On the 23 March anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev this year, a quarter page advertisement put out by yoga and ayurveda entrepreneur Ramdev’s Patanjali ashram, had a surprising claim. Reminding readers of the contributions of the three men to India’s the freedom struggle, the ad claimed that among other freedoms they also ‘desired freedom from allopathy’. It has been obvious for many decades now that Bhagat Singh’s image carries contrasting messages for Indians. The image of the man, whose popularity in India around the time of his execution nearly eclipsed the established leadership of Congress and Gandhi, is truly an icon in the popular political culture of India; and like all popular icons the messages it carries actually manifest the internal contradictions of this very culture. Religious revivalist organisations like Arya Samaj, rightwing Hindutva groups and even the Khalistan movement have used his image of a militant nationalist to challenge Congress domination of the discourse on freedom struggle. Bhagat Singh had killed a British police officer. The symbol of his gun is used as a warning to powerful corrupt with worlds like ‘lagtaa hai fir anaa parhegaa‘ (‘seems, I will have to return’) on car stickers. For rationalists he is the first thinking atheist of modern India who gave his reasons in a first person, lucid essay appropriately titled ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ Left radical groups claim him to be the first non-communist communist of India who espoused communism without formally being a member of any communist group.
There are few parallels to Bhagat Singh in the annals of revolution. Executed by the colonial rulers at the age of twenty three, his active political life lasted barely four years. Only during the last two years of his life, his name became recognised outside the circles of Lahore’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha, readers of vernacular journals like Kirti and Pratap, or the small group of revolutionaries in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). His organisation folded up even before his execution due to the weight of the arrest or killing of his comrades. The political tradition from which he came, the anti British revolutionary current in North India, ceased to exist in any significant way after his death.
The diversity of messages his image carries is encouraged by the fact that no single organisation actually got to legitimately ‘own’ his legacy. Many of his comrades from HSRA like Shiv Verma and Yashpal joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) after long prison sentences. However, until after independence, the CPI considered the kind of political violence used by HSRA petit bourgeois and showed little interest in owning him. The diversity of appropriation of Bhagat Singh is also related to the many contradictory currents actually present in his own milieu. As he writes in his essay on atheism, his grandfather, under whose supervision he spent his childhood, was a devout Arya Samaji, and despite being a Sikh, did regular havan sandhya. The manifesto of Bharat Naujawan Sabha of Lahore, published in 1928 ends with Vande Mataram, a Sanskrit battle cry of upper caste Hindu radicals since the Swaraj movement in Bengal in 1905. Reportedly, the function of the Sabha to commemorate Ghadhar martyr Kartar Singh Sarabha, another young revolutionary executed by the Brititsh when barely twenty, started with two women members sprinkling their blood on the white sheet covering his portrait. An article on loving the entire world (Vishva Prem) written when Bhagat Singh was seventeen has adulatory references to Veer Savarkar. (Of course, he would not have known that when he wrote the essay in 1924, his hero Savarkar had written six abject clemency petitions to the British, had denounced his revolutionary past in these petitions, and promised not to indulge in any political activity if released from prison.) This essay also has references to ‘eternal father’ who made humanity in his own image. Along with food to the hungry, and strength to the weak, ensuring faith to atheists is listed as one of the tasks before world brotherhood. As is well known, in later years he would move away from all such claims.
His early writings show a teenager rooted in the revolutionary traditions of his time. This tradition emphasised martyrdom, physical courage and sacrifice. However, it seems Bhagat Singh eschewed certain other elements of this tradition. There is no chest thumping of India as a great ancient civilisation, rather there is a celebration of the folk, as in the observation in another essay from the same period that poems in Hindi can not capture the beauty and effectiveness of Panjabi poetry. He chastises Muslim writers of Panjab for writing only in Urdu, and celebrates Kazi Najrul Islam for enriching Bangla poetry. There is an openness to the world and eagerness to learn from revolutionaries of other countries, Ireland and Italy in particular. He is not tied to any notion of a (spiritual) East vs a (materialist) West.
The uniqueness of Bhagat Singh lay not in being a ‘true’ product of a revolutionary tradition, but in charting a new political trajectory, which was clearly towards the left. It was mainly at his prodding that his organisation added the word socialist to its name. One of his last political message, ‘To the Young Political Workers’ presents the organisational plan for a radical group along purely Leninist principles. He was the chief progenitor and propagator of the idea that the fight against British rulers was not only for freedom from an alien rule. The replacement of white sahibs by brown sahibs would not have scored any points on his scale of Indquilab, defined largely as revolution against class exploitation.
The left revolutionary aspects of Bhagat Singh’s later politics are well known. Why the shift? The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and its early successes had fired the imagination of radicals all over the world. Was he following only a global trend? Or, can we discern certain distinct characteristics, which make this shift uniquely his own journey? Answers to this question can also unburden his legacy from the enormous weight of the greatest martyrdom (Shaheede Azam) it has come to bear. What legacy does Bhagat Singh as a living revolutionary, rather than only as a martyred patriot, bequeath to Indians?
