Inquilab Zindabad: A War Cry for Change



We come across it everywhere - Inquilab Zindabad is a slogan we are all familiar with in India - but not many us realise that this war cry, popularised by noted Urdu poet and freedom fighter Hasrat Mohani in 1921 and literally meaning ‘Long Live the Revolution’ reflected the revolutionary side of India’s Independence Struggle, which is lesser known. In a movement dominated by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Non-Violence, the revolutionaries seem to have operated mostly on the fringes.

Russian Revolution 1917
Russian Revolution 1917|Wikimedia Commons

Just after the end of World War I in 1918, India was simmering with discontent. The promise of self-rule after the war turned out to be false. The Indians who had whole-heartedly supported the British War effort in the hope of Swarajya were now agitating in the streets. All the Indians got in return were series of draconian laws and finally the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.

If this was happening within India, winds of change were blowing through the old order. The 1917 Russian Revolution had destroyed the old Czarist order and in the West, the Irish Independence movement was gaining traction with the British agreeing to put Ireland on the path to independence.

Ram Prasad Bismil
Ram Prasad Bismil|Wikimedia Commons

All this inspired the Indian revolutionaries who felt that the same could be replicated in India and taking up arms was the only way to freedom. The final trigger for this passion being channelised to action came in 1922. By March that year, young men and women were angry and livid. Mahatma Gandhi had suddenly withdrawn the Non-Cooperation movement after the outbreak of violence in Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh, in which a large crowd had set a police station on fire, killing 22 Indian policemen. Mahatma Gandhi felt Indians were not ready for Independence. But a section of the Indian youth didn't agree with this.

One such young man was Ram Prasad Bismil, a young poet from UP, who originally had been a part of the Congress. He went to Allahabad and established the ‘Hindustan Republican Association’ (HRA) in October, 1924. The aim of the organization was to overthrow British rule and replace it with a ‘Federal Republic of the United States of India’. It also sought the abolition of

all systems which make any kind of exploitation of man by man possible’.

The association established its centers all over North India and even had bomb-making factories in Calcutta. They attempted to raise funds for their cause and to purchase weapons.

Commemorative stamp of Kakori Train Conspiracy released in 1997
Commemorative stamp of Kakori Train Conspiracy released in 1997|Department of Post, Government of India

The most daring exploit of HRA was the ‘Kakori Train Conspiracy’ of 9th August 1925, when a group of revolutionaries looted the Government treasury money from a train at Kakori railway station near Lucknow. Following the incident, the British Government came down heavily on the leaders and most of them were arrested from different parts of India. Chandra Shekhar Azad, was the only leader who escaped arrest. The detainees were charged with the conspiracy and prominent leaders like Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan, a fellow revolutionary were given the death penalty. They were hanged in 1927. While death of Ram Prasad Bismil was a blow to HRA, his works inspired a new generation of youth. Here is an excerpt of his most iconic composition, famous even today …

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil me hai

Dekhna hai zor kitna bazu-e-kaatil me hai

(The Desire to make a sacrifice is in our hearts.

Let us see what strength there is in the arms of our executioner)

Despite Bismil’s death in 1927 the flame of revolution did not die. A new breed of young men took the leadership of HRA. In 1928, under the influence of a young revolutionary named Bhagat Singh, HRA became ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’ or HSRA and adopted the slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’.

The Lahore Tribune’s front page on the 25th of March 1931
The Lahore Tribune’s front page on the 25th of March 1931|Wikimedia Commons

The most audacious act of HSRA was on 8th April 1929 when Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw bombs in the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi to highlight the HSRA cause. They aimed the bomb at an empty bench to cause no harm and surrendered themselves to the police. HSRA explained their rationale for the bombing in a leaflet titled ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’ which they threw copies of in the Assembly. It was published in Hindustan Times the following day -

The bomb was necessary to awaken England from her dreams. We dropped the bomb on the floor of the assembly chamber to register our protest on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heart-rending agony. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and give the heedless a timely warning. Others have as keenly felt as we have done and from such seeming stillness of the sea of Indian humanity, a veritable storm is about to break out.

This was followed by raids and arrests of all HSRA establishments and bomb factories, and arrests of a large number of revolutionaries. Chandra Shekhar Azad, one of the main leaders of HRA and HSRA, continued his activities but died in a gunfight with the police in Allahabad’s Alfred Park on 27th February 1931. The following month, on 23rd March 1931, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged.

Poster of Bhagat Singh
Poster of Bhagat Singh|Wikimedia Commons

The deaths and imprisonment of the most prominent revolutionaries brought an end to the HSRA as an organization. Its members went separate ways and attempted to carry out armed struggles on their own. This was the end of HSRA.

HSRA and its methods had its own share of critics within India as well. A strong critic was Mahatma Gandhi whose path of Ahimsa was opposite to that followed by the revolutionaries. In 1930, he wrote an article in Young India magazine titled ‘Cult of the Bomb’ where he condemned the actions of HSRA and stated the violence brought no good. Perhaps a reply to this, was Bhagat Singh’s statement during his trail –

‘The elimination of force at all costs is Utopian and the new movement which has arisen in the country and of whose dawn we have given a warning is inspired by the ideals which Guru Gobind Singh and Shivaji, Kamal Pasha and Reza Khan, Washington and Garibaldi, Lafayette and Lenin preached.’

While HRA & HSRA failed in its purpose, the lives of the revolutionaries, their great ideals, their compositions and most importantly their slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ endures even today. Most relevant for India today, is what Bhagat Singh wrote in 1930-

Any man who stands for progress has to criticize, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Item by item he has to reason out every nook and corner of the prevailing faith. If after considerable reasoning one is led to believe in any theory or philosophy, his faith is welcomed. His reasoning can be mistaken, wrong, misled and sometimes fallacious. But he is liable to correction because reason is the guiding star of his life. But mere faith and blind faith is dangerous: it dulls the brain, and makes a man reactionary.’

(Why I am an atheist? (1930))

Cover Image: Kushagra Pathak via Wikimedia Commons

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