Vol. 5 Num 652 Wed. March 29, 2006  

Between The Lines
Who betrayed Bhagat Singh?

A comrade-turned-journalist, whose testimony sent Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary, to the gallows in March, 75 years ago, wrote a letter before his death to tell why he became an approver. He, Hans Raj Vohra, worked with The Statesman, Times of India, and the Deccan Herald, and died in Washington 11 years ago. The letter was addressed to Sukhdev's brother, Mathra Das Thapar, who too has died since.

The British tried Bhagat Singh and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, for having shot Saunders, a British police officer, dead. All the three were found "guilty" and hanged on March 23, 1931. Vohra, who was recruited by Sukhdev, has alleged in his letter that it was Sukhdev who disclosed to the police all about the revolutionary movement from the beginning to the end.

Vohra probably fell prey to the usual tactics of the police. Even today the ruse employed by them is: "Your comrade has already spilled the beans. You may as well tell your side and we would try to get you pardon." Something like that might have happened. In any case, Vohra's defence was not convincing. How could a person with even a grain of commitment to revolution turn into a stool-pigeon?

In his three-page letter, Vohra says: "I was arrested on the eve of Saunders' murder. This did not surprise me. I was the most important and the most well-known student leader in town. At the age of 17 or so, I became the first secretary of the Punjab Students movement which I tried to convert into a public forum for our revolutionary movement. I called a Punjab students conference which was astonishingly well attended. I proposed a resolution for complete independence for India when the Indian National Congress was contemplating Dominion status. So, I put the students ahead of the elders.

"After my arrest, the burden of concealing the murder conspiracy, about which I knew everything, fell on my shoulders. When I was released on bail several weeks after the arrest, I had carried out my responsibility to the party successfully. The secret remained locked in my chest. I do not want to write about the ordeal in the police lockup lest you should construe that I am asking for mercy or that I am flattering myself.

"However, when I was arrested a second time, soon after the rounding up of Sukhdev and some other party members, I was presented with a statement by Sukhdev which ran, I believe, into probably 50 or 100 pages, typewritten and foolscap. Secondly, I found that about eight or ten members of the party and every senior member, at that, had become the king's witnesses or approvers as they call themselves.

"So I had to think things anew in the light of the following facts: Sukhdev at whose command I had given up my family and whom I had accepted as my guru, had wrecked the party which he had done so much to create. It was an inexplicable situation, totally disappointing and terribly shattering of morale or the common purpose we had set out to serve.

"I cannot accept the explanation that he became nervous (ghabra gaya). This is so inadequate for a would-be hero of a story that it mocks his better side. He was a great organizer. He was selflessly devoted to the cause. He was a ceaseless worker. He was a convincing talker which is apparent as I joined the party at his behest.

"To this day, I do not know what precisely went through his mind that he burst like a Diwali balloon within hours of being arrested. I am absolutely sure that the police did not use any high-handed methods. If anything, the investigators were very respectful and kind. Sukhdev voluntarily divulged every secret of the party. There was nothing important to keep although I did find a few things which he had forgotten to mention and which, therefore, I also withheld in my statement.

"Sukhdev's performance presents two problems, none of which has been solved: (a) If he had no axe to grind, why did he make the statement? and (b) Having made the statement why did he not take some advantage from it? As I have said, there is no rational reason for (a) except that his mind was like a tumbler of water. The tumbler cracked and the water overflowed.

"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. 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: My guru, 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 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, doing the least possible additional harm to the party, to extricate myself so that I could pick up the remaining pieces as best as I could.

"I was able to abstain from giving any personal evidence of the murder, which I had seen organized and which I had seen being readied for a few minutes before the execution. I said nothing about it. So I was neither a witness to the conspiracy of the murder, nor of the murderer. I also take such credit as I can for abstaining to mention anything about Durga Das whom I had recruited. I was able to do both because I found that Sukhdev's statement had omitted them.

"You must also remember that I was the youngest member of the party. But I did understand the legal consequences of action. Even while giving evidence, I tried to do the least harm and possibly some good, as Durga Das has often acknowledged to me. I have written this letter about my experience of the case much against my wishes."

Vohra's letter does not absolve him of his act of betrayal. The difference between Sukhdev and Vohra is underlined by the people's response. The ashes of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru were consigned to a shrine near Ferozepur where thousands of people flock to pay their homage even today. The crematorium at Washington where Vohra's body was put to fire is not even known. Sukhdev is a hero.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.