Wednesday, 27 April 2016
Book Review Kama Maclean, ‘A Revolutionary History of Interwar India-Violence, Image, Voice and Text-Mainstream
Kama Maclean, ‘A Revolutionary History of Interwar India-Violence, Image, Voice and Text’, Hurst and Company, London, First edition 2015, Pages 342, Price-not mentioned.
One would be rather surprised to know the increasing interest in study of Bhagat Singh phenomenon in the western academia lately, perhaps more than Indian academia taking interest in the subject!
Not only author of present book Dr. Kama Maclean, who is an Australian and an Associate Professor in South Asian and World History at UNSW Sydney, also editor of South Asia; Chris Moffat has recently completed his PhD on Bhagat Singh in Cambridge University, UK; Professor Christopher Pinney at University College London, in his book-Photos of Gods dealt with phenomenon of Bhagat Singh through study of photos, posters and pictures. Some of the Indian scholars also worked on the theme in western academic institutions, such as Neeti Nair with her paper as ‘Bhagat Singh as Satyagrahi’, Simona Sawhney as ‘Bhagat Singh: A Politics of Death and Hope’
Dr. Kama Maclean has been working on this project since 2007, when on a visit to Amritsar on a sabbatical leave from her University, she noticed pictures of Bhagat Singh in every bazar of the town. In those days, Amir Khan Starrer popular film Rang de Basanti was running in cinema houses and a young scholar wished to write her paper on revolutionaries impact on national movement. But she soon became frustrated as she could not find enough scholarship to continue with her paper! Well that was a telling comment on academic situation in Indian Universities after sixty years of freedom despite huge popularity of Bhagat Singh in public mind, but which did not motivate Indian historians to deal with the phenomenon at academic level! However some of Indian academic personalities did pay attention to this neglected aspect of Indian history of freedom struggle. Most notably Bipan Chandra with his introduction to ‘Why I am an Atheist’-the seminal essay of Bhagat Singh and also some of his other writings started the process of focusing upon Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries impact on national movement. Sumit Sarkar in his ‘ Modern India’ and later day scholars from different fields, like A G Noorani with his ‘The Trial Of Bhagat Singh’, S Irfan Habib with his ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’ like books contributed towards studying Bhagat Singh’s role in freedom struggle at academic level. This was post seventies development. Prior to that Comrades of Bhagat Singh like Shiv Verma, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Jaidev Kapoor, Sohan Singh Josh, Ajoy Ghosh, Jatindernath Sanyal, Yashpal, Rajaram Shastri and many more wrote memoirs of Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries from 1950 onwards, but were not paid much attention by academic institutions for research. Even the biographical writing on whole Bhagat Singh family by Bhagat Singh’s niece Veerender Sandhu, published as early as in 1967 from Benaras was not paid much attention to, partly because it was in Hindi. Nehru Memorial Museum and Library conducted number of interviews of ex revolutionaries in seventies, which are now considered most valuable part of the source material on revolutionaries’ related research and present researcher Kama Maclean has also made liberal use of this valuable material from NMML in this book. In fact the author has collected so much of source material from various places that perhaps no other researcher had it before. She has documents from National Archives of India, particularly Home (Political) dept. files, Proscribed literature collection; from Nehru memorial museum and library (NMML), she has consulted or collected 34 interviews from Oral History Transcripts, AICC Papers and some private papers. She collected rich source material from London, which perhaps no earlier researcher on Bhagat Singh had accessed in such detail. From British library, India Office records she has proscribed tracts collection, from other sections of same library she has consulted important collections such as Halifax papers. Kama Maclean consulted 23 interviews from Oral History Collection of Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, from there she consulted private papers too. These interviews were not known much in academic circles before. The interviews have been conducted during 1970-1991 and includes some interviews, not conducted by NMML earlier. Most important among Cambridge interview is that of Bhikshu Chaman Lal, known earlier as Chaman Lal Azad, correspondent of Hindustan Times at the time of Delhi bomb case in 1929.
Dr. Kama Maclean consulted Bradley papers from People’s History Museum Manchester as well. Apart from these archival material, author has accessed many newspapers of that time like Abhyudaya, Bhavishya, Chand, Tribune, Civil and Military Gazette etc. A number of old and contemporary publications are also part of author’s bibliography for this project. She has collected number of posters, photographs for her book, out of which, she has reproduced as many as 53 figures in this book from her collection, collected from various institutions like Supreme Court of India, National Archives, NMML, British Library and private sources, even buying many items from Shyam Sunder Lal Picture Merchant Kanpur and other places.
