Time period notes
Methods in 1st segment
Methods in 2nd segment
Methods in 3rd segment
Involvement of social elites
Nonviolent responses of opponent
Groups in 1st Segment
Success in achieving specific demands/goals
Notes on outcomes
A series of revolutionary movements aimed at freeing India from British colonial rule started in the early 1900s. In an effort to overthrow the British Empire and to end colonial rule, Indian revolutionaries and organizations undertook several tactics to free the region and become an independent country. Under colonial rule, the British government authority started penal colonies––one of which was established in Pakistan––to house Indian prisoners where they faced forced labor and worse conditions in contrast to English prisoners. One of the more influential tactics of the revolutionary movements was the hunger strike implemented in prisons as a means of nonviolent resistance against the conditions of the penal colonies. The protestations made by Indian prisoners spread throughout revolutionary groups in the country and the protesting prisoners became well known by the public for their resistance methods.
Several organizations, both violent and nonviolent, called on the Indian population to rise up and stand against British imperialism. Alongside nonviolent leaders, such as Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi, violent revolutionaries also sought to assassinate and create terror as a means to gain notoriety for the freedom of India. Three revolutionary prisoners, Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, and Jatindra Nath Das started a hunger strike at Central Jail Mianwali in Punjab to bring attention to the poor conditions to which the prisoners were subjected. The prison authorities subjected Indian prisoners to considerably more inhumane conditions than British prisoners. Dirty uniforms, unsanitary conditions, spoiled food, and the absence of reading material or paper characterized the penal colonies.
Bhagat Singh assassinated British Officer JP Saunders on 17 December 1928 and escaped from Lahore with Chandrashekhar Azad. The British authorities arrested Singh on 8 April 1929, after he set off a bomb at the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi and did not attempt to escape. Police arrested Das on 14 June 1929 for political dissent. Das began the hunger strike on 13 July 1929 and Singh joined. At the same time, British authorities raided two bomb-making plants run by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and arrested several other Indian revolutionaries.
Das and Singh led the other self-identified Indian political prisoners in a hunger strike to gain the same treatment given to European political prisoners. The Tribune, an English language newspaper based in Lahore, Pakistan, promoted the hunger strike and the revolutionaries. The newspaper raised awareness and support for revolutionaries throughout Punjab and Amritsar. The added publicity driven by The Tribune led political leaders to meet with the prisoners and publicly support them. Both Jawaharlal Nehru, a prominent Indian activist and politician who marched alongside Gandhi, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, another significant politician who was part of the Indian National Congress, provided statements of support and visited the prisoners separately.
The jail authority attempted to break the prisoners’ strike by offering various food items to test the prisoners resolve. Additionally, they replaced the water in the water jugs with milk, which the prisoners abstained from drinking as well. Finally, in an effort to end the strike, the jail authority attempted to force feed prisoners through feeding tubes. Some prisoners countered this tactic by drinking boiling water and swallowing crushed red chili peppers, rendering their throats too sore for forced insertion of feeding tubes. The hunger strike succeeded in forcing the jail authority to grant some of the prisoners’ demands; however, the jail authority remained unwilling to call the revolutionaries “political prisoners.”
By early September, most revolutionaries ended their hunger strike, leaving only Das and Singh. Das’ condition became so poor that the jail authority recommended his unconditional release, but the government did not accept the recommendation and instead proposed to release him on bail, which Das ultimately rejected.
Following a 63-day hunger strike, Das died in his prison cell on 13 September 1929. After an appeal from his father, Singh ended his 116-day hunger strike on 5 October 1929. The government still did not concede that the revolutionaries were political prisoners, and Viceroy Lord Irwin expedited the trial for Singh and the others. HSRA attorneys filed several Habeus Corpus petitions on behalf of Singh, but Judge Viscount Dunedin summarily denied them. The tribunal ended with Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar, and Shivaram Rajguru sentenced to death by execution on 24 March 1931.
Haroon Khalid reported that no magistrate was willing to attend the execution, which the law required. Additionally, an honorary judge stepped in to sign new death warrants as the original ones had expired. Due to fear of protests, the government held the executions 11 hours earlier than scheduled on 23 March 1931 at 7:30 pm. The jail authority secretly cremated the bodies and threw the ashes into the nearest river. Following the executions, mass mournings and protests ensued with the Congress Party stating:
“While dissociating itself from and disapproving of political violence in any shape or form, this Congress places on record its admiration of the bravery and sacrifice of Bhagat Singh, Sukh Dev, and Raj Guru and mourns with their bereaved families the loss of these lives. The Congress is of the opinion that their triple execution was an act of wanton vengeance and a deliberate flouting of the unanimous demand of the nation for commutation.”
The hunger strike and execution of the revolutionaries brought public awareness to the stark contrast in how the British government treated Indian and British prisoners differently. The protest became a catalyst for further support for the Indian Revolutionary movement. In the short-term, however, the goals of the prisoners who initiated and carried out the hunger strike were not fully successful. While prisoners received better food, cleaner living spaces and access to newspapers, the government never recognized them as political prisoners.
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