Sukhdev: A martyr or not?
Bhagat Singh and his associates, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were hanged this day in 1931. But there was a suspicion that Sukhdev had betrayed his colleagues. In the light of the correspondence between Hansraj Vohra, whose testimony led to the hanging, and Mathurdas Thapar, Sukhdev's brother, noted journalist KULDIP NAYAR examines the case.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
The memorial to the three martyrs ... suspicion cannot change the facts.
A YOUNG man, who later became India's top journalist, sent Bhagat Singh, a household name, to the gallows on March 23 in 1931. Hansraj Vohra, worked as a special correspondent of The Statesman, The Times of India and the Deccan Herald in that order. He was a droopy figure, probably always conscious that he had betrayed his comrades, the revolutionaries. Before he died in Washington on September 13, 1985, he wrote a letter to Mathuradas Thapar, brother of Sukhdev, who was hanged along with Bhagat Singh, to explain why he turned an approver.
Vohra's testimony was clinching in the Lahore conspiracy case where Bhagat Singh was sentenced to death for having "murdered" a British Police officer, Saunders.
The letter tells Vohra's side of story. His allegation is that Sukhdev voluntarily divulged every secret of the Hindustan Socialist Republic party. During Vohra's lifetime, Thapar replied to the letter, contradicting every point made against Sukhdev.
Vohra says: "To this day, I do not know what precisely went through his (Sukhdev's) mind that he burst like a Diwali balloon within hours of being arrested. I am absolutely sure that the police did not use any highhanded methods. If anything, the investigators were very respectful and kind. Having thus mentally evacuated himself, I guess, he was at peace. But his overflowing knowledge about the party, which he freely cast away, created problems for others. Mine has remained my companion throughout my life."
Vohra says: "My life is stunted and stained and there is nothing I can do to wash away the horrible marks so deeply etched in history. I gave up the resistance to the investigating police for the following reasons: (a) My guru (Sukhdev), I felt, had let me down together with the rest of the party. My portion of the story was relatively small and inconsequential as compared with what had been given away.
"I was consumed by helplessness and although it is easy to say that I would have received a light punishment, I could not risk going down with the people I no longer respected. Secondly, it would have meant a total disruption of my life as I was in my final year of education. So I tried very deftly, without doing the least possible additional harm to the party, to extricate myself so that I could pick up the remaining pieces as best I could."
"It has been a most difficult life, full of risks, but so far, touchwood, I have emerged virtually unscathed at least physically. But the memory of the 1920s accompanies me doggedly, teasingly, hauntingly, painingly. I have adopted a semi-public career as a journalist. I had to steer through the 44 years of a writing career like a fish in murky waters, seeking professional success while avoiding public recognition. It is amazing and extremely satisfying that, despite unavoidable handicaps, I have achieved the utmost professional success in my line of journalism."
Vohra concludes his letter with the words: "You have every reason to treat him (Sukhdev) as a hero. He was your brother. I have written this letter about my experience of the case much against my wishes."
Thapar took nearly five months to reply to Vohra's letter. It was a long 14-page reply typed in single space. He summarised Vohra's reply: "Your grudge", as he put it into four points: "(1) That after your third and the last arrest in May 1929, you were shown about a hundred-page statement (alleged to have been made) by Sukhdev; (2) that Sukhdev being an important leader, let you and others down, and destroyed the party which he so much harboured to create; (3) that eight or 10 senior members of the party had become King's witnesses; and (4) you wondered that, having made the statement, why Sukhdev did not take advantage unto himself."
Thapar argued that the statement "which was shown to you was concocted by the police". He contradicted Vohra's allegation that the Punjab police did not use any high-handed methods against Sukhdev. Thapar said: "that the police had resorted to third degree methods in trying to break him and bend him. But his spirits remained undaunted and firm in resolve, though his body bore marks of cruelty".
"Now, what actually happened was that Jai Gopal's statement must have upset Sukhdev. As soon as he came to know of it, he told the investigating police that instead of demanding from Jai Gopal, they should better ask him for details, he being in the know of every thing as an important leader. In assuming this posture, which caused much misunderstanding in the minds of his associates, Sukhdev's purpose was to, somehow take the police into confidence and gain their favour so that he could get access to Jai Gopal in order to strangle him to death. This was what Sukhdev confessed to some of us of the family when we met him while he was in the custody of Aziz Ahmad, who was Incharge of the Conspiracy Case, and Sardar Gopa Singh, Deputy Superintendent."
Thapar alleged that Yashpal, the Hindi writer, was a police informer. "He used to gather all information from Jai Gopal and then pass it on to the police. Though now dead a few years, he is fondly remembered by his admirers as a great revolutionary and a Hindi writer of no mean significance." What an irony!
In his reply dated October 9,1982, Vohra said: "I cannot for the life of me agree that Sukhdev's actions after arrest were guided by the motive you have attributed. It is too fantastic to be credible. Nor can I accept the thesis that his long statement was a police concoction. That is at variance with his effort to guide the police to some of the party's hideouts even if he did not show all of them. Nor did I find any substance in your assumption of torture by the police who used the more powerful weapon of politeness, respect and indulgence." Vohra concluded the correspondence by saying: "The best thing we can do is to agree amiably to disagree or that we can meet in a friendly way when I visit India in December." He never returned to his country.
Thapar too closed the correspondence by writing on November 19,1982: "Yes, there seems to be cleavage in our views which, as you say, cannot be closed. Hence it would be proper if we do no more talking on this affair."
"How to check Vohra's version?" This was my dilemma when I was writing my book, The Martyr: Bhagat Singh's Experiments in Revolution. Thapar could not say anything beyond what the letter said when I sought more information from him. He died before I could meet him. He did not publicise Vohra's letter as if he did not believe him. But Thapar was fair: he sent Vohra's letter to his family members in New Delhi.
One person, Durga Devi, widow of Bhagwati Charan, Bhagat Singh's close associate, should have known the truth. I checked with her. She was living in Ghaziabad with her son Sachin when I met her. She suffered from frequent memory lapses. But she recalled Vohra whom she dismissed as "a small functionary in the party". Regarding Vohra's allegation, she said: "We suspected Sukhdev all along."
Still suspicion cannot change the facts. Sukhdev was hanged along with Bhagat Singh and Rajguru. There is no evidence that he faltered during the trial or later. He was as defiant as he was in school when he was caned because he had refused to salute visiting white military officers. If he was the person who divulged everything to the police, why was he not pardoned in place of Vohra? Sukhdev had far more knowledge than Vohra. The difference between Sukhdev and Vohra is underlined by people's response. The ashes of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and their third comrade, Rajguru were consigned to a shrine near Ferozepur where thousands of people flock to pay their homage even today. The crematorium where Vohra's body was put to fire is not even known. Sukhdev is a hero.
Kuldip Nayar is a veteran journalist, writer and human rights activist. He has been India's Commissioner to U.K. and is now a Rajya Sabha M.P.
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