Young Martyrs
S. Irfan Habib
HANGED FOR THEIR PATRIOTISM by R.K. Tandon National Book Trust, 2009, 104 pp., 65
November 2009, volume 33, No 11

This slim book has been brought out by NBT under its Nehru Bal Pustakalaya series and is a useful addition to literature for the young. Though it is not for the first time that a subject like this has been taken up by a publishing house, it is significant and different from others in its treatment of the subject. As the title suggests, it talks about those revolutionary freedom fighters that were hanged by the British for their audacity to challenge the colonial government. The implication seems to be that the likes of Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, and Shiv Verma do not find a place, as they were not hanged by the British but were either killed or escaped alive to continue their struggle in independent India. Surely, the author does not mean to undermine the contributions of those left out; however it conveys a sense of incompleteness in accounting the role of the revolutionary nationalists in India’s struggle for independence.

Predictably, the book begins with Bhagat Singh, the most celebrated martyrs of our freedom struggle and goes next to his fellow martyrs Sukhdev and Rajguru. While there is much of significance about Bhagat Singh and his contribution as a political thinker, besides being a martyr, which can be conveyed to the young readers, there is precious little you can write about Sukhdev and much less about Rajguru. They were key players in the revolutionary struggle and its actions, yet it is difficult to build a story about them individually besides the biographical account and their commitment to the cause of India’s independence. Sukhdev surely participated intellectually as well, which is evident in his letters written from prison to Bhagat Singh and even to Mahatma Gandhi. The book has interestingly reproduced the letter to the Mahatma, where Sukhdev expresses his disagreements with Gandhian methods and tries to explain the revolutionary tactics. However, it does not refer to the exchanges between Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh, particularly where they talk about the communist movement and also explain their own role in the propagation of Marxism in India.

Next, the book deals with four of the Kakori martyrs like Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Rajendra Lahiri and Roshan Singh. Bismil and Ashfaqullah were friends from Shahjahanpur town of Uttar Pradesh. Both of them, the book says, were deeply religious men and thus their friendship is a shining example of communal harmony, particularly in the current political context, tainted with divisive politics. Bismil and Ashfaqullah were also poets, who have left behind some inspiring and sensitive poetry in Urdu. The chapter on Ashfaqullah could have referred to his letters written from jail, particularly his open letter to his countrymen, just three days before his execution. Ashfaq expressed his anguish at the political developments and communal mobilization. While dealing with this aspect in the chapter on Ashfaqullah, the author says that Ashfaq ‘composed and recited shers’, which I feel is no good way or at least not a literary style to refer to a poet and his vocation. It further goes on to say that ‘the proprietor of the firm in which Ashfaq worked was very fond of shers’ and not that he was fond of Urdu poetry. In an otherwise lucid text, this avoidable lapse is a bit of an eyesore.

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