Saturday, 14 October 2017
Whose Bhagat Singh is he anyway?
RETIRED PROFESSOR FROM JAWAHARLAL NEHRU UNIVERSITY
IS THE AUTHOR OF UNDERSTANDING BHAGAT SINGH
12th August Blink of Business Line(The Hindu)
Both the right-wing and Sikh extremists are attempting to appropriate the legacy of the revolutionary who stood for everything that is antithetical to their beliefs
Revolution’s poster boy Like Che Guevara, Bhagat Singh’s appeal as an icon for the young has only grown more than 80 years after his death v sreenivasa murthy
A few leaders across the world remain in public imagination long after they are gone; but the narratives around them continuously alter. Some become national or cultural symbols. William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore became icons of universal literary and cultural values. Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were symbols of anti-colonial struggles. Simón Bolivar and José Marti, icons of Latin American nationalism. Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez — torch-bearers of revolution in Latin America. Bhagat Singh and Guevara continue to be youth icons world over though they each earned their name in two different corners of it.
Bhagat Singh died young — at 23, but had already earned fame in that short lifespan. In the last two years of his life — from April 1929 to March 1931 — he was extremely popular in the then undivided India, which included today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Born on September 28, 1907 at Lyallpur Bange, now in the Faisalabad district of Pakistan, he made his mark in public life at 17 when he formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Lahore along with friends. He had always been politically active, as had been his family. His father, Kishan Singh, and uncles — Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh — were part of the Congress party as well as the freedom struggle. The three of them went to jail many times, Swaran Singh died young, at 23, after he contracted TB in prison. Ajit Singh was a close associate of Lala Lajpat Rai and was sent to Mandalay jail in Burma in 1907 for organising peasants — victims of debt then, as they are now. Ajit Singh was later exiled to Latin America for 38 long years — till March 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru, as the interim Prime Minister, facilitated his return.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad were disillusioned with the Congress after Gandhi withdrew his massive Satyagraha — non-cooperation movement — in 1922 following the burning of a police station in Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur. Bhagat Singh, hardly 15 then, had wholeheartedly participated in the movement, and even suffered 30 lashes on his back for it. Legend has it that he shouted “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai!” after each lashing.
The movement’s withdrawal convinced Bhagat Singh and Azad that the Congress was incapable of fighting British colonialism. Only a revolutionary movement, they believed, could overthrow the British. In 1922, Bhagat Singh joined Lahore’s National College, where he met like-minded men like Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev, Yashpal, Jaidev and Ram Chandra. Some of their teachers such as Chhabil Das and Jaichander Vidyalankar were linked to revolutionaries across the country. At the college’s Dwarkadas library, Bhagat Singh read about the Soviet socialist revolution led by Lenin in 1917. He directed and acted in many nationalistic plays, one of which was watched by Sarojini Naidu.
The Naujawan Bharat Sabha was modelled on Mazzini’s ‘Young Italy’ and Bhagat Singh was elected its general secretary. He went to Kanpur with the names provided by his History teacher Vidyalankar and met revolutionary leaders such as Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor and Bejoy Kumar Sinha. Following the efforts of Sachindra Nath Sanyal, revolutionary groups such as Jugantar and Anushilan had merged to form the new Hindustan Republican Association/Army (HRA). In Kanpur, Bhagat Singh worked as a journalist in the Hindi paper Pratap , edited by Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, and wrote under the pseudonym Balwant Singh. Bhagat Singh was later associated with Maharathi and Arjun — both Hindi journals from Delhi, and also Kirti in Punjabi, and assumed different pseudonyms in each.
The first and most objective narrative of Bhagat Singh’s life emerged from his early life — of a young mind in quest of knowledge and freedom. Interestingly, in the latest narratives around him, Bhagat Singh is acknowledged as a well-read thinker-revolutionary with a socialist vision for post-liberation India. This objective image of Bhagat Singh has, and still is distorted wittingly or unwittingly. Alarmingly, of late it is being done consciously to undermine his ideological beliefs, which come through clearly in his writings. His complete works, which include Jail Notebook, letters and essays in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English, have been published in multiple Indian languages. Hence, he has become a difficult subject to appropriate. Nevertheless, attempts are being made both by the right-wing and some Sikh extremists to do so.
