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Above: Detail from what is reputed to be the final photograph of Bhagat Singh, taken in the Lahore Jail. Courtesy, The Hindustan Times.


Bhagat Singh's Final Hours




Even eight decades after he was hanged by the British during the Raj, Bhagat Singh remains the most iconic - and beloved  -  martyr in the collective  consciousness  of India. What has, however, remained fuzzy all these years, is the exact sequence of events and the identity of officials involved in the defining execution in Lahore central jail on March 23, 1931.

The British government had kept its officers' names under wraps fearing retribution. There had been two assassination bids - on the then Punjab Governor Geoffrey Montmorency and Superintendent of Police Khan Bahadur Sheikh Abdul Aziz, the investigating officer against Bhagat Singh, in the month before the hanging.

Last week, Bhagat Singh would have turned 104. This article, based on information gleaned from hitherto inaccessible records in India and Pakistan, pieces together a stirring account of Bhagat Singh's final moments.

The meeting to discuss the law and order situation in Punjab was held at noon on March 16, 1931 at the Governor's House in Lahore. It was presided over by Punjab Governor Geoffrey Montmorency, still in pain from the bullet wounds he suffered after being shot by freedom fighter Hari Kishan Talwar at the convocation at Punjab University in Lahore a month earlier.

Apart from the Governor, the then Chief Secretary of Punjab, D.J. Boyd, Home Secretary C.M.G. Ogilvie, Inspector General of Police Charies Stead, Inspector General of Prisons F.A. Barker, Deputy Commissioner of Lahore A.A. Lane Roberts and Senior Superintendent of Police G.T.H. Hamilton Hardinge - were among those who attended the meeting.

The meeting digressed into preparations for the impending proposed executions of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev fixed for the morning of March 24. The governor reviewed the arrangements and expressed satisfaction at the law and order situation in the state.

Defiant till the end
A dust storm swept Lahore on the night of March 22. Justice M.V. Bhide, ICS, of the Lahore High Court, had earlier rejected the petitions challenging the powers of a special tribunal to issue the death warrants. Thus, the executions became inevitable.

By the time dawn broke on March 23, the storm had settled. Jail officials in the central jail spoke in hushed tones in the room of jail superintendent Major P.D. Chopra. The Punjab government allowed the last meeting with Bhagat Singh at 10 am. Pran Nath Mehta, his lawyer, met him. The moment Mehta left, after receiving four handwritten bunches of papers surreptitiously from Bhagat Singh, a team of officers led by Stead, Barker, Roberts, Hardinge and Chopra met Bhagat Singh. Their unsolicited advice to seek a pardon from the British government was contemptuously rejected by Bhagat Singh.

The executions had been advanced by a day and were to take place in the evening of March 23.

The information to Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev was conveyed by senior jail warden Chhattar Singh who appeared disturbed and grief-stricken.

Moment of Reckoning
Bhagat Singh had asked a Muslim sweeper, Bebe, to bring food for him in the evening before his execution. Bebe readily accepted the request and promised to bring home-cooked food for him. But because of the security clampdown, Bebe was unable to enter the jail that evening.

There was a flurry of activity inside the Lahore jail and outside because authorities feared unrest.

As noon passed and the clock inched towards evening, the district civil and police officers camped outside the jail. They were led by Sheikh Abdul Hamid, Additional District Magistrate, Lahore; Rai Sahib Lala Nathu Ram, City Magistrate; Sudarshan Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Kasur; Amar Singh, Deputy Superintendent of Police (City), Lahore; J.R. Morris, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Headquarters, Lahore; and hundreds of armed policemen.

With the shooting of the Governor fresh in their minds, the officers and policemen were anxious about their own security. The investigating officer in the case, Khan Bahadur Sheikh Abdul Aziz, Superintendent of Police, Special Investigation, had been shot and injured a few days earlier but had survived.

