Singh, Bhagat

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SINGH, BHAGAT (1907–1931), Indian socialist and revolutionary. Born in Banga village, Lyallpur district (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), on 27 September 1907, Bhagat Singh represented the radical wing of the Indian freedom movement. Influenced by the Russian revolution and Leninist ideas, particularly toward the end of his brief life, Bhagat Singh differed from mainstream leaders in the Congress Party, both in his advocacy of revolutionary violence and armed struggle and in his belief that national liberation would be incomplete without ending social exploitation.

As a student in Lahore, Singh was inspired by the Ghadar movement and the execution of nineteen-year-old Kartar Singh Sarabha. Drawn to the band of radical young men—influenced by Sachindranath Sanyal and Chandrashekhar Azad—who believed that the only way to force the British out of India was through violence, Singh moved to Kanpur, then a center of revolutionary activity in the United Provinces, to work in the nationalist press run by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. There he joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), whose aim was the establishment of a Federated Republic of the United States of India "by an organised and armed revolution."

Moving back to Lahore, Singh started a youth organization, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, to further the aims of the HRA, which had been weakened by the execution and arrest of key members following a daring raid on a train near Kakori in Uttar Pradesh (then called United Provinces) in August 1925. On 9 September 1928, Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries met in Delhi to reestablish the old party, calling it, this time, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA).

Following the police beating—and subsequent death—of Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai in Lahore in November 1928, the HSRA decided to assassinate the city's police superintendent, J. A. Scott. Singh and Sukh Dev (the HSRA leader) planned and executed the plot, but instead of the intended victim, they ended up killing a young assistant superintendent of police, J. P. Saunders. Singh escaped, but voluntarily surrendered following his next major action, when he and Batukeshwar Dutt threw two bombs and hundreds of leaflets into the chamber of the Central Legislative Assembly while it was in session on 8 April 1929.

Sentenced to life imprisonment for this incident, Singh was subsequently tried, along with Sukh Dev and revolutionary Shivram Rajguru, for the killing of Saunders. Conducted by a special tribunal established by Ordinance and fraught with violations of due process, the trial ended in the imposition of death sentences. Bhagat Singh refused to move a mercy petition and instead demanded he be shot dead rather than hanged, as he had been accused of waging war against the British state. The three young comrades were hanged in Lahore Jail on 23 March 1931.

Despite his youth, Bhagat Singh's politics were surprisingly modern, his commitment to socialism and secularism anticipating by several decades principles that continue to animate independent India's polity. His Naujawan Bharat Sabha believed religion a matter of personal belief that should not be mixed with politics. In jail, he rejected terrorism, conceding that revolutionary violence had only limited utility, and stressed instead the need to politically mobilize India's millions. Only twenty-three years old at the time of his execution, Bhagat Singh was considered by British intelligence to be as popular a figure nationwide as Mahatma Gandhi.

Siddharth Varadarajan


Gupta, Manmathnath. They Lived Dangerously: Reminiscences of a Revolutionary. New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1969.

Noorani, A. G. The Trial of Bhagat Singh: Politics of Justice. New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1996.