THE HUNGER STRIKE
Bhagat Singh's declaration of hunger strike to ameliorate the lot of political prisoners, coming as it did in quick succession to the life-sentences in the Assembly Bomb Case, added to the causes that contributed to his influence on the public. There were hunger strikes before, by political prisoners, some of which ended fatally. But, except in the case of the prisoners in the Kakori Conspiracy Case, these hunger strikes were undertaken to redress particular grievances. It was Bhagat Singh's hunger strike which first diverted the attention of the public to the need of the amelioration of the lot of political prisoners as, a class.
Before the sentences had been passed by the Sessions Judge, both Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt had decided up on a hunger strike in order to bring about a change in the so rigours jail life of the political prisoners. He was able to communicate their decision to the Press which geniously came forward to help them by carrying on an agitation in favor of the demand.
Perhaps the average reader has no idea of the hardships that prisoners are subjected to the jail. One fact alone is enough to bring home the seriousness of the suffering. In the Benares Conspiracy Case (1916), of the eleven persons convicted, three died in jail and one turned mad. The writer, who was convicted in that case had an opportunity to see the special orders (of course it was confidential) of the Inspector General of Prisons, in respect of their treatment. As far as he remembers, the wordings were—"To be kept apart day and night from all other prisoners." The implication is simple : as a jail is inhabited by prisoners, a political prisoner has to suffer solitary confinement for the whole of his term of imprisonment. For a social man, no other sentence is more horrible.
In a Bengali book recently published, named, "Ten years in the Andamans," the writer who was convicted in the famous Barisal Conspiracy Case, has narrated many horrors to which political prisoners were subjected in the Andamans. Bhagat Singh was well conversant with these details. For himself he had not the slightest apprehension. To what ever Indian jail he might be transferred, he was sure to receive special and considerate treatment. Moreover, by this time he had learnt of the tidings of the forth-coming conspiracy case, and he also knew from certain identification parades that the prosecution wanted to lay the Saunder's murder at his door. Hence he had absolutely no personal advantages to hope for from a successful hunger strike. But he really felt very greatly for those workers in the same field who were pining away their days in British Prisons.
For two days after their conviction Dutt and Singh- were kept together in the Delhi Jail, after which the former was transferred to Lahore Central Jail' while Bhagat Singh was sent to the dreary jail at Meanwali. While at Delhi both were receiving European class treatment. Before they had quitted the Delhi Jail, they launched into that other struggle which attracted the attention of the Indian public for the next four months.
In his demands for the better treatment of political prisoners, Bhagat Singh purposely kept his pitch low. He put forth what may be regarded as the minimum demands with an eye to the possibility of their fulfillment. In entering into the struggle, therefore, his purpose was a practical one, namely, to achieve something concrete for the unfortunate political prisoners and not to enter into an idealistic fight for an idealistic cause. Bhagat Singh demanded that all persons who are convicted of offences that are actuated by political motives, and not for any personal gain or object, should be regarded as political prisoners who should be allowed facilities for study, newspaper, better diet, and association of all political prisoners with each other. It was only later, after the immortal Jatindra Nath Das had entered into the arena that the fight began to assume the latter aspect, and the more the hunger strike with its attendant misery and agony prolonged, the more idealism began to enter into the fight.
The authorities had no idea of the stuff that they had to deal with. They thought that the pangs of hunger would be sufficient to induce Bhagat Singh to discontinue it. But the hunger strike went on unabated. Full one month after the declaration of hunger strike, the Punjab Government began to move in this matter. By this time the trial in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had commenced and the undertrials threw in their weight with Bhagat Singh and Dutt by declaring a sympathetic hunger strike on 13th July, 1929.
The story of the hunger strike of the undertrials in the Lahore Conspiracy Case is a subject on which a separate volume can be, and ought to be written. In a short time the attention of the whole country was drawn to the heroic struggle of the Lahore hunger-strikers . Before the forces of public opinion and the gallant hunger-strike, even the Punjab Government began to yield gradually. On, 14th of July, on the very day that Sardar Bhagat Singh sent a special application to the Home Member to the Government of India, the Punjab Government came out with their first communique, allowing some facilities in the diet for the undertrials in the Lahore Conspiracy Case on medical grounds. Of course, this was nothing. Soon after, a second Government communique was published, deleting the words 'on medical grounds' from their first communique, and extending the facility to Bhagat Singh and Dutt, the two convicted undertrials.
On 28th July, when Jatin Das's condition became serious, Bhagat Singh sent a special message through a prominent Congressman that the undertrials in the Borstal Jail might suspend the hunger strike, leaving the battle to Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar alone. This shows his self-sacrificing mentality.
The condition of Jatin Das had gone still worse. He refused even to take enema. His whole system had become poisoned, and he could not even open eyes. The well wishers of the hunger strikers, prominent Congressmen and members of the Lahore Conspiracy Case Defense Committee emplored and entreated, but Das remained adamant to his purpose.' A message was sent to the Governor of the Punjab that if Das paid any heed to anybody, that was to Bhagat Singh's words, and Bhagat Singh might he persuaded to plead with Jatin for allowing enema to be given. The Governor atonce permitted that Bhagat Singh might be brought over from the Central Jail to the Borstal Jail so that he might try to persuade Das. Bhagat Singh's immense influence was atonce demonstrated when Jatin yielded to the. former's entreaties, and agreed to take enema. The doctor's report was that this enema prolonged Das's life by at least, a fortnight. The jail authorities, who had left no stone unturned to achieve this very object, were astonished. The Deputy Superintendent of the Borstal Jail, Khan Sahib Khair Din, asked of Jatin in wonder as to why he so easily consented to the very same proposal of Bhagat Singh, to which he had turned a deaf ear when it came from the jail people. Jatin gravely replied—"Khan Sahib,. you do not know; Bhagat Singh is a brave man I can not dishonor his words."'
On a similar occasion, when the results of the Punjab Jail Enquiry Committee were within sight, it was Bhagat Singh who was able to persuade Das to take medicine so that he might linger on till he had opportunity to examine the results of the Punjab Jail Enquiry Committee. With disjointed words which were hardly audible, he said to Sardarji,—"Bhagat Singh, though I feel and I am convinced that I ought not to swerve from my vow, yet I can not but accede to your request. Please do not ask anything more from me again !"
When the hunger strikers were about to suspend their hunger strike, Bhagat Singh insisted that the first condition would be for the Government to release Das unconditionally. All the members of the Jail Enquiry Committee unanimously agreed to this. But the Government did not release Das and consequently Bhagat Singh, Dutt and four others again went on hunger strike. But their prolonged misery had no effect and meanwhile Das died.
As Bhagat Singh and others thought that what had been promised by the Punjab Jail Enquiry Committee would be sufficient for the first fight, the hunger strike was unanimously suspended.
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