How Bhagat Singh gave us the term Political Prisoner
But the Indian government too did not accord Singh the status of political prisoner
On 8 April 1929, Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt were arrested after throwing bombs in New Delhi’s Central Assembly, the Parliament of today. Both were convicted after a superfast trial on 12 June 1929 and ‘transported for life’ under Section 307 of the IPC and under the Explosives Act.
These two months and four days included a magisterial trial and then the committing to a sessions judge. The Delhi sessions judge started the trial in the first week of June 1929. On 6 June, Singh made a historic statement before the court, which is now part of the treasured list of world political documents.
Asaf Ali represented Dutt. Singh fought his own case with the help of a legal adviser. Soon, Judge Leonard Middleton convicted them. Their appeal in the Punjab High Court at Lahore was dismissed by a two-judge bench on 13 January 1930 though the court acknowledged Singh to be ‘a sincere revolutionary’.
Up to 14 June 1929, Singh and Dutt were treated well in a Delhi jail and were given the facilities of reading and a good diet. However, after their conviction, they were transferred to Mianwali and Lahore jails of Punjab as ordinary criminal convicts and their facilities were withdrawn.
This gave Singh an opportunity to plan a prolonged non-violent but radical political struggle from inside the jail to protect the dignity of ‘Political Prisoners’.
The issue did not draw the serious attention of the Congress party even though thousands of its workers were courting arrest off and on as political workers and faced harsh conditions in jails. The Congress overlooked this because its big leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, etc., were always treated with special privileges inside jail.
Singh and Dutt decided to start an indefinite hunger strike from the first day of their arrival in the jails of Punjab, when they were not shown the courtesy of being ‘political prisoners’. Singh even protested against Dutt and he being separated, because the Lahore conspiracy case, dealing with the murder of JP Saunders, was to begin shortly, in which he was the principal accused.
He wrote to the IG Prisons, Punjab, about this transfer on 17 June 1929. On the same day, he also informed the IG he was on hunger strike for certain demands, the most important being that he should be treated as a ‘Political Prisoner’.
On 18 June 1929, the Superintendent of the Mianwali jail sought clarifications from Singh on his letter to the IG. Singh replied the next day. Later when Singh was also sent to Lahore jail, Dutt and he sent a joint letter to the Home Member of the Indian government. The three letters have historic significance in the context of their struggle for the rights of political prisoners in jail.
The letters are reproduced at the end of this article.
After a few days, Singh was transferred to Lahore jail, but their hunger strike remained unknown to their own comrades since they were lodged in different jails. On 10 July 1929, when the 16 arrested out of the 25 accused appeared before the magistrate, they were shocked to see Singh being brought to court on a stretcher. His condition was bad.
From 10 July, the other accused in the case joined the hunger strike. This is one of the most significant hunger strikes of a political nature the world has ever seen.
The British colonial regime tried its best to break the strike, by oppressive and deceitful means. The Congress party got involved after 10 July because media reports on the protestors and their hunger strike began coming. Singh and company were becoming popular among the Indian people every day.
A jail inquiry committee and a jail reform committee were formed. At one point, British officials accepted they would implement some recommendations and the Congress party assured the revolutionaries that their demand would be met.
On this assurance, all the revolutionaries except Jatin Das suspended their hunger strike on 2 September 1929. Das’s condition was now irreversible and he did not want to let the British regime escape the responsibility of his death inside jail.
Singh resumed his hunger strike after two days as the British refused to release Das unconditionally, even though they knew he could die. Das died on 13 September 1929, after 63 days of hunger strike. Jinnah made a speech in the Central Assembly in support of the striking revolutionaries. He spoke on 12 and 14 September 1929, a day before and a day after the martyrdom of Das, because his speech could not be completed in a day.
Singh continued his hunger strike till 4 October, making a record for those days of 112 days fast in jail. The British officials yielded a bit, but for agreed demands Singh had to observe another 15-day hunger strike in February 1930. In July-August 1930, Singh stopped eating again, this time against jail rules. He informed the Special Tribunal in Lahore, whose proceedings he boycotted throughout the trial, and also the Punjab High court, where he filed a petition against the denial of interviews by jail authorities.
Singh’s third hunger strike in July-August 1930 was not known until recently when a few of his letters were displayed by the Supreme Court in an exhibition in September 2007.
Though Singh and his comrades fought valiantly inside jail to secure rights for ‘Political Prisoners’ as special category, they were not given this status.
Even the Indian government did not accord this status, though transfer of power took place in 1947.
The three letters written by Singh and Dutt, and one by the Superintendent of the Mianwali jail to Singh, make interesting reading. They are also relevant today in the context of hundreds of people from different walks of life getting imprisoned for political reasons, like agitating against forced land acquisition by the state or Narmada Bachao Andolan-like agitations.
Here are the letters. The grammar has been retained as was written.