Changing Role of Ideas in the Self Understanding of Revolution
During the winter night of 31st December 1924, the Hindustan Republican Association, the precursor to Bhagat Singh’s HSRA, distributed its manifesto in many cities of North India. By this time, the aim of militant violent actions by Indians had moved ahead from avenging the humiliation of foreigners’ rule to the political goal of ‘a federal republic of United State of India’, based upon universal franchise with the right to recall. Revolutionaries seem clear that their political ideals were at the core of their activities, and that an ideological struggle in the sphere of ideas is essential to make their countrymen and women understand and appreciate reasons and goals of their activities. Revolution is the carrier of radical ideas. Also, ideas carried by revolution help it cut through the morass of Gandhian compromise and mass indifference. Hence, the claim that ‘the sword of the revolutionary party bears ideas at its edge’.
Bhagat Singh’ revolutionary work aimed at a subtle, but a very significant, transformation of the role of ideas in revolution. His and Batukeshwar Dut’s statement to the bench of Lahore High Court in Jan 1930 makes the claim which has become one of his most quoted quotes (Revolution’s sword is sharpened at the whetting stone of ideas). Here, ideas play a role much more integral in the practice of revolution, than being only at the edge of its ‘sword’. The hard rock of ideas is now the whetstone on which this sword gets sharpened. Revolution is not a given; it is not a spontaneous act for Bhagat Singh. It needs to be made. The principal tool which helps revolutionaries fashion it are struggles in the sphere of ideas. The conception of the revolution itself, its raison d’etre, goals, and method, is a product of intellectual labour. Like most successful revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century, Lenin, Mao, Che or Castro, Bhagat Singh shows the ability to be simultaneously engaged in the thick of political, military, or organisational action, as well as a critical reflection upon the world around, including upon his own actions. That is why actions of these leaders are accompanied by a flurry of public statements, documents, news paper writings, and even theoretical investigations. Other leaders like Gandhi or Ambedkar also display the same character. These leaders had charisma, but that was not central to their self understanding of their politics. They felt compelled to explore the political terrain, and came to their politics through investigations, trial and error, and critical reflection. They were not public intellectuals, nor were they run of the mill politicians. Unlike demagogues who appeal to mass anxieties, their politics acted in the sphere of public reason with arguments for class interests and ethical action.
The need for a rational understanding and explaining one’s own politics fits well with another character of Bhagat Singh that is often recollected in memoirs by his comrades and family members: his insatiable desire to read. Thirty four years after his execution, his mother Vidyawati recollected how her young son’s pockets were always filled with books on revolutionary heroes, not only Indian but also from other countries. The library of the National College and Dwarka Das Library in Lahore (later moved to Chandigarh) were his favourite haunts. While on hunger strike in prison in July 1929, one of the main demands of his group was freedom to access books and newspapers. This demand to be allowed to read in the face of imminent death is ‘particularly telling’ according to scholar J Daniel Elam. According to his nephew Jagmohan Singh, two days before he was hanged, Bhagat Singh had requested his lawyer Pran Nath Mehta to bring him a biography of Lenin. His lawyer brought him this book the next day. Anecdotal evidence holds that he was reading this book when the prison staff came to take him to the scaffolds. In jail, Bhagat Singh also kept a 404 page notebook, which he filled with quotations, comments and notes on authors as diverse as Marx and Lenin to Tagore and Lajpat Rai. Why read and write in the face of death? Two properties of the man stand out. One, an immense power of the will, which could not be perturbed even by an imminent death. And two, a persona focussed on understanding the world through knowledge.
His relentless urge to know and understand the world, and its relationship with his turn to the left politics, are significant. It is particularly important to appreciate it at the present juncture when the political right does not openly associate itself with the orthodoxy. In typical Fascist form, it is found more often wearing radical and revolutionary garbs. The contrast can not be starker than on the meaning of nationalism. Modi regime and associated organisations of the RSS in India want Indians from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to be ‘proud’ Indians, be ready to sacrifice for its glory, and stand behind its armed forces. Slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, and ‘Vande Mataram’, raising the national flag, and singing the National Anthem are proof of pride in the nation. There is also an emphasis on identifying and ‘neutralising’ enemies of the nation, both external and internal. A faith-like belief in the virtues of the ‘Motherland’, a pride driven self identity, and readiness to attack enemies of the nation, are important markers of this nationalism. It is not difficult to see how a Bhagat Singh with his gun, and willingness to sacrifice his life for his country fits in this nationalist narrative. However, what faith could an atheist Bhagat Singh have for a goddess like Mother India? How would a thoughtful Bhagat Singh, who as a seventeen year old identifies equality and the end of alienation from others as the defining elements of world brortherhood, react to the protest of mothers and grand mothers of Manipur under a challenging banner that read ‘Indian Army Rape Us’? Would he have branded ten year old children of Kashmir valley for throwing stones at Indian troops as enemies of his nation?
Bhagat Singh was ruthless in highlighting internal contradictions of India, its communal conflicts, its abominable caste system, and its ruthless class exploitation. Rather than succumbing to attractions of a nation that demand faith-like allegiance and ritualistic practices of collective assertion, his concern for his country would have pushed him to explore the relationship of RSS-type nationalism to the crises of state power and class rule in India. He would have tried to understand the connection between the explosion of popular religiosity and the deification of nation, and whether the celebrations of a muscular nationalism are a counter to challenges to upper caste hegemony and patriarchy.
While remembering her son in 1965, Vidyawati urged country’s youth to ‘make a deep study of the life and experiences of patriots.’ Only then ‘could (they) find the correct path of life according to the present circumstances.’ To understand current challenges through study, and learning from others’ examples, this is the glorious legacy of Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary life.