Stead, Barker, Roberts, Hardinge, Chopra and Deputy Jail Superintendent Khan Sahib Mohammad Akbar were present inside the jail. The hangman, called Massih from Shahadra, near Lahore, was also ready. The moment the three revolutionaries were taken out of their cells, they shouted "Inquilab Zindabad" (long live the revolution).

Pindi Dass Sodhi, secretary, district Congress, Lahore lived near the central jail. The slogans were clearly heard at his house. After hearing the shouts of the three men walking to their deaths, the other prisoners joined them in the sloganeering.

Nothing to Mask
Deputy commissioner A.A. Lane Roberts was a loquacious officer of the 1909 batch of the Indian Civil Service ("ICS"). When the three young men reached the hanging site, he spoke to Bhagat Singh who confidently said that people would soon see and remember how Indian freedom fighters bravely kiss death.

They refused to wear masks over their necks. In fact, Bhagat Singh threw the mask at the district magistrate. Bhagat Singh and his companions hugged each other for the last time, and shouted "Down with the British Empire!"

Massih pulled the lever. Bhagat Singh was the first to hang. He was followed by Rajguru and Sukhdev.

Lt. Col. J.J. Harper Nelson, principal of King Edward's Medical College, Lahore and Lt. Col. N.S. Sodhi, civil surgeon, Lahore, were inside the jail at the time of the executions but did not witness the hangings. After the hangings, the three were confirmed dead by the civil surgeon.

A huge crowd had gathered outside the jail, but two vehicles led by deputy superintendent of police, Kasur Sudarshan Singh, and deputy superintendent of police (city) Amar Singh accompanied by three trucks of soldiers of the Black Watch Regiment took the bodies and left for the cremation at 10 pm. Sudarshan picked up a granthi for Bhagat Singh's last rites, and a Hindu priest named Jagdish Acharaj from Kasur for the other two, and set the bodies on fire outside Ganda Singh Wala village, in the night.

The bodies were still burning when people from different areas, including Ferozepur, reached there and a ruckus followed.

The final remains were later thrown into River Sutlej.


The author is an Indian Administrative Services ("I.A.S.") offcer based in Punjab.

[Courtesy: Hindustan Times]

October 11, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 11, 2011, 8:33 AM.

To die for justice and basic freedoms of others is the ultimate sacrifice a human can make. This whole period under the British was one riddled with tyranny and oppression. The Freedom Fighters' of India - who were mostly Sikh ! - could never have envisaged that their sacrifices, though resulting in independence from the British, would end up with another set of oppressors and boors. The result is more tyranny, discrimination, less freedom and more violence for the land, than ever before. Fighting for freedom without real leadership is futile.

2: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), October 11, 2011, 10:11 AM.

Bhagat Singh! Who was Bhagat Singh? All these so called freedom fighters like Udham Singh, Bhagat Singh, Azad, Rajguru, Sukdev, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Jatin Das, Gaddar party members and going back in history - Sikh Gurus, Bhai Mani Singh, Bhai Taru, Banda Singh Bahadur, Baba Deep Singh, they have no place in India's history. Sukha and Jinda and Sant Bhindranwale who were freedom fighters too, also have no place in history. The real and only hero of India's struggle was dear old Gandhi ji. Without Gandhi ji India would have been nothing. Gandhi ji is the one and only martyr of India's freedom struggle. Please stop publishing articles about others. We have already made sure our history books highlight only Gandhi ji. Gandhiji may have been weak, a coward, a sexual pervert, and racist (see his articles in Africa about blacks, for example), but he was our one and only hero. (For those who did not get my message, yes, the sarcasm was intended).

3: Sangata Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 11, 2011, 11:06 AM.

Bhai Randhir Singh ji's account in his famous book "Jail Chitthiaa(n)" would be the most reliable source of the closing days when Bhagat Singh was in the condemned cell in Lahore Central Jail on 4th October, 1930 and had confessed to Bhai Randhir Singh ji that he had shorn his hair under pressing circumstances, and was now ashamed. His last wish was to take Amrit before being hanged. However this last request was not granted by the British - they would not allow it The picture of this famous meeting tells all with his joorra and nascent beard to reconfirm his desire to take Amrit.

4: Satinder Singh (New Jersey, U.S.A.), October 11, 2011, 1:47 PM.

Bhagat Singh and those that Kanwarjeet Singh names in his comments were a different class of Sikhs than what we see today in Punjab (Badal, etc). Bhagat Singh was a Sikh whose story I am proud to tell my kids about. Badal is a horror story to tell your kids about. It is a shame what so many Punjabis have turned into ... minions of greed and corruption.

5: N. Singh (Canada), October 11, 2011, 2:55 PM.

And all this for what? A land where Sikhs are executed randomly and their basic rights denied. As history repeats itself and the likes of Prof. Devinderpal Singh Bhullar sit on death row, my only lament is that we have still not learnt the lesson from 1947 and 1984 ... that the Indians will never be our blood brothers and no amount of sacrifice or shedding of Sikh blood will get them to turn honest and fair partners.

6: Dr. H. K. Virik  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), October 11, 2011, 9:03 PM.

I knew Col. N.S. Sodhi as I traveled on the same ship with them and their only daughter Vidya and her family back to India from Rangoon. He was retiring from his post of Surgeon General of Burma. He was always very quiet and I now feel very affected by it all. They would not allow me to stay with my friends in Calcutta for a couple of days before going to Lahore and insisted I went with them as they felt it would worry them thinking of me going alone on the train! I remember the incident! I was only 16 years old. Appreciated their concern but at the same time felt it cut into my independence! Perhaps that's why I remember it all so clearly. Maa ji never called on them, in fact when asked by me to thank them she refused point blank! They never asked, I think I never saw any Sikhs visit them, but Auntie Vidya was so regular in her morning and evening paatth. This was September 1938. How the past comes back to haunt one!

7: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 12, 2011, 5:38 AM.

Martyrs - the likes of Bhagat Singh - made the ultimate sacrifice (in the context of their times) so that you and I could live in freedom and democracy with dignity. It is incumbent on our generation to make necessary sacrifices and efforts to ensure that our coming generations live in freedom and democracy with dignity (rather than merely lament about who is bad to us or who is good). Therefore the question I always ask myself is: "Are we doing the right thing, making the right choices?" - so that our coming generations can be better off in each and every way ... Are we?

8: Roopinder Singh Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 12, 2011, 9:35 PM.

There were over 1,200 martyrs from the Sikh Community for Indian independence. My great-grandfather's younger brother was one of those charged under the 5th Lahore conspiracy (Bhai Randhir Singh was charged under the 2nd Lahore conspiracy). Their sacrifices have never been properly or fully recognized.

9: Satpal Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 13, 2011, 4:50 AM.

Bhagat Singh was a revolutionary, a fervent believer in the Marxist theory of violent overthrow. Sikhi came into his life later, before his death, and now he is eternal.

10: Mandhir Singh Johal (Fremont, California, U.S.A.), October 15, 2011, 9:53 AM.

Sikhs have an outstanding record in their sacrifices in achieving freedom from the British. The most important problem facing us today is that nobody is thinking about the present situation we are in. Are we learning how to manage our gurdwaras?

11: Varun Tiwari (Indore, MP, India), August 14, 2012, 9:15 AM.

He is the real hero of our India, of our freedom. He was a great son of our nation, nobody else like him ...

12: Jayaram (Mangalore, India), February 03, 2013, 11:26 AM.

Bhagat Singh was a truly great man. He was a divinely inspired person. Whatever may be the amount of praise that we heap upon him, it will always be less. I humbly call upon all to always have a sense of deep respect for this illustrious son of Punjab who helped liberate India. Sardar Bhagat Singh ... Amar Rahey!

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