Bhagat Singh in Bengali Writings
Department of History
The paper seeks to review a few printed Bengali sources regarding Bhagat Singh. Published over a period of eighty one years (1926-2007), these materials may be of some use to those who seeks to comprehend how the message of militant/revolutionary politics has been communicated among the Bengalis. These are mostly available in newspaper reporting, monograph and periodical. Here one may come across how the perceptions of the Bengalis about Bhagat Singh have changed over the years. The essay, however, does not claim that it refers to all published Bengali writings on Bhagat Singh.
Authors came from different walks of life and their contributions created a literary mosaic. A survey of these sources may provide a regional perspective to Bhagat Singh’s life as well as Bengal’s long term political association with
These materials on Bhagat Singh can broadly be categorized under five heads. (i) Immediate reactions in Bengali after Bhagat Singh’s death in Lahore Jail (1931). Here the bulk of the information comes from the Report on the Newspapers and Periodicals in
The first section of the paper is devoted to a few immediate Bengali press reactions about Bhagat Singh’s execution (March 1931). These sources may be supplemented by similar sources not included in the RNPB. Perhaps a small note on the content and the method of compilation of the RNPB may justify my supplementing these materials from other Bengali periodicals of the period.
The RNPB was generally prepared by one or two senior official Bengali translators holding office in the Intelligence Branch of the British administration. They first went through that voluminous newspaper –periodical reporting published in
These raw materials underline conflicting forms of reactions of the Bengalis. (i) A large section of the Bengali press expressed deep grief and sorrow at the execution of Bhagat Singh. They respectfully remembered Bhagat Singh’s heroic self-sacrifice but criticized the British administration’s indifference to save the revolutionary’s life (Swadhin Bharat, Lokmanya, Taranga, Kolkata). Some others also pointed out that the tragedy underlines the futility of honoring the terms of the recently concluded Delhi Accord signed between Gandhi and Governor General Lord Irwin (Nayak, Dainik Basumati, Kolkata). Others, however, advised the countrymen to remain calm so that the Delhi Pact did not become ‘a trivial thing’ (Dainik Basumati, Kolkata).
(ii) Another important form of press reaction was the glowing tribute paid to Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom but refused to agree that it had been the right path of attaining
(iii) It was also acknowledged that Bhagat Singh’s aggressive path would likely to lead to serious fissure in the ranks of the nationalists (Pravartak, Chandannagar). A small segment of them even recorded that ‘Gandhi has been tricked by the British bureaucracy’ thereby strengthening ‘
There are more materials of the same category which do not find place in the RNPB. I have left them aside for fear of being repetitive. There is hardly any long term unanimity in this voice of protest. Even some of them expressed doubts about the path of violence taken up Bhagat Singh while Gandhi was not also spared for his unfortunate comments regarding the role of the militant nationalists. But it did not continue for a long time. A review of the RNPB of the second half of 1931 would point out that there was virtually no significant reference to Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom in it. It seems that the death of Bhagat Singh had an immediate and overwhelming effect upon popular mind, generating deep shock for a certain period of time and later on it steadily died down.
There is another category of writings authored by a number of Bengali militant nationalists, revolutionaries and other Marxists leaders. These autobiographies and memoirs were mostly published long after Bhagat Singh’s death. At least one of them was originally written in English by one of Bhagat Singh’s comrades which were later on translated into Bengali. I have found many of these memoirs useful providing a near contemporary perspective to Bhagat Singh’s life.
