The relationship between the Congress and the revolutionaries during the freedom movement was a lot more supportive than it is commonly believed to be.The various struggles led by the Congress party during the freedom movement attracted a large number of people. The struggles of socialism-oriented revolutionaries, led by Shaheed Bhagat Singh, also constituted a very important part of the freedom struggle, particularly during the crucial years before his execution.
The two struggles are commonly presented as two separate one – the first that relied on peaceful means and the other on violent methods. This, however, is not just an oversimplification, but also a misrepresentation. The reality is more nuanced and exciting.
In reality, the two streams fighting for independence – one led by the Congress and the other by the revolutionaries – often met and mingled. The supporters, and the members of the Congress and the Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) – the youth front of revolutionaries, which worked openly while the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) was their secret organisation – often worked in cooperation and mobilised support for one another.Around 1925-31, the two sides frequently indulged in fiercely contested debates, but this did not prevent them from cooperation on the ground.
This was aided by the fact that both sides were committed to the overwhelming objectives of freedom, communal harmony and a broadly left-of-centre view on socio-economic issues. The younger Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose were understandably closer to the revolutionaries than elder leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi.
Both Nehru and Bose were invited to chair the annual conventions of NJBS during 1925-35. Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru are on record to have contributed donations to Chandra Shekhar Azad, the most senior leader of HSRA. Nehru visited Singh and his comrades in jail, and publicly praised their courage and determination. The senior Nehru overcame the constraints of a serious illness to meet the revolutionaries in the court where their trial was in progress. He followed these visits with legal advice and support for the campaign for their release.
The Congress was at the forefront of the boycott of the Simon Commission, but the credit for a lot of the mobilisation for the boycott in Punjab goes to the NJBS. In the course of the boycott demonstration at Lahore, Lala Lajpat Rai, the most prominent Congress leader from Punjab, was brutally beaten by the police, resulting in his death. Congress leader Basanti Das called upon the youth of the nation to respond to this, a challenge that was accepted by the young activists of HSRA.
This was followed by hectic preparations for the Lahore convention of the Congress, which proved historic due to the declaration of the objective of complete freedom from the British rule. The NJBS had played a very important role in the successful mobilisation for the Lahore session at a time when the Congress was relatively weak in Punjab.
In fact, the declaration of the goal of complete freedom was heavily influenced by the growing impact of Singh and other revolutionaries on India’s youth. The Congress realised that if it had to retain its influence among the increasingly radicalised youth, it would have to declare its commitment to complete freedom.
Even though this declaration would have come sooner or later, the radicalising influence of Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary colleagues helped in initiation of their declaration much sooner, which was exactly the way he had planned.
Bhagat Singh realised the important role of the Congress-led struggle, but was disappointed by the many conservative tendencies in the movement that slowed down its progress. Hence the role of the revolutionaries was seen as that of energising and radicalising the people, particularly the youth, so that the Congress was pushed towards faster progress on their path of complete freedom from colonial rule.
In addition, Singh and his colleagues, particularly in Punjab, challenged those leaders and forces in the Congress who had some sectarian leanings so that people became more conscious of the need for communal harmony.
Professor Jagmohan Singh, secretary of the Shahid Bhagat Singh Research Committee (and a nephew of Singh) says, “It was deliberate and successful planning of the revolutionaries that they will carry out some daring acts, which while causing minimal loss to life, will spread the message of the need for rapid progress towards freedom and socialist ideals. They were very careful about minimising risks to people at the sites of their actions. The actions were followed by rapid dissemination of intended messages for stepping up the freedom movement. In the history of this era, it is very clear how the planning and action of these revolutionaries was highly successful in their intended aim of expanding the freedom movement and increasing its intensity.”Singh and his colleagues were increasingly cautious about avoiding indiscriminate violence. In a statement made in court, they declared, “Revolution is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By revolution we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change”.
The fast by 16 revolutionaries in jail, including Singh, continued for between 63 to 93 days. It was during this fast that Jatin Das died. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to pay their respects to him and protests were organised all over India in support of the fast of the revolutionaries. Congress members played an important role in these gatherings and protests, particularly in Punjab and Bengal, as well as in the campaign for the release of revolutionary freedom fighters.
The conduct of the fasting revolutionaries was along the lines of other satyagrahis of the freedom movement. It was in the course of this fast that the popularity of the revolutionaries soared to an unprecedented height.
From the conduct of revolutionary prisoners and from the statements made by them, it became increasingly clear to the people that far from indulging in any indiscriminate violence, they had planned their activities very carefully in the interests of their country and the freedom movement, for which they were willing to make any sacrifice and bear any hardship.
This became apparent from the courage and nobility with which the revolutionaries faced torture and beatings. They fasted for long periods. Even when they saw their own health and the health of their dearest friends deteriorating before their eyes, they did not surrender. Paralysis slowly took hold of Das’s body, yet he continued his fast. Prison authorities used to mix milk in the water, so that when they drink it, their fast would break. Instead of drinking it, the thirsty prisoners simply broke the pitchers containing the water.In the paper titled ‘Bhagat Singh as ‘Satyagrahi’: The Limits to Non-violence in Late Colonial India’, Neeti Nair has summarised the impact of his sacrifices on the nation:
Soon after news of the hunger strike spread, 30 June (1929) was observed as Bhagat Singh-Dutt Day in a majority of districts in the Punjab. In Lahore, 10,000 people attended a meeting organised by the City Congress Committee… The Tribune reported that thousands of Lahorians had expressed their solidarity with the hunger-striking prisoners by fasting that day…. Bhagat Singh and Dutt were hailed as the honour of Punjab and Bengal…. Volunteers from the Congress and the youth leagues marched in procession with red banners carrying photographs of the hunger-striking prisoners bearing the inscription “all for country’s honour 16 young men are starving to death”.
“When the success of these processions unnerved the administration and Section 144 was suddenly imposed, Congress, Ahrar and Akali leaders, including Sardar Mangal Singh and Zafar Ali Khan courted arrest by shouting the newly banned slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ along with members of the newly banned Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha.
Later, when Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to death, Bhagat Singh Appeal Committees were established in every district of Punjab. The Tamil Nadu Congress Committee insisted that commuting the death sentence was an essential condition for peace.
Such a response from a provincial unit of the Congress, that too from distant Tamil Nadu, is a clear indication of the extent to which the relationship between the Congress and the revolutionaries was supportive, rather than antagonistic, with the latter playing the historically important role of radicalising the former at a time when it was badly needed.
As historian Ravinder Kumar has noted, “the activities of the revolutionaries complemented the non-violent campaign of civil disobedience movement and their effect upon popular consciousness was no less decisive than the effect of the Satyagraha movement.”