Singh was born into a Jatt Sandhu family to Sardar Kishan Singh Sandhu and Vidyavati in the Khatkar Kalan village near Banga in the Lyallpur district of Punjab. Singh’s given name of Bhagat means “devotee”. He came from a patriotic Sikh family, some of whom had participated in movements supporting the independence of India and others who had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. His grandfather, Sardar Kishan Singh, was a follower of Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Hindu reformist movement, Arya Samaj, which would carry a heavy influence on Singh. His uncles, Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh, as well as his father, were members of the Ghadar Party, led by Kartar Singh Sarabha Grewal and Har Dayal. Ajit Singh was forced to flee to Persia because of pending cases against him while Swaran Singh was hanged on December 19, 1927 ,for his involvement in the Kakori train robbery of 1925.
Unlike many Sikhs his age, Singh did not attend Khalsa High School in Lahore, because his grandfather did not approve of the school officials’ loyalism to the British authorities. Instead, his father enrolled him in Dayanand Anglo Vedic High School, an Arya Samajist school. At age 13, Singh began to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. At this point, he had openly defied the British and had followed Gandhi’s wishes by burning his government-school books and any British-imported clothing. Following Gandhi’s withdrawal of the movement after the violent murders of policemen by villagers from Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, Singh, disgruntled with Gandhi’s nonviolence action, joined the Young Revolutionary Movement and began advocating a violent movement against the British.
In 1923, Bhagat famously won an essay competition set by the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. This grabbed the attention of members of the Punjab Hindi Sahitya Sammelan including its General Secretary Professor Bhim Sen Vidyalankar. At this age, he quoted famous Punjabi literature and discussed the Problems of the Punjab. He read a lot of poetry and literature which was written by Punjabi writers and his favourite poet was Allama Iqbal from Sialkot.
In his teenage years, Bhagat Singh started studying at the National College in Lahore, but ran away from home to escape early marriage, and became a member of the organization Naujawan Bharat Sabha (“Youth Society of India”). In the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, Singh and his fellow revolutionaries grew popular amongst the youth. He also joined the Hindustan Republican Association at the request of Professor Vidyalankar, which was then headed by Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan. It is believed that he had knowledge of the Kakori train robbery. He wrote for and edited Urdu and Punjabi newspapers published from Amritsar. In September 1928, a meeting of various revolutionaries from across India was called at Delhi under the banner of the Kirti Kissan Party. Bhagat Singh was the secretary of the meet. His later revolutionary activities were carried out as a leader of this association. The capture and hanging of the main HRA Leaders also allowed him to be quickly promoted to higher ranks in the party, along with his fellow revolutionary Sukhdev Thapar.
Lala Lajpat Rai’s death and the Saunders murder
The British government created a commission under Sir John Simon to report on the current political situation in India in 1928. The Indian political parties boycotted the commission because it did not include a single Indian as its member and it was met with protests all over the country. When the commission visited Lahore on October 30, 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai led the protest against the commission in a silent non-violent march, but the police responded with violence. The police chief beat Lala Lajpat Rai severely and he later succumbed to his injuries. Bhagat Singh, who was an eyewitness to this event, vowed to take revenge.
He joined with other revolutionaries, Shivaram Rajguru, Jai Gopal and Sukhdev Thapar, in a plot to kill the police chief. Jai Gopal was supposed to identify the chief and signal for Singh to shoot. However, in a case of mistaken identity, Gopal signalled Singh on the appearance of J. P. Saunders, a Deputy Superintendent of Police. Thus, Saunders, instead of Scott, was shot. Bhagat Singh quickly left Lahore to escape the police. To avoid recognition, he shaved his beard and cut his hair, a violation of the sacred tenets of Sikhism.
Bomb in the assembly
In the face of actions by the revolutionaries, the British government enacted the Defence of India Act to give more power to the police. The purpose of the Act was to combat revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. The Act was defeated in the council by one vote.However, the Act was then passed under the ordinance that claimed that it was in the best interest of the public. In response to this act, the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association planned to explode a bomb in the assembly where the ordinance was going to be passed. Originally, Azad attempted to stop Bhagat Singh from carrying out the bombing; however, the remainder of the party forced him to succumb to Singh’s wishes. It was decided that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt, another revolutionary, would throw the bomb in the assembly.
On April 8, 1929, Singh and Dutt threw a bomb onto the corridors of the assembly and shouted “Inquilab Zindabad!” (“Long Live the Revolution!”). This was followed by a shower of leaflets stating that it takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear. The bomb neither killed nor injured anyone; Singh and Dutt claimed that this was deliberate on their part, a claim substantiated both by British forensics investigators who found that the bomb was not powerful enough to cause injury, and by the fact that the bomb was thrown away from people. Singh and Dutt gave themselves up for arrest after the bomb. He and Dutt were sentenced to ‘Transportation for Life’ for the bombing on June 12, 1929.
Trial and execution
Front page of The Tribune announcing Bhagat Singh’s execution.
Shortly after his arrest and trial for the Assembly bombing, the British came to know of his involvement in the murder of J. P. Saunders. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev were charged with the murder. Bhagat Singh decided to use the court as a tool to publicize his cause for the independence of India. He admitted to the murder and made statements against the British rule during the trial. The case was ordered to be carried out without members of the HSRA present at the hearing. This created an uproar amongst Singh’s supporters as he could no longer publicise his views.
While in jail, Bhagat Singh and other prisoners launched a hunger strike advocating for the rights of prisoners and those facing trial. The reason for the strike was that British murderers and thieves were treated better than Indian political prisoners, who, by law, were meant to be given better rights. The aims in their strike were to ensure a decent standard of food for political prisoners, the availability of books and a daily newspaper, as well as better clothing and the supply of toilet necessities and other hygienic necessities. He also demanded that political prisoners should not be forced to do any labour or undignified work. During this hunger strike that lasted 63 days and ended with the British succumbing to his wishes, he gained much popularity among the common Indians. Before the strike, his popularity was limited mainly to the Punjab region.
Bhagat Singh also maintained the use of a diary, which he eventually made to fill 404 pages. In this diary, he made numerous notes relating to the quotations and popular sayings of various people whose views he supported. Prominent in his diary were the views of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The comments in his diary led to an understanding of the philosophical thinking of Bhagat Singh. Before dying he also wrote a pamphlet entitled “Why I am an atheist”, as he was being accused of vanity by not accepting God in the face of death.
On March 23, 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged in Lahore with his fellow comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev. His supporters, who had been protesting against the hanging, immediately declared him as a shaheed or martyr. According to the Superintendent of Police at the time, V.N. Smith, the hanging was advanced:
Normally execution took place at 8 am, but it was decided to act at once before the public could become aware of what had happened…At about 7 pm shouts of Inquilab Zindabad were heard from inside the jail. This was correctly, interpreted as a signal that the final curtain was about to drop.
Singh was cremated at Hussainiwala on banks of Sutlej river. Today, the Bhagat Singh Memorial commemorates freedom fighters of India