Even after becoming a part of the HRA, Bhagat Singh and his comrades continued working for Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Punjab Students Union. The HRA carried out the Kakori Rail dacoity in August 1925 and subsequently lost Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaquallah, Roshan Singh and Rajender Lahiri. By the end of 1927 all four were executed.
Bhagat Singh convinced the remaining HRA members to abandon terrorist violence. He was inspired by the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union and wanted to adopt its path for Indian liberation. The HRA subsequently held a meeting at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla grounds in September 1928 and rechristened itself as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association/Army (HSRA). While the armed wing, helmed by Azad, was kept alive, the focus shifted to political propaganda — liberating India from colonialism and capitalist exploitation, and building a socialist society.
Politics and freedom
However, before the HSRA could actively pursue the political path, the Simon Commission arrived, and Bhagat Singh and friends convinced Lala Lajpat Rai to lead a mass procession against the commission in Lahore, even though they were critical of Rai leaning towards politics tinged with religion.
The procession was brutally lathi-charged by the Lahore police led by SSP James Scott and DSP JP Saunders, and it soon resulted in the death of Rai. A call to avenge Rai’s death was made by Basanti Devi, widow of Chittaranjan Dass, the radical Congress leader from Bengal, following which Bhagat Singh and comrades assassinated Saunders, exactly a month after Rai’s death.
The young men knew they were running out of time. In April 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt hurled bombs in the Central assembly, Delhi, to protest against two anti-people bills — the Trade Disputes Bill and the Public Safety Bill — pushed through by the British government as ordinances. Bhagat Singh had by then familiarised himself with Auguste Vaillant, the French revolutionary who had lobbed a bomb in the French parliament in 1893. He was executed a year later. Vaillant intended “not to kill or harm”, but “to make the deaf hear.” Bhagat Singh was inspired by Vaillant and their later lives bear striking similarities. Both remained avid learners in their final days in prison; Bhagat Singh was found reading moments before his execution, as was Vaillant; both refused to cover their faces at the gallows, and are considered to have shown exemplary courage at the moment of death — going to the gallows singing. Both remained atheists till the end — refusing religious rites before the rope fell around their necks.
It was only after the Delhi assembly incident that the police discovered Bhagat Singh’s involvement in Saunders’s assassination. A month after the Delhi trial concluded in June 1929, the Lahore conspiracy trial began. He was awarded the ‘transportation for life’ sentence in the first, and death for the second in October 1930. The trials altered the public perception of Bhagat Singh and his friends. They challenged the authority of colonial courts, they shouted slogans, sang patriotic songs, and were beaten up publicly. They went on a hunger strike in prison for 150 days. All this made news nationally and internationally. By the time Bhagat Singh was executed on March 23, 1931, along with Rajguru and Sukhdev, he was no longer just a name. Gandhi was damned for “not saving Bhagat Singh’s life!” Gandhi and the Congress party, while critical of their action, praised their bravery, thus setting the foundation for an immortal, nevertheless incomplete image of Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh. Credit must go to Periyar, the Tamil politician and social activist, for giving Bhagat Singh a realistic portrayal in his editorial in the weekly Kudai Arsu. He also published Bhagat Singh’s essay ‘Why I am an Atheist’ in Tamil. When professor Bipan Chandra wrote an introduction to the essay in the late 1970s, he called Bhagat Singh “a Marxist in the making.” The publication of Bhagat Singh’s major works, including theJail Notebook , in 1994 only enhanced this identity and further nuanced into that of a “Marxist socialist revolutionary.” This identity is now contested by the right-wing, which wants him to be nothing more than the “nationalist revolutionary.” Constricting him thus is an insult to Bhagat Singh’s larger worldview and influence. He is a popular icon in neighbouring Pakistan, as well as in other countries.
The shape-shifting narratives around Bhagat Singh is evident in his visual represention too. Till the 1980s, the widely-circulated image of the revolutionary was a photograph, taken in a Delhi studio in 1929, in which he wears a hat. However, with the rise of identity politics in Punjab and elsewhere, his “hat-wearing image” has been gradually replaced by a painting in which he sports a turban. That image, the product of an artist’s imagination, has attained so much traction and heft that a turbaned statue has replaced a hat-wearing one in Bhagat Singh’s ancestral village, Banga. Recently, in Chhattisgarh, his hat-wearing statue was pulled down by Sikh religious groups. The fact that he was an atheist is obviously lost on them.
