March 23, 1931– To most of us, this would be familiar as the date on which Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged. However just two days, after Bhagat Singh, another freedom fighter, lost his life, trying to control a communal riot in Kanpur, that ironically broke out in the wake of the hanging. He earlier had given refuge to Bhagat Singh in exile. And another freedom fighter, fasted unto death along with Bhagat Singh for better treatment of political prisoners in jail.
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the writer, and Jatindranath Das, the revolutionary, political activist. Two men from different backgrounds, but whose lives would intersect with that of Bhagat Singh in different ways. And both would make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom. When Jatindranath Das passed away after his fast unto death, it was Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi who organized the gathering in Kanpur, that would pay respects to him.
“I am a fighter against oppression and injustice, I have fought all my life against oppression against inhumanity and may God give me strength to fight on till the last”
Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was born on Oct 26, 1890 at Hathgaon in Fatehpur district, his father Jai Narayan was a school teacher. Coming from a very humble background, he was also a devout Hindu, and highly nationalist from a very young age.
Jatindranath Das was born 14 years later on Oct 27, in Kolkata, and at just 17 years was an active member of the Anushilan Samiti, took active part in Gandhiji”s Non Cooperation movement in 1921. A brilliant student he passed his Matriculation, Intermediate exams with distinction.
Ganesh Shankar did his schooling in Mungeli ( now in Chattisgarh) and later Vidisha, he however had to drop out due to financial difficulties. He later worked as a clerk for some time, and afetr some time, managed to get a job as a high school teacher. His real interest was however in journalism, and regularly contributed to magazines like Karmayogi and Swarajya. It was around this time, he adopted the pen name of Vidyarthi, which became his surname later on. His mentor was the great writer Mahabir Prasad Dwivedi, who was also known as the doyen of modern Hindi journalism. Dwivedi, offered him a job as a sub editor in his monthly Saraswati in 1911.
Jatindranath Das, on the other hand, was arrested while doing his BA at Bangabasi College, Kolkata in 1925, and sent to Mymensingh Central Jail( now in Bangladesh). It was there that he undertook the fast for better treatment of political prisoners. After 20 days, the jail superintendent apologized, and agreed to his demands. The fast got him noticed, and he soon came into contact with the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association( HSRA). He was mentored by Sachindranath Sanyal, who also taught him how to make bombs.
Vidyarthi was however more interested in political writings and later joined Abhyudaya, a well known political journal of that time. In 1913, he came back to Kanpur, where he would spend the rest of his life as a fiery crusader for freedom and justice through his writings, taking up causes. He founded Pratap, the well known weekly from Kanpur in 1913, and soon began to take up the cause of ordinary people. He became the voice of the downtrodden masses, be it the peasants of Rae Bareli, or the mill workers of Kanpur, standing by them at every stage.
And Vidyarthi was no armchair activisit, as he faced lathi charges, was arrested 5 times, had to pay heavy fines. Yet none of them deterred him from his cause, as he relentlessly fought on behalf of the masses.
Now the time has come for our political ideology and our movement not to be restricted to the English-educated and to spread among the common people [samanya janta], and for Indian public opinion [lokmat], to be not the opinion of those few educated individuals but to mirror the thoughts of all the classes of the country…democratic rule is actually the rule of public opinion.
Vidyarthi felt that the freedom movement had to move from a tiny English educated elite to the masses, for it to be truly effective. It should not be just a few individuals, but should reflect aspirations of the masses.
The much-despised peasants are our true bread-givers [annadata], not those who consider themselves special and look down upon the people who live in toil and poverty as lowly beings
He met Gandhiji in 1916 at Lucknow and threw himself into the freedom struggle fully. One of the leading lights of the Home Rule movement in 1917, he was sentenced to two years RI, for championing the cause of the peasants of Rae Bareilly. was very close friends with both Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad, though he personally believed in a non violent struggle. When Bhagat Singh was in hiding, it was Vidyarthi who not just gave him shelter in Kanpur, but also gave him space to write in Pratap. The Beech Wala Chowk Temple in Kanpur, was where Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi used to host his meetings, he was the one who encouraged Shiv Narayan Tandon to join Congress, and who would later become Kanpur’s first Lok Sabha MP.
Vidyarthi founded the Mazdoor Sabha in 1928 which he led till his death, and in 1929, he was elected as President of UP Congress Comittee. He openly condemned Maulana Shakuat Ali for saying that the freedom struggle was anti Muslim.
Jatindranath Das was arrested in 1929 for the Lahore Conspiracy case, and put in prison along with Bhagat Singh. It was here he would be known for his 62 days fast unto death demanding better treatment for political prisoners. The condition of Indian prisoners was terrible, unwashed uniforms, unhygienic food, rooms infested with rats and cockroaches. While the British prisoners got good treatment, the Indian prisoners lived in conditions which were sub human basically.
Jatin Das began his fast on July 13, 1929, the jail authorities tried to feed him forcibly, he was beaten up regularly by the prison guards. His hunger strike was in response to Bhagat Singh’s fast on the same issue, soon it spread among the undertrials too, and the news spread all across the nation. The Punjab Government was forced to accede to some of the demands, for instance giving medical facilities to some of the undertrials. He meanwhile went into a critical stage following his fast unto death, and it was only Bhagat Singh’s intervention that made him break the fast temporarily. He was too weak however by that time. With the authorities however refusing to release Jatin Das even on reccomendation of the comittee, the hunger strike continued, along with Bhagat Singh, Dutt and others. And finally on September 13, 1929 he passed away in prison, the first Indian freedom fighter to fast unto death.
Durgavati Devi, also known as Durga Bhabi, was the one who led the funeral procession of Jatindranath Das in Kolkata. It was Netaji who paid for the expenses of transporting Jatin Das body from Lahore to Kolkata by train. Thousand turned up in Kolkata to pay respects to Jatindranath Das, on his last journey, his fast unto death had an electrifying impact. It was not just Kolkata, there were crowds all along the route, that thronged to have one last look at the man who gave up his life for the cause of freedom. In Kanpur it was Vidyarthi who organized the crowds that came to have a look at Jatin Das’s mortal remains.
Vidyarthi had tried his best to save Bhagat Singh from being hanged, and also arranged a meeting between Chandrashekhar Azad and Nehru in Allahabad, which however ended on failure. The continous imprisonments also took a toll on his health. When Bhagat Singh was hanged on March 23, 1931, protests broke out in Kanpur. Unfortunately the protests turned into an ugly communal riot, and Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi rushed back to Kanpur, to control the disturbances. In the midst of one of the worst communal riots ever in Kanpur, he threw himself into the middle of it, trying to control tensions, saving many victims, but unfortunately he was killed by a mob while trying to control it, just 2 days after the hanging of Bhagat Singh.
Unfortunately post independence, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was largely forgotten, except in his home town Kanpur. Even in the media, nothing much was done to perpetuate his legacy or memory, considering his stellar contribution to journalism. The award given to renowned journalists every year since 1989 is named after Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. The medical college in Kanpur too is named after him, as also the erstwhile Phool Bagh now called Ganesh Shankar Udyan. And on 18 July 2017, the Kanpur airport was named after him by the CM, Yogi Adityanath, a fitting tribute to one of Kanpur’s most famous citizens. Incidentally, the famous actor Ashish Vidyarthi was named after Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi by his father.
Jatindranath Das, drew attention to the cause of political prisoners, not once but just twice, and at the age of 25 gave up his life for freedom. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the voice of the masses, who spoke out against British oppression through his writings. Two great men, associated with the legendary Bhagat Singh in different ways.