Collecting so much source material makes rather difficult the task of organising it and putting it to judicious use for research and that was a challenge for researcher here.
Based on such rich source material, as a well-trained researcher, Dr. Kama Maclean has organised her book into three parts with three chapters each in every part. She has detailed introduction as well as Epilogue to her book, apart from all the technical details like Acknowledgements, Glossary, Acronyms, note on spellings, list of illustrations, notes, bibliography, index etc.
In her introduction, Dr. Kama Maclean has explained the area and period of her research project. Mostly she has focused upon 1928-31 period and on Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). She has defined 1928-31 period as ‘Inter War Period’, starting from Simon Commission visit to India in 1928 and taking it up to Karachi Congress of March end 1931, held immediately after Bhagat Singh-Rajguru-Sukhdev execution. She has questioned the prevalent narrative of Independent struggle predominately as Gandhian ideology of non-violence and supplemented it with impact of revolutionaries on national movement through inter war period struggle of HSRA. To study HSRA role she has deployed oral histories, ‘un-archived’ materials such as satire, hearsay, visual cultural artefacts like photos and posters to reconstruct this neglected history. Not only the material, she referred, she has as much deployed archival material and authentic documents as well, to fill the gaps of history. She has admitted in her introduction that-‘ The revolutionaries of the HSRA have long been marginalised in the academic historiography of nationalism, despite their extraordinary popularity in popular culture in colonial India, this was most evident in proscribed literature and posters, and in contemporary India, in film, posters, comics and bazar histories’.(Page 2) She has favourably referred here to 2004 book of Christopher Pinney-‘Photos of Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India.
In a way she has carried forward the interesting multi-disciplinary research began by Pinney in this area with combination of social sciences and aesthetics. Dr. Maclean has used a poster provided by Dr. Pinney as title of the book, which has garland of Chandershekhar Azad photos on Bhagat Singh’s picture. She has described her work as-‘this book represents only the beginning of a larger, collective project of understanding revolutionary history, from a range of ‘post-subaltern and postcolonial scholarly perspective’. Dr. Kama Maclean has concluded her introduction with the defining of her research methodology perspective as post-subaltern and postcolonial scholarly perspective’, which may be debated by professional historians. The historians, whom she has shown respect are from subaltern school such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose comments on this book are displayed on title back page. She has humbly acknowledged that she has not been able to consult all the oral histories, neither all the police records, despite consulting massive store of material, which she has come across. Researcher has referred in her introduction ‘Indian Political Intelligence files-constituting 21660 volumes and 224 boxes of data’, being opened for scholars in British library India Office records, from 1996 (Page 8)
Author has divided main text of her book into three parts-Part-I is called-‘The Revolutionaries of Hindustan Socialist Republican Army: Histories, Actions, Activities’. This part has three chapters-i. Of History and Legend: Revolutionary Actions in North India-1928-31, ii-That Hat: Infamy, Strategy and Social Communication and iii-The Revolutionary Unknown: The Secret Life of Durga Devi Vohra. Author has used here term ‘Army’ instead of earlier used term ‘Association’, both acronym as HSRA. Army term was used by revolutionaries themselves as ‘the military’ wing of their political group known as ‘Association’ with same three earlier words-HSR. Balraj, a pseudo name for Chandershekhar Azad, was commander-in-chief of the ‘Army’! Posters thrown in Delhi Assembly after bombs exploded were under the signatures of ‘Balraj’, so were HSRA posters pasted on Lahore walls after Saunders assassination earlier. This chapter delineates the short history of Bengal revolutionary groups like Anushilan, Yugantar and also precursor of HSRA, Hindustan Republican Association(HRA), formed in late 1923 by Sachindernath Sanyal, which included all the characters of HSRA and also Ram Prasad Bismil-Ashfaqullah-Roshan Singh and Rajender Lahiri, who were executed in late 1927 on account of Kakori rail dacoity in 1925. This chapter also narrates A Short History of Bhagat Singh as well, based upon Clandestine, Proscribed and Aggrieved Histories. Kama Maclean not only narrates history of Bhagat Singh, she takes it to his After Life history too. She discusses movement in Pakistan to name Bhagat Singh Chowk in Lahore. She discusses seven films made on Bhagat Singh under the sub title-In the Grip of Popular Culture. Very few people now know that first film Shaheed-e-Azam on Bhagat Singh was made by certain Jagdish Gautam in 1954 and it has created quite a furore among revolutionaries and Bhagat Singh family. Bejoy Kumar Siha has referred to this film in his memoirs and raising of the issue even in Parliament to get the film banned. It was not banned, but cuts were made, which did not satisfy either family or surviving revolutionaries at that time. Second film on Bhagat Singh is also largely unknown, it was made in 1963 with Shammi Kapur as hero and Kidar Bansal as director. It was third 1965 film ‘Shaheed’ starring Manoj Kumar which brought fame to martyr as well as hero of the film with its melodious musical appeal. 2002 saw release of three films on Bhagat Singh, out of which The Legend of Bhagat Singh got more popularity and acceptability. Seventh and last film in circuit was 2006 Amir Khan Starrer Rang de Basanti.