Bhagat Singh has become a hotly-contested political subject lately. In 2009, both the Punjab and Haryana governments had urged the centre to rename the Chandigarh airport after him. But the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wanted to name it after their little-known leader Mangal Sen, and then chose to go silent on the matter. While momentum gathers on naming the Gorakhpur airport after Yogi Gorakhnath, and the Agra airport after Deendayal Upadhyaya, none in the right-wing wants Bhagat Singh’s name for an airport or a university. However, no attempts to appropriate him are spared.
chaman lal, retired professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, is the author ofUnderstanding Bhagat Singh
Changing Narratives on Bhagat Singh
There are few heroes in the world, who remain in public imagination for very long time, though their narratives keep changing. In few cases these heroes become icons and symbols as well, of certain nationality or culture. Shakespeare (England), Tolstoy (Russia) or Tagore (India) become icons of universal literary or cultural values. Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Nelson Mandela (South Africa) or Mahatma Gandhi (South Asia) became symbols of anti-colonial liberation struggles worldwide. Bolivar or Jose Marti become icons of Latin American nationalism. Che Guevara, Fidel Castro or Chavez become icons of modern revolution in Latin America. Bhagat Singh and Che Guevara both have become icons of world youth too, though both earned their name in history in two extremely different corners of the world. One in South America and other in South Asia.
Bhagat Singh died young at the age of 23+ years, but he earned fame during his life time as well. In the last two years of his life from April 1929 to 23rd March 1931, he was extremely popular among undivided Indian people, which included today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Born on 28th September 1907 at Chak no 105, Lyallpur Bange, now in Pakistan known as Faisalabad district, he made his mark in public life at quite young age of 17 years, when he formed Naujwan Bharat Sabha in Lahore along with his friends and comrades. Prior to that also, he had started participating in political life of the country. His family, including his father Kishan Singh and two uncles-Ajit Singh and Swaran Singh were part of Congress party and movement for freedom struggle. All three were going to jail ample times, Swaran Singh died young at the age 23 years after he contacted TB in jail, Ajit Singh was close associate of Lala Lajpat Rai and was sent to Mandalay jail in Burma in 1907 for organising peasants, who were victims of indebtedness as they are today. Later Ajit Singh remained exiled in Latin America for 38 long years till March 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru as interim Prime Minister facilitated his return to India. Bhagat Singh, as his other comrades like Chandershekhar Azad got disillusioned from Congress party as Mahatma Gandhi withdrew his massive Satyagraha-non-cooperation movement in 1922, due to burning of a police station in Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur district of UP. Bhagat Singh was not even fifteen years then and Azad was just fifteen plus, who participated in that movement and suffered thirty lashes on his back by shouting on every lash-‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’! So these young people thought Congress party is not capable of fighting British colonialism, they need to organise revolutionary movement to overthrow British colonial regime. In 1922, Bhagat Singh joined National College Lahore, where he did his F.A. in 1923 and was further enrolled for B.A. in 1923. There were his other college friends-Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Sukhdev, Yashpal, Jaidev, Ram Chandra etc. They had nationalists and revolutionary teachers like Principal Chhabil Das, Jaichander Vidyalankar etc. who had contacts with revolutionaries in other parts of the country. National college Lahore had Dwarkadas library, which was getting latest books from world over, including books on Soviet Socialist revolution led by Lenin in 1917. Bhagat Singh was as much a voracious reader of these books, as some of his teachers were, even at such young age of 16-17 years. He had creative skills as well, as he acted and directed many nationalistic plays during his college days, one of which was watched even by Sarojini Naidu then. Organising Naujwan Bharat Sabha on the pattern of ‘Young Italy’ of Mazzini and Gary Baldy was his first socio-political activity. As per Comrade Ram Chandra, he was elected President, Bhagat Singh as General Secretary and Bhagwati Charan Vohra as Propaganda secretary of the Sabha. Bhagat Singh went to Kanpur with contacts from his History teacher Jaichander Vidyalankar and met revolutionary group there, which included Shiv Verma, Jaidev Kapoor, Bejoy Kumar Sinha etc. With the efforts of Sachindernath Sanyal many revolutionary groups of the country like Jugantar and Anushilan merged to form new all India party named as ‘Hindustan Republican Association/Army’ (HRA). In Kanpur Bhagat Singh worked as journalist in Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi edited Hindi paper-‘Pratap’, where he wrote in the pen name of ‘Balwant Singh’. Bhagat Singh later remained associated with papers like ‘Maharathi’ and ‘Arjun’-both Hindi journalsfrom Delhi and ‘Kirti’-Punjabi and Urdu from Amritsar and Meerut, in all these papers he wrote under different pseudo names.
