Ninety years ago, Jatindra Nath Das breathed his last on September 13, 1929, after a 63-day-long fast for protecting political prisoners from injustice. Only 25 years old at the time, Das had undertaken this hunger strike along with Shaheed Bhagat Singh and other imprisoned freedom fighters in the Lahore Central Jail.
During the course of this fast, he had to endure numerous hardships as he was brutally beaten up and efforts to force feed him damaged his lungs. Even as paralysis started to spread to parts of his body and his suffering increased, he insisted on continuing his fast. In fact, taking his condition into consideration, a jail committee had recommended his release, but the government rejected the proposal because it was fearful of his immense popularity amongst people.
After his death, people gathered in large numbers in Lahore as his body was taken towards the railway station. The revolutionary leader Durga Bhabhi led the procession. Wherever the train stopped, people were found waiting in thousands to pay their last respects.
Some of the biggest gatherings were in Kanpur, led by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and in Allahabad, led by Kamla Nehru. In Calcutta, when Subhash Chandra Bose came forward at the Howrah railway station to receive the coffin, the end of the huge procession was not even visible. By some estimates, over seven lakh people were in the cremation procession in the city.
Das’s fast and death for the rights of political prisoners left a deep impact on the people. The executions of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were still 18 months away at the time. If Gandhiji had used Jatindra Das’s martyrdom to launch a nationwide movement for protecting the rights of political prisoners or, at the very least, attempted to wrest an assurance from the colonial rulers that there would be no capital punishment for any political prisoners, then, at this juncture, he would have received maximum support from people and would have possibly prevented the executions of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev.
Alas, this was not to be, as the nation missed a golden opportunity to mobilise people for a highly relevant and rational cause – which was very well within the limits of Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful resistance.
It is always tricky to talk about the various ifs and buts of history, but my understanding is that a great mobilisation by Gandhiji could have not only strengthened the freedom movement at this critical time, but also bolstered the socialists and other the freedom fighters.
All this was possible with the overarching movement led by Gandhi and the Congress. If this had happened, there would have been a great upsurge of socialist and secular elements and communal elements in India would have been curbed. Under these conditions, Subhash Chandra Bose would not have been compelled to go out and seek an uncertain future .
All of these events are very relevant in the context of Jatindra Nath Das who as a young man was a very committed revolutionary. He joined the Anushilan Samiti first, then teamed up with Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the Hindustan Republican Socialist Association, and yet at the age of 17 he was also an enthusiastic participant of the non-cooperation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.
In the middle of all this, he also found the time to perform well in his studies before the police finally interrupted his BA and sent him to the Mymensingh Jail. Here, he promptly started a fast to improve the conditions of political prisoners. Such was the impact made by the young revolutionary that the jail superintendent agreed to express regret and make some amends.
So this young man, who lived for only 25 years, succeeded twice in drawing widespread public attention to the rights of political prisoners and that too in a way that got millions of people to respond to the issue.
Another remarkable aspect of the work of this incredible youth was that the domain of his work included parts of what are today three separate countries – India, Bangladesh and Pakistan – which, while maybe only incidental, nevertheless deserves attention.
There are, after all, very few people in the world who have been able to do so much work for political prisoners at such a young age. Hence it would be a fitting tribute to the memory of this courageous freedom fighter, and committed human rights activist, to observe his death anniversary – September 13 – as the Day of Justice for Political Prisoners, not just in India or South Asia, but at a global level.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.