The indomitable courage and sacrifice of Bhagat Singh and his comrades will continue to inspire people
ON November 17, 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai, the tallest leader of the freedom movement from Punjab, died due to the blows given by D.S.P Saunders at the order given by S.P. Lahore Scott on October 30, when he was leading a massive protest march of people against the Simon Commission. Lala ji declared in his now famous speech the same evening: “Every blow on my body will prove to be the last kneel in the coffin of British rule in India.”
On November 29, 1928, in a memorial meeting held in Calcutta to mourn the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Basanti Devi, widow of radical nationalist C.R. Dass, in anguish put a question to Indian youths: “I quake with shame and disgrace. Do the youth and manhood of the country still exist? Does it feel the shame and disgrace of it? A woman of the land demands a clear answer to it.” (Quoted in Kamlesh Mohan’s book, Militant Nationalism in India).
C.R. Dass and Basanti Devi were known for their soft corner for the revolutionaries in Bengal and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) formed two months ago at Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla ground. Led by Bhagat Singh, the latter could not ignore the call given by Basanti Devi. Though HSRA had decided to go in for mass movements and renounce violent methods like killing of officials etc., they could not let the British colonial regime get away with killing the tallest leader with whom revolutionaries had many differences.
Consequently, on December 17, 1928, a month after Lala ji’s death, D.S.P. Saunders was lying in front of the Lahore SSP’s office in the same place, shot dead by revolutionaries. Jai Gopal gave the indication and Rajguru did not even wink in shooting him down from his motorcycle. Bhagat Singh realised in seconds that he was not the targeted man — J.A. Scott — and he promptly told this to Chandershekhar Azad overseeing the operation. But once Rajguru shot him, Bhagat Singh saw to it that he did not survive and further shot him.
The other British constables ran away, but Chanan Singh did not stop following the revolutionaries despite Chandershekhar Azad’s explicit warning to him not to do so as they were fighting for Indian freedom. Chanan Singh bore the bullet of Azad to die with the oppressive British officer.
How Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Jai Gopal etc. escaped is a known story now. However, what is little known is the role of Bhagat Singh’s young comrades. They were Pt. Kishori Lal (born in 1909) and Prem Dutt Verma (born on September 19, 1911). Verma was not even 18 years of age when he was arrested in May 1929.
After the arrest of Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt on April 8, 1929 in Delhi, and of other revolutionaries like Sukhdev on April 15, the link of revolutionaries led by Bhagat Singh in the murder of Saunders came to be known to the Punjab police. Soon other arrests followed and most of them were students of various colleges. An FIR was filed against 25 people in the court of Rai Sahib Pt. Sri Kishan, Special Magistrate appointed to conduct the Lahore conspiracy case.
While the police produced 16 of the accused in the court on July 10, 1929, accused from 17th to 25th in the list were declared absconders. These include Chandershekhar Azad (never arrested and martyred on February 27, 1931 in Alfred Park, Allahabad), Bejoy Kumar Sinha (arrested later), Kailashpati Raghunath alias Rajguru (arrested later), Bhagwaticharan Vohra (never arrested and martyred on May 28, 1930 while experimenting with a bomb at Ravi bank, Lahore), Kundan Lal (arrested last), Yashpal (noted Hindi writer (arrested in 1932 and charged with different cases), Satgurudyal (not arrested).
Under the Indian Penal Code, they were accused of, among other things, trying to establish a “Federated Republican Government”. Prem Dutt’s name figured in No. 5 of the accused list as Prem Dutt alias Master alias Amrit lal, son of Ram Dutt Khatri of Gujarat. Kishori Lal Rattan, son of Raghubar Dutt of Hoshiarpur district, was No.3 after Sukhdev and Agya Ram. The case was known as ‘Sukhdev vs Crown’.
Exhibits in four bound and typed volumes in English of the Lahore conspiracy case, were gifted to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh, in 2006 by Rana Bhagwan Das, the then Acting Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court. Though he and his family were insulted at Wagha border by insensitive Indian officials and sent back without allowing entry, he came later. Of the 600 plus exhibits of the case, Advocate and Prof. Malwinderjit Singh Waraich had presented 63 exhibits in a large volume. Section 12 of this volume deals with Recovery from Prem Dutt, Section 29 deals with Statement of Prem Dutt and Section 51 deals with Prem Dutt Letters/other records.
Accused Jai Gopal became approver. Agya Ram, Surindernath Pandey and B.K. Dutt (already serving life imprisonment in the Delhi Bomb case) were discharged from the list on July 10, 1930. The remaining 15 accused were proceeded against. Apart from Jai Gopal named in the original FIR, Phonindernath Ghosh, Manmohan Bannerjee, Lalit Kumar Mukerji and Hansraj Vohra became approvers of the case and got pardon in reward.
An incident relating to Prem Dutt Verma during the trial proceedings is worth revisiting. It has been narrated by many authors, but the first-hand account of Bejoy Kumar Sinha, himself an accused and victim, is touching and revealing. To paraphrase him from the book, Bejoy Kumar Sinha: A Revolutionary’s Quest for Sacrifice by his widow Srirajyam Sinha, published by Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan in 1993, the book presents many unpublished memoirs of B.K. Sinha through his papers, on October 21, 1929, in the court of Pt. Sri Kishan, approver Jai Gopal while tendering his evidence from witness box, was twisting his moustache and trying to provoke the accused in the other box.
According to Sinha, “Prem Dutt, the youngest of all, got excited and upset and in the heat of a moment threw a sleeper at the approver. Immediately, the rest of the accused hastened to express regret at his conduct and dissociated themselves from the act.” (Page 44). Despite their regret, in the following days all revolutionaries were treated in a most brutal fashion. On October 22, they were all handcuffed and after lunch, when they resisted, in B.K.Sinha’s words, “the police was hell bent on teaching the accused the lesson of their life”. A special Pathan force was requisitioned and they were beaten mercilessly.
