Kakori Martyrs Were Symbols of Communal Harmony in India’s Freedom Struggle

Their message to their followers was clear – Hindus and Muslims had to fight together for their country

This week (December 16-22) has a very special significance in the history of the freedom movement in India. During this week in 1927, four extremely brave and exceptionally talented revolutionary freedom fighters were executed by the colonial government.

Ramprasad Bismil was hanged in Gorakhpur, Ashfaqullah Khan in Faizabad, Rajindernath Lahiri in Gonda and Roshan Singh in Allahabad. All of these places are in the eastern part of present-day Uttar Pradesh. All four of them were accused in the Kakori case in which a government treasure box being carried in a train was plundered at Kakori, a station near Lucknow, in August 1924 to raise badly needed resources for the activities of revolutionary freedom fighters.

The Kakori case and freedom fighters involved in this deserve much wider recognition than they have received so far. This is a good time to recall their contribution.

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A vacuum had arisen in the country after the sudden withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement by Mahatma Gandhi following violence at Chauri Chaura. Taking advantage of this, communal forces, aided and abetted by the colonial government were spreading rapidly. It is at this critical juncture that some revolutionaries decided to attract the youth with their courageous activities and in the process also helped to check the drift towards communalism.

In particular, the legendary friendship of Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan became an important rallying point for the forces of communal harmony. They were the closest of friends and planned several daring ventures till they were arrested in the Kakori case.

Both of them were also poets of very high calibre and their poems and songs remained popular with freedom fighters for a long time. The fact that these poems are still quoted and these songs are still sung testifies to their enduring appeal. In fact, all the Kakori martyrs had very strong and attractive personalities.

Bhagat Singh, who as a 19-year-old youth was fast emerging as a leading revolutionary at the time of the execution of the four Kakori revolutionaries, paid rich tributes to them in his articles he wrote at the time.

Rajindernath Lahiri was a very brave M.A. student who had been imprisoned in another freedom movement case too and showed exceptional courage in facing the death sentence. Similar was the case with Roshan Singh, who had also worked in the farmers’ movement. Bhagat Singh describes Ashfaqullah Khan as an exceptionally handsome poet who behaved very well and spoke words of great courage till his last day in the death cell. Ram Prasad is described by Bhagat Singh as the leader of this group of revolutionaries, a potential commander-in-chief, and a great poet at the same time.

It is important to recall what these fighters left behind as their last message to their country and its people they loved so dearly. Ram Prasad Bismil said in his last message, “My request to people of my country is that if they really want to pay homage to us then somehow establish Hindi-Muslim unity – this is our last will and this is how you should preserve our memory.”

Ashfaqulaah Khan said in his last message, “Hindustani brothers, no matter what religion you belong to, please be one in the country’s work and do not fight.”

Ram Prasad and Ashfaqullah Khan were both devoted to their own religions but also worked and pleaded very hard for unity and harmony of these two communities.

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Ram Prasad was very devoted to his mother and after his death sentence was announced she came out very bravely to stand by him and his principles. In earlier days Ram Prasad had given her a pledge that he would never kill anyone. As the leader of the revolutionary group which executed the Kakori train robbery of government treasure, he had given strict instructions not to kill any passenger but one passenger got caught in accidental fire and died.

There was hardly any case for awarding death sentences to four youths of outstanding character. The trial was badly manipulated as the colonial government was bent on giving death sentences. To bring out the injustice of the legal system, the accused petitioned at high levels and they made written statements explaining that the reason was to expose the hollowness of the system.

Within jail, they also observed prolonged protest fasts to improve conditions of political prisoners and oppose various injustices. When the death sentence was passed against four of them and even before, there was a surge of public sympathy. As one example of this, Sushila Didi, a young girl who was to later emerge as an important comrade of Bhagat Singh, had given away the jewellery left by her mother for her wedding, as a contribution for their legal expenses. If the Congress had started a big movement against this death sentence (and more generally against death sentence for any freedom fighter), this would have strengthened the freedom movement as well as communal harmony.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.