The Many Lives of Chandrashekhar Azad

Azad is remembered as a romantic youth who sacrificed his life for Mother India. But the ideology he espoused aimed to liberate India from not just external but also internal oppressors.

The name Chandrashekhar Azad evokes an image of a moustache twisting masculine man. He is remembered as the person who chose to shoot himself rather than being captured by the British. He participated in the Kakori train robbery and assassination of British police office John Saunders and was the commander-in-chief of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). It is this image of Azad which is invoked when he is ritually remembered on his birth anniversary and martyrdom day every year.

But who was Chandrashekhar Azad? What did he fight for? What were his personal struggles? On his 115th birth anniversary, we present the lesser known aspects of his revolutionary journey.

Azad was born on July 23, 1906 in Bhavra village of Alirajpur princely state, which currently falls under the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh. His parents belonged to the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh and had migrated to Madhya Pradesh in search of livelihood. Azad’s father Sitaram Tiwari was a gardener and his mother Jagrani Devi was a homemaker. Azad’s village was surrounded by Bhil villages. He used to play with Bhil boys as a child and it was from them that he learnt archery and later became an excellent marksman.

His families financial conditions meant that Chandrashekhar had to take up a job at a very tender age. His private tutor got him a job at the tehsil office, but after some time Chandrasekhar ran away because every time some high official visited, he had to bow down before him, which he hated.

In search of freedom, Chandrashekhar went to Bombay in the early 1920s with a peddler and worked as a coolie in the shipping yard. While living in Bombay, he got a first-hand experience of the deplorable conditions of the working class. He and the other labourers he used to live with ate and slept in a cramped shack with no ventilation. Chandrashekhar, a huge fan of movies, would watch a lot of films to avoid the uninhabitable shack.

Commenting upon Azad’s Bombay sojourn, his close colleague and biographer Vishwanath Vaishampayan, writes:

He worked for six out of seven days in the dockyard and whatever money he earned, he bought a movie ticket and a new shirt on Sundays, throwing away the shirt which he had worn the entire week.

But soon, Chandrashekhar got bored of this lifestyle and again with the help of his former tutor, got admission to Kashi Vidyapith of Benares, from where his political career began in the fall of 1921 during the Non-Cooperation Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. As a 15-year-old teenager, he became part of the movement and when caught by the police during a demonstration, he was presented before the magistrate. The magistrate asked,

“What is your name?”

He replied, “Azad”

“What is your father’s name?”


“Where do you stay?”


The magistrate was greatly infuriated with these replies and sentenced him to fifteen whiplashes. Azad faced his punishment very bravely and cried, “Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai” at each whip. This incident made him quite popular in Benaras and later became part of the folklore around Chandrashekhar ‘Azad’ as these replies of teenager Chandrashekhar got him his famous nom de guerre, ‘Azad’.

Soon, young Chandrashekhar became a regular part of meetings organised by the Congress leaders who used to introduce him as ‘Azad’ after narrating the courtroom incident. Chandrashekhar actively participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement but its abrupt withdrawal left him anguished because of which he started to drift towards the armed revolutionary movement.

At that time, Benaras was an important hub of revolutionaries. Sachindranath Sanyal along with other revolutionaries like Jogesh Chandra Chatterjee and Ramprasad Bismil had reorganised the revolutionary movement in the United Provinces under the banner of Hindustan Republican Association (HRA). Azad, through Benaras-based revolutionaries Rajendra Lahiri and Manmath Nath Gupta, came in contact with the underground revolutionary party and became its active member. Initially, he was tasked with the distribution of pamphlets and acting as a courier between different members of the party.

As an active member of the revolutionary party, Azad was also required to get acquainted with revolutionary literature. But due to his lack of formal education, Azad had several limitations in reading texts so he got them to read from his comrades. In the course of becoming a full-fledged member of the HRA, Azad read the biographies of Italian nationalists Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi; Irish revolutionary Terence MacSwiney and Bandi Jeevan, the autobiography of Sachindranath Sanyal. He was also acquainted with texts like The Revolution of Ireland, History of Russian Revolutionaries and biographies of Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, Rana Pratap etc. as they were part of the mandatory reading list for any new member of the party.

Later during the heydays of the HSRA, Azad got his comrade Shiv Verma to read the Communist Manifesto to him. When Azad became the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary party he used to borrow a book titled ABC of Communism from the writer Satyabhakt to teach socialism to his cadres. However, despite all these readings, he was biased towards ‘practical actions’.

In 1925, Azad participated in the famous Kakori Train robbery. Before this, Azad has also participated in other robberies carried out by the revolutionaries in various villages targeting big landlords. The Kakori episode proved to be detrimental for the revolutionaries as it brought them into direct confrontation with the British Raj. As police began a massive manhunt for revolutionaries, several were arrested and put into prison. However, Azad managed to escape and went to Jhansi, where he lived in disguise for some years. In fact, for his ability to move undetected between party hideouts, he was given the nickname ‘quicksilver’ by Bismil.