So the first and most objective narrative of Bhagat Singh’s life emerged from his early life-an energetic young mind with quest for knowledge and liberation with creative mind. (Photographs attached) Interestingly the latest narrative of Bhagat Singh is acknowledged again as a most well-read Thinker Revolutionary with Socialist vision for post liberation India!
This foremost and objective image of Bhagat Singh had been and still being distorted wittingly or unwittingly, but lately mostly wittingly by a planned conspiracy to overshadow his ideological orientation which is so obvious and clear from his writings, which are being published in collections in various languages. By now his complete writings (120+--letters, statements, Jail Notebook and essays in four languages-Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English)) have been published in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu languages and large number of writings have been published in Punjabi, English, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali, while few of his writings have been published in Sindhi, Odia, Assamese, Manipuri and Gujarati as well. So it has become difficult to appropriate him in superimposed images of political vested interests, like RSS and some Sikh extremists tried to do.
After becoming part of Hindustan Republican Association/Army (HRA), along with Chandershekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaquallah and others at all India level, Bhagat Singh and his comrades in Lahore continued with mass activities from Naujwan Bharat Sabha and Punjab Students Union. He was an avid student of history and was learning its lessons fast. HRA conducted Kakori Rail dacoity in August 1925 and lost its major leaders like Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaquallah, Roshan Singh and Rajender Lahiri by the end of 1927, when all four were executed.
From National College Lahore Drama club group photo
National College Lahore group photo.BS fourth from left standing with white turban
Bhagat Singh convinced remaining comrades of HRA to leave the path of dacoities and have a new vision of Indian liberation inspired by Socialist revolution in Soviet Union led by Lenin. So HRA comrades held meeting in Ferozeshah Kotla grounds of Delhi on 8&9th September 1928 and converted it in Hindustan Socialist Republican Association/Army (HSRA), while keeping its armed wing alive under the commandership of Chandershekhar Azad, it focus shifted to political propaganda for liberating India from the yoke of colonialism and capitalist exploitation and building Socialist India free of exploitation through mass uprisings of peasants and workers. However before they could actively take to their changed political path, Simon Commission came to India in October 1928 and Bhagat Singh and his comrades convinced Lala Lajpat Rai, the tallest political leader of Punjab to lead mass procession against Simon Commission in Lahore, despite their criticism of late communal orientation of Lala Lajpat Rai. Procession was brutally lathi charged on 30th October 1928 by Lahore police led by SSP Lahore James Scott and DSP J P Saunders, resulting in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai on 17th November 1928. At the resounding call of avenging Lala Lajpat Rai’s death by Basanti Devi, widow of late Chittranjan Dass, the most radical congress leader of Bengal, Bhagat Singh and Comrades, departing from their new perspectives, assassinated J P Saunders, exactly a month after on 17th December 1928. Bhagat Singh was part of this action and now time was short for these revolutionaries to act. And the second biggest action of these young thinker revolutionaries-Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt was to throw a harmless bomb in Central Assembly Delhi on 8th April 1929 to protest against two anti-people bills pushed throgh by ordinances by British colonial government. These bills were Trade Disputes Bill-an anti-working class law and Public Safety Bill-an act to supress civil liberties. This action was more in line with their new perspective as the action was ‘not to kill or harm’, but ‘To Make the Deaf hear’, a phrase taken from French revolutionary Valliant, who had thrown bomb in French Parliament in similar circumstances in December 1893 and was executed in 1894. Bhagat Singh was inspired by Valliant’s similar action earlier and both had lot of similarities in post action life as well. Both kept on studying till the last moment in prison, Bhagat Singh was reading a book on life of Lenin till last, so was Valliant reading some other book, both had refused to wear black mask on faces at the time of going to gallows and made a show of exemplary bravery by going to gallows singing. Both asserted their atheism on gallows as well, refusing to partake any religious rites before kissing the rope.