Perhaps one may conveniently begin with a brief reference to Nalinikishore Guha’s Bangalr Biplabbad (1923). In one of its subsequent editions, Guha suggested that possibly around March 1924 Bhagat Singh was brought closer to the Bengal revolutionary groups through the intervention of Sachindranath Sanyal, a senior Bengal revolutionary long engaged in spreading the message of armed insurrections in different parts of northern
Ajoy Ghosh’s Bhagat Singh o Tar Sahakarmira (February 1946, a Bengali translated version of his Bhagat Singh and His Comrades, 1946) carried almost a similar message. The author came closer to Bhagat Singh when both of them were young and shared the common political ideology of resisting British imperialism through armed intervention. But after Bhagat Singh’s death, the author embraced Marxism and steadily distanced himself from the militant politics of the 1930s. He, however, wrote about his friend of the younger days with much appreciation and respect. He also made no secret of Bhagat Singh’s firm commitment towards social revolution though he was not perhaps ready to acknowledge him as one of the early followers of Marxism in
Another important Marxist leader of the period was Muzaffar Ahmad. He had the occasion of meeting Bhagat Singh in
Bhagat Singh also figured in the autobiography of Trailokyanath Chakrabarti. Also known as Maharaja in Bengali politics, he spent more than thirty years of his life in British and
Chakrabarti suggests that he secretly came down to Kolkata with the plan of meeting some likeminded senior militant leaders. With this end in view he first met Jatindranath Mukherjea (then known as Niralamba Swami) who had long before in
‘There was a good deal of personal touch and simplicity in his talk….I told Bhagat Singh, “You try to assemble five hundred volunteers from the different districts of
The validity of the above had been questioned by Shiv Verma, a long time associate of Bhagat Singh. Raising serious doubts about it, Verma had suggested that the throwing of bombs on the assembly (1929) was not entirely a personal choice of Bhagat Singh but it was decided in a general meeting of the HSRA held in the last week of February 1929. Chakrabarti wrote about his experience of 1928 nearly four decades later. One cannot rule out the possibility that in the meantime his memory of the meeting was considerably weakened. Verma’s writings possibly give us an unfortunate impression that Chakrabarti has not only made a mountain out of a mole hill but also trying to belittle the strategy as well as the sacrifice of Bhagat Singh.
The wider context of Chakrabarti’s memoir perhaps needs to be seriously read again for a better understanding of the encounter between the two leading personalities of
The memory of Bhagat Singh was also remembered by another section of Bengalis in the post-independence decades. During the early years of independent
It was a small book of forty seven pages and written by Nripendrakrishna Chatterjee, a popular biography writer of the period. Dev Sahitya Kuthir, a well-known publisher of nearly fifty years standing with many intimate links of the rural book trade, claimed that it was the seventh publication of the ‘Amar Beer’ biography series meant for young boys and girls. The monograph managed to include brief life sketches of Chandrasekhar Azad and Shiv Verma, two other comrades of Bhagat Singh in northern
It was written in simple style understandable to the young readership. Nripendrakrishna briefly referred to the heroic role of Bhagat Singh but simultaneously did not fail to refer to some of the major organizational weaknesses of the militant politics. The biographer, however, maintained silence regarding his sources of information. Since the book was primarily meant for kids, he perhaps regarded that it would not only affect his literary style but also make the volume big and heavy for the same category of readership. Further the inclusion of other two character sketches in a small volume marginalized his search for the Bhagat Singh of history.
On the occasion of the ninetieth birthday celebration (1997), Bengali interest on Bhagat Singh once more diverted to his biography writing. During the intervening years, he was ceremoniously remembered on his birthday and there were meetings and speeches commemorating his sacrifices. But from the late 1970s, there was growing competition among different political groups to appropriate his memory for strengthening their respective political base at the local level. The Indian National Congress was first in the race and even renamed a local park in the name of Bhagat Singh to perpetuate his memory among the Kolkattans.
During the same period different left political parties also no longer bracketed him with the terrorist movement of the colonial period. On the contrary, his commitment to fight imperialism with the support of the wider sections of the Indian people was increasingly appreciated by many of them. It led to the publication of three biographies out of which at least two were certainly of a very high order. None of the authors came from the university centric academic life nor do they ever claim of having any professional training in the discipline of history. There was at least one thing common them. They had either criticized or showed indifference about the non-violent politics of the Congress led national movement for its indifference towards the heroic sacrifices of the militant nationalists.
Pragati Maiti’s biography of Bhagat Singh (1997) is the briefest of the three. The author was actively associated with the Marxist led trade union movement of 1980s. A scion of the freedom fighters’ family, Maiti portrays Bhagat Singh as one of his ideal heroes of the Indian freedom movement but deliberately marginalized in the historiography of the Indian freedom movement. After reviewing numerous school level History text books he concludes that even a great martyr like Bhagat Singh has been a victim of the politics of silence for which he squarely blames the contemporary Congress leadership. During his younger days in the early 1970s he found the school level history text book was virtually a hegemonic narrative of the Gandhi-led Congress success story. There was virtually no reference to other streams in the national movements carried on by peasants, labourers, women and students which had added colour and variety to the struggle of the Indians. His biography also provides a glimpse of the struggle that had already taken place over the revision of school level text books in
The two other biographies are not written in the same aggressive vein and their authors are equally more concerned about their sources. One of them comes from Santosh Adhikari, a professional engineer. The title of the book is Santrasbad o Bhagat Singh. It is divided into twenty five uneven chapters with three long appendices and a bibliography. Its first five chapters are devoted to the family background and the formative years of Bhagat Singh’s life (1907-1923). Adhikari devoted special attention to the reconstruction of Bhagat Singh’s close relationship with the
The title of Adhikari’s volume perhaps conveys author’s initial cautious and conventional approach. He is not also very consistent while describing the early political philosophy and plan of action of Bhagat Singh. The author then places him somewhere between the terrorists and the Ghadarites since both had subscribed to the doctrine of armed insurrections of varying shades. Bhagat Singh’s hero was then Kartar Singh of Saraba of the Ghadar fame. The sudden withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement made him disillusioned with the Gandhian politics of non-violence. Unlike Maiti, Adhikari never brought out his venom in public against Gandhi. But Bhagat Singh’s growing interactions with the different socialist and communist groups like the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and the Naujawan Bharat Sabha since the mid 1920s prompted the author to revise his earlier assessment on Bhagat Singh. He was then confident that Bhagat Singh was increasingly exposed to the communist political philosophy and he was equally interested about Lenin’s writings and the different rapid developments taking place inside Soviet Russia.
Bijaya Banerjee’s Biplabi Bhagat Singh is the most detailed and extensively researched biography in Bengali. He served the Corporation of Calcutta but once travelled beyond
Banerjee divides the biography into ten chapters with two long appendices, footnotes extended over nine pages, a bibliography and an index. The first three chapters briefly refer to the family background of Bhagat Singh while the other seven maintain a well-defined chronological sequence beginning with his birth in 1907 till end in March 1931. With the exception of the fourth chapter outlining his career till 1924, the other six virtually concentrate on the remaining six and half years of his life. The author has tried to present Bhagat Singh within a broad documentary framework and sought to maintain a formal style which one would sometimes be missing in the two earlier biographies.
The study underlines a gradual evolution in Bhagat Singh’s political philosophy as well as his serious attempt to build a definitive link among the like minded militant revolutionaries, socialists and communists. Banerjee takes notes of certain other distinctive features of Bhagat Singh’s character like firm and sincere commitment to his own political ideology and extensive reading of the different socialist and other literature. Through these initiatives he tried to keep himself politically update in his dialogue with his like- minded friends in
The book also takes special care in elaborating the long history of Bhagat Singh’s Bengali connection. Besides his close political interactions with Sachindranath Sanyal, Ajoy Ghosh and Batukeswar Dutta in northern
These biographies project Bhagat Singh in three different shades. The biographers were born in families where the message of the national politics of the pre-independence days remained an important mobilizing force and played an active role in moulding their political ideology. At least two of them felt the need of writing two separate biographies of Bhagat Singh exclusively meant for the children. Thus illustrated biographies of Bhagat Singh for the children were brought out in quick success (2003). These encouraged others to join anticipating their ready reception and marketability on the eve of the centenary celebration.
Finally, I would refer to two other remaining categories of sources: (i) some of the original writings of Bhagat Singh which are translated into Bengali and (ii) those essays which are brought out on Bhagat Singh in course of the last few months when the Bengalis are getting ready for celebrating the centenary.
I have so far able to trace two separate volumes dealing with Bhagat Singh’s works and both are published by the student wing of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), one of the major left political parties in
On the occasion of its fiftieth foundation day, a small booklet of 64 pages was published. It includes some of the letters and essays of Bhagat Singh in translation. There was also a life sketch of Bhagat Singh which was restricted to the three-fourths of a page briefly indicating some of the major events of his life. The volume also includes a long essay entitled ‘Saheed-i-Azam.’ It runs over more than 30 pages and outlines the political ideology of Bhagat Singh. He is portrayed as a revolutionary leader with a great vision. He had the strong conviction of organizing an armed revolution with the hope of setting up a socialist republic in
With the exception of that long essay mentioned above, the whole text of the golden jubilee volume was virtually lifted out and incorporated in the Bhagat Singh Rachana Samgraha (2007). But it included a few other writings of Bhagat Singh. The volume was however edited in a very slipshod manner. In stead of separating the letters of Bhagat Singh from his essays and putting them under two separate headings, the editor of the volume failed to maintain any line of demarcation between them. On many occasions, he even rearranged some of the original paragraphs of Bhagat Singh’s writings and declined to mention the original languages from which the subsequent translations were made. But the volume has so far been reprinted seven times. Perhaps its commercial success emboldened the editor to turn a deaf ear to those errors.