On December 19, 1927, Ashfaqullah Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil and Roshan Singh, leaders of the Kakori conspiracy, were hanged by the colonial government. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After the Kakori incident, the revolutionary party was in total disarray. Azad was the only member left outside of prison and the responsibility of re-organising the party fell upon him. In this monumental task, he got immense help from Punjab-based revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev. Due to their combined and tireless efforts, a new crop of revolutionaries was ready to again challenge the mighty empire with renewed energy and a more developed ideology.

In September 1928, several revolutionaries from North India met at the historic ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla and formed the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Chandrashekhar Azad was chosen as the commander-in-chief of the party and head of the military department in absentia. The newly reconstituted HSRA largely retained the objective of the HRA but added two new points. First was the adoption of socialism as the ideology and goal of the party and the second was about discarding all religious and caste symbols. Every member was supposed to do away with all religious and caste symbols like turban, tilak or janeau.

The first action of the HSRA was the assassination of J.P. Saunders after the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, while the second was the bombing of the Central Assembly by Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt to protest against the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. Both these incidents brought the revolutionary party into the limelight and created massive support and sympathy for them. However, these two incidents also proved to be the death knell for the HSRA as they led to the arrests of most of its leaders.

Also read: Still Waiting For Chandrashekhar’s ‘Azad’ Vision After All These Years

Ideological journey of Azad

“…when I came out of prison and met Azad, I found that his views regarding the freedom struggle had changed considerably…he had pondered over the failure of the revolutionary movement to give a definitive shape to the freedom struggle despite of many sacrifices, and arrived at the conclusion that more and more members of the revolutionary party should work among the peasants and workers…while he should train a select few in armed struggle in accordance with future need of the movement…

This is how Ajoy Ghosh, one of the accused in the Lahore Conspiracy case and future general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who was released in the late 1920s due to lack of evidence, described the shift in Azad’s ideological-political views.

Azad began his revolutionary career as a radical nationalist and the development of his ideology followed the trajectory of the ideological-political development of the revolutionary movement. In a way, we can say that Azad was the literal embodiment of the transition of the HRA into HSRA, which signified three important shifts namely, a) from anti-colonial nationalism to socialism, b) from armed struggle towards mass politics and c) from overt use of religious symbology towards militant atheism. Azad not only lived through this transition but also played an important role in facilitating them.

When Ajoy Ghosh met Azad upon his release, the revolutionary party was in total disarray and Azad had dissolved the central committee of HSRA and told the provincial committees to work on their own. He made plans to reorganise the revolutionary movement in North India and extend it in western and southern India on new lines and for this purpose, he was planning to send a few of his comrades to the Soviet Union for ideological training. Yashpal, Surendranath Pandey and Bhavani Singh Rawat were chosen for this journey.

This plan was hatched by Azad in consultation with the accused of the Meerut conspiracy case. Azad was in touch with the Meerut conspiracy accused via Rajendrapal Singh Warrior, the organiser of the HSRA in Meerut, whose elder brother Vijay Singh Pal was a member of the defence committee of the Meerut conspiracy case accused and worked as a conduit between them and the revolutionaries. Warrior in his memoirs has described how an arrangement was made for the HSRA revolutionaries to travel to Bombay where they were supposed to be contacted by a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who would facilitate their travel to the Soviet Union. Yashpal travelled to Bombay and contacted communist activists but the martyrdom of Azad and later arrest of Yashpal and Pandey foiled their plans. Azad also was in touch with the Ghadarite revolutionary Prithvi Singh Azad for visiting the Soviet Union on behalf of the HSRA and he had met him just a few weeks before in the same Alfred Park of Allahabad where he was ambushed later.

This brief episode from the last days of Azad tells us about the drastic shift in his as well as the ideology of the revolutionaries. Moreover, Azad’s serious embrace of socialist ideology can be gleaned from a comment he made about extending the revolutionary struggle in princely states. Azad told one of his comrades…

“…We are eager to sacrifice our lives fighting against the oppression and slavery under the British Raj, but the magnitude of oppression which exists under British Raj is nothing as compared to what exists in the princely states. Sometimes I think that we should leave British India and move to the princely states and work there. Just think, those animals [princes] who think that keeping ten to twenty women in their harems is their right, what kind of justice will they do to their subjects?”

