‘The harm that good men do’, was an essay by Bertrand Russell that I never finished reading but was a heading I often thought about whenever I heard the name Gandhi being discussed… I had often witnessed disparate schools of thought converging on the notion that Gandhi the man, as well as Gandhi the idea, had often done more harm than good to the cause of this nation’s freedom, from both communalism and colonialism. Many years ago, on this very day, the 4th of February, near the town of Gorakhpur, there once lay 22 charred bodies and a few blackened bayonets. And amidst the rubble and ruins of that day, there also lay the smoking ruins of a nation’s aspirations. The year was 1922 and the place – a little known police station in a town called Chauri Chaura.
At Chauri Chaura that day, a non-violent protest march, part of a nation-wide Non-Cooperation movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, turned violent when policemen opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing three of them. The angry mob went on the rampage and burnt down the police-chowki. Twenty-two policemen, too, were burnt alive inside the police station. Gandhi felt he had been betrayed, perhaps even shamed by his followers. For him, violence was not an option. His followers had committed themselves to ahimsa. And yet, they had weakened and given in to their impulses, thus jeopardising the movement around the country. He wanted to disown the action of the protestors at Chauri Chaura and therefore he denounced them and withdrew a movement that had galvanised a nation. photo-op
The protestors too felt betrayed. Not only were they being hunted down, but their leader had, in effect, given them up, holding them accountable for not just the death of the policemen but also the withdrawal of the movement.
But the sense of betrayal was greatest amongst the masses that had burnt their bridges and committed themselves to the Non-Cooperation movement. Men, women and even little children had been carried away by the wave of nationalism only to be left stranded. That day in Chauri Chaura cleaved a deep divide between the methods and mission of a betrayed Mahatma and that of those who felt betrayed by the Mahatma. Amongst the latter were two little children in Punjab whose meteoric lives streaked across our national consciousness, in a blaze of glory that many say rivals the aura of even a Gandhi. One of them, a lad called Bhagat Singh lived a well documented life, but the other, a certain Sukhdev Thapar, has been reduced to a foot note.
Bhagat and Sukhdev met each other while in college in Lahore and became the best of friends. And from the day they met they matched each other step for step, all the way to the gallows and that is a well documented story. But what after that? What happens after a freedom fighter has made the supreme sacrifice? Well, there were many who actually didn’t have to die. They managed just fine with a series of protest marches, lectures and mild-mannered discussions around a few tables. The situation required consistent and delicate handling, but in return, the British bureaucracy and our democracy allowed them, and many of their descendents, the right to define our past, present and future. But what of those who did go all the way? In order to find out, I went in search of Bharat Bhushan Thapar, paternal nephew of the great Sukhdev. It wasn’t a pretty picture...
Sukhdev’s family had always supported his cause. His father Ram Lal Thapar ran a successful business and “ …on occasions, Sukhdevji would come and take the day’s earnings because the party (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association) needed funds. His father and brothers of course were all happy to support him as much as possible,” recounted Bharat Bhushan.
But soon their world was to come crashing down on the Thapars. Sukhdev was hanged and his father was arrested and deported. “Neighbours, not wanting to be seen around the family of a revolutionary, avoided us like the plague. After numerous raids, the family business collapsed. We were on the verge of destitution. We’ve seen terrible times, and no one did a thing to help...” said Bharat. Freedom had demanded far more than death from Sukhdev Thapar.
The Thapars saw terrible times, and it didn’t matter if the nation was being run by those who Sukhdev fought against, or those who he fought alongside. The apathy of free India was as painful as the persecution of the British India. It is said that Bharat’s father, Sukhdev’s younger brother, Prakash Chand Thapar had to pull carts and sell grass to make ends meet. “We’ve only now begun to eat three square meals a day… I’m in my 50s now but for as far back as I can remember, life has been about survival. I wish I had the opportunity to sit with my grandparents and listen to the legend of my brave uncle, but I never had the time… its been hard…really hard”, lamented Bharat. Naughara, Sukhdev’s ancestral house in Ludhiana, where nine Thapar families lived together was handed over by Bharat to the local administration, in the hope that it would be made into a memorial or a library. “I didn’t want a penny…”, said a disgusted Bharat. “All I wanted was to hand over the property but they made me run from pillar to post and kept me waiting outside their office for hours…can you believe that? Recently, they renamed the Ludhiana bus stand in my uncle’s honour and that is all my uncle has been reduced to – a photo-op for politicians. I wasn’t even called. They picked up a random ‘Thapar’ to attend the event while I stood there unrecognised.”
Sukhdev’s battles aren’t over yet. One of his compatriots, Hansraj Vohra, had become an approver and he was the one responsible for the conviction and death of Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru. Vohra later became a journalist, but to add insult to injury, the cowardly Vohra tried to justify his actions by saying that he did it because Sukhdev, his guru, had turned approver first and also because… you’re not going to believe this… he ridiculously enough, wanted to complete his final year of college (??). And so he bought his freedom with their blood, which he now had tainted. Noted journalist Kuldip Nayyar who investigated the allegations once said in an interview that had Sukhdev compromised, “he wouldn’t have been hanged. It was Vohra, an insider who spilled the beans.”
Vohra claimed he was shown a signed testimony by Sukhdev which is why he believed Sukhdev had betrayed them, but as a friend and fellow revolutionary, Vohra was bound to have known better. Sukhdev, when a small boy in school, had refused to salute visiting British military officers in spite of a severe caning. And only such a boy could have embraced the hangman’s noose with a song on his lips.
Just before being hanged, Sukhdev had written a letter to Gandhi, declaring that he believed his country would be served better by his death. He also requested Gandhi not to ask the revolutionaries on behalf of the British to ‘give up violence’. This would only serve their intention of maligning revolutionaries in the eyes of the masses. But Gandhi did not stop appealing to the revolutionaries, and while all of India begged Bapu to plead for the lives of the trio and not sign the Gandhi-Irwin pact, Gandhi went ahead and signed, thus sealing their fate. Many historians believe, Gandhi could have saved them. He chose not to… he would have had his reasons.
As for Sukhdev, on the 23rd of March 1931, at 1933hrs, his tall figure cast a long shadow as he joined his best friends on their way to the gallows. And the walls of Lahore Central Jail echoed his voice as he sang … Shaheedon ki chitaon par judenge har baras mele/ Watan par mitne waalon ka yehi baaki nishan hoga; Kabhi yeh bhi din ayega jab apna raaj dekhenge/ Jab apni hi zameen hogi aur apna aasmaan hoga.
Martyrdom is not a martyr’s alone for there are those that love him, miss him and suffer for him in his wake. And whether it is a Sukhdev Thapar or a Sandeep Unnikrishnan, a nation that cannot honour its heroes, surely doesn’t deserve any…