goal. Like Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh seemed aware that hunger strikes were far more difficult than dashing around with guns and bombs. But his body and voice were the only tools available to him in jail. He and all his fellow hunger strikers reminded India that even though Indians were trapped in circumstance – either in an actual jail or in a society ruled by outsiders – every individual was not only capable of bringing change but had a duty to try.

This message was not lost on Indians across the subcontinent. The efforts of Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das and so many other men and women in jails across India captured the interest of Indian media. Regional language newspapers like Sandhya, Bande Matram, Karma Yogin, Sanjibani, etc and English language papers like The Tribune reported the story and got the revolutionaries message to the common man. The strikers had gained so much sympathy from the public that the whole nation celebrated 21 June, 1929 as Bhagat Singh Day. He had achieved celebrity status during his own life time using methods that had made Gandhi, a man whom he felt was constantly chasing a Utopia at the cost of the present realities of the land, a household name.

Credit: The Tribune

It wasn’t just public sympathy and admiration that Bhagat Singh received. Mainstream names like Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah were openly ackowledging their support for the revolutionaries while carefully adding a disclaimer that while they did not support their violent methods, they admired the dedication, devotion and courage that these young men were displaying.

In his autobiography, Nehru who had visited the strikers in Lahore Central Jail described Bhagat Singh as having an “attractive, intellectual face, remarkably calm and peaceful.” He noticed that his faced did not seem to have “any anger in it” and that he spoke very gently. However, Nehru admits that anyone who had been fasting for over a month “will look spiritual and gentle”.

Despite frequent criticisms of Gandhi’s apparently weak efforts to save Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Gandhi would state his disagreement with the revolutionaries’ methods while also openly acknowledging their sincerity and courage. He did try to convince Viceroy Irwing to commute the sentence but obviously failed. Later, he published Sukhdev’s open letter to Gandhi that he had sent before his execution and wrote a gentle and reasonable response giving Sukhdev’s words the due respect they deserved. This attitude of mutual respect that all these various freedom fighters had for each other makes me marvel at the quality of people who were leading our country at that time. Something we can all learn from – how to respectfully disagree.

When we look at the details of Bhagat Singh’s short life, I realised that school textbooks have done Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries a great disservice. While it is certainly true that the revolutionaries took to political assassinations and violence, there was more to their story than that. Perhaps they were misguided in their methods. Yet, they were not attached to violence. They were attached to their cause – a free India. When violence did not help, they turned to non-violence. It is true that they did not turn to it for the idealistic reasons that led Gandhi. They turned to it for more practical reasons. Yet, in that change in tactic, what I realised was that they were devoid of ego and blind and violent hatred for the enemy.

In his statement during the Legislative Assembly Bombing case, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt had said the following:

We hold human life sacred beyond words, and would sooner lay down our own lives in the service of humanity than injure anyone else.

They had meant it when they spoke of their willingness to lay down their lives in the service of humanity. Leaders say it all the time; very few actually mean it. These young men in their early twenties lived by their words. There is good reason why Bhagat Singh features in our textbooks. But he is not there because he was willing to pick up a gun for his country. He is part of the narrative because he and his revolutionary brothers sincerely loved their country and are an example of how even when all freedoms were stripped from them, so many Indians showed the rest of us that we always have a choice.

Resources:

  1. Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh by Kuldip Nayar
  2. The Tribune photo on Jatin Das shook British empire by Vishav Bharti for The Tribune, September 12, 2019.
  3. ‘Bhagat Singh respected Gandhi for his impact on masses, but thought his ideas couldn’t bring a social change for equality’ Interview of historian Chaman Lal for the Times of India, September 27, 2019
  4. ‘Modi Says No Congress Leader Visited Bhagat Singh in Jail, but That’s Not True’ by Arjun Siddharth for The Wire, May 10, 2018
  5. ‘The Hunger Strike of Revolutionary Jatin Das’ from Prashant’s Blogworld posted on January 2, 2017
  6. What Mahatma Gandhi did to Save Bhagat Singh by Chander Pal Singh for MKGandhi.org

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