Finally, regarding some of the recent essays brought out on the occasion of the birth centenary, I would refer to only one of them. Published in a little magazine Aneek, it refers to Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutta’s (co-accused in the Delhi Conspiracy case) fight for the defence of certain basic rights of the political prisoners imprisoned in different British jails. The author of the essay is Sandweep Bandyopadhyay, a well-known name long associated with the different democratic movements in
These Bengali sources therefore offer a plural profile of Bhagat Singh which may not be entirely unknown to you. While appreciating the relevance of Bhagat Singh’s role in the contemporary politics as well as the competition among the different political parties to appropriate his message at the local level, I would however refer to another area. It is related to my ongoing work on the History of Sikhs in eastern
With the participation of the Akalis in the nationalist politics since the early 1920s a new dimension was added to it. We witness a wider mobilization in the Sikh politics and its impact was intermittently felt in the streets of Kolkata. Contemporary British intelligence records provide detailed information about the nature of the movement as well as the social background of the participants in the city. It was generally described as a subaltern movement who were predominantly from the ranks of the guards, automobile owners, drivers, conductors and cleaners. Thus Kolkata of the 1920s was getting ready for a major confrontation between the Akalis and the government which persisted till the late 1930s. Perhaps the militant revolutionaries of both the provinces made the Akali mobilization against the colonial administration comparatively easier in Kolkata. My understanding of the Bengali sources related to the life of Bhagat Singh brought me closer to the issue.
A. Printed Sources: English
1. D.N.Gupta (Ed.), Bhagat Singh: Select Speeches & Writings,
2. Gurdev Singh Deol, Shaheed Bhagat Singh: A Biography,
3. Report on Newspapers and Periodicals in
B. Printed Sources: Bengali: Journals
1. Aneek, June 2007.
2. Bharatbarsha, Baisakh 1338 B.S. (1931 April-May 1931).
3. Chhatra Samhati : Shaheed-i-Azam Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Ganadavi Printers, 2004.
4. Prabartak, Baisakh 1338 BS (1931 April-May).
5. Smaranika: 2007, Kolkata: Paschimbanga Itihas Samsad, 2007.
C. Printed Sources: Bengali: Books
1. Adhikari, Santoshkumar, Santrashbad o Bhagat Singh,
2. Ahmad, Muzafar, Bharater Communist Party o Amar Jiban, Kolkata: National Book Agency, 1988 (first published in 1969).
3. Bandyopadhyay, Bijaya, Biplabi Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Sahityalok, 1997.
4. Bandyopadhyay, Bijaya, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Sahityalok, 2003.
5. Bandyopdhyay, Bijaya, Biplavi Nayak Sachindranath Sanyal, Kolkata: Sahityalok, 2004.
6. Chakrabarti, Trailokhyanath, Jele Trish Bachhar o Pak Bharater Swadhinatha Sangram , Kolkata: Maharaja Trailokhyanath Chakrabarti Smritirakhsha Committee, 1981 (first published in 1968)
7. Chatterjee, Nripendrakrishna, Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Dev Sahitya Kuthir, 1951.
8. Chatterjee, Ramannanda, Boi Bybsha o Panch Purusher Bangali Parivar, Kolkata: Dev Sahitya Kuthir, 2002.
9. Ghosh, Ajay, (Tr.), Bhagat Singh o Tar Sahakarmira, Kolkata: Sukumar Mitra, 1946.
10. Guha, Nalinikishore Guha, Bangali Biplavbad,
11. Maiti, Paragti, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Iskra, 1997.
12. Maiti, Pragati, Amader Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Iskra, 2003.
13. Maiti, Pragati, Beer Shaheed Chadrasekhar Azad, Kolkata: Iskra, 2006.
14. Mitra, Udayan, Ek Biplabir Upakhyan, Kolkata: Karuna Prakashani, 2005.
15. Mukherjee, Manik (Ed.), Bhagat Singh Rachanasamgraha, Kolkata: Patrarekha, 2007.
16. Sahityaratna, Sushantakumar, Biral Biplavi Bhagat Singh, Kolkata: Sahityam, 2005.