It was only after Delhi Assembly bomb action, police found out Bhagat Singh’s involvement in Saunders assassination and after the conclusion of Delhi trial in June 1929, Lahore conspiracy trial began in July 1929. First resulted in ‘Transportation for Life’ on 12th June 1929 and second in death sentence on 7th October 1930. It was the period of both trials that Bhagat Singh image was raised to skies by his and his comrades exemplary brave conduct in courts by challenging the authority of colonial courts by shouting slogans and singing patriotic songs, getting beaten up publically and observing 150 days hunger strike in jail, highlighted by national and international media on front pages and by the time Bhagat Singh was executed along with Rajguru and Sukhdev on 23rd March 1931, he no longer remained a name, he turned into an immortal icon of bravery and intelligence. Mahatma Gandhi the foremost symbol of India’s freedom struggle got damned for ‘not saving Bhagat Singh’s life’! And it was Mahatma Gandhi and Congress party, while criticising their actions, underlined the exemplary bravery of these patriots, creating an immortal but incomplete image of supreme martyr-Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh, which continued and continues most popular narrative in Indian society. It goes to the credit of Periyar in Tamilnadu, who projected correct image of Bhagat Singh in his editorial in Kudai Arsu issue of 29th March 1931 and got Bhagat Singh’s essay ‘Why I am an Atheist’ translated and published in Tamil by 1934. Further It was Prof. Bipan Chandra, who in 1978 or so, completed this bravery image by adding to his socialist visionary thinker revolutionary by reproducing his immortal ideological essay-‘Why I am an Atheist’ with his introduction and underlining his personality to be of ‘A Marxist in the making’! By the publication of Bhagat Singh’s major writings, including his Jail Notebook in 1994, his ‘Marxist in the Making’ image got further enhanced to ‘Marxist Socialist Revolutionary of India’ image! This image is being contested by some right winger politicians, trying to confine his image to just ‘nationalist revolutionary’, which is complete distortion and insult to Bhagat Singh’s much larger world image, now popular even in Pakistan and many other countries like Che Guevera!
Changing narrative on Bhagat Singh can be seen from his changing photo images as well. Till almost 1980, the predominant actual photo image of Bhagat Singh was of his last photograph taken in Delhi studio in early April 1929, just before assembly bomb action. However with the rise of identity politics, in Punjab and at many other places, his ‘hat wearing image’ was replaced by a painting based photograph of ‘turban wearing image’, which was and is not his real photo image, it is imaginary picture by a painter. It affected politico-social life so much that in Bhagat Singh’s ancestral place in Banga, his hat wearing statue, inaugurated once by thn Chief Minister Giani Zail Singh in 1974 or so, was taken off and was replaced by ‘turban wearing statue’! In Raipur-Chhattisgarh recently, Bhagat Singh’s hat wearing statue was even smashed by some Sikh religious bodies, without realising as no one among religious fundamentalists reads Bhagat Singh’s writings, that he was an atheist!
Bhagat Singh narratives have become highly politicised lately, his writings and ideas based images and narratives are being tried to be superimposed on his real, objective and ideas based images and narratives, as RSS does with all history, but how long? Bhagat Singh is like a burning fire, even in his iconic existence, he does not allow rightist fascists to even touch him and exposes their duplicity and hypocrisy in no time, as it happened in matter of naming Chandigarh airport on his name. Both Punjab and Haryana Governments in 2009 had unanimously urged Central Government to name Chandigarh airport as Shaheed Bhagat Singh international airport, however while name chanting RSS tried to name it on little known RSS leader Mangal Sen first and then adopted a conspiratorial silence on the issue. While Yogi Aditynath is bent upon getting Gorakhpur airport named on Yogi Gorakhnath and Agra airport on Deendyal Upadhyaya’s names and Moghul Sarai railway station as Deen Dyal station, cat is out of bag on Bhagat Singh, none in RSS wants his name to be perpetuated by naming Chandigarh airport on his name or naming any University on his name, though keeping name chanting on!
Painting based popular image of Bhagat Singh
Last photograph of BS in April 1929
Only four real pictures
*Chaman Lal is retired Professor from JNU, New Delhi and editor of Bhagat Singh’s writings. He is known for his book-Understanding Bhagat Singh.
Prof.firstname.lastname@example.org mobile no 9868774820/9646494538
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