Tuesday, 18 January, 2022
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Premdatta Varma, Bhagat Singh’s co-accused and India’s lesser-known freedom fighter

Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav should be the year when Panjab University finally recognises and honours Premdatta Varma’s role as freedom fighter by installing a plaque.

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Two years ago, after reading one of my articles on Premdatta Varma, the youngest member of the Bhagat Singh-led revolutionary movement against British colonialism, his son Pramod wrote to me. He told me that his father had passed away on 6 January 2011 in the US, just eight months short of completing 100 years.

I had been researching on Premdatta for years but had no information about him after 1970. Born on 19 September 1911 in Haryana’s Hisar, Premdatta along with Pandit Kishori Lal (born 1909) were two of the youngest to join the revolutionary movement.

Premdatta lost his mother when he was three years old. His father Ramdatta Varma was the headmaster of a school and a Sanskrit scholar in his own right. Premdatta matriculated from Jammu before moving to DAV College, Lahore for graduation. He was secretary of the college council and even organised a debate between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Lala Lajpat Rai was a friend of the Varma family and Premdatta was standing next to Lala ji when he was brutally lathi charged by ASP John Saunders in 1928.

But it was Pandit Kishori Lal who drew Premdatta to the revolutionary party and later he came close to Sukhdev as well. Being a chemistry student in college, Premdatta was asked to help Bhagwati Charan Vohra in making bombs. Premdatta was not even 18 years old when he was first arrested in 1929. Pramod, his son, says at the time of arrest, he was carrying bombshells on his bicycle.

During the trial of the Lahore conspiracy case, Premdatta threw a chappal (slipper) at the approver, Jai Gopal, in the court. During the course of the trial, Premdatta and other accused were subjected to torture. In October 1929, Bhagat Singh was made a special target by some policemen. Shiv Verma and Ajoy Ghosh became unconscious after they were mercilessly beaten by policemen.

It happened again in May 1930 under the newly set up three-judge tribunal. This time, Premdatta, Kundan Lal and Ajoy Ghosh fainted due to severe beating. Bhagat Singh addressed the tribunal judges as ‘cowards and mercenaries’. Justice Agha Haider, one of the tribunal judges, opposed the tribunal chairman Coldstream’s order to beat the accused.


Lahore conspiracy case poster, Daily Milap, Lahore | Photo: Chaman Lal

Out of the 15 accused in the case, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru got death sentences, while Ajoy Ghosh, Des Raj, Agya Ram and Jatinder Nath Sanyal were acquitted. Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Kamal Nath Tiwari, Gaya Prasad Katiyar, Mahabir Singh and Pandit Kishori Lal were sentenced to transportation for life. Kundan Lal got seven years. Sanyal was later convicted for writing Bhagat Singh’s biography, which was proscribed immediately in 1931 and he was sentenced to another two years in jail. Mahabir Singh died during the hunger strike in 1933 in Andamans.

Premdatta was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and kept at Montgomery jail. There, he continued his studies and cleared his Faculty of Arts examination. He was released after four years, but wasn’t allowed to stay in the city. He moved to Doda district in Jammu. He was allowed to return to Lahore after some time.

Also read: Bhagat Singh wasn’t just hanged, but was chopped and stuffed in sacks

A missing tribute

Premdatta Varma married Swarn in 1946. They had six children, three daughters and three sons. Their eldest daughter passed away in 1991. Swarn, 95, currently lives with five other children, 15 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren in Cincinnati, US.

Premdatta’s first job as lecturer in history was at Government College, Moga, and then at Doaba College, Jalandhar. In 1960, he joined the history department of Panjab University, Chandigarh, and stayed there till 1970, when he moved to Cincinnati where he got his PhD at the age of 74, the oldest man to get his doctorate degree at the time from Cincinnati University.

Later, he published his thesis – Indian Immigrants in USA: Struggle for Equality. He also got his father’s scholarly work on Vedic Sanskrit reprinted. In Panjab University, he edited the university bulletin, which carried his tribute to martyr Jatin Das in the September 1964 issue. Premdatta never wrote his memoir or if he did, it hasn’t been discovered yet.

In the post-Independence era, the erstwhile revolutionaries became part of many political streams and parties in the country. Many of them joined the Congress party while others joined Left parties. Some got close to Right-wing Jana Sangh patronised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Premdatta was one of them who became close to Jana Sangh and its leader Balraj Madhok.

During my four-year term (2016-20) as Senator of Panjab University, I called on several occasions for honouring Premdatta Varma’s role as freedom fighter by installing a plaque in the history department, where he taught for 10 years. But none took note. Perhaps it will be done in this Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav year.

Chaman Lal is a former Senator and Dean, faculty of Languages, Panjab University, Chandigarh. He retired as a professor from JNU, New Delhi, and is honorary advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. He tweets @ProfChaman. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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