Azad made this observation when the Indian National Congress and the broader nationalist movement either maintained distance or just paid lip service towards the oppression of the masses in the princely states. This observation by Azad only shows that his ideology matured. According to Manmathanath Gupt, Azad in his moments of ecstasy used to sing and hum his dream that was:

Jehi din hoi jai surajva,
Arhar ke daliya, dhan ke bhatua
Khoob kachar ke Kaibena
Array Jehidin hoi hai surajava

(In an independent India, the masses will have enough food to eat,
Clothes to wear and house to live in)

Though Azad never wrote much and cannot be called an ideologue, he was an excellent organiser and being the commander-in-chief of the party he was the embodiment of HSRA’s ideology and programme. To clarify its objectives, HSRA issued a pamphlet, ‘Philosophy of Bomb’, which was written jointly by Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Yashpal and Azad. It was a response to Gandhi’s criticism of their actions in his article ‘The Cult of Bomb’.

The revolutionaries categorically stated that only armed struggle can liberate India and warned the masses about the unholy alliance between the Indian bourgeoisie and British imperialism. They also issued the ‘Manifesto of HSRA’ on January 26, 1930 proclaiming their ultimate objective of creating a society where there will be no capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression. During the leadership of Azad, the membership of HSRA was also opened up for women and their role which were earlier limited to being couriers and taking care of male members was brought on par with male revolutionaries.

Also read: ‘I Want To Die In Such a Place and Manner That Nobody Knows Of It and Sheds Tears’

Azad and religion

The attitude of Azad (and other revolutionaries) towards religion was utilitarian rather than ideological. Ramkrishna Khatri, a member of the revolutionary party who was recruited by Azad, narrates an incident where the HRA revolutionaries had planned to rob a monastery in Ghazipur for funding the movement. With this objective, Azad joined the monastery and spent three to four months there waiting to win the confidence of the chief pontiff or for him to die and be assigned the keys to the treasury.

The revolutionaries were not even hesitant to kill the pontiff, if he did not die of natural causes. According to Khatri, before taking the task, Manmath Nath Gupta wanted Azad to ‘guarantee the death of the pontiff’. However, this plan did not materialise and the party decided to relieve Azad from this task.

Take another example: one of the most famous photos of Azad is where he is seen twirling his moustaches and wearing a janeau. This photograph has been used to question the egalitarian and progressive ideology of the HSRA revolutionaries. However, if we dig a bit deep into the context of this photograph and relate it with other incidents recounted by HSRA members, a different picture emerges.

The said image was taken when Azad was living in disguise as a mendicant in Jhansi who used to recite the Ramayana. That janeau was part of a disguise. Azad had long ago given up the practice of wearing the janeau and other religious symbols, as per the decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSRA at Feroz Shah Kotla in September 1928.

This argument can be substantiated from the memoirs of Master Chhail Bihari, one of the key members of the HSRA and a close associate of Azad. In his memoirs, recounting an episode from HSRA’s attempt to free Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt from prison, Chaill Bihari writes how upon seeing him wearing janeau, Azad got infuriated and asked him to discard it immediately. Pointing out to his janeau, Azad said: “…this will not be tolerated here…if you have come here to sacrifice your life for the Nation, then you will have to first sacrifice this [janeyu]”.  

Azad, in his revolutionary career of six years, appeared in many disguises. He appeared as a Hindu mendicant, as a Pathan, and as a motor mechanic. For him, religious symbols were just a tool to maintain his undercover identity.

Last days

Following the arrest of many of his comrades after the bombing of the Central Assembly, Azad’s party was in disarray. But he did not give up hope and continued to reorganise the party. His last days were mainly occupied with the issue of getting Bhagat Singh and others out of prison. Azad also tried to persuade Congress leaders like Gandhi and Nehru to intervene in the case, but only got empty assurances.

As discussed above, Azad was making efforts to reorganise the party on new lines, for which he was planning to travel to Bombay. But before this journey could be undertaken, things at home had to be wrapped up for which he was staying in Allahabad. On the fateful day of February 27, 1931, when Azad was about to meet one of his contacts in Alfred Park, he was surrounded by police and asked to surrender. Azad began his revolutionary career with a vow that he will not be captured alive. When the day to keep this vow arrived, Azad was not deterred and he bravely fought the police battalion for hours, before getting killed from the bullet wounds (in contrast to the popular belief that he killed himself).

Today, in popular imagination Azad remains a romantic youth who sacrificed his life for Mother India. This decontextualised image makes it easy for the right-wing Hindutva forces to appropriate him and make him a part of their ever-growing pantheon.

Sadly, in more recent times, he has become a symbol for many Brahmin youngsters who are facing an identity crisis and want to remember him as ‘Chandrashekhar Tiwari’ and twirl their moustaches to assert their caste pride.

But Azad was not a person who should be ritualistically worshipped twice every year. Instead Azad – a very emotional person who could not control his tears after seeing someone in pain – was a part of the revolutionary socialist movement which aimed to liberate India not only from external oppressors but also from internal oppressors; he was part of a movement which was not only against communal politics but was critical of religion itself; he was commander-in-chief of a movement which wanted to establish a true democracy, “Where no man would be able to exploit another man and no nation would be able to exploit another nation.”

Harshvardhan and Prabal Saran Agarwal are research scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University.