Bhagat Singh was singled out for this. Eight ferocious Pathans pounced upon him and with their regulation boots kicked him viciously and beat him with lathis ruthlessly. Mr Roberts, an European officer, pointed out at Sardar Bhagat Singh and said “this is the man, give him more beating”. They were dragged on the ground and carried like logs of wood and thrown on the benches. All this happened in the presence of the visitors of court compound.
The magistrate too was watching all this apparently thinking that he had no jurisdiction as he was not presiding over the court. Sheo Verma and Ajoy Kumar Ghosh became unconscious. Bhagat Singh then raised his voice and told the court, “I want to congratulate you on this. Sheo Verma is lying unconscious and if he dies you will be responsible for this.” (page 45). According to B.K. Sinha, that was not the end of the day, as Bhagat Singh was attacked in the jail ward the same evening again and thrashed. A.G. Noorani, in his book, The Trial of Bhagat Singh, reports on the same event with Prem Dutt speaking to the court the same day: “Yesterday fingers were thrown into our rectum and kicks were given on our testicles. Is it civilisation? You call it civilisation?
The same situation was repeated on May 12, 1930, when after disbanding of Pt Sri Kishan Special Magistrate court, a Special Tribunal of three judges was proclaimed through an ordinance by Lord Irwin on May 1, 1930. On May 12, during the court appearance, “Bhagat Singh started singing”, according to B.K. Sinha, “in his melodious voice” — Watan ki aabroo ka pas dekhen kaun kehta hai/suna hai aaj maktal mein hamara imtihan hoga (Let us see who cares for the dignity of the nation/ It is heard today we will be tried in a massacre house).
And it literally happened. Justice Coldstream, President of the Special Tribunal, ordered them to be silenced and the police in large numbers in the running court pounced upon them despite Bhagat Singh protesting that there was no occasion for that. Scuffle, beating, singing, slogan shouting all continued and Prem Dutt, Kundan Lal and Ajoy Ghosh became unconscious. Justice Agha Haider could not bear and covered his face with a newspaper and dissociated himself from the brutal order. In his book, A.G. Noorani wrote that Bhagat Singh, while addressing the Tribunal, said: “You are cowards and mercenaries.”
In May 1929, at Prem Dutt Verma’s house at Mohalla Qila Shumali, Gujrat city of Punjab was searched and on May 7, 1929, 24 books and magazines including copies of Urdu and Panjabi Kirti, books on Mahatma Gandhi, Guru Gobind Singh, Sachindernath Sanyal’s Bandi Jivan, Tolstoy’s Essays and Letters, Tales from Shakespeare, Poems and Plays of Goldsmith, etc were recovered.
Another search mentions the recovery of nearly 30 more books such as the Sedition Committee Report, popularly known as the Rowlett Report of 1918, The Seven that were Hanged, Resurrection by Tolstoy, a portrait of Kartar Singh Sarabha and a portrait of Kakori martyr Thakur Roshan Singh. Recoveries were made till May 12, 1929 and Prem Dutt was mentioned as the grandson of Mrs Vidyawati, widow of Thakur Dass, caste Vig Khatri…
In section Prem Dutt letters/Other records, his letter of May 16, 1929, is reproduced twice, which seems to be written in coded language. In this letter to a friend referred as S.S. Prem Dutt enquires about the fruit garden, contracts of wine, charas and bhang and also about fireworks (ammunition), also about license for potash, sulphur, etc. It seems to be relating to the bomb making code.
Prem Dutt’s statement exhibited as “confession” was recorded by Magistrate Mushtaq Ahmad on May 17, 1929. A 15-page printed statement, it refers to his passing the entrance examination. In 1927, at the age of 16, he joined the DAV College in Lahore. Prem Dutt refers to reading of revolutionary literature along with Kishori Lal and Pran Nath, like the Sedition Committee Report, Dan Brien’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, Anand Math (Bankim Chatterji), proscribed books like Chingarian and America Ne Swadhinta Kaise Prapat Ki (How America won its freedom).
He refers to Kishori Lal having a library of such books. He further refers to Bertrand Russell’s book, Roads to Freedom. Prem Dutt refers to his meeting with Bhagat Singh, who was known as Ranjit in the group (his other fictitious name was Balwant). This was after the murder of Saunders. An interesting part of this meeting was that according to Prem Dutt, Bhagat Singh and Kishori Lal went to see Tolstoy’s novel-based film of the same title, Resurrection in Lahore’s Excelsior theatre. Prem Dutt mentions about his handing over Bhagat Singh’s shoes to the police.
Prem Dutt Verma or Vig was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the case. After his release, he probably resumed his studies and went up to become Professor of History in Panjab University, Chandigarh. But the strange part of his story is that despite being in academics, not much of his writings on the subject or memoirs are known. After retirement he went to the US where he hopefully lives. No information could be gathered from the Department of History, Panjab University.
Hope some of his family members or friends will bring Prem Dutt’s life to focus. Many co-students/co-workers of Bhagat Singh like Durga Das Khanna, A.C. Bali etc. joined The Tribune or other media organisations and some of them have their memoirs of those days published. The saga of Bhagat Singh continues to fascinate and is impregnated with many more stories.n
The writer is Editor, Bhagat Singh’s Documents, (in Hindi published by the Publications Division, Government of India) and of Jail Notebook and Other Writings of Bhagat Singh (in English). A Professor of Centre of Indian Languages, JNU, New Delhi, he is currently Visiting Professor, University of West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago