Sunday, 20 September 2015

Review of Understanding Bhagat Singh by Roopinder Singh in The Tribune

Posted at: Sep 20 2015 1:27AM

Inside a revolutionary’s mind

Chaman Lal compares Bhagat Singh favourably with Che Guevara as an inspiring figure, albeit one whose fame has not spread as much as that of his Latin American successor. He shows how socialism-inspired Inqlab Zindabad caught the imagination of Indians .
Roopinder Singh
Bhagat Singh is an icon, and we have a tradition of venerating the people we adopt as our icons. We celebrate their attributes and achievements, but seldom do we really try to understand what they say and what they stand for.
Few would be as qualified in the quest for understanding Bhagat Singh as Prof. Chaman Lal, author of a number of books and academic papers on the man whose martyrdom shook the British Empire to its core, and contributed immensely to the freedom struggle. Indeed, the volume under review is a collection of articles in many aspects of Bhagat Singh’s life and contribution. They have been read in academic gatherings and in less formal settings when they appeared in the columns of various newspapers, including The Tribune. 
There is no doubt that Bhagat Singh was a prodigy whose short 23 years of existence only served to highlight his ‘sincerity and commitment, his total devotion to the country and its people’. He joined National College, Lahore, at the age of 15, after passing Class IX, and like many others was multi-lingual, conversant with Urdu, Hindi, English and Sanskrit. 
Chaman Lal compares Bhagat Singh favourably with Che Guevara as an inspiring figure, albeit one whose fame has not spread as much as that of his Latin American successor. He shows how socialism-inspired Inqlab Zindabad caught the imagination of Indians. His revolutionary activities may well have impacted his formal studies, but Bhagat Singh was a well-read person whose political and philosophical development is reflected in his writings, which the author discusses in some detail in the chapter titled Correspondence of Bhagat Singh. 
The first political letter came when he was 16 and it was written to his father. Naturally, the most mature letters are those written between 1927 and 1931, including the one penned just before he was hanged. Then there are the public notices issued by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, the militant wing of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, the first two issued in the name of Balraj (a pseudonym used by Chandershekhar Azad) and written by Bhagat Singh. Released after the killing of JP Saunders, they provide an ideological justification of the killing of a police officer who fatally injured Lala Lajpat Rai. The leaflet that was distributed inside the Central Assembly on April 8, 1929, after home-made bombs were thrown, was a powerful incitement of the British colonial system. 
In various letters, notices and petitions filed by Bhagat Singh, we see a mature mind ever-bent on furthering the cause of the revolution that he was committed to bring about. We realise the steely resolve of the man in the face of adversity, including the death of a comrade, Jatin Das, after a 63-day hunger strike. One of the most powerful letters is the one he wrote to his father, asking him to desist in his efforts to save his son, and to stop interfering with his trial. Not only this, he also asked his father to publish the letter in a newspaper, which was done. It was published in The Tribune.
Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’s relationship, rather the lack of it, has always been an uncomfortable fact that has often been brushed under the carpet. It is a matter of record that the withdrawal of the agitation after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922 led to polarisation among freedom fighters. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were disillusioned with Gandhi’s methods and they embraced the revolutionary movement. 
Later, Gandhi was accused of not doing enough to save the lives of the young revolutionaries by pressuring the British authorities to commute their death sentence. Whether they would have agreed to any intervention is doubtful, since Bhagat Singh and others repeatedly stated that they wanted to   take their expression of political activism to its logical conclusion, even in the face of death. 
The manner in which they embraced death became the stuff of lore, and the author has examined two epics, one in Hindi and one in Punjabi, where the saga of Bhagat Singh is narrated in traditional vernacular rhyme. He also finds a parallel between Bhagat Singh and Paash, and in the annexure provides a facsimile of the article ‘Why I am atheist.’
The intellectual and political portrait of the brave man who became a burr in the saddle of British Colonialism provides the reader with enough vignettes to look afresh at the person whose achievements were inversely proportional to his age. This was a man whose struggle with the colonial authorities caught the collective imagination of the Indian people and whose clear-headed political writing inspired others. Bhagat Singh thus became the harbinger of change he wanted to effect. The book helps us to understand his mind.

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