Understanding Bhagat Singh
In the history of Indian national movement there are many shades, many of which has not received due attention of the historians. The great revolutionary Bhagat Singh is one of them. While the main stream historians paid little or no attention to him (For instance Sekhar Bandopadhay's From Plassey in the history of India to Partition, Orient Longman, 2004), Marxist historians too failed to critically evaluate the hero whom India needed at a very uneasy time. Bhagat Singh is no doubt a revolutionary with a difference. His transformation from the ideas of Hindustan Republican Army of which Kakori Cospiracy Case is an important event, to Hindustan Socialist Republican Association is a pointer in this respect.
The *book, under review, is an invaluable addition to the understanding of this great hero. Perhaps no such comprehensive work has previously been undertaken. Though a collection of articles, it maintained a coherence throughout. The author, Chaman Lal, himself has admitted in the beginning of his preface that the book, "is a collection of my articles written during the last many years". He has also claimed objectivity, very correctly, in his approach to Bhagat Siingh.
Divided in 12 chapters with Annextures, Bibliography, Photo Gallery and Index, the book covers 258 pages. Chaman Lal's study represents a tour deforce. It is a mine of information. He has examined almost all the available sources. To debate over Bhagat Singh's atheism and his belief in Marxism has been resolved in the positive with evidence non can queation. While discussing Bhagat Singh the author does not forget to mention the similar type of movements in other places of India. He has highlighted Chitttagong rebellion of 1932 and claimed "Do or Die" slogan had been given by Surya Sen before Gandhi (p.19). His most revealing chapter( 2) is a book review on Gandhi and Bhagat Singh where it has been clearly been proved that whatever attempts had been made by Gandhi to stop the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Sukdhev and Rajguru, were nothing but mere hypocrisy. It will forever remain a blot in the Congress Movement.
Another important Chapter deserves mention(17), where Chaman Lal rising above the hard facts of history, has observed some emotional and personal factors. The poor mothers of Sukdev and Rajguru were denied the meeting with their sons even before they were going to gallows. Even in independent India the legacy continued when the information about the hanging of Afzal Guru was not made known to his nearest relatives.
Chaman Lal is not an historian who wrote an erudite history on Bhagat Singh, but has deep love and highest regard for him. Objectivity, in writing history, is no doubt a quality, but history cannot be written unless the historian knows the mind of the men about whom he is writing. E H Carr's observation has been a vivid reflection in this book. The volume is readable, and hence is useful for both the scholars and the commoners as well. The reader can form his own opinion also from the annextures which include letters, newspapers clippings, court proceedings etc. The author has consulted all the available sources, one more, however, be added and that is Manik Mukhapadhay's Bhagat Singh's Rachana Sangraha, 1991, Kolkata. The book should be a compulsory reading for all, whether scholars or laymen, interested in acquiring an insight into the great revolutionary that Bhagat Sigh was.
Tuesday, 20 May 2014
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Chaman Lal retired as professor of Hindi translation from the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is now associated with the Centre for Comparative Literature as Professor-Coordinator at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. His most recent book is Understanding Bhagat Singh (Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013).
BD: March 23 marks the 83rd anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. Give us in the nutshell an account of the revolutionary's times and what he stood for.
CL: Born in 1907 and martyred in 1931, Bhagat Singh lived just 23+ years. 1907 was the year when a powerful peasant movement took shape in Punjab. The kind of indebtedness peasants face today, something akin to this existed then also. Bhagat Singh's uncle Ajit Singh was one of the organisers of the movement. He was exiled to Mandalay first, then to South America in 1909, for 38 long years. Bhagat Singh was then just a two-year-old, but later on, when he came to know what had happened to his uncle and why, Ajit Singh became the boy's first hero. In 1914, the Ghadar Party revolt took place in Punjab. That party's hero, Kartar Singh Sarabha, was Bhagat Singh's personal hero as well. Sarabha used to frequent Bhagat Singh's home and his father Kishan Singh gave one thousand rupees to the Ghadar Party, a huge amount in those days. This was the second big impact on the 7-8 year-old Bhagat Singh's mind. In 1919, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, where he went at the age of 12 and brought back blood-filled sand from there.
Bhagat Singh attended a few of the Congress sessions with his father Kishan Singh, who was a Congress Party activist. In 1922, when Mahatma Gandhi withdrew the huge mass Satyagraha after the Chauri Chaura incident (wherein some policemen were killed when Satyagrahis set fire to a police station after they were subjected to cruelties by the police), Bhagat Singh and many other young men took the plunge into revolutionary politics. Bhagat Singh joined the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), a reorganisation of some old revolutionary groups. The next step was to reshape HRA into HSRA -- Hindustan Socialist Republican Association -- in September 1928, influenced by the Russian Revolution. This was a qualitative leap in the revolutionary movement -- to organise not just for "freedom of the country from British colonialism" but rather to reorganise the whole social system on socialist principles through revolution.
A necessary but undesired assassination of a British police officer, John Saunders, to avenge the ghastly killing of the tall nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, with whom the revolutionaries otherwise had many differences, put them in a difficult situation, as they could not proceed with their plans to create mass organisations of workers, peasants, students, youth and other sections for militant mass struggles to replace the prevalent tendency of militant violent individual actions among Indian revolutionaries at the time. But then, in the circumstances, they did the best they could. Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt threw harmless bombs in the Central Assembly (today's Indian Parliament) to protest against the Public Safety and Trade Disputes bills -- both oppressive anti-working-class measures by the British colonial government. Then they used British courts and their trials as a public platform to propagate their revolutionary ideology. Further, their prolonged hunger strikes inside jails for the rights of political prisoners made them hugely popular in India, and their message spread throughout the world by an imaginative use of media of the time. And, Bhagat Singh's insistence on facing the gallows, but on his own terms, and at the peak of mass opposition to their death sentence, and putting Mahatma Gandhi and Congress Party to great embarrassment, made the three young men supreme heroes in the eyes of the Indian people.
BD: You have recently authored Understanding Bhagat Singh (Aakar Books, Delhi, 2013), which helps bring the revolutionary legacy of Bhagat Singh to a generation of Indian youth that has just come of age, politically speaking. A significant section of such youth is enamoured of the Aam Aadmi Party, a parliamentary political party which seeks to bring the ethical back into the political. What message does your book have for them?
CL: There is, no doubt, that a large number of Aam Aadmi Party followers, particularly among youth, are enamoured by Bhagat Singh's personality, and for them he is a source of inspiration. Yet, only a section of them understands Bhagat Singh as a political thinker. For a large number, and particularly among the leadership, he is just a figure for creating emotional appeal among youth, without ever referring to his ideas or ideology, his goal of bringing about a socialist revolution in India, based upon Marxist principles. Aam Aadmi Party's top leader Arvind Kejriwal does not even recognise Bhagat Singh's atheist beliefs. I am told that Kejriwal used to be an atheist before jumping into Parliamentary politics, but after entering the parliamentary arena, the first thing he did was to undertake religious rituals of all the main religions, following the old Congress formula of 'Sarv-Dharm-Sambhav' -- equality of all religions.
So, at the very first step they have taken on the parliamentary path, they have betrayed their own ethical values. How then would they bring back ethical values of a broader nature? If they have to learn anything from my book relating to Bhagat Singh, then the core aspect to imbibe from Bhagat Singh is to "live and die for one's convictions", not compromise them for petty political gains. If Aam Aadmi Party's young cadres can influence their party leadership, then they should come forward to proclaim Bhagat Singh's legacy of undertaking a socialist revolution in India through a mass upsurge of workers, peasants, youth and women.
BD: Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt raised the slogans "Inquilab Zindabad" (Long Live the Revolution) and "Death to Imperialism" (Samrajyawad Ka Nash Ho) while throwing harmless bombs in the central assembly on 8 April 1929 to "make the deaf hear". These rallying cries seem to be so relevant today, isn't it?
CL: In fact the slogans "Inquilab Zindabad" and "Death to Imperialism" were the defining moments of the Indian revolutionary movement, i.e., to move from 'Vande Mataram' (Ode to Mother India) to make revolution for and with the participation of the general masses. Definitely these slogans are much more relevant today, especially in the wake of neo-imperialism baring its fangs the world over.
BD: Today, parties across the political spectrum -- the Congress Party, the Akali Party, as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance -- lay claim to the dead socialist revolutionary. The Congress has all along used the public memory of the revolutionary martyrs, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev to gain political ground, yet the fact remains that it unequivocally disowned the political practice of these revolutionaries who are revered for upholding the dignity of the people of India. Bhagat Singh really hit the nail on the head when he said -- and in this, he has proved prophetic -- in a communication to young political workers on 2 February 1931, at a time the Congress was contemplating a compromise with the British government: "[W]hat difference does it make to them [workers and peasants] whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas? What difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin!" Gandhi's politics was financed by big businessmen like Purshotamdas Thakordas, G D Birla and Walchand Hirachand; he was unequivocally opposed to Bhagat Singh's revolutionary politics. Didn't he want the revolutionaries to publically renounce violence and only then would he try to "save their lives"? What's your take on all of this?
CL: You're absolutely correct. The last six decades or more of the degeneration of the Indian political system, and now, the rise of crony capitalists/corporates has proved Bhagat Singh's 1931 words to be prophetic. Not only Congress but most of the other parties have also used Bhagat Singh sans his ideas and revolutionary socialism. All of these parties have tried to sanitize Bhagat Singh to fit into their 'imagined Bhagat Singh'. Unfortunately the real inheritors of this legacy and ideas -- communist parties/groups -- have failed to truly highlight these ideas and create emotional rapport with the Indian masses through his status in the Indian mass psyche, which evokes veneration for him. Now when other parties succeeded in appropriating political space by projecting leaders like Dr. Ambedkar through whom they could emotionally arouse people's aspirations for liberation from social oppression, communist parties/groups have woken up to reclaim their true legacy of Bhagat Singh's revolutionary ideology, as Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela by appropriating Bolivar, along with the socialist ideas of Fidel Castro. In the present-day world, human liberation is an urgent need everywhere. In that sense, Che Guevara from South America and Bhagat Singh from South Asia are two icons for youth the world over fighting for liberation from the neo-imperialist yoke of oppression. Whether and how the now awakened communist parties/groups will succeed in appropriating Bhagat Singh's legacy in the true sense, expand their political base, and link up with liberation movements the world over, only time will tell.
Bernard D'Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2014/dmello230314.html
AT a time when desperate attempts are being made by right-wing Hindutva forces to appropriate the legacy of revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, the publication of this book serves a useful purpose. It is not a monograph on Bhagat Singh but a collection of articles written by Chaman Lal at different times in various newspapers and magazines. A professor of Hindi who retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) a few years ago, Chaman Lal has made a name for himself because of his lifelong interest in researching Bhagat Singh. His tireless zeal to unearth documents connected with the life of the great revolutionary, to edit and translate them with annotations, and to conduct a campaign for preserving his revolutionary legacy have brought him praise from several quarters. He has even been awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for translation.
When the British colonial rulers hanged Bhagat Singh on March 23, 1931, he was not even 24. It is said that at that time his popularity had surpassed that of even Mahatma Gandhi. Even today, he remains the most revered and loved revolutionary in India and Pakistan. Recently, attempts were made to name a prominent square in Lahore after him. The prominent Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz wrote a poem in Urdu on Bhagat Singh and translated it into English. The poem, Bhagat Singh ki Moorat (Statue of Bhagat Singh), is included at the end of the book. In the preface, Chaman Lal informs: “Till now I have been able to collect references or actual publications of more than 400 books, out of which half are in Hindi alone.” Books have been written on him not only in various Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati and Manipuri, but also in German. Yet, as Chaman Lal acknowledges, “Bhagat Singh is a more misunderstood and less understood political personality of India.” This despite the fact that he left a plethora of his writings behind for posterity so that no confusion could arise regarding his political, social and religious views.
However, it is also an unfortunate fact that the Left movement largely ignored him and his other revolutionary colleagues for many decades despite Bhagat Singh’s ideological proximity to it, leaving the field open to the right-wing Hindu communal forces that were able to make quite a successful attempt to show him in their own light. His adversaries, who espoused the Hindutva brand of nationalism, imposed on him the image of a “brave patriot” who made a selfless sacrifice for the nation and portrayed him in paintings as a bomb- or pistol-holding terrorist. However, care was taken never to discuss his political or religious views because he was a Marxist and a self-confessed atheist. Chaman Lal informs that in one of the recent books, even Bhagat Singh’s knowledge of the English language was frowned upon although his correspondence with British officials and his writings that were published during his lifetime as well as soon after his martyrdom leave no doubt regarding his linguistic competence.
The Left shook off its indifference in the 1980s, and Shiv Verma, a close associate of Bhagat Singh and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Uttar Pradesh, brought out Selected Writings of Shaheed Bhagat Singh in March 1986, on the 55th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. He edited the volume and wrote an illuminating introduction on “Ideological Development of the Revolutionary Movement: From Chapekars to Bhagat Singh” while the Marxist leader B.T. Ranadive contributed a foreword. Chaman Lal builds upon this solid edifice and brings out many unknown facets of the famed revolutionary’s personality and thinking. As he has devoted several decades to collecting original documents, he has provided scanned copies of Bhagat Singh’s seminal writings such as “Why I am an Atheist” from the newspapers or journals where they were first published. Chaman Lal published inThe Hindu (August 15, 2011) along with an introduction scanned copies of Bhagat Singh’s letters written in his own handwriting to British officials as well as to the High Court.
The book begins with “Revolutionary Legacy of Bhagat Singh”, an article that Chaman Lal first published in Economic & Political Weekly. In view of the fact that he is an academic, it is rather surprising that he does not feel the need for proper referencing and fails to give any details about when the article was published and in which issue. None of Bhagat Singh’s articles included in this volume offer any information about the date of their first publication. So, if some future researcher wishes to consult the original, s/he would be up against a wall. This is a serious lapse in an otherwise useful book.
Bhagat Singh’s uncle Ajit Singh was a revolutionary who was living in exile. Chaman Lal informs us that Bhagat Singh became very much attached to his wife Harnam Kaur, who was childless. Not many might know that Bhagat Singh worked in Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi’s Hindi daily Pratap in Kanpur where he came in contact with Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor, B.K. Dutt and Ajoy Ghosh (who later became the general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India, or the CPI. By the time he was 17, Bhagat Singh had matured so much that he penned an essay in Hindi on the language problem of Punjab. Shiv Verma’s book contains this article in English translation. It mentions the names of Mazini, Garibaldi, Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Rousseau, Voltaire and Maxim Gorky, among so many other prominent writers, offering a glimpse into the kind of varied reading Bhagat Singh was doing even during his teens. At age 17, he comes to the conclusion that the Gurumukhi script was “more incomplete than Urdu”, and makes out a case for adopting the Hindi script for the Punjabi language. So far as the language is concerned, he was all for Punjabi because “Hindi is still far from the Punjabi heart”. One can only guess what the history of the Punjab would have been in the last century had the adolescent Bhagat Singh’s suggestion been taken seriously.
Chaman Lal is of the opinion that Bhagat Singh was “practically part of the Communist movement in India since its very inception”. As is evident from his jail writings, Bhagat Singh had become convinced that the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army would have to “take recourse to mass organisation of workers, peasants, students and other potentially revolutionary sections of society”. The author also brings to light the fact that Bhagat Singh enjoyed a good rapport with national leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, and even Lala Lajpat Rai despite his Hindu communal leanings. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were totally against communalism and casteism, which afflict India even now.
The book contains two informative articles on the personal and political correspondence of Bhagat Singh. It is worth recalling that in a letter to Ramanand Chatterjee, the celebrated editor of Modern Review, Bhagat Singh wrote: “Revolution did not necessarily involve sanguinary strife. It was not a cult of the bomb and pistol. They may sometimes be mere means for its achievements.” This was in response to Chatterjee’s comments that ridiculed the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad”.
Chaman Lal has also brought out the fact that it was not leaders such as Nehru and Bose but Muhammad Ali Jinnah who rose in defence of Bhagat Singh. He discusses the relationship between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh in a review of Prof. V.N. Datta’s book, published in EPW. He finds Gandhi utterly unsympathetic towards Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries and accuses the Congress of having used their popularity to make political gains for itself without doing anything for them in return. His article “Two Indian Epics on National Heroes” is most interesting as it discusses a Hindi and a Punjabi epic written by Shree Krishan Saral in 1964 and Didar Singh in 1968 respectively. A fact not known to many is that Bhagat Singh has been the subject matter of epics in Hindi and Punjabi.
The book is rich in annexures and the reader, perhaps for the first time, reads an obituary on Bhagat Singh written by ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy in his Tamil weekly Kudi Arasu on March 29, 1931. Periyar criticises Gandhi for his various acts of omission and commission as also for his overall political strategy and methods. The book offers a detailed bibliography of books and articles published in English and Indian languages that will help future researchers a great deal. It also contains many photographs of historical importance.
However, the book seems to have been put together in a terrible haste. The copy-editing is awful as hardly any attention has been paid to correcting errors of syntax, usage of words, and spellings. This hinders the reading of an otherwise eminently readable book.