Second chapter of this part of the book brings interesting narration on Bhagat Singh’s hat, which according to researcher has contributed to his popularity through posters made on its basis. She brings to fore the fact that revolutionaries, particularly Bhagat Singh was conscious about the power of media to popularise their ideas and made maximum use of it through pre planning. Author underlines the fact that most of the revolutionaries had their photographs from studios for records and for using by media after their arrest or death. These photographs became rich material for artists later to turn them into attractive and impressive posters. Hat photograph was taken by Ramnath photographer in his Kashmere gate studio in Delhi probably on 4th April, just few days before both Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt threw bombs in Delhi Assembly. B K Dutt was also photographed at same time in same studio by same photographer. Ironically same Ramnath was engaged by Delhi police as well to photograph Assembly bomb site. Author has surmised that Delhi police had got Bhagat Singh and B K Dutt photographed after their arrest on 8th April by same photographer Ramnath, but those photographs are still to surface. Photographs taken on 4th April were published on 12th April for first time by Lahore Urdu daily Bande Matram, followed by Hindustan Times in Delhi on 18th April, before becoming viral in today’s terms, which contributed immensely to Bhagat Singh’s popularity throughout India. Hat photograph of Bhagat Singh made him iconic figure in times to come. Second chapter of the book based on Hat photograph is continuation of Christopher Pinney’s earlier work based on photograph studies of revolutionaries. Third chapter in this part of the book is fascinating story of Durga Devi Vohra, popularly known among revolutionaries and later as Durga Bhabhi, being wife and widow of Bhagwaticharan Vohra, who died in bomb experiment on 28th May 1930 on Ravi banks in Lahore.
In second part of the book which is intriguingly given title of Porous Politics: The Congress and the Revolutionaries-1928-31, author has focused upon Congress party and revolutionaries interactions as part of national movement. The close relations of two Nehrus- Motilal and Jawaharlal and Subhas Bose with revolutionaries, have been discussed in detail and many suppressed facts have been revealed. Kama Maclean has continued with presentation and interpretation of posters she had collected as part of her research interest in this part of the book. Motilal Nehru’s rather unknown speech ‘Balraj or Gandhi’ in context of Delhi bomb case- has been discussed. Motilal Nehru was softer than Jawaharlal towards revolutionaries and gave them many times liberal funds.
Third part of the book-The Aftermath: Gandhism and challenge of revolutionary violence is focussed upon The Karachi Congress 1931, held immediately after Bhagat Singh-Sukhdev-Rajguru execution and shows how deftly Gandhi dealt with young people’s anger and was able to avoid the split in Congress party.
In Epilogue the story is taken till 1945-46 focusing upon revolutionaries’ refusal to compromise with Congress Governments and their preference not to seek release by tendering apologies.
The book is rather large sized with 342 pages in shorter font size, sometimes even difficult for readers with poor vision to read. The large number of ‘endnotes’ disturb reading by referring all the time at end of the book, which could have become easy reading if notes had been used as ‘footnotes’ on each page. (Number of Notes is very high-117+177+137+136+136+45+230+170+123+85+23(Total of 1379 notes!)
While researcher has been careful in general, still some errors have creeped up, like referring to ‘Chand-fansi issue’ as of 1926, whereas it was published in November 1928, the error has been repeated many times. But on the whole Kama Maclean has put up hard labour to conduct research on an unusual subject and did lot of fieldwork to collect data for her research. She deserves to be complemented for her well-produced research work in the form of this book.
· The reviewer is a retired Professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. His recent publication is ‘Understanding Bhagat Singh’
Prof. Chaman Lal (Retired Professor NU, New Delhi)
H. no. 2690, Urban Estate, Phase-2, Patiala (Punjab)-147002
Prof.email@example.com Mobile no. 09646494538/09868774820