The Inspector General
Punjab Jails, Lahore
Through Superintendent, District Jail, Mianwali
I have been sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with the Assembly Bomb Case, Delhi, and am obviously a political prisoner. We got special diet in the Delhi Jail but since my arrival here, I am being treated as an ordinary criminal. Therefore, I have gone on hunger strike since the morning of 15 June 1929. My weight has decreased by 6 lbs. than my weight at Delhi Jail in these two or three days. I wish to bring to your kind attention that I must get special treatment as a Political Prisoner.
My demands being
1. Special diet (Including milk and ghee, rice and curd, etc.)
2. No forcible labour
3. Toilet (soap, oil, shaving, etc.)
4. Literature of all kinds (History, Economics, Political Science, Science, Poetry, drama or fiction, newspapers) I hope you will very kindly consider what I have said and decide favourably.
17th June 1929 Yours
Sd./ Bhagat Singh
Life Prisoner, Mianwali Jail
Mr. Bhagat Singh, Transportation Prisoner
Ref. Your petition dated 17.6.1929 regarding your treatment as a Political Prisoner
1. There is no Class of ‘Political Prisoner’ as such. You could be treated as a State Prisoner or as a Special Class prisoner. What class do you think you are entitled to?
2. What privileges did you enjoy at Delhi Jail? Were such privileges given during your undertrial period or after conviction?
3. What do you mean by forcible labour?
4. Did you make any request for special treatment to the committing Court and if so, what order was passed on the same?
5. You ought to realise that refusal to take food is an offence under jail regulations and as such is in itself a ground for rejection of your petition. I should advise you to respect the law and then make any reasonable request you choose.
Please reply overleaf and return.
Superintendent District Jail
District Jail, Mianwali
With reference to the inquiries you have made as regards my application, I would like to say:-
1. I am a political prisoner. I do not know what privileges the Special Class prisoners enjoy. As a right I would like to say that we ought to be treated as State prisoners. But the very term ‘State-Prisoner’ might seem to be too much. Hence I say I must be treated specially, meaning I must get special diet, as I used to get at Delhi jail, both as an undertrial and for two days after my conviction. Along with that, I want freedom to study literature. Because we are convicted for our ideas, and are generally called ‘misguided’ or so. Hence we must get a chance to study and form sober opinions, and views. Anyway, books on subjects like History and Economics, we must be allowed to get without restrictions as they are allowed to Special Class prisoners.
2. In Delhi Jail we got special diet and literature both as undertrial and after conviction.
3. Forcible labour means that we political prisoners must not be forced to do labour as a part of punishment. We might do the labour at our will
4. I did not feel the necessity of asking the judge for special rights or privileges, as we already enjoyed there.
5. Well, as regards your fifth question, I would simply like to request that I am asking for rights which we as political prisoners, are entitled to. Any law that will violate our rights cannot be supposed to be respected by us. I do not want to begin any quarrel without reason. I think I have made the most reasonable demands. And if my behaviour so far, which I think is most reasonable, indicates that I have trespassed any law, then I am sorry to say, I cannot help and I am prepared for any hardships I may have to bear for the same.
I request you to kindly consider what I have said without bearing any sort of prejudice in mind, and do the needful.
Lahore, Through Superintendent
Prisoner no. 1119
Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt’s letter to the Home Member, Government of India, 24 June 1929
We, Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt, were sentenced to life transportation in the Assembly Bomb Case, Delhi. As long as we were undertrial prisoners in Delhi Jail, we were accorded very good treatment from that jail to the Mianwali and Lahore Central Jails respectively. We wrote an application to the higher authorities asking for better diet and a few other facilities, and refused to take the jail diet.
Our demands were as follows:
We, as political prisoners, should be given better diet and the standard of our diet should at least be the same as that of European prisoners. (It is not the sameness of dietary that we demand, but the sameness of standard of diet.)
We shall not be forced to do any hard and undignified labours at all.
All books, other than those proscribed, along with writing materials, should be allowed to us without any restriction.
At least one standard daily paper should be supplied to every political prisoner.
Political prisoners should have a special ward of their own in every jail, provided with all necessities as those of the Europeans. And all the political prisoners in one jail must be kept together in that ward.
Toilet necessities should be supplied.
We have explained above the demands that we made. They are the most reasonable demands. The jail authorities told us one day that the higher authorities have refused to comply with our demands. Apart from that, they handle us roughly while feeding us artificially, and Singh was lying quite senseless on 10 July, 1929 for about 15 minutes after the forcible feeding, which we request to be stopped without any further delay.
In addition, we may be permitted to refer to the recommendations made in the UP Jail Committee by Pt. Jagat Narain and KB Hafiz Hidayat Hussain. They have recommended the political prisoners to be treated as ‘Better Class Prisoners’.
We request you to kindly consider our demands at your earliest convenience.
By ‘Political Prisoners’, we mean all those people who are convicted for offences against the State, for instance the people who were convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy Cases, 1915-17, the Kakori Conspiracy Cases and Sedition Cases in general.
B K Dutt
Chaman Lal is Